Totnes & District

Natural History

Natural History Monthly Newsletters


June 19th Orley Common, Ipplepen. Start 10.00am

April 17th Yarner – Start 10.0am Woodpeckers and Flycatchers

May 15th Emsworthy Mire, Dartmoor – Start 10.0am Bluebells and more

June 19th Orley Common – Start 10.0am Butterflies and Orchids


Newsletter 100 June 2019

June 19th Natural History outing was to Orley Common, 1km out of Ipplepen. This limestone hillside was used in the Bronze Age and being common land was used for grazing until the 1960 when it was felt that there was too much vehicle traffic on the nearby roads. It became overgrown until ‘rescued’ by Teignbridge Countryside Ranger Service in 1987, and is now an important wild life habitat. Limestone was once quarried here and burnt in kilns for applying to the land. Our visit was taken during intermittent drizzle but it did not spoil the visit, although the butterflies it is known for where not flying. A slight disturbing thing is the spread by the car park and entrance to the common is Vinca major var oxyloba previously named Vinca Dartington Star and the Golden Dead Nettle - Lamiastrum galeobdolon Variegatum the result of someone dumping some garden rubbish a number of years ago. After a short uphill walk where number Hazel bushes showed signs of earlier coppicing we entered the main open area, which is a fantastic wild flower meadow. Immediately we came across a single Greater Butterfly Orchid, Platanthera chlorantha, with stamens forming an inverted V and numerous Common Spotted Orchids, Dactylorhiza fuchsii. Most noticeable of the whole grassy area was the weakness of some areas due to the semi-parasitic Yellow Rattle. Also present in small numbers was the semi-parasitic Red Bartsia and Eyebright. Every so often there were yellow spikes of Agrimony and the lovely Musk Thistle, Carduus nutans, many of the purple/pink flower heads sheltering small dark-coloured bees. Splashes of white were from Meadowsweet and a shorter version Dropwort, which favours alkaline soils above limestone. There were a number of species of Hypericums, some in flower, but it would have meant trampling across parts of the meadow to identify properly. At the edges of the meadows where visitors walking and rabbits grazing had kept the turf very low Wild Marjoram flourished, scenting the area when bruised. Also present was masses of pink petalled Common Stork’s Bill , Erodium cicutarium, and similar shape and coloured Cur-leaved Crane’s-bill, Geranium dissesctum. In a number of places enjoying the shade of shrubs were Ground Ivy and Stinking Gladwyn Iris. Orley Common has a good number of Spindle bushes, Euonymus europaeus, which look fantastic in the autumn when in fruit, but this time of the year the fruits were about pin-head size with a few small off-white4-petalled flowers remaining. The most exciting find, for me was a clump of the rare Bastard Balm, Meliittis melissophyllum, which is more or less confined to the South West, occurring on a few hedge bank in Devon and Cornwall. According to the Flora of Devon it was first recorded in 1650 ‘In Champernon’s Wood neere Totnes”. I have for many years grown it in our garden, Fairlight, having collected a capsule of seed, as it makes a good garden plant, This has been its downfall and its rarity in the countryside as people have dug up plants for their gardens, an illegal practice now. My plants are seeding down well and migrating to areas of hedge bank. It is a member of the Dead-nettle family, Lamiaceae, previously named Labiatae. In the second half of May it produces on 30cm tall stems whorl of 25-40mm long tubular , white flowers blotched purple. Both the flowers and the oval-shaped sharply toothed leaves have a typical Dead Nettle smell, with a hint of sweetness,; I like the smell but it is not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, certainly not as sweet as Lemon Balm, the leaves of which are added to salads, Summer fruit dishes and drinks and often wiped inside skips when gathering a swarm of bees. Because of its smell and no special use it earned it’s Bastard Balm name.

Newsletter 098 April 2019

The delicate mist that covered Dartmoor on the morning of Wednesday 17th April added to the peace and serenity of Yarner Wood, which is part of East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve. Yarner Wood was privately owned until1951 and is now is managed by National England having SSSI and SAC status being one of the best remaining examples of ancient oak woodland in Europe. We parked in a car park at the edge of Trendlebere Down, which is also part of East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve. Entering the 150 hectare Yarner Wood we contemplated the damage being done to footpaths by horse riders. Passing many bushes of gorse in bloom, Elspeth mentioning the use of the flowers on salads, we reached a fairly new hide overlooking a concrete reservoir built in the 1800's to provide water for Bovey Tracey. Recently rafts of coir have been introduced which have been planted with flag iris, marsh marigold and other native plants to encourage birds and insects. We were fortunate to have Nicky with us as she is exceptionally good on bird identification especially by sound. Entering the wood proper she was soon drawing our attention to the call of willow warblers, various tits and one of the birds we particularly wanted to see - pied flycatcher, which having overwintered in tropical Africa were preparing to nest in Yarner. We eventually had a number of good sightings. We did not see our other objective bird the lesser-spotted woodpecker but heard them, noting their more gentler call than the greater-spotted woodpecker.

The silver birches were just breaking into leaf emphasising their beautiful shape. The acid soil and woodland conditions were ideal for a beautiful, mid- green, feathery moss, which I have failed to identify despite taking a small piece home.. I had no problem with the early dog violet Viola reichenbachiana, differing from the dog violet having a blue spur without any white and not notched at the end. Another plant thriving in the wood was bilberry, whortleberry, huckleberry or winn berry, Vaccinium myrtillus. It grows to about 60cm tall and this time of the year produces on its angular, green stems, which were just bursting into leaf, small pea-size urceolate, globose, greenish-purple flowers. A x10 hand lens revealed the beauty of the central pin-shaped stigma and ring of 8-10 orange stamens. It was a privilege to walk around the reserve, with the fresh unfurling leaves, the shapes of the trees and the bird song. most of which, sadly, I am unable to hear. All going well next month (15th May) we will again be on Dartmoor visiting Emsworthy, a fairly new reserve known for its bluebell display

Newsletter 097 March 2019

The Natural History Study groups trip on 20th March was to the National Trust Hembury Wood just out of Buckfast. Before we set off Terry explained the simple diagnostic features of the three main bulbous families. The flowers al have 3 sepals and 3 petals, all looking similar and are therefore referred to as petaloid segments .. If the ovary is below the petaloid segments it is classified as inferior (most noticeable in Daffodils, Snowdrops and Snowflakes - Leucojum.) If the flower has 6 stamens it is in the Daffodil family -(Amaryllidaceae) . If it has 3 stamens then it belongs to the Iris family - (Iridaceae) which includes Crocus, Iris and Montbretia. If the ovary is above the petals - superior, and has 6 stamens it belongs to the Lily family - Liliaceae which includes Lilies, Onions, Scilla, Star of Bethlehem, Erythronium, Fritillaria, Tulips and Colchicums. True botanists have divided the Liliaceae family up. Crocus and Colchicums may look very similar but Colchicums have 6 stamens and Crocus 3.
This ‘lesson’ session was in preparation for the walk down through the wood to the River Dart as the native Daffodils Narcissus pseudonarcissus were in bloom.
The trumpet - corona is a darker yellow than the petaloid segments.. The first white Wood Anemones were appearing in the more open areas near the river. Everywhere the Great Wood-rush was in bloom. The first Wood Spurge - Euphorbia amygdaloides were just opening their green flowers while the heads were still slightly bent over. Right down by he river but on the bank were numerous Gorse bushes in bloom. We did find on the path side in the denser wood a number of Common Dog-violets - Viola riviniana, identified by its blunt pale spur notched at its tip and pointed sepals below bluish purple petals.
On reaching the river Nicky could hear a Dipper followed by two fleeting sightings. We al had good views of a Grey Wagtail in full breeding plumage feeding on moss-covered rocks in the fast flowing river. At one point a goosander flew past us and upriver. Their 1st breeding in Devon was on the River Dart in this locality. The area is becoming popular for dog-walking which is not compatible with bird watching. The weather was pleasantly warm and there was no wind making a most enjoyable couple of hours.


I have for over 50 years been the Secretary, Chairman or Leader of a local Natural History Group being responsible for organising and leading most of the activities during that long period. I am reaching the stage when I want to ‘Pull Back’- have other members to come up with detailed ideas which I can put together in a programme and have the proposer’s help in running that event. I do not want to have to ‘Pull the Plug’ on the Natural History Study Group but that is likely if I do not have some help. This month’s trip was ideal with Nicky suggesting and helping. Many,many thanks Nicky.ges for all details of previous group activities#

Click on a picture below to see it full-size with more details.

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More Group Pages
Around the World in 80 bites Art History
Book Club Book Club 2
Bridge Group Choir
Circle Dancing Computer - one to one help
Digital Photography Discussion Group
Folk Band and Recorders Gardening 1
Gardening 2 Gardening 3
Geology Luncheon Club
Mahjong Mindfulness
Music Appreciation Natural History
Play Reading Psychology
Scrabble Table Tennis
Walking Women