Worcestershire Record No. 1 1996 p. 9


Brett Westwood

It was the Romans who gave us that phrase...and if the Dark Continent has a few less surprises now, we can still use it for places a lot closer to home.

Substitute "Worcestershire" for "Africa" and you can still be amazed at the wildlife that turns up. True, there are no elephants or cameleopards of the kind that delighted Caesar and Tiberius but talk to any county naturalist and they'll invariably come up a fresh sighting to bowl you over. When Harry Green invited me to scan the pages of my diary for the last year, his main motive ... and I know he'll deny this..was to induce guilt. True, I haven't submitted as many records to the Biological Records Centre as I should have. And, yes, there are odd fragments of flora and fauna which languish, in print at least, as biro scrawls in my A6 hardback notebook. And I confess that I've selfishly kept some of this information to myself. So the guilt-trick did work. And I will be sending some of those records to The Trust ... promise.

But back to Worcestershire wildlife. My year in the county usually divides neatly into two. The demands of the Flora Project mean that May to September...and a lot more besides...is spent tetrad-bashing. There are few more masochistic delights than quartering acres of arable in the hope of a cornfield rarity. This year, just as hope was fading, one turned up at the end of October. Lesser snapdragon, which was last recorded in the county in October 1986, has just appeared on the verge of a ploughed field near Stourport. It's presence is testament to the persistence of seed-banks and to the need to check sites regularly. I'd been back to this one each year since 1986 and eventually dogged determination paid off. Of course, natural history isn't usually like that. Many new records are pure accidents, like the flush of rare mallows which appeared in a potato field at Wolverley this year. Velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti) is probably annual in Worcestershire, but needs a botanist in the right place. In 1995 it delighted a Severn Trent employee when it blossomed around the filtration pans at Oldington Sewage Works at Kidderminster, in the poisonous company of several thorn-apples.

Although purists may wrinkle their noses at ephemeral aliens like the velvetleaf, they are as valuable new records as any vagrant moth or bird. In recent years, shoddy aliens have made a comeback. Shoddy, or wool waste, is still applied as a fertiliser to some fields in the county, and its dense mass often contains seeds of foreign plants. When they sprout new records sprout too... Clovers are especially common. Rose clover (Trifolium hirtum), reversed clover (T.resupinatum) and narrow-leaved clover all appeared on shoddy fields near Kidderminster recently, together with seaside thistle (Carduus tenuiflorus) and white horehound (Marrubium vulgare). Where you find shoddy you will often find the spiky seeds of burrowing clover which buries its flowerheads in the ground to give them a better chance of germinating. Last year Bill Thompson and I were particularly pleased to discover burrowing clover at a site in north Worcestershire where it could well be native. If so, it's the first county record and demonstrates the need to climb every mountain and ford every stream in the quest for new species. Sometimes you can manipulate luck a little by choosing the moment...on an expedition in April this year, Bill and I stumbled on a colony of thousands of plants of spring vetch (Vicia lathyroides) on sandy pasture near Kidderminster. On a visit to a building site at Malvern Wells in August, I was amazed to see a flush of henbane in the rosebeds of the new estate. Both plants had hinted at their presence before and it was rewarding to confirm them.

But plants are just part of the year. No-one will ever accuse me of being an insect expert, but Britain's largest fly demands attention. Ironically I discovered it as I was searching for another county first...the yellow-winged darter. The dragonfly refused to show at the pool I visited, but on the grassland nearby something the size of a Messerschmitt zoomed up from a horse-pat. After I'd recovered my breath, I stalked it to within inches to confirm my sighting of Asilus crabroniformis, a huge black and yellow robber fly. The record has attracted a lot of attention from dipterists and I'm still trying to discover if it's Worcestershire's first. Actually, I don't really care ... if they bred in every county garden, they'd still be as spectacular.

That was August 1995, in July this year, it was a ladybird that attracted my attention. Harry Green and I were recording a piece for local radio about the life that lives on oaks. He flailed the oak branches with a stick and caught the hapless victims in his famous green umbrella. Two of the victims were ladybirds ... orange ladybirds ... and neither of us had seen them in the county before. They're not rare, but they do demonstrate how animals can exist around us unnoticed until we tune in to their particular wavelength. Speaking of ladybirds brings on another attack of guilt. The excellent New Naturalist volume on Ladybirds by Michael Majerus, which alerted me to the existence of orange ladybirds, also told me that the cream-streaked ladybird (Harmonia quadripunctata) hadn't yet been recorded in Worcestershire, Wrong! I'd seen it on Scots pine around Trimpley Reservoir in 1984 and had kept the secret to myself. And if my vestigial knowledge of invertebrates has produced a few new records who knows what the experts could find. Some discoveries have already been outstanding .... Mike Averill's yellow-winged darters and Paul Whitehead's host of beetles .... but there must be more and there's never been so much urgency to record them. Which reminds me - I've got a few cards to complete for the BRC .......

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