Monday, 23 June 2014


I have two alternative titles for this update; either "Voles Ate My Broccoli" or "The Magnificent Seven".   Take your pick, but let me cover both  topics.

We have a vegetable garden which was created from a reasonably flat area, at one time covered mostly by a mix of soft rush and brambles.   The cultivated area is around 200 square metres including an area set aside for apple trees and soft fruit.   The soil is thin and stony and covers what is likely to have been a raised sea bed, which is very solid.   It has taken several years to tame, but low fertility and lots of rain mean that the yields I get are low.   Even then cutworms, slugs and snails and butterfly caterpillars do their worst, reducing crops to a pitiful level for the effort and cash expended.   It is worth it, we tell ourselves, for the taste of fresh vegetables.

I put up a 6-foot fence some years ago to keep out deer after they ravaged the plot, but now a new pest has arisen.   I noticed the leaves of two broccoli plants had been stripped off.   One leaf was at least a foot away, so probably not slugs, unless very muscular, and there were indistinct animal runs.   I put out a small mammal trap to see what was happening.   The first occasion I caught a shrew, probably not the culprit as they are insectivores / carnivores, but  the second revealed the true vandal - a short-tailed vole.   Oh, and they bite - probably best to wear gloves in future.    Both animals have been deported.   The shrew was a Common shrew - the tail was shorter than the body and was not covered in fur.

Common Shrew
Common Shrew

Short-tailed Vandal

Short-tailed Vandal
Small White Orchid
The orchid count has continued, with a complete surprise earlier this week.   Down amongst an area cleared of bracken over the last 3 years and now dominated by Creeping soft grass (Holcus mollis) I found the seventh orchid species to occur on the croft - Small white orchid (Pseudorchis albida).    Only a single plant despite some searching.    I used to think this was a rare plant, probably because when I lived down south it meant an early morning start to drive up to Keltneyburn, a Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve,  where there is a decent colony in the meadow there.  I have also seen it in Applecross, 10 miles away on the mainland, though it occurs in several locations on Skye, always as far as I can tell in small numbers.   It is a Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species because of declining habitats, though other than some impressive plans I am not sure what that translates to in terms of action on the ground. There is certainly no feed-in to grants available under the Scottish government's interpretation of the EU common agricultural policy. Lesser butterfly orchid Platanthera bifolia) has the same status.

So "magnificent seven" orchid species it is together with 3 hybrids.  

Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth
Another pleasant surprise was an uncommon day-flying moth, where there are very few records on Skye.   I found a Narrow-bordered bee hawkmoth, another BAP species, resting on the grass.  Similar to a clearwing moth, the wing scales are missing other than at the edges.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014


Several lovely sunny days recently. On Saturday the temperature got up to 25 degrees briefly, according to our own weather station.   It was almost too hot even for the midges.

This year's orchid count is underway; so far  there are 80 early marsh (Dactylorhiza incarnata), a few northern marsh, lesser butterfly and heath spotted orchids. The first heath fragrant orchids are just coming into flower. The variability of heath spotted orchids is considerable, made even more tricky by hybridisation with other marsh orchids. There is an example below.  

Heath Spotted Orchid (but maybe Common Spotted as the central lobe of the labellum is very long)

Lesser Butterfly Orchid
I have looked closely at the early marsh orchids.  They only appear in the boggy area of the croft, in a permanently wet area in amongst common butterwort, bog asphodel and sedges.   The average height is 12.9 cm and there are between two and three keeled, unspotted leaves up the stem in a spiral.  There is sometimes a small basal leaf but it is often missing - probably chewed off.  In Britain four sub-species are recognised, based largely on the colour of the flower.  From the colour, pale pink, and the height, ours fit the description of incarnata but there are some characteristics of pulchella also.   The bracts between the flowers are purplish and the labellum, the middle petal, is not strongly recurved, though pulchella are usually more purplish pink.   Indeed there have in the past been one or two plants on the croft that look like the classic pulchella, but not this year.   Most if not all early marsh orchid plants on Skye are conventionally labelled as pulchella, so I probably have to follow that lead. 
Early Marsh Orchid (ssp. pulchella?)

Early Marsh Orchid (ssp pulchella ?)
My past encounters with deer have not been happy.  18 months ago a red deer ran into the side of my car, early in the morning on the A87, the route into Skye from Inverness and Fort William, causing over £1,000 of damage.   Now the roe deer (not red as per my previous lazy attribution, which Stephen Bungard our botanical recorder pointed out), have taken up near residence, and I have seen deer on several occasions.   They have damaged several small rowan trees by scraping off the bark,  and frustratingly inflicted the same treatment onto a blackcurrant bush which is not behind a deer fence.  Also they have dug several of what can best described as 'scrapes'.  

There is a little ritual developing with one of the deer; I come out with a camera at 7.30am, take a couple of pictures until it sees me, then it heads off at pace to find a part of the fence it can jump, its night-time grazing over.  The same on three days so far.

Damaged Rowan


Trying to learn a little more about orchid pollination I put the moth trap down in the bog near the early marsh orchids.   The widespread view is that many orchids are fertilised by night flying moths.  Indeed I have hardly ever seen bees or other insects in the daytime show any interest in orchids.   I had hoped to capture moths with orchid pollinia attached to their faces,  but nothing doing so far.  Pollinia are two stalked projections which carry pollen, and these break off when an insect searches for nectar in the orchid spur underneath.   The insect then flies off to another flower where it repeats the process but the pollinia then touch the female stigma of this second flower serving to fertilise it.  Neveretheless I caught 41 moths, totalling 16 species, some of which were rather attractive, such as this, which I think is a Small Angle Shades

Small Angle Shades

If the weather conditions are suitable I shall run the trap again at the weekend.

I looked at some of the early marsh orchids but could find very few with pollinia missing.  All I found were some flowers where slugs had damaged the flowers.  
Early Marsh Orchid one week after the first flower opened, probably damaged by slugs

An unexpected small treat was to find an uncommon plant on the road verge (the A87 gets another mention), 50 metres from my gate: moonwort, a strange looking fern last recorded in the tetrad square (i.e. 2 km by 2 km) 26 years ago.   In truth it is easily overlooked, and I was in any case looking for orchids.

Finally, nothing ottery at the moment.   No recent spraints and the various otter runs by the shore have been unused.  Oh well...