The Hobby-Viva Lewes July 2016

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mark greco viva bush cricketFrom the Congo Basin to table top football played on the dining room floor. The July 2016 edition of Viva Lewes out and this months wildlife feature is all about the Hobby.

Here’s my illustration imagining this graceful bird flying somewhere above the Sussex Downs.

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Walk on the Wild Side- The Pine Processionary Moth Caterpillar.

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A Pine Processionary Moth Caterpillar Group.

A Pine Processionary Moth Caterpillar Group

When walking in the hills here in the South West of France don’t be surprised to see a number of white woven silk-like structures in the branches of pine trees hanging like strange Christmas decorations. These are in fact the nests, termed as ‘tents’, created by the larvae of the pine processionary (Thaumetopoea pityocampa) moth.

A Pine Processionary Moth Tent.

A Pine Processionary Moth Tent.

Although they are intriguing structures the larvae which are contained within are considered quite a forest pest. Natural predators include birds like the common cuckoo (Cumulus canorus) , European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus), hoopoe (Upupa epops), crested tit (Lophophanes cristatus), coal tit (Periparus after) and great tit (Parus major) (which I’ve regularly observed pecking at the nests here in the Aude). If, however, populations grow to large numbers they can severely defoliate the trees in which they inhabit thus weakening their hosts making them more susceptible to pests, diseases or extreme weather conditions. Their popularity is not helped any further by the fact that each one is covered with thousands of hairs containing a protein called thaumetopoein which can irritate the skin and cause allergic reactions. A great defence mechanism to have evolved but unappreciated by us -especially when found in urban or built up areas.

Much of the sensitivity around the pine processionary moth also seems to be due to their current direction of travel. Although the caterpillars can be described as being nomadic (locally at least) their range was, until fairly recently, isolated to the Mediterranean region, southern Europe, North Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. This however is now changing. Here in France, possibly due to a cocktail of climate change creating warmer winters and unintentional human assistance, the pine processionary has moved northward and has spread as far as Normandy and Brittany.

 Pine Processionary Moth Caterpillars forming a line.

Pine Processionary Moth Caterpillars forming a line.

Pine Processionary Moth Caterpillars forming a line across a path.

Pine Processionary Moth Caterpillars forming a line across a path.

They are, however, fascinating creatures. We came across two processions of the caterpillars here in the Languedoc quite by accident one day towards the end of February 2016. After overwintering the groups make their way down from their host trees forming their trademark processions on the ground before finding places to pupate in the soil and on this day (one of first decently warm days of the year) we spotted a bundle of the hairy orange-brown and grey banded caterpillars in the middle of a public footpath which hugged the River Aude. Although many of them were still in a tight group it was amazing to watch how they slowly organised themselves to form one long continuous line of around 4 metres to form a kind of spontaneous Andy Goldsworthy natural art installation. How they decide the hierarchy of which caterpillar goes where one can only guess but it was fascinating to watch each individual vying for position to join the line which cut across the path. A video I took of what we saw can be seen here:

If you are lucky enough to come across these amazing processions in Continental Europe take time to watch but remember to keep at a safe distance and observe them with care!  If you do see any signs of the pine processionary moth in the UK then contact the Forestry Commission here.

Further information about the pine processionary moth can be found at :

http://www.forestry.gov.uk/pineprocessionarymoth

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Viva Lewes March Hare

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Our latest wildlife feature in the Viva Lewes March 2016 edition focuses on the Hare.

Take a look at the online version here:   http://www.vivabrighton.com/#!vivalewes/c58g

 

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A Grey and Cold Saturday

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mark greco quillan hide 4

At The Hide.

We’ve been so lucky with the weather the past few weekends that it’s a bit of a shock when you wake up on a Saturday morning to driving rain and grey skies. Just to think that this time last week I was watching the Aude flow below blue skies, uninterrupted sunshine and thinking that Spring was just around the corner! Today both the departments of Herault and Gard have been put on orange weather warnings because of the amount of rain that is expected there. One thing that I have come to realise whilst living in Quillan is that the weather in this part of France can change very quickly!

After having breakfast whilst listening to Fip we got ready to do the first job of the day. We have begun to supplement our wood supply by collecting choice pieces of driftwood from the river and last night we had hatched a plan. We would park the car at a local Aire and collect the stash of wood we had put aside on the bank the evening before. I also had decided to bring the hack saw from the gite to cut any oversized pieces down. This worked well and after 3 trips to and from our car to the stash (a trip that seemed much longer than normal!) we filled the boot and drove back home.

That afternoon the rain cleared and after I’d chopped more wood for the wood burner I decided to spend a little time in The HideI’m rarely disappointed on what I see on this site and today was not an exception.  On approaching my small refuge I inadvertently disturbed a grey heron which had been perchng on the small outcrop of rock that juts out to the left of The Hide. Sensing my presence it took to the air in moments, disappearing upstream of the river in a manner that I often think would have been akin to seeing one of its prehistoric ancestors.

I found my chair and settled.  The sky was overcast and the combination of both the slight breeze and dampness from the river cooled the air.  Gazing through the binoculars I could, however, see that things were much busier than one might expect on such a dull day. On the far sand bank two chaffinches foraged among the leaves, sticks and stones.  These were soon joined by what looked to be a yellow hammer which tentatively joined the party.  To my side a robin called, gave me a hard stare then flew off.

As I watched what was happening along the bank I heard a distant but familiar ‘peet peet’ and my eyes caught a flash of vibrant yellow which came as a blessed relief against the sombre tones of the day. And there it was.  No further than around 4 metres away from me a grey wagtail had landed on one of the metal struts that penetrated the river’s surface.  It seemed completely oblivious to my presence in the hide and perched there for a few minutes-its eyes alert with its tail intermittently wagging as if it was tapping out a secret code that was meant to be deciphered.   I watched it  before it decided to move on and flew to the left bank before disappearing.

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The Hide

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mark greco quillan hide 1

Interior of The Hide.

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View of the Aude from The Hide.

Binoculars ready in The Hide

Binoculars ready in The Hide

 

Now that Spring seems to be just around the corner and the weather is getting better I’ve started to establish a small but well formed camp in one of the corners of the ground. It’s a small timber frame construction with an old style and well rusted corrugated roof. At the entrance two makeshift wooden steps lead onto a planked platform which straddles over the channel of the two sluice gates that feeds the water mill with the powerful flow of the Aude. The platform is around three foot wide by ten feet long- a quite narrow space- and is used so that the gates can be adjusted. However the thing is this. With just about enough room to be able to comfortably put 2/3 chairs, a great view of the river and enough foliage to act as camouflage, it makes a great hide from which to view the natural comings and goings of river life. It also has the amazing benefit of being south(ish) facing and sheltered from wind so, on days sunny days like these, becomes a bit of a sun trap and a great place to write.

Last week, in a bid to establish camp, I had given the place a bit of a spring clean and had sweeped the deck and buffed the two plastic chairs. *The Hide * was now ready.

To give its position a bit more context imagine this. Looking out over the breadth of the Aude the river bends quite sharply to the left and flows round a shallow sloped bank populated by hazel trees. To the immediate right is a steep bank of rock where a mixture of overhanging trees, bush, grass, moss and lichen grow. At regular intervals small outcrops of moss covered rock jut through the surface of the water. Finally at the furthest point there is a small flat sandbank largely populated, again, by hazel but also has enough grass and low lying vegetation to create shelter for birds and other animals. And then you have the backdrop of the Pyrenees foothills behind.

Today’s weather was ideal and gave me the perfect excuse for spending time here. A clear blue sky, light wind and uninterrupted sun meant that conditions were near ideal. The milder temperature caused a burst insects to take flight and small clouds of aerial plankton glowed yellow and danced above the water and amongst the branches. Looking through the binoculars I noticed that a number of different bird species were taking advantage of the opportunity. Firecrests, together with a Robin, hawked from the overhanging branches to the right and returned to another perching spot. A small group of Long-tailed Tits saw the same opportunity but used a slightly different technique. These largely flew from one side of the river to the other, hawking insects as they made the trip. To the left I heard the distinct calls of Nuthatches and watched them as they foraged amongst the branches and trunks of hazel- perhaps looking for the best nesting sites- and below a sharp trill of a Wren cut through the undulating sound that the river made as it flowed by.

It was early in the afternoon when I caught sight of a small dark shape bounding on the edge of the left bank. Being slightly obscured by the vegetation I first thought that it was one of the black squirrels that I have spotted from time to time. Amazingly it proved to be what looked like a either a Polecat or Mink and I watched it as it’s sleek frame took to the water and began powerfully swimming to the other bank. For a moment I lost sight of it as it disappeared amid the dazzling ripples of dancing water and, by trying to trace the likely route it would take, saw it emerge by a mossy rock on the other side. Oblivious to my presence and after shaking the excess water from its fur, it then carried on towards the far sand bank only to disappear amid the vegetation.

I left The Hide feeling excited about what I had saw and can’t wait to spot more amazing things as Spring fully emerges!

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Nicholas Culpeper- Better living through botany.

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nicholas culpeper

Exactly 400 years ago, in 1616, a legend was born; a rebel who partnered up with Mother Nature to revolutionise British medicine. The herbal hero, the botanical bad boy, the father of alternative medicine, ladies and gentleman I give you, Nicholas Culpeper.

Culpeper did his growing up upstream in Isfield. The lanes around Lewes and the starry Sussex skies were his classroom and the hedges and the heavens taught him botany , astronomy and astrology. And he learnt about love too. In 1634 Culpeper and his Sussex sweetheart planned a secret Lewes wedding and a speedy elopement to the Netherlands. But tragedy struck when his love-struck lady’s carriage was struck by a lightning bolt en route to Lewes. She died instantly.

There’s no cure for a broken heart and Culpeper left Sussex and started a new life in London. He threw himself into his work as a lowly apothecary’s assistant cataloguing medicinal herbs on Threadneedle Street.  At this time medicine was only practiced by elite physicians. They would charge exorbitant prices for their secret remedies and would not even demean themselves to talk to patients; instead requesting a sample of urine to make their diagnosis. Culpeper agreed with them on one thing; they were all taking the piss. He believed medical treatment should be available to all – not just the privileged.

Setting up his own practice in a poorer part of London Culpeper started treating 40 patients a day with herbal cures derived from English plants. Then he dropped his botanical bombshell.  Culpeper published an incredible book which instructed people how to pick their own remedies, free of charge, from the hedges and meadows.  The book was ‘The English Physitian’ (1652, later enlarged as ‘The Complete Herbal’).  His book promoted and preserved  folk remedies at a time when physicians and priests were discrediting  village healers and preventing  them from passing along their traditional knowledge. The medical establishment was enraged and accused Culpeper of practising witchcraft.  But his book endured. It’s been in continuous print longer than any other non-religious English language book, running rings ‘round Tolkien and Rowling and their tales of hocus-pocus.

No doubt Culpeper’s herbal remedies could have come in useful for some of you over the festive period; wild privet (for headaches), blackthorn (for indigestion), rosemary (for flatulence) and the juice of ivy berries ‘snuffed up into the nose’ (for hangovers).  Culpeper also has cures for those with sore breasts, worms, itches in the ‘privy parts’ and bruises.  Hey – I don’t know what you lot have been getting up to over Christmas.

So start 2016 by raising your Nutribullets and ginseng teas to the healing properties of Mother Nature and to four centuries of Nicholas Culpeper.

Words by Michael Blencowe.                                                                                    Illustration by Mark Greco.                                                                                        First published in by Viva Lewes Magazine in January 2016.

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Joyeux Noël!

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Mark greco mistletoe

Just a quick post to wish you all a very Merry Christmas together with a peaceful and Happy New Year! 2015 has been quite an adventure with the launch of COAST for Magpie and the continuing expansion of the work now available on the Etsy site. I’ve also had the opportunity to show and continue to work with some great people including the Sussex Wildlife Trust, The Arches Printmaking CIC in Hastings, Lewes District Council,  Pelham House in Lewes and of course the Viva Team in Lewes and Brighton and Appendage in Brighton.

A big thank you for your support and ,as A Natural History goes into it’s fifth Year, have a great 2016!

Santé!

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New Work is Now Available from the Shop!

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With Christmas just around the corner I wanted to let you know that some of my latest cards and prints from ‘A Natural History’ are now available to buy directly from the Etsy Shop!  The new range includes ‘Common Tern’ (a design that is also featured in the COAST range I designed for Magpie), Goldfinch, Long-tailed Tit, Chaffinch, Magpie and one of my personal favorites Nuthatch ( a print which I produced almost as a companion piece to my Treecreeper design). There’s others too so feel free to check them out!

All purchases from the shop will be sent to you by First Class delivery within 3-5 working days of receiving the order so there’s still time to make someone’s Christmas a little bit wilder!

I’ll also be donating a percentage of every sale from now until Christmas to my favourite charity -the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

Have a Happy & Peaceful Christmas!

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