Thursday, 23 January 2014

A perilous Pit Lane peregrination

On a sunny but chilly day I decided to face the perils of Pit Lane for a change of scene. As I have remarked in a previous blog, this track is invariably referred to as Muddy Lane by local people, and with good reason.

Pit Lane aka Muddy Lane, looking north.
23 January, 2014

This is a public right of way but farm traffic has rendered the lane almost unusable; I had to tread very warily. I always carry a camera on these walks but my expectations are realistic and sometimes there is little worthy of photographing. Fortunately I am happy to look at what many would call trivia; I find a fascination in small things. Multum in parvo my son, as Del Boy would have put it.

Brambles lined the track on both sides and the leaves bore closer examination for the mines they exhibited. The Golden Pigmy Moth, Stigmella aurella. was responsible for most (all?) of the mines.

Leaf-mine of the Golden Pigmy Moth
Pit Lane, Byfield.  23 January, 2014

Typically the mine is very sinuous as shown in the first photograph. It is a very common moth but the adult (the imago) is small and tends to be overlooked.

In this second example the mine follows the leaf edge so closely that I suspected it was a different species, but later research suggested that it was the Golden Pigmy again. In many cases the position of the mine can be diagnostic for naming the species, but apparently not here.

I diverted from the main track to the site of the original pit. The area has become a dumping-ground for waste farm materials (and some local gardeners also appear to have used it for a similar purpose) so the area is not pretty. The pit held water. thus forming a small pool. In nine years this is the first time I have noticed a pool form, testament to the very wet weather we've been experiencing.

A pool temporarily fills the pit.
Pit Lane, Byfield. 23 January, 2014

Unfortunately this pool is unlikely to persist for many weeks. How nice it would be if it lasted long enough to attract dragonflies. The water looked very clear but, surrounded by dumped farm materials, some form of pollution is quite likely.

Unsightly though the area may be, it is full of interest - as is the case with many brownfield sites. Patches of bare ground have been colonised by annuals and some interesting biennial plants. 

Verbascum thapsus adjacent to
Pit Lane, Byfield.  23 January, 2014

Verbascum thapsus, known as Great Mullein or Aaron's Rod, towered almost two metres on banks of dumped soil. In a situation such as this a veritable forest of mulleins can rapidly develop but, as the plants are intolerant of shade they can be quickly crowded out. Plant breeders have done much work on Verbascums in recent years and some lovely, more compact forms are now available. The handsome caterpillars of the Mullein Moth are worth looking for on the leaves of Verbascums and I'll certainly return in mid-summer to see if they are present.

Showing similar habits is Wild Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum. In winter the seed heads are frequently visited by Goldfinches, who tweak out the seeds with their slender bills,

Thistle-like teasel heads just off
Pit Lane. 23 January, 2014

Fortunately, despite the attention of Goldfinches, plenty of seed falls to the ground, leading to the development of replacement plants. Generally speaking, biennials need to produce copious amounts of seed to compensate for their short life span. They will need bare soil to germinate and brownfield sites usually offer ideal conditions for teasels. Certainly lots of young plants were present. These will grow rapidly as the soil warms and produce flowers - much loved by bees -  later in the year.

Rosette of Teasel. Pit Lane, Byfield.
23 January, 2014

These rosettes spread quite widely, the lower leaves choking off other seedlings which might provide unwelcome competition. Such a strategy is widespread among plants which cannot cope with shade.

Of several other plants present, one more merits a mention. Hemlock, Conium maculatum, is another biennial, waste ground specialist, particularly where the ground is damp. Is it my imagination or has the plant become more common in recent decades? Even as a young plant its bright green, finely-dissected leaves are distinctive. If in doubt, pinch a leaf and note the unpleasant smell. Then wash your hands! It is this odour which probably makes cases of Hemlock poisoning quite rare.

The Latin name is quite interesting: Conium comes from a word meaning "to whirl about" as the poison causes vertigo, leading to collapse; maculatum, meaning spotted, refers to the purple blotches present on the stem.

Rosette of Hemlock  23 January, 2013

So, not a wildly exciting excursion but to coin a phrase, it kept me out of the pub.

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