Thursday, 18 August 2016

Grand (and not so Grand) Union Canal

Four days ago I set out intending to visit the Grand Union Canal north-east of Daventry. I failed to make it (see blog 'Lang Farm') so today I had another attempt, picking up the towpath at Wharf Farm. Some stretches of canal can be lively and colourful, surrounded by lovely countryside, but...
Grand Union Canal north-east of Daventry. 18 August, 2016

First impressions were that the canal was too tidy for much in the way of wildlife. A stroll of half a mile or so proved that these first impressions were correct. I had hoped for clumps of sedges, bulrushes or reeds. No chance. Everywhere was well maintained. There were a few rather stunted plants of Meadowsweet and, as the photograph shows, the odd plant of Angelica.
Angelica was common but hardly abundant. Near Daventry.
18 August, 2016
Some Angelica leaves were covered in blotch mines, the work of the fly, Phytomyza angelicae.  A few insects were on the umbels but nothing to cause a sharp intake of breath.
Angelica leaves with the blotch mines of Phytomyza angelicae.
Near Daventry, 18 August, 201

Some alder branches overhung the water and the leaves bore swellings caused by the mite Acalitus brevitarsus but this very common and unspectacular gall barely merits a picture.

The gall of a mite, Acalitus brevitarsus, on alder beside the Grand
Union Canal near Daventry. 18 August, 2016
I swept a few caddis flies from overhanging branches but otherwise there was little of note and the only other canalside feature I photographed was a Honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum, scrambling through a shrub at the towpath edge. I rarely seem to find this plant free of leaf mines, but today even these were lacking.
Honeysuckle flowers still in bud near Daventry. 18 August, 2016

The plant seems to have quite a long flowering season; in places flowers were still in bud but elsewhere on the plant the berries had formed and ripened.

But some flowers were open. Near Daventry, 18 August, 2016

So obviously there were flowers fully formed but their fragrance will not become apparent until the evening. The berries are generally regarded as poisonous but it seems likely that large quantities would need to be ingested before harm is caused. Of course, honeysuckle is a sure-fire protection against witchcraft so I always carry a sprig.

By this time, despite the lovely weather, I was becoming a little despondent. I got chatting to a fisherman who told be that he was after gudgeon - hardly a lofty ambition.   Clearly stoicism comes naturally to Daventrians. He told me that there was a dead cow in a field nearby and it was attracting lots of flies; I thanked him but held my enthusiasm in check.

A few yards further on a small stream entered the canal from the west. I decided to part company with the canal an follow this alternative. It quickly became apparent that I had entered a site earmarked for new housing (the Monksmoor Farm Residential Development). A sewerage system had been installed and I am guessing that the stream I was following would eventually finish up underground in some sort of culvert.

How pretty! Monksmoor Farm, Daventry. 18 August, 2016
The ground had been subject to major disturbance and a host of annual weeds had sprung up, with Scentless Mayweed, Tripleurospermum maritimum, and Field Poppy, Papaver rhoeas both abundant and attracting insects.
Scentless Mayweed, abundant on the disturbed ground.
Daventry, 18 August, 2016

The Common or Field Poppy provides no nectar but bees are often to be observed harvesting the pollen. My grandmother always called this plant 'Head Ache', and Druce in his flora (G. Claridge Druce, 'The Flora of Northamptonshire', 1930) also mentions this as a local name.
Head Ache, aka Field Poppy. Monksmoor Farm, Daventry.
18 August, 2016

John Clare gets in on the act too:

                                   Corn Poppies, that in crimson dwell,
                                   Call'd Head Ache from their sickly smell.

                                                          Clare's Shepherd's Calendar, 1827

The plant is poisonous to stock when green but is safe when dry in hay.

I spent half an hour on this site gathering flies, most of which will prove to be commonplace, before an unproductive walk retracing my footsteps along the canal towpath.

So, here we have a rather dismal stretch of canal and, a stone's throw away, a housing development. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to create a buffer zone beneath the housing and the canal, an area planted up with some of our finest native shrubs to enhance the environment and encourage its colonisation by butterflies and other invertebrates. I examined the on-line plans for the development but the situation is unclear. Perhaps a letter to my local councillor would be in order.

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