Wildlife H is for Herons, Hatch Mere and hoverflies
Sue Tatman's column about wildlife in Cheshire continues its alphabetical theme
Hawthorn is the most common shrub in many of our hedgerows. Although we think of hedgerows as typical of the British countryside they are in fact relatively recent. Most date from the Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries when new hedges were planted to separate the new fields. Hawthorn was a popular choice as it establishes quickly, giving it the alternative name of Quickthorn. These enclosure hedges were usually single-species, with other woody species colonised later by chance.
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Hoverflies are great mimics, their bright stripey abdomens mean they resemble bees and wasps, but in fact they are members of the fly family and have no sting. A close inspection will show the differences. Hoverflies have just two wings, held out from their bodies in a V shape, while bees and wasps have four. Wasps have small eyes, while hoverflies have large domed eyes covering most of the head; the big eyes give all-round vision. Bees and wasps have clearly visible antennae and hoverflies have only small knobs on the front of their faces.
Britain has around 280 species of hoverfly, and they are a varied group. Some are furry, making them look like bumblebees, some are a glossy brown resembling honey bees, while others mimic the bright yellow, orange and black stripes of wasps and hornets. They are equally varied in their lifestyles, and the larvae can feed on plants, rotting wood, parasites other insects or even live underwater. However the larvae of around half the British species feed on aphids (greenfly and blackfly), which make them a great friend to gardeners.
The adult hoverflies feed on nectar and pollen and because they have small mouthparts they are attracted to plants with very small, open flowers such as fennel and yarrow. They also like bright yellows and oranges, so to attract them into your garden plant marigolds and poached egg plant.
The heron is a solitary fisherman living on our wetlands and waterways. Their favourite hunting technique is to stand motionless on the bank or in shallow water, waiting for prey. When an unwary fish comes within reach the heron strikes like lightening, stabbing down with its long, dagger-like bill. All but the largest fish are swallowed whole, head first, but they will take amphibians, small mammals, and sometimes even small birds.
The heron is recognisable by its long neck and legs and its heavy pointed bill. The plumage is mostly grey, with black and white markings on the head and neck, and its colouration, along with the habit of standing without moving, make it hard to spot despite its size. When in flight the heron folds its neck in an 'S' curve, giving it a shorter outline and it flies with a slow, laborious wing beat.
Herons nest in colonies, building their homes with sticks in the tops of large trees. As the nests are re-used year after year they can become enormous and even stretch to several feet in diameter. Large numbers can be found by Trentabank reservoir, forming the largest heronry in Cheshire. During the nesting season cameras focused on the habitat can be viewed at the nearby ranger's hut, allowing a close view of these otherwise shy birds.
Hatch Mere, a Cheshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve, is one of a series of lakes and peat-lands across the North West formed by the glacial action at the end of the last Ice Age. Together these water bodies form the North West Midlands Meres and Mosses Ramsar site, a wetland site of international importance.
The 31-acre reserve, on the northern edge of Delamere Forest, includes the mere itself along with some of the surrounding fens, wet woodland, wet heath and bog. These habitats support a variety of invertebrates, some of them very rare. Thirteen species of dragonfly and damselfly have been recorded on the reserve, including the rare hairy dragonfly and the variable damselfly. Other rarities include a caddis fly, aquatic beetles and water snails.
The edge of the mere itself is edged with dense strands of common reed and lesser reed mace, where reed bunting and willow warbler are known to nest. The mere is also home to many water birds including the beautiful great crested grebe.
Weighing in at less than 10g this is our smallest mouse. They are agile climbers and cling to grasses, reeds and low scrub, searching for seeds and fruit. They are light enough to cling onto stems of grass and can wrap their tails around stems to help support them.
In the days when cereal crops were harvested by hand, large numbers of these tiny, orange-brown mice were found as the fields were cleared, giving the animal its name. But we now know harvest mice will also live in hedgerows, rank grassland and reed beds.
Little is known about the distribution of harvest mice, as they can be very hard to find, but we believe numbers have declined dramatically in the last few decades. This is probably due to agricultural intensification and increased use of pesticides. However there is hope that they may be flourishing undetected in some areas.
At the end of 2008 harvest mice were discovered at Bickley Hall Farm, the headquarters of Cheshire Wildlife Trust, to our great surprise and delight!
Want to know more?
To find out more information about the work of Cheshire Wildlife Trust and for membership details visit www.cheshirewildlifetrust.co.uk or call 01948 820728.