Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Bath City Farm 29th June and 6th July 2013

Nats/AWT ‘Walks on the Wild Side’ at Bath City Farm – experiences of light and shade, 

Alan Rayner was joined by Bath Nats members, Alan Feest and Kathie Souter and Avon Wildlife Trust ‘Communities and Nature’ Project Officer, Matt Harcourt, for the first two of a series of four walks at Bath City Farm intended to engage the local community in ‘the nature on their doorstep’.

On 29th June, on an appropriately warm, sunny afternoon, the theme was a ‘walk in a sunny spot’, and we were pleased to be joined spontaneously by a group of around a dozen members of the public, both young and older. Alan Rayner introduced the session by inviting us to consider the opportunities and hazards of living in a sunny place by thinking about how it feels for us personally to be exposed to bright sunlight. Everyone quickly recognized that the sun’s warming and energizing influence also brings with it risks of drying out, overheating and damage by ultra-violet radiation. Life forms therefore find diverse ways of both ‘capitalizing on the opportunity for growth’ (‘making hay while the sun shines’) and balancing this with the need to protect from over-exposure by means of suitable ‘clothing’ (e.g. light-reflecting hairs), ‘cooling’ (e.g. by evaporation of ‘sweat’) ‘chemistry’ (e.g. production of the dark pigment, melanin, to provide a ‘sun tan’) and ‘behaviour change’ (altering body profile so as to minimize exposed surface).  

With these thoughts at the back of our minds, we ventured out from the shelter of the Farm’s training room, and were immediately greeted by a stand of grasses and other plants, including meadow crane’s-bill and tufted vetch, gently swaying in the breeze. We spent some while identifying up to a dozen or so different kinds of grass, delighting in their diversity of form and evocative common names (Cat’s Tail; Cock’s Foot; Soft Brome, etc), which came as a surprise for several of us. A few sweeps with a net revealed some of the variety of buzzing, hopping, fluttering insect inhabitants making themselves at home within the swaying plant architecture.

Moving on, we came across some shrivelled growths of silver moss and beard moss nestling in the gaps between stones in a tarmac drive…and resurrected these into greenery with a refreshing spray of moisture. Then we examined the mosaic of lichens growing on some apple trees, using lenses to bring us closer to their coralline growth forms. As I often find, these close encounters with life forms that most of us don’t stop to notice as we busily bustle past them daily, brought much fascination and wonder.

Finally, having paused to examine the extraordinary tendrils of some white bryony climbing a hawthorn shrub, we entered a meadow where we paused to enjoy the panoramic views of Bath, the fly-pasts of birds, butterflies, bees and hoverflies and the ‘stripy pyjamas’ of ‘Yorkshire fog’. The song of a dunnock was identified, followed obligingly by the bird’s appearance on a branch at the top of a shrub. Ninety minutes had passed very rapidly.

On 6th July, we gathered on a hot afternoon for a ‘walk in a shady spot’, which seemed a ‘cool’ enough theme, but on this occasion sadly were not joined by any members of the public. This gave us pause to reflect on the difficulties of sharing our knowledge and enthusiasm with other people, and how and why these difficulties arise. But it didn’t entirely stop us from enjoying ourselves and rehearsing what we would have pointed out, given the chance!

We made our way quickly through the sunlit upper meadow towards the woodland at its far margin. We stopped just short of the woodland, feeling the meadow’s heat and noticing the way we were observing its inhabitants (mostly by ‘looking down our noses’ at them!) before continuing into the shade where we experienced and noted a radical shift in our feeling and attitude. We were now ‘amongst’, not ‘above’ the local residents! We felt a decrease in temperature and an increase in humidity. Our screwed up eyes relaxed and opened wide to take in the darkened scene. We noticed a sun-fleck in the darkness, illuminated through a gap in the tree canopy, where large numbers of flying insects swirled like bright fairies, and speckled wood butterflies danced. We reflected on how the leaves of wood false brome had a twist at their base, enabling them to be held out horizontally and ‘topsy-turvy’, with glistening green bottom surface uppermost. We took in the contrast between lobed and diamond-shaped leaves respectively on the climbing and flowering stems of ivy. We sensed the decaying wood around and above us and examined some of the fungi responsible. We recognised how the decay provided habitat for a huge variety of inhabitants as well as fungi. We walked through the avenue of majestic, 150-year-old beech and sycamore trees before emerging back into brightly lit meadow, which we crossed to reach another stand of mature beech trees, where we marvelled at the huge canopy that one hollowed out specimen could still support. We considered the ecological significance of such hollow trees, and how and why attitudes towards them have changed with deeper understanding in recent decades. Ninety minutes had passed very rapidly.

Alan Rayner 

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