Natural History Notes

Hedges
One of the more obvious natural history features of the walks round Kenilworth are the hedges.  We tend to take these very much for granted, and yet hedges provide about 400,000 miles of shelter for wildlife in England.

Some of the hedges date back to Saxon times, particularly those marking parish boundaries, but many others are much younger, perhaps having been planted in the eighteenth century.  A rough guide to the age of a hedge can be found by counting the number of kinds of trees and bushes in a 30 metre stretch.  Pace out this length and then see how many species you can find in it.  You need not  be able to identify each species to do the count, just see how many different kinds of leaves there are.  The number of different kinds of leaves and shrubs you find correspond, approximately, to the number of centuries the hedge has been in existence.  So if you only find one or two kinds, it was probably planted in the last century, but if you find four kinds, then it might have been in existence for four hundred years.

It is vitally important to preserve our hedgerows as most of our resident woodland birds and over twenty species of butterflies breed in them, and they provide homes for nearly half our native mammals.  If you are interested in hedges you might like to send for a hedgerow sheet obtainable from the Warwickshire Biological Records Centre, The County Museum, Market Place, Warwick.

Birds
Walking quietly along the paths, or sitting near a woody copse, is an ideal way of seeing some of the many birds to be found around Kenilworth.

Of late years, Kestrels have shown a welcome increase, and you can see this bird hovering on the lookout for prey, especially near the verges of the A46.  Near open woodland, particularly through Wroxall Park, you will often see Pheasants.  The cock bird, with its highly coloured plumage and long tail feathers, possesses an unmistakable raucous call.



 

Woodland is the habitat of the Woodpeckers; the laugh or 'yaffle' of the Green Woodpecker is often heard and the familiar drumming on the tree trunks is made by the Greater Spotted Woodpecker.  However, more common are the Blackbirds, Robins, Starlings, Blue Tits, Great Tits and the smallest black-capped Tit, the Coal Tit, are usually very active in trees and hedges foraging acrobatically for food.  But look out for the Nuthatch, with its long bill and pleasing soft blue colours.  The Tree-creeper's bill is also suitably adapted for searching the trunks of trees for insects, which is always accomplished from the ground upwards.

On many walks you can usually see the black and white Pied Wagtails and Chaffinches with unmistakable slate-blue heads, bright pink breasts and white wing bars.  Other Finches to be seen locally include the Greenfinch, Goldfinch and the colourful Bullfinch with red breast, black head and grey-blue back making identification very easy.

It is possible to see Linnets, Red Poll, Meadow Pipits, Dunnocks, and the song of the Skylark is a characteristic sound of summer.

The overall brownish pink colouring of the Jay distinguishes it from the other members of the Crow family.  Crows are always worth a second look as often several 'Crows' in a field reveal themselves to be a mix of Crows, Rooks and Jackdaws.  The Jackdaw is the smallest with grey plumage, making its black cap all the more obvious, and its sharp cry of 'Jack'  can be heard, particularly in the castle area.  Rooks and Crows are of a similar size and it is often true to say that a flock of these birds will prove to be Rooks while solitary birds will be Crows.  However, this is not always true, and the best distinguishing feature is the beak which is white in a Rook and black in a Crow.  The other common member of the Crow family is the Magpie, distinguishable by its black and white plumage and long tail.

A tiny bird with uptilted tail, moving quickly through woods and hedges, is one of our smallest birds, the Wren, known for its loud bursts of song.  Winter visitors to the area include Fieldfares and Redwings, and at this season you may often see the Goldcrest, our smallest bird, with its pronounced yellow-orange crest.

In the summer many visitors arrive to swell the resident bird population: Cuckoos, Wood-warblers, Blackcaps, Whitethroats, Spotted Flycatchers, House Martins, Swifts and Swallows.  Swallows are distinguishable by their blue-black bodies, long forked tails and white chests.  Swifts are predominantly dark brown, verging on black, birds, flying effortlessly on stiff wings without appearing to make a wing beat.  Swifts will sometimes chase each other  for pure enjoyment, emitting a well known screaming cry.  House Martins have black plumage, white bodies and a distinct white rump that can be seen as the bird flies away.  House Martins also have a shorter, broader tail than Swallows.

Familiar birds of the waterside are the Moorhen and Coot.  When feeding on the aquatic vegetation the Coot is distinguishable by its larger black body and white beak, compared with the Moorhen's conspicuous red beak.  Rising from remote pools one will occasionally see a Heron, our largest common bird.  Unmistakable in outline when active at dawn and dusk stalking slowly for frogs, fish and molluscs.
Thus it will be seen that some attention and observation (which may be increased by the use of binoculars) directed to bird watching will add immeasurable pleasure to these country walks.  Happy bird spotting!

 

Wild Flowers
As you follow the walks outlined in this book an added source of enjoyment will come from identifying the wild flowers you will find on the way.  These are a part of our natural heritage which must be jealously guarded - a species once lost is irrecoverable.

One of our earliest flowering plants to be seen in woods and hedge bottoms from February onwards is Dogs Mercury.  This green flower, not a very attractive plant, starts the year off and is an indicator of ancient hedgerows.  At this early time of year you can see both Red and White Dead Nettle.  It is of interest to note that the White Nettle may be found flowering right through the winter.  Coltsfoot is also a flower of early spring, when its cheerful, bright golden flowers are to be seen wherever soil has been disturbed - along disused railway tracks or canal towpaths.  Its large coltsfoot shaped leaves follow later.  Celandines are easily recognised, their shiny yellow petals have an enamelled appearance quite unlike anything else.  The Wood Anemone, sometimes called Windflower, also comes at this time, its dainty white flowers, sometimes with petals stained a soft pink, adorn banks and woodland clearings.  Garlick Mustard and Stitchwort are present in many of our hedgerows and the mauve/blue flowers of Ground Ivy are abundant locally.  The walk  through Baddesley Clinton churchyard is to be recommended in spring when Primroses, Violets, Buttercups, Cowslips, Celandines and much else are all to be seen in a small area.  Early summer brings Bluebells in Crackley Wood and in many copses and hedges on most walks, together with Pink and White Campion.  You can see at this time Herb-Robert, Herb-Bennet, Wild Arum and Hedge Woundwort.  High summer brings the wild roses, both the pink Dog Rose and the white Field Rose, and that universal favourite, Honeysuckle.  Goosegrass now climbs through hedges with the more pungently scented Hedge Bedstraw.  Foxgloves come into their own too, while hedges now carry the purple flowers of Woody Nightshade (not to be confused with Deadly Nightshade) and the green flowers of both White and Black Bryony.  Grassy meadows on most walks will be starred with Daisies and Buttercups, the Dandelions that delighted in spring now give place to Ox-eye Daisies and the taller Hawkweeds.  On walks that cross sown fields 'weeds of cultivation' such as Scarlet Pimpernel, Scentless May Weed, Fumitory, Corn Marigolds and Poppies will be seen.

The edges of  streams, river banks and canal sides, even the margin of a muddy pond, will provide botanical interest.  Along the streamside walk to Bulloak Farm Lady's Smock  and Water Forget-me-not are followed by Brooklime, Fleabane and Water Figwort.  Along canals we find Meadow-sweet, Water Plantain, sometimes the beautiful flowers of Flowering Rush or Purple Loosestrife.  Along river banks look out for the tall Himalayan Balsalm, a handsome plant whose pink flowers have been likened to a policeman's helmet.

The coming of autumn brings few new flowers.  We look now for the brilliant colouring of berries, the scarlet of Woody Nightshade and of White and Black Bryony.  There are hips and haws, blackberries and elderberries, and the richness of seed heads and pods of various shapes and sizes from annual summer flowers still pleasing to the eye and adding interest to the walk.  The last plant of the year to flower must not go without mention.  Now is the time to look for the flowers of Ivy, the green/gold bosses of nectar-rich blossom round which will  cluster the last wasps and other flying insects seeking much needed food to face hibernation during the coming months.  The berries which will follow these flowers will provide food for birds both in winter and the coming spring.

Look, too, for the embryo catkins of Hazel and of Willow and Alder along brooks, all of which promise much for the spring to come.

Butterflies
Of all the members of the insect kingdom butterflies must be the most universally loved, being, as they are, colourful  and dainty, adding charm and beauty wherever they appear and never failing to give pleasure.  Gardeners may have reservations regarding the large and small White butterflies, but these are the only species reckoned to be economic pests.

In spring you may see the Orange Tip, distinguishable from other Whites by the orange tip to the forward wing on the males only, while the distinguishing colouring of the female wing tips is black.  This attractive species flies in April and its food plants include Lady's Smock  and Hedge Mustard.  Still in spring there are two other species to look out for.  First is the small pearl-bordered Fritillary with its distinctive orange and black markings which  produces a second brood in June/July.  The food plant for the caterpillars of this species is Violets.  The second one to look for is the Brimstone.  This is a most distinctive species, the male being a clear, bright sulphur yellow, uniform on both wings, with a small orange spot on both wings.  The female is a greenish white but still very distinctive.  Those seen  early in the year have hibernated through the winter - usually in Ivy - the later brood flying in June/July.  The food plant for caterpillars of this species is Buckthorn.  Throughout June to August in grassy meadows one frequently sees the Meadow Brown.  This is a large butterfly of a rather faded brown but with orange markings and a single black spot on its forward wing.  Along hedgerows which consist in some part of blackberry brambles you may see Gatekeepers.  Smaller than some of our butterflies, these are distinguished by the brownish band surrounding orange coloured wings and a single black spot with two white eyes on the forewing.  The female is paler coloured and slightly larger than the male.

From April onwards, in shady places and woodlands, the Speckled Wood will be seen.This pretty butterfly is not one of the more highly coloured, being a light brown with creamy buff markings.  There are several broods in a year and for these caterpillars the food plants are various grasses, including couch grass.

The most brightly coloured and largest butterflies we have seen on the walks are the Tortoiseshell  and Peacock butterflies.  The Tortoiseshell is usually seen from May onwards.  Its bright orange/red wing colouring with black and yellow markings on the forward wing makes it easy to spot.  Its larval food plant is the Stinging Nettle.  By far the most easily distinguished butterfly must be the Peacock, again brown with the circular 'peacock eye' marking on each wing.  It  can be seen in flowery meadows and gardens from July onwards.  As with the Tortoiseshell, the larval food plant is the Stinging Nettle.

It will be noted from the mention of various food plants for the caterpillars of the different species that there is a close correlation between the plant and insect world.

As you make your way along various walks, these are some of the butterflies you will see, but  there are others which, with practice, you will come to observe, to love and to protect.