Brentor Commons monthly update

These articles, by Barry Albrighton, are also published in the Brentor News

July 2017

Red Admiral butterfly

It seems that nationally it has been a successful year so far for butterflies. On the common, even on a drizzly wet day, there were good numbers on the wing flitting along in front of us as we walked around.  There were plentiful ringlets and meadow browns with the occasional red admiral.  As well as butterflies there was a pair of golden banded dragonflies fiercely patrolling the top path, they settled regularly to give us time to make a good identification.  The damp dewy weather also showed us the vast population of spiders as their webs were rendered visible by the droplets that had settled on them.

Hogweed

This month’s umbelliferae are the hogweed and the creamy yellow billows of meadowsweet, again having completely replaced the hedge bank and roadside valerian of June.  The meadowsweet is a real favourite of mine, the scent can be overwhelming, even competing with the honeysuckle’s cloyingly narcotic smell. It is impossible to resist inhaling the scent as one walks past.
The vetches, relative of the pea family, can now be seen in purple, yellow and white varieties representing quite separate species. Patches of reddish purple betony are all along the path edges providing pollen and nectar for the bumble bees so aptly named as they clumsily career from one flower head to the next.
After some work clearing the path to the pond on Liddaton, I saw, sitting adjacent to each other, two of the regular birds of that locality, the brilliant male yellowhammer and a linnet with lovely crisp reddish marking to its breast and forehead.  The different postures of the two were striking with the slim erect linnet contrasting with the larger and stockier more horizontal perching of the yellowhammer.

June 2017
When walking around the common with some friends from Exeter, we were excited to see two red kites close to the signpost area. This is the first time I have seen them over Bowden although there was a sighting a couple of years ago.  Circling around, they were at times less than fifty yards from us. Our visitors were most impressed but not being country people they were rather overwhelmed by the smell of the dung being spread on the fields nearby. Janet and I had hardly noticed it!  If you are on the common look out for their long angled wings and forked tails, very different from our regular Buzzards with their lazy gliding and soaring.
The grass over the main part of the common is now really luxurious. The years of bracken rolling and cutting are really starting to have a dramatic effect on the ecology of the common as we had hoped it would.
I have been trying to keep up with the changes to the roadside verges this year and have noticed that the cow parsley of the last two months has been superseded by Valerian which although largely white also has a hint of dusty pink about it.

May 2017
Bad news on the rabbit front, the bid for freedom seems to have come to an end as nobody has seen it for more than a week. Perhaps it has gone to the great burrow in the sky.
When driving past the same area of the common we saw a pair of linnets. It had been raining heavily and there were puddles at the roadside where they were bathing. There was a great commotion with splashes and much flapping of wings and we were able to sit in the car and watch them for quite some time. An absolute delight.
As the seasons progress there is always a new tapestry of colour to maintain our interest. The largely white umbelliferae, the umbrella shaped flowers along the roadside, are always changing. The cow parsley is now fading and the pignut is the dominant one on the common. It is so called because below each flower is an edible small tuber. I suspect they were a favourite of pigs when they led a much more foraging life. The hedgerows are now at their best with the pink of the campions and  the bluebells creating a back drop for  many other summer flowers that are starting to bloom.
A tree we have noticed recently is the horse chestnut to the left of the big ash tree. It has been more obvious because of its white candelabra that have been apparent in recent weeks. This tree must have been planted there, but it was well before the plantings by the commons association. It would be interesting to know when this was done and by whom. There is also a grove of sweet chestnut in the northeast corner. These are youngish trees have quite smooth branches and stems, not the gnarled and spiral bark of the mature tree.

April 2017
The good news is that the white and black rabbit is still present after two months. The possibility of a name has come up. Suggestions have included Flopsy, Michael de Rupe and of course Bunny Mc Bunface. Perhaps a competition is in order.
I have so enjoyed writing these articles. When reading my daily Guardian newspaper for the past thirty or more years, I have always turned first to the country diary. I was so pleased to see that Brentor’s own Charlie Elder is now a contributor to this much loved and admired series.
As well as the rabbit, white seems to be a dominant colour this month. Stitchwort is abundant along the paths along with the blossom of the blackthorn and the heads of cow parsley. More white was seen in the shell of a pigeon’s egg lying beside the path. Clearly they have hatched their squabs already.
This is the right time of year  to attempt to learn the calls of a few bird songs. As the foliage is still quite sparse it is easy to see some of the more common songsters and also to hear their very distinctive songs. These include the onomatopoeic repeated call of the chiff chaff and the liquid descending cascade of the willow warbler.
It was good to see a stunning male stonechat close to the old ash tree. The stonechat is so obliging as it almost always sits on top of a bush ( typically gorse ) and is not particularly timid.  Under the bush,  I saw a wren scuttling around, it’s vibrant song belies its tiny size.

March 2017
What a surprise. As we were driving across the common we saw a white rabbit with black markings looking very much like an “Old English” breed. It was there a few days later, taking cover in the bramble patch as we approached it. How long it will last against the buzzards and foxes will be interesting to see. Here’s hoping it will become an established feature for a while. When we first moved here we often saw jet black wild rabbits, but not in recent years.
When walking along the back path, I looked up to see a blackbird on the very top of the ash tree. It was extremely handsome with its glossy black feathers and bright yellow bill. It was still there when I finished my circuit twenty minutes later. As I watched it a great spotted woodpecker perched almost next to it. It was a contrast to see the woodpecker clinging to a vertical branch and the blackbird proudly perched as lord of all it surveyed.
The honeysuckle is in full leaf well ahead of other trees and shrubs with just the bramble leaves also starting to appear. Next month should produce foliage of many more varieties.
I looked for the frogspawn in Liddaton pond and was initially disappointed that it all seemed to have disappeared. On closer inspection I saw the surface of the water where it had been was a seething mass of tiny tadpoles crammed together in the same space that the frogspawn had been. As the month progresses they will spread over a much larger area.
The moles are starting to be active and their molehills are springing up in various places. Other mammals seen included a herd of at least ten deer, the most I have seen, moving away from the common over Bawcombe farm fields. I was able to watch them for at least ten minutes.

February 2017
A still, warm day in February is always a pleasant surprise and it is good to see the wildlife is starting to herald the coming spring. There is a hint of freshness in the grass especially along the damp path edges. The sun was shining on distant Gibbet Hill and  St. Michaels church is once again standing proud with the scaffolding and shroud gone.
We all like to see the snowdrops in our gardens and the few daffodils that have been planted around the base of the signpost on the common let us know that spring is on its way. The catkins of birch, hazel and willow are starting to put on a good show and most of the other shrubs and trees are developing their buds. It will be enjoyable to watch as they burst into leaf over the next few weeks. The willows in Liddaton pond are especially bright.  Our newly created access paths are being well used and it is now easy to get down to the water’s edge to see the masses of frogspawn. How many generations of frogs have been breeding here?
Bird life is still rather scarce and only the usual suspects, chaffinch, robin, hedge sparrow etc. are singing regularly. I did however hear the high pitched zee zee zee of a goldcrest as it worked its way along the hedgerow in front of me as I walked. It seemed to be quite unconcerned about my presence and allowed me to approach quite closely.

January 2017
I leant upon a coppice gate
When frost was spectre-gray,
And winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
These words of Thomas Hardy encapsulate the atmosphere of the common on one of our walks this month. In Hardy’s poem the gloom is broken by the song of a ‘darkling thrush,’ giving hope for the future. We did not hear a thrush sing but the robin was in full and strident voice and the hedge sparrow’s quieter sound raised our spirits in the chilly, damp air.
Most days, birds were few and far between, but one late evening walk revealed large numbers of redwing, seeming to be charging around in the blackthorn along the back path. I suspect this is pre-settling down behaviour in a communal roosting area. It so reminded me of the times I spent as a youth ringing redwings at such a roost in Warwickshire.
The bare trees allow the ‘witch’s broomsticks’ in the birch trees to be much more apparent in all parts of the common. One tree had seventeen. These growths are the reaction by the tree to a fungal infection in the same way that oak apples are to wasp eggs. Another eye catching phenomenon to the right of the track down to Bawcombe Farm is the line of vertical willow shoots that have formed along the line of a fallen trunk. It is hard to imagine that they were not planted there for some purpose.

December 2016
Winter has truly arrived. We have already had some really severe frosts, strong winds and heavy rains that have all left their mark on the common. There is a general sense of dormancy and battening down the hatches to survive the next few months. There are, however, on closer examination, plenty of interest as we walk around.
There are tight catkins on the hazel, oak trees seem to keep some of their leaves (one small tree at the Burcombe end of the back track has a complete golden brown canopy) and the yellow of the gorse and some of the bramble leaves shine out with the slightest hint of sunshine. The banks and tree trunks are often well covered with a rich green coating of moss which itself merits much closer examination.
I was struck by the stark, bare branches of the thorny blackthorn, many have two types of lichen (an indicator of a good air quality) in complete contrast.  One is like a soft green feathery seaweed frond and the other looked like little earlobes clustered along the stems.  Perhaps they are, a little fancifully, listening for the first signs of the spring to come.
The winter bird population is now well established. We have seen the snipe again zig zagging as it flies away when disturbed and have also had a report of a woodcock (a first for the common). This is a bird that is virtually only ever seen in flight, it is considerably larger than a snipe and it flies away in a straight line. The winter thrushes are abundant this year.  Loose flocks of redwing scour the hedgerows for berries along with the larger fieldfares that seem to settle, often with a harsh chattering, in the tops of larger trees.
To finish my walk it was nice to hear the overhead cronk of the raven, a quintessential winter bird of the Dartmoor area, along with the flash of a bright yellow male yellowhammer shining out in the evening gloom.

November 2016
Many thanks again to the local authority for cutting the rights of way on both Liddaton and Bowden. They have made a really good job of it with a wide path to see us through the winter. The chewed sticks and worn out balls along the paths attest to its regular use.
As I walked along the back path the strong wind created a cascade of falling leaves like a snowstorm of butterflies. The leaves were of blackthorn, birch and ash while the oak and hazel were almost unaffected. Although it is the end of October it was good to see several red admirals. One in particular was putting on a brilliant display, spreading its wings to catch the last heat of the afternoon sun.
When waking along the top path we disturbed a rather fine fox. It scampered rapidly away from us to disappear into the undergrowth. The renowned country poet John Clare caught the atmosphere just right with his
“She sniffs and barks if any passes by
And swings her tail and prepares to fly”
There were much stronger winds higher up. The crows and a buzzard were being really buffeted about as they flew overhead but I was surprised to see that a passing wood pigeon seemed to fly arrow straight across the whole common, such was her strength and speed.
The plentiful red hawthorn berries that are already providing food for the winter visiting redwing and fieldfares provide some colour as does the bright yellow gorse. The old saying “When the gorse is out of bloom that’s when love is out of tune,” reminds us that it flowers in all months of the year.

October 2016
Many thanks again to the local authority for cutting the rights of way on both Liddaton and Bowden. They have made a really good job of it with a wide path to see us through the winter. The chewed sticks and worn out balls along the paths attest to its regular use.
As I walked along the back path the strong wind created a cascade of falling leaves like a snowstorm of butterflies. The leaves were of blackthorn, birch and ash while the oak and hazel were almost unaffected. Although it is the end of October it was good to see several red admirals. One in particular was putting on a brilliant display, spreading its wings to catch the last heat of the afternoon sun.
When waking along the top path we disturbed a rather fine fox. It scampered rapidly away from us to disappear into the undergrowth. The renowned country poet John Clare caught the atmosphere just right with his
“She sniffs and barks if any passes by
And swings her tail and prepares to fly”
There were much stronger winds higher up. The crows and a buzzard were being really buffeted about as they flew overhead but I was surprised to see that a passing wood pigeon seemed to fly arrow straight across the whole common, such was her strength and speed.
The plentiful red hawthorn berries that are already providing food for the winter visiting redwing and fieldfares provide some colour as does the bright yellow gorse. The old saying “When the gorse is out of bloom that’s when love is out of tune,” reminds us that it flowers in all months of the year.

September 2016
What is it about gathering blackberries that is so satisfying? To spend an hour strolling along the hedgerows with little on your mind than gathering the fruit must be fulfilling some ancient need of our hunter gatherer forebears. It may also be something to do with the blackberry and apple crumble for supper! There has been a reasonable crop this year and the tell- tale incursions into the bushes to reach those really large and juicy ones that always seem to be just out of reach shows that many people have been busy.
I thought the sloes would be scarce this year but now that they have coloured up there seems to be a reasonable amount. Not the quantities that the last two years have produced when I liked to claim that I had picked enough for my sloe gin from just one bush.
When walking from Bowden to Liddaton I saw a party of at least six stonechats. It was clearly a family group as the younger birds were quivering their wings in typical food begging manner. It is good to know that they have had a successful year. Other birds seen included a wren, good numbers of swallows and a pair of willow warblers (once known as willow wrens).
The silver Y moth mentioned in a recent article is now present on the common and in many of our gardens. Look out for a very restless medium sized silvery brown day flying moth flitting from flower to flower. Its wings often are continually fluttering but if it does settle you will clearly see the Y shape on each wing.
There is little colour to catch the eye but some white yarrow and pinkish purple woundwort can be seen along the road and path verges. The red berries of hawthorn, rowan and honeysuckle are really noticeable. There will be abundant food for the winter visiting redwing and fieldfares that will arrive soon.

August 2016
Summer is looking rather tired. The grasses, ferns and bracken are now at full height and are starting to collapse over the footpath edges making for a damp walk in the morning dew. I like Thomas Hardy’s passage, a reflection by Anne in ‘The Trumpet Major’, “The landscape had begun to put on rich tones of declining summer, but which was to her as hollow and faded as a theatre by day”.
With the completion of birds nesting we felt we were able to start on a project to improve access to the pond on Liddaton Common. There are now paths down to a clearing at the pond edge and beyond it to the high ground of ‘the grassy Knoll’.  I can only encourage as many walkers with families and dogs and horse riders to explore and help to trample the ground to further establish the paths. From the knoll, the view, especially in the evening over towards Kit Hill, is very rewarding and it is always fun to poke around any pond margin.
The bracken rolling has been completed over the main central areas of the commons, this now makes it possible to wander away from the footpaths. We are pleased to see the continuing progress that this is making in producing less of a bracken monoculture.
There an abundance of honeysuckle around the old milestone (50 m on the Brentor side of the large ash tree) which will be heavenly on a warm still evening. Other patches of colour are to be seen in the yellow birds foot trefoil and the purple of knapweed and rosebay willow herb.
There is hardly any bird song but we can still listen to contact call notes of various species. There is the monotonous “tzsit tzsit” of the yellowhammer, such a contrast to its well known song and the ringing “pink pink” of the chaffinch. Learning these calls is quite a challenge but well worth the effort.

July 2016
A warmer afternoon encouraged us to take Poppy for a walk around the common and we were rewarded with an abundance of butterflies. There were ringlets and meadow browns every metre or so along the whole walk. We have not seen these numbers for many years. As well as these common species we also saw a marbled white (a first on Bowden for us) and a painted lady. This last butterfly is migratory and in some summers can become an invasion. In fact a few years ago there were so many that they were the most common butterfly in Britain.
Another migratory insect is the silver Y moth famous this year for its invasion of the stadium in Paris during the European championship football final. They had moved up from southern Europe and with the present weather conditions they will probably arrive here soon. Look out for this medium sized grey moth with its eponymous Y wing marking.
As high summer approaches the grass is really luxurious, there is not much colour but as it sways and ripples in the breeze it creates another atmosphere for us to absorb and marvel at.
Another walk on the hottest day of the year so far with the mercury well into the mid twenties was made difficult by the numbers of biting grey flies. Their incessant attention distracts one from observing what is around. Only on the open ground away from the hedges was it more comfortable.
There were an unusually large number of swallows around. At first there were at least twenty on the telephone wires, probably this year’s first brood gathering in preparation for their migration back to Africa. Later they created an even larger hunting flock feasting on an, invisible to us, insect population high in the air.
Valerian is a new flower for this month, there are large clumps scattered sporadically all over the  common. Some of the patches have a nice pinkish tinge, possibly an influence of the populations from our gardens. Along the path edges purple self heal is prominent and the yellows of tormentil and the occasional buttercup brighten the general green of high summer.

June 2016
A cold spring has been responsible for a wonderful display of bluebells this year with large areas carpeted with their colour and scent. I have been particularly impressed with patches of dense bluebells interspersed with buttercups and in other patches stitchwort, giving a sparkling of contrasting colours on a blue background.
Behind the signpost corner the council have scraped clear an area of ground after they had inadvertently dumped some waste spoil there. We have been keen to see what would start to grow on the barren ground. A brilliant yellow broom, not generally found on the common, has been very obvious for the past months. As the broom has faded it is nice to see patches of equally bright yellow bird’s foot trefoil has appeared on the ground in the same area.
Another plant I was pleased to see on the path parallel to the Chillaton road was yellow rattle, a parasitic plant that is indicative of poor soil nutrition. Such conditions allow a greater variety of plants to thrive in place of the more aggressive grasses which will smother them. Perhaps, in the future, we will start to see orchids and other plants typical of lowland heaths.
Our summer visiting birds are now all well established. Having created their territories they are well into their breeding cycle. I am pleased to see a pair of tree pipits on the common again after a couple of year’s absence. Look out for a small brown bird with a speckled breast perched on the telephone wires or small trees in the area of the bungalow. They often fly upwards from their perch and parachute down to the same spot singing their twittering song as they do so. These tree pipits are almost identical to the meadow pipits that are ubiquitous on all areas of Dartmoor, only readily distinguished by song and choice of habitat.

May 2016
The appearance of pink campion with the clouds of white stitchwort has completed the kaleidoscope of spring colours. The bluebells has been magnificent this year both in their abundance and longevity. Liddaton common has been at its very best. At least there is something to be glad of with a cool and damp beginning to the year.
The bracken fronds are pushing up through the soil and leaf litter and starting to unfurl. On close examination there is something almost animalistic in their design appearing to be a cross between the ancient ammonites we see only in fossil form and the snails and sea shells that of today. The further unfurling of course only means more work for the commons trust. We need to roll the bracken to reduce its vigour. The effect of this is quite apparent in the areas that we have carried it out as opposed to the ones where we have not.
After a day of really heavy and continuous rain a morning walk around Bowden brings a real and unexpected freshness. The sunshine in the clear air enhances the colour of the bluebells and birdsong seems to be especially bright. I saw a cock yellowhammer perched on a hawthorn bush only a dozen feet from the path. The yellow of its breast was brilliant, particularly viewed in front of a passing dark cloud. It was singing rather quietly and not completing the “a little bit of bread and no cheese” of its full song. The long drawn out cheese course seemed to be missing!
The electric cables that cross the common are rather unsightly but they do provide a good perching place for many birds, making them nicely visible for observation and hopefully recognition. They also provide a small but regular wayleave payment to the commons trust to help with our maintenance work.

April 2016
The spring flowers are at last starting to add some colour to the hedges and path sides. The blues and purples of ground ivy, bluebells and violets contrast well with the yellows of the primroses, celandines and dandelions. The brambles are well in leaf while such trees as the oak are now bursting their buds with abandon. Remember the old country saw.  Oak before ash we are in for a splash, ash before oak we are in for a soak.
Bird life is now much more abundant. As well as all of the resident populations there are now a healthy number of summer visitors. When walking around the common recently there had been a small ‘fall’ of summer migrants. This is the term used by birdwatchers when the willow warblers, chiffchaffs and blackcaps have just arrived en masse.  There were many more singing birds than usual, perhaps up to twenty willow warblers for example.  When this happens on the coast as they come in from the sea there can be many thousands.
Some birds were seen with nesting material and I am sure lots of us have seen such activity around nest boxes in our gardens. The swallows can be seen surveying their nest sites around all of the farms and old buildings in the Brentor area.
As Janet and I were driving over the common a few days ago we saw seven roe deer. There were two obvious adults on one side of the road close to ‘the ash tree’ and five others, somewhat smaller, on the other side of the road around the marshy area by our best heather patch. They were clearly agitated by our presence but would not cross over the road to join up with each other again while we were there. We watched for a short time and then drove off to leave them in peace.

March 2016
The period of dry weather has been a great improvement on recent months. It is a pleasure to be able to walk along the mud-free paths, but the steady east winds have meant a warm coat has been necessary. This colder weather has put a brake on what seemed to be starting as a very early spring. There are a few primroses and brassy celandines in the hedge bottoms, all else seems to have gone into hibernation.
The birds we see now seem mostly to be in pairs, bullfinches in the blackthorn along the back path and yellowhammers on the phone wires being regularly seen. There is now a regular chorus of birdsong as we walk around. Chaffinches with their descending scale ending with a jumbled chatter and the “teach-er” “ teach-er” of the great tit are clearly heard over all parts of the common.
The ravens are making their presence heard with loud ”cronking” calls as they harry the local buzzards  and chase them off their territory. At one time there were four ravens attacking just one buzzard. It may be that they are competing for breeding sites as both regularly use last year’s crow’s nests.
Although it was not on the Common it was interesting to see a tortoiseshell butterfly among the rocks around the church on the Tor. We do see them in our homes when they come out after hibernating in the curtains or some such place but to see one in such an exposed spot was a real and pleasant surprise.
By this time next month we will be hearing our first summer visitors. Sand martins and wheatears have already been recorded in Devon. Listen out for the onomatopoeic calls of the chiffchaff and look out for the swooping swallows.

February 2016
What a difference a few days can make. At the end of last week the only signs of vitality that I could detect were the small catkins of hazel and willow and the tight, but developing, buds of oak and hawthorn.
Today there is not a cloud in the sky and the frost is still on the ground in the shadow of the bushes and trees. Ice has formed on the standing pools of water and at least the paths are quite passable.
There is heat in the sun. I imagine it on the backs of a pair of ravens that circle, a hundred feet apart, rising upwards over our heads for more than a minute before they espy something and head off, wings almost touching, straight as an arrow, towards the Tor.
The sunshine has brought the birds to life. The cheering calls and songs of chaffinch, hedge sparrow and robin follow us around the whole common. It was interesting to see two robins, presumably a pair, sitting together on a branch only inches apart. For most of the year they are the epitome of solitary birds. I am sure we have all seen how aggressive they are to each other on the bird table.
Ulex europaeus, Gorse, 15.4.2010, Gibbet hill (2)The yellow of the gorse is the only flower to be seen, with its scent of coconut it is a reminder of the pleasure of the spring to come in a month or so.

January 2016
After the New Year period it feels imperative to get out and take more exercise, so a mid-afternoon break in the rain draws me out for a “lap” of the common. The cloud is still
low and it enables me to exclaim (yet again) “they have stolen Brentor Church”.
These are real wellington boot walking conditions. There are many patches of lying water along the paths and sections of heavy, sticky mud where walkers have created bypasses through the bracken in at least three places.
The mud does however give us an indication of what has been about. Prints range from the horseshoes of small ponies to those of the bigger steeds, paws of dogs of all sizes from my small Poppy upwards, a huge variety of peoples boots and shoes and hoof slots of deer.
Another indication of the presence of deer is the gnawing of the bark on a branch of gorse that had collapsed across the path due to the heavy wind and rain. The only birds to be seen were a pair of ravens passing high overhead blown hither and thither by the gusting wind, a few blackbirds scuffling in the hedge bottoms for whatever food they could find and carrion crows cawing in the tree tops. Their uniform black colour caught the atmosphere of the afternoon well.
When three quarters of the way around the ‘lap’ the rain returns to produce a damp, steady, plod back to the car. A glance across to the tor shows that the whole hill is now
enveloped in cloud. This made the return to a good fire and a mug of hot chocolate even more inviting.

December 2015
The recent cutting on the common is an attempt to create a patchwork habitat that will allow different areas to be at different stages of growth. This should be particularly good for fritillary butterflies with the improved conditions for violets, their main food plant. It will also add variety to the visual aspect of the common.
The winter birds are now here in force with the redwings and fieldfares moving from bush to bush along the hedgerows, plundering the hawthorn, holly and rowan berries. I have been surprised to see that on several occasions there have been more fieldfares than redwings as there are usually many more of the latter.
I am hoping that they do not manage to completely strip the holly bushes as some will be required for Xmas decorations. Those on the bushes in the valley below the common have already gone!
Another bird that increases in number at this time of year is the Woodcock they can sometimes be seen circling above the treetops as the light fades at dusk. The only other chance of seeing them is if you flush them from the grassy margins. They are like a snipe, but much larger with a heavier appearance, and they do not zig zag as they fly away.
As dusk falls the winter occurrence of parties of starlings passing overhead has been providing a bit of a puzzle. Usually they can clearly be seen to be heading westward to roost in the fir trees behind the army camp at Okehampton. However this year they are moving in an easterly direction, perhaps to the roost in the reed beds of Crowdy reservoir just beyond Davidstow Airfield on Bodmin Moor. Both of these roosts can contain up to half a million birds and are good places to observe the spectacular displays as they descend into their roosting perches.

November 2015
It is good to be able to walk two abreast along the bridleway after it has been cut by the local authority, a really good job that will make walking and riding during the winter months much more pleasant.
An early morning walk produced good numbers of all the more common bird species, wrens, hedge sparrows, and chaffinches seemingly all around. It was nice to see a pair of song thrushes . This is a bird that has suffered a big decline in recent years but now seems to be increasing in numbers again. Just opposite Whitstone farm, within the space of less than a minute, I saw a male bullfinch, a great tit and a yellowhammer. The plumage of these birds would not have been out of place in a tropical aviary.
The sombre autumn colour was only slightly relieved by some white yarrow and the sparse pale pink of campion and herb bennet. The fronds of ferns in the hedge banks were a fresh looking delicate green in contrast to the rather worn and faded shades in the rest of the hedge.
Finally, a rather special moment on Liddaton common, an adult female roe deer seemed to stand frozen in time. It was only twenty yards away and I counted 43 seconds before Poppy came out of the undergrowth and startled her to run off with another hind that I had not spotted. They bounded off across the common with the huge white patches under their tails showing up like flashing warning beacons.

October 2015
Travelling across the common recently, it was good to see the Kestrel again. This is a bird that we did not see for several years, but it has now returned as a regular visitor, it’s presence throughout the summer would indicate that it is breeding nearby. The Windhover as it is poetically known was demonstrating its skill to us as we drove past, it did not change position just hanging in the air with just a seemingly gentle flutter of its wingtips.
As travellers have done for hundreds of years we can now see our milestone where a bit of “gardening” has once again made it visible just opposite the big ash tree and a little way down the slope. We can all now be confident that it is only 6 miles to Tavistock.
The hazel has been very prolific this year. The cob nut crop is as heavy as I have ever seen. The squirrels will no doubt take the great majority of them as the debris on the roads under the overhanging branches clearly shows. I do however live in hope of collecting some ripe crunchy nuts in a few weeks time. Unfortunately we have to wait until they are ripe, if we pick them green they seem to shrivel as they turn brown off the tree.
It is good to see the trampled grass next to the blackberry bushes. A lot of people will be enjoying their blackberry and apple pies this year. I wonder how much of the massive sloe crop will be used for sloe gin. So easy and fool proof to make and so delicious to drink over the coming winter months.

September 2015
The bracken has had its annual rolling. This gradually decreases the strength of the plants and their ability to regenerate helpingour efforts to recreate the lowland heathhabitat which is so rare across both Devonand the whole of the UK.
Care has to be taken to protect our small areas of heather. The patch opposite the old ash tree is now in flower and the purple of the heather is mixed with the glorious gold of the gorse that is interwoven with it.  Another one of nature’s colour combinations that you would not think would work, but in the natural environment it really does.
It was nice to see several buff tailed bumble bees taking advantage of this nectar source.
Convolvulus is a plant that is at its best at the moment. Opposite the signpost the blackthorn is covered in their white blooms producing a quite spectacular show. In the
garden this is a plant that I really dislike, it swamps the raspberry canes and the runner
smell horrible. As a youngster in the Midlands I always knew it as stinkweed.
Bird life is very quiet this month but you can see family parties of various species. I have
seen Bullfinches, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and various tits. The variety of habitats on
the Common provides good environments for so many species. Unfortunately the nationally predicted influx of painted lady butterflies has not occurred, however there has been a generally good year for both variety and quantity. This month has seen a large hatching of Small Heath along with the Speckled Wood and Ringlets.

August 2015
On arriving on the common it was clear, by the number of swallows hawking overhead , that the humidity created by the sunshine and showers was bringing out the flying insects. Up to six willow warblers were dashing around in the tops of three hawthorn bushes and it was only when I looked through my binoculars that I could see a dense swarm of gnats above them and that they were acting like demented flycatchers.
The crops of red berries on both the hawthorn and rowan will not be much use to humans but will provide a great food source for the soon to be arriving winter visiting birds, especially redwing and fieldfare.
The patch of ground behind the signpost is putting on a great show of magenta rose bay willow herb. This plant that is a great indicator of disturbed ground, famously on the bomb sites after the London blitz. They are just now starting to set seed and any wind will now produce a snowstorm of white seed heads. In this area are also to be found thistles, knapweed and valerian all adding to a red/purple palette.
Walking along to Liddaton Common I was struck by the lack of water in the pond, I don’t think I have ever seen it as low. The road here was edged with white bindweed and the common purple vetch giving a quite different character to this commom.

July 2015
The rather cool spring has meant that the bluebells have continued to flower for much longer, to produce a really memorable display. Among the carpets of bluebells across much of the common it is interesting to see odd small patches of white bells, particularly across the central swath of Bowden down. These do not seem to be garden escapes as they are so far from any habitation.
This white colouration is reflected in the predominant colour of the emerging summer blooms. The road sides are all smothered with cow parsley and the paths are still edged with the brilliance of the stitchwort. Other white flowers include the may blossom, yarrow, bedstraw, and pignut.
I suspect it is the pignut that is responsible for the regular areas of ground that has been grubbed up. Most probably this is the badgers work as they search out the crunchy swollen roots that give the plant its name.
Birds continue to give a good account of themselves with their song, but as nesting has now begun, it is not so intense. It is still possible to recognise the sound of their contact calls such as the tac tac of the robin and the tzeeet note of the chaffinch.
As the summer really develops we will see the bracken start to cover much of the common. The Commons Trust carries out a programme of cutting and rolling to gradually reduce this overpowering presence.

June 2015
Silene dioica, Red Campion, Brentor 23.06.2010 (2)I find it difficult to imagine any designer can come up with a better colour combination than that of the bluebell and the pink campion. Both flowers are now in full bloom, often adjacent to each other to each other, providing my favourite display of spring.
It is interesting to consider the abundance of bluebells , especially the western part of Liddaton Common. This would indicate that these areas were heavily wooded at some time in the past. The bluebell is truly a flower of old English woodland although our records from the Common’s Trust give us no indication of this.
A single Roe deer bounding from the area of the “ash tree” was a pleasant surprise today. It went over to the reinstated bridle path where we noticed deer droppings when we were carrying out some coppicing recently.
A large patch of wild raspberries along the track to Brimacombe farm gives us something to look out for next month. They will go nicely with the, also present, wild strawberries. Even if it only a small handful as a taster.

May 2015
Violets have put on really good show this year. Along with the wild strawberries they light up the hedges, but only on the sunny side of the road or path. Between Bowden and Liddaton commons they are abundant on the right hand side but almost totally absent from the left.
I have heard the drumming of the great spotted woodpecker close to the old mine workings on the far side of Bowden, but more interestingly the laughing call of the yaffle” or green woodpecker at Liddaton crossroads. This is a bird that I have not seen or heard for several years. Let’s hope it is here to stay. Listen out for the quite loud and characteristic, almost human sounding, laughing sound in any sparsely wooded area.
Nationally last year was really good for butterflies, so it is nice to see that the hot Easter weather brought out the orange tips, peacock tortoishell and brimstone in profusion again. I was very impressed by a pair of speckled wood butterflies involved in an aerial dogfight just a few feet in front of me. They were spiralling around each other so closely and rapidly that they looked like a floating tennis ball. This carried on for at least a minute.
Chiffchaffs were as usual the first summer visitors to arrive making their presence felt with their chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff song. After more than a week, suddenly the common was alive with a ‘fall’ of willow warblers with perhaps 20 birds singing there delightful cascade of liquid sound, so much the sound of summer.

April 2015
After some really soggy weather it was a pleasure to take an early morning walk on one of the spring like days that are starting to come along. Where do the midges come from? As soon as the sun appears there they are hovering in a cloud over the footpath, they seem to arrive fully formed in just a few hours. The song birds have now come into their own, there are wrens, chaffinches, robins and hedge sparrows in full song everywhere on the common.
The yellowhammer is a favourite of mine. There are two territories close to the big solitary ash tree and their song of “A little bit of bread and no cheese” is so clear, drawing attention to the canary yellow males who always sing from the top of a bush or the telephone wire for all to see. When they started singing for a few days there was only “A little bit of bread” as if they were just warming up.
Ranunculus ficaria, Lesser celandine, 24.03.2007 (2)Yellow is also to be found with the celandines that are now fully out and giving a welcome splash of brilliant shiny flowers in the hedge bottoms and path sides. More yellow is to be found at the foot of the signpost on Bowden Common. Whoever planted these daffodils several years ago has provided this corner with a cheerful and anticipated sight for all to see.

March 2015
A party from the Commons Trust have been carrying out some coppicing and canopy clearance during the recent cold weather. We had a pair of goldcrest characteristically swinging upside down as they foraged above our heads while several robins were keen to search the ground where our activities had disturbed the leaf litter.
Several mounds of deer droppings indicated that this was an area that the Roe deer used to rest up. On leaving the coppicing team I was walking across the middle of the common when a large dog fox slowly wandered in front of me. I had the sun behind me so Reynard sauntered along, caught a vole and chomped it in front of my eyes.
Fresh molehills can be found in many areas, and rabbits are often spotted when driving across the common. It is good to know that the larger mammals are thriving.
A large gull glided above us. This was a lesser black backed gull moving from its roosting area, where up to several hundred birds rest on Roadford Lake. The birds can often be seen passing over on the way down to the coast to feed and back again in the evening.
Plant life is thriving even in this cold spell. In the hedge bottoms the wall pennywort, dogs mercury and primroses among many others are already well on the way to their spring blooming.

February 2015
The ‘Deep Midwinter’ has arrived. It is such a pleasure to crunch along the iron hard rutted paths and see Poppy the dog throwing up a spray of glittering frost as she gambols through the frozen vegetation. It is difficult to imagine that the wildlife can survive such conditions but the disturbed ground created by badgers and rabbits is clear to see as they have rooted up the grass alongside the path edges.
New Year’s day saw a different weather with the strong winds blowing the clouds along at a great rate of knots. Ravens seem to delight in these conditions . Several pairs were showing their consummate flying skills giving aerial displays during the whole walk. All other birds kept to the shelter of the bushes with only occasional calls to each other indicating their whereabouts.
Looking closely into the undergrowth we can already see the signs of spring to come. Bluebell bulbs are starting to force their way through the leaf litter and many of the bushes, particularly the oak, are developing buds along their stems.
Next month, a look into the Liddaton pond will let us see the frogspawn that really tells us that the new year’s life cycle has really begun.

December 2014
The leaves have now almost completely gone from the trees and shrubs, on the oak trees the oak apples are now clear to see. These are the growths produced by the tree in response to the eggs of the oak gall wasp. When we see them now the grubs have hatched and burrowed out to leave a little black hole in the brown outer covering. Much of the wild fruit has now been devoured by the redwings and fieldfares. The holly berries are completely gone and the hawthorn is starting to look rather depleted.
Walking around, it is good to see the robins and wrens are busy foraging along the path edges where the ground has been disturbed. Surrounding bushes are home to a variety of finches and tits with our resident yellowhammers adding a real splash of colour.
As the real cold weather starts to come in we should be able to see some snipe in the rushy areas and in the central grassy spaces. Look out for them zig-zagging as they fly away if you (or the dog) disturb them. Another hard weather visitor is the brambling, very similar to a chaffinch but with a prominent white rump. They like to feed on the fallen beech masts, a good place is the entrance to Rowden farm (200 m before the signpost coming from Brentor) and in the area around Wingletang on the way to Tavistock. Up to twenty chaffinches and perhaps one or two brambling often scatter as you drive past. Just look for the white rump.

November 2014
It was very special to see the sun making the dead bracken fronds light up with a golden glow reflected by the yellows of the gorse flowers and the autumn leaves of beech and birch. The people of Brentor have been using the common;  walking their dogs, riding their horses and collecting the autumn bounty of blackberries and sloes (there are still some left). All this effort helps to keep the footpaths in a much better condition than they were a few years ago.
The rough weather we have been having recently has brought the crow family  into greater prominence. The ravens and carrion crows seem to ride the strong winds with skill and enjoyment. Parties of rooks are always in the area collectively foraging in the surrounding fields; magpies can be seen at all times and jays have been quite frequent recently collecting acorns and storing them away for harder times to come.
We have not had any frosts yet and there are still a few flowers to be spied, the blushed white yarrow is along the path edges and a few pink campions are to be found in the hedge bottoms. I am looking forward to some really cold weather. There is nothing to beat the glistening newness of early morning frosts, making everything seem so fresh. They are the real harbinger of the winter soon to come.

October 2014
It has been good to see birds of prey on the commons. We first saw a pair of peregrine falcons making a lot of noise while they careered around over the tall trees at the top of the common, they were probably a pair of young birds, calling for food from their parents. This was followed by a sighting of a kestrel hovering over the main part of Bowden and then settling on a telegraph pole, where it seemed to be still hunting but without expending as much energy. We then saw a pair of buzzards soaring over Liddaton, a true sight of the Devon countryside.
Many trees are now shedding their leaves. I was interested to see that many of the hawthorn have already completely lost their leaves while still maintaining a really heavy crop of berries. The wonderful autumn weather has meant that there is still a good number of speckled wood and red admiral to add interest to our walks.
I spoke too soon, autumn has now really arrived, it is however still very enjoyable to walk the common with the bracing wind and air stirring the soul.
What has not been so good was the discovery of fly tipping of some builders waste on Bowden, we also had a similar event last year on Liddaton. This means that a work party will have to be organised to clear up the unsightly mess.

September 2014
On arriving on the common it was clear, by the number of swallows hawking overhead , that the humidity created by the sunshine and showers was bringing out the flying insects. Up to six willow warblers were dashing around in the tops of three hawthorn bushes and it was only when I looked through my binoculars that I could see a dense swarm of gnats above them and that they were acting like demented flycatchers.
The crops of red berries on both the hawthorn and rowan will not be much use to humans but will provide a great food source for the soon to be arriving winter visiting birds, especially redwing and fieldfare.
590-9050_IMGThe patch of ground behind the signpost is putting on a great show of magenta rose bay willow herb. This plant that is a great indicator of disturbed ground, famously on the bomb sites after the London blitz. They are just now starting to set seed and any wind will now produce a snowstorm of white seed heads. In this area are also to be found thistles, knapweed and valerian all adding to a red/purple palette.
Walking along to Liddaton Common I was struck by the lack of water in the pond, I don’t think I have ever seen it as low. The road here was edged with white bindweed and the common purple vetch giving a quite different character to this common.

August 2014
What a difference the rolling of the bracken makes to the centre part of the common. The Commons Trust arranges for this to be done annually to reduce the vigour of the bracken now that it is not possible to safely graze stock. It would be wonderful if we were ever able to raise funds for cattle grids to enable grazing to start up again.
It is starting to look like a good year for wild fruit with our hoped for large crop of sloes now becoming apparent. There will be more than enough for the whole of Brentor to make sloe gin! Blackberries are abundant, let’s hope the quality will be good and that they are not too ‘flyblown’.
The path along the Chillaton road continues to put on a colourful show with bright yellow tormentil low down and the purple betony a foot or so high creating a border. As we walked along a day flying magpie moth was keeping us entertained by flitting about continuously making it difficult to get a really clear identification. Further round at the edge of the track to Burcombe farm there was a continuous border of silverweed providing yet another texture and colour to enjoy.
It was good to see family parties of both linnet and bullfinch. Buzzards are regularly seen often being harassed by crows and ravens.
Next month many of our migrant birds will be starting to leave us and of course the trees will be starting to change colour as they also prepare for the onset of autumn.

June 2014
It is clearly moving from spring to summer and it is good to hear the short jingle jangle of the whitethroat on both Bowden, around the ash tree, and Liddaton just below the pond.
The spring colours have faded and the common is a sea of green grass and bracken that is at least a meter high. It is nice to see the trees that we planted two years are now showing above the grasses. There are highlights of white with the brambles, elderflower, clover and dog roses along the roadsides and paths.  We look forward to plentiful blackberries and elderberries in the autumn.
An evening walk along the back path (on the Brentor side of the common) brings a family of linnets on the telephone wires, it’s good to see this sign of breeding success. A song thrush sings its repeated phrases continually while the air is filled with scent of honeysuckle.
P1110275 (2)On a later sultry afternoon walk around the perimeter of Bowden with spectacular thunder and lightning gradually moving  from Dartmoor towards me there was a good showing of insects. Butterflies included meadow brown, small tortoiseshell, ringlet and lots of red admiral including three that were having a continual dog fight spiralling high above my head. It was not so nice to be continually swatting away the horseflies but the sight of some daytime flying chimneysweep moths, which feed on the abundant pignut plant, made it worthwhile. Look out for these small jet black moths low down in the long grass at the side of the paths.

May 2014
569-6959_IMGAfter a spring of chill and rain we have had the most wonderful show of bluebells and hawthorn blossom. Anyone who has driven or walked across the common over the past couple of weeks, especially at evening , will have been rewarded with the a carpet of the best blue you could imagine. Now we have the white froth of the pignut and the fronds of the bracken coming through with patches of buttercups to add a real splash of colour.

What can we now expect over the coming weeks? With some hoped for summer sunshine we can expect a good show of butterflies. Already the speckled wood are flitting around  as you walk along the paths; let’s hope for some good numbers of pearl bordered fritillary, one of our specialities.

Look out for the yellowhammers and linnets which have now raised their first broods and are  easily seen as they move around feeding them. The lovely sound of the willow warblers descending scale and the onomatopoeic sound of the chiffchaff can be heard at any part of the common. Any walk around can guarantee some exciting natural history, so get out there.

Barry Albrighton


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