Helpston’s Wildlife & Fauna

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I guess it is a subjective judgment but the male bullfinch with his bright red front and white rump must be one of the most stunning of our local birds.

I was very interested to see that the bullfinch has been down-graded in terms of its population status from a red-listed bird (highest conservation concern) to an amber (unfavourable conservation status) bird.

This positive change reflects my own very unscientific observation that there seem to be more of them around than in previous years, with birds regularly heard in Royce Wood and as ever very common at the Hanglands.

You do hear bullfinches much more often than you see them – a very distinctive thin whistle is the sound to listen for – and they can be surprisingly inconspicuous given the bright colours of the male.

I asked Chris Hughes, who rings for the BTO at our Bainton Heath reserve if this perceived increase was in line with his own findings and he produced the following data about the number of bullfinch ringed on the reserve since 2003.

2003 – 44
2004 – 54
2005 – 28
2006 – 56
2007 – 52
2008 – 31
2009 – 52

Which suggests a fairly stable population, with an interesting dip on a three year cycle. It doesn’t though indicate any particular increase in population, although I would stick by my own observation that they do seem to be around in good numbers this year.

Historically bullfinch numbers have declined considerably in recent years, so it is good that they appear to be doing well. In the past the bird was so common that it was an official pest species, with a notorious reputation for eating the buds of fruit trees.

It also traditionally has a reputation as a caged song-bird. Birds were trapped and taught to whistle in tune with a special bird flute. As a result of their readiness to comply with this training, the word bullfinch was historically slang for a fool or simpleton!

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Corn Bunting

Corn Bunting
One of the more unusual breeding birds around Helpston is the corn bunting.

This very dumpy and rather drab bird also has a truly uninspiring song – it sounds something like a set of keys being repeatedly jangled [click to listen]. So ugly bloke, poor chat up lines – but clearly beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder as the male corn bunting is polygamous, keeping a close eye on up to seven females in his territory and ensuring that whilst he sings (badly) away from the middle of the corn fields, they get on with the routine of raising the young.

This strange looking and strange sounding bird can be regularly found in the fields east of the Maxey Road and also turned up in 2004 at the top of King Street. During 2010 a male was singing along the south side of the Maxey Cut.

John Clare called the Corn Bunting the ground lark and celebrated it in verse

Close where the milking maidens pass
In roots and twitches drest
Within a little bunch of grass
A groundlark made her nest
The maiden touched her with her gown
And often frit her out
And looked and set her buckets down
But never found it out
The eggs where large and spotted round
And dark as is the fallow ground
The schoolboy kicked the grass in play
But danger never guest
And when they came to mow the hay
They found an empty nest

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Goosanders are regular visitors to Maxey Pits in winter and can often be seen flying up and down the Maxey Cut. Up to 30 birds have been seen gathering to roost on the reed bed pit at Maxey Pits although numbers have reduced in recent years.

The goosander is a striking bird – it is almost the size of a small goose, has a long hooked bill with serrated edges (hence the name sawbill) which allows it to grasp its favourite food – small fish – easily.

It is also an interesting species too. The goosander first started breeding in this country in 1871 and has since spread as far south as Derbyshire. Interestingly it nests in holes – sometimes in trees, but also in rabbit burrows and nest boxes. Most nests are close to fast flowing rivers in upland areas.

Until quite recently there was something of a mystery about the goosander. The vast majority of males disappeared every year in June and reappeared in October – no one knew where they went.

They have now been discovered – congregating around four fjords in the far north of Norway. The males fly there every year to moult, leaving the females to raise the chicks.

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Quail & Corncrake

Quail & Corncrake
The calls of the quail [click to listen] and the corncrake or land-rail [click to listen] were very familiar to John Clare.

While in the juicy corn the hidden quail
Cries ‘wet my foot’ and hid as thoughts unborn
The fairy like and seldom-seen land-rail
Utters ‘craik craik’ like voices underground,
Right glad to meet the evening’s dewy veil
And see the light fade into glooms around.

Both were common birds of the open fields, but equally both were seldom seen. Clare wrote:

‘The quail is almost as much of a mystery in the summer landscape and comes with the green corn like the [land-rail], tho it is seen more often and is more easily urged to take wing it makes an odd noise in the grass as if it said ‘wet my foot wet my foot’ which Weeders and Haymakers hearken to as a prophecy of rain’

Both of these birds are migrants. Unusually quail that breed in northern Europe in the summer include some young birds hatched earlier in the year at more southerly latitudes. Their habitat of migrating across the Mediterranean and making land fall at dawn in North Africa, has made them very easy to catch in large numbers using long nets set parallel to the coast. Historic reports record catches of two million quail in 1897!

Both the quail and the corncrake have been affected by the changing face of the countryside. Modern agricultural techniques leave few undisturbed habitats for these birds to nest in and they are no longer found locally. The quail is still occasionally heard in the region, but the corncrake has disappeared from most of England, although the RSPB has recently started a re-introduction programme on the Nene Washes, near Whittlesey and four calling males were heard there in the summer of 2006.

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If Clare would miss the calls of the quail and corncrake from today’s countryside, he might also wonder at the call of the red-legged or French partridge [click to listen], which wasn’t introduced to this country until 1790, and probably hadn’t reached Cambridgeshire during Clare’s lifetime. This game bird is now a common sight and sound on fields around Helpston, particularly during the shooting season, when many birds are put down for game, and coveys of twenty or more are not unusual. At times they even venture into village gardens.

The native grey partridge [click to listen] is much less common these days around Helpston (although one or two pairs can still be found each year) and indeed it overall population has fallen dramatically in recent years. Clare was certainly familiar with this game bird, writing

They are often found by pasture boys at play
And by the weeders often taen away
The boys will often throw the eggs abroad
And stay and play at blind eggs on the road

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Grasshopper Warbler

Grasshopper Warbler
If you visit Castor Hanglands at dusk in late April or throughout May, you will hear one of local nature’s most distinctive sounds – the loud, reeling of the male grasshopper warbler (click link to hear), singing from dense vegetation.

Clare described hearing the grasshopper warblers one night in April 1825

Heard the cricket bird of grasshopper bunting last night making its odd chittering noise. It exactly resembles the noise that children make with their screekers as they are called – and it continues for a minute together before it stops and then starts agen.

Recent years have seen record numbers of grasshopper warblers locally. In 2004 there were at least 18 singing males, mainly found in the large area of new planting to the east of Castor Hanglands, just off the Ailsworth Road. The new plantation at the Hanglands is perfect habitat for them – hence the increase in numbers. As the plantation grows it will become less suitable and their numbers will fall again – but hopefully we have a few years yet to listen out for them.

The gropper (as it is known by ardent bird watchers) is a very secretive migrant bird. They arrive from winter quarters in Africa towards the end of April and can be heard singing alongside nightingales throughout May and early June at both Castor Hanglands and Bainton pits. But, just like the nightingale too, they are very seldom seen. They feed in the undergrowth, mouse like, rarely flying -why would you if you have to fly to Africa and back every year!

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Devil's Coach Horse Beetle

Devil’s Coach Horse Beetle
A strange looking – but relatively common – beetle that turned up at Swaddywell recently (under a sheet of corrugated iron left behind from the days of the race track) is the strangely named Devil’s Coach Horse.

In mythology this beetle was a symbol of corruption, apparently able to kill on sight! It is said that it appears after meeting with the devil and that it will eat sinners!!

In fact it is a rove beetle, a carnivore and a scavenger, feeding on spiders and smaller beetles.

It defends itself by raising its tail and squirting two nauseous smelling chemicals from its glands whilst snapping its jaws!!

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Wild Carrot

Wild Carrot
Forget the home grown variety in your vegetable patch, the large white and pink umbellifer that flowers in profusion at Swaddywell Pit is the ancestor of all the modern varieties – although the wild one is unfortunately inedible!

In the 16th century a concoction of its red flowers was thought to be a great remedy for the ‘falling disease’ what we know today as epilepsy. In the next century it was used as medicine for such illnesses as stitch, kidney stones and dropsy.

The herbalist, Nicholas Cullpeper considered them beneficial too to expectant mothers, advising that wild carrot could help conception when boiled in wine!

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Water Rail

Water Rail
The water rail is a small member of the rail family, related to both the moorhen and the corncrake.  It likes nothing more than to poke around with its long beak in the margins of dykes and in thick vegetation, particularly reed.

John Clare described the water ‘craik’ as ‘very scarce here but has been seen and its nest found’.  That scarcity probably relates to the lack of wetland around Helpston in the nineteenth century following the drainage of the fens.

Today there is much more suitable habitat around the village, created by the gravel workings of previous decades.  Both Bainton and Maxey pits are good places to try to find the water rail. They can occasionally be seen at dusk prodding around for food along the banks of the Maxey Cut. They are regularly sighted too at Swaddywell Pit. More often their strange pig-like grunts and squeals can be heard at dusk at all these sites.

Strangely this usually timid and insectivorous bird can sometimes turn predator, using its long stiletto-like beak to impale its prey or to seize it and drown it!!

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Saw Sedge

Saw Sedge
Not only is saw sedge a very graceful plant – i.e. it looks good – it is also quite rare locally. A recent book on the flowers of Huntingdonshire and Peterborough has no records of saw sedge from Peterborough so its presence at Swaddywell is quite significant.

It is also an interesting plant. Known as saw or great fen sedge its leaves are sharply serrated and will give you a nasty cut if you aren’t careful. It was, previously, the most popular variety of sedge used to cap a roof of thatched reed. Sedge was used for capping as reed is dry and brittle and will snap if bent. The leaves of the saw sedge are pliable but still very strong.

The poorer cuts of saw sedge were used to thatch hay risk and sometimes stacks of drying peat. Unlike reed, saw sedge is normally harvested in the summer and used to provide alternative employment for men who cut reed in the winter.

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Red Kite

Red Kite
John Clare would have been familiar with red kites (or paddock) soaring over the village and nesting in Royce Wood.

The sailing paddock sweeps about for prey
And keeps above the woods from day to day
They make a nest so large in woods remote
Would fill a womans apron with the sprotes
And schoolboys daring doing tasks the best
Will often climb and stand upon the nest

The name paddock is probably a corruption of puttock or paddock, which means swooper.

Kites are regularly seen over Helpston today. But in the intervening century kites were extinct in this area. Indeed following persecution throughout the nineteenth century, the nearest kites to Helpston and the only ones left in Britain, were in central Wales.

Kites have now returned to the area following an introduction programme in neighbouring Northamptonshire, part of a nation-wide project, which has resulted in a major expansion of the kite’s range and in its numbers.

The first kites for 150 years returned to breed in Cambridgeshire in 2004 and can now be seen regularly flying over the villages west of Peterborough and over Swaddywell Pit.

Red kites feed on carrion, often feeding on road-kill such as pheasants and rabbits. 

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Little Owl

Little Owl
The little owl [click to listen] is a common bird locally, but interestingly is not a native species and nor is it a species that John Clare would have heard.

It was introduced to England back in the late 1870’s. One of the places it was first released was on the estates of Lord Lilford near Oundle, where it first bred in 1889.

Several pairs nest locally – the Green Way, near Maxham’s Cottage, and the area around Woodcroft and along the Maxey Road are the best places to see them or to hear their eerie cat like calls at dusk. A pair has nested regularly in recent years in a barn owl nest box north of the South Cut, Etton.

I had forgotten how small
It is, the Liitle Owl –
Melting into the bark
Of the great field oak

Forgotten too its stare
A yellow blinkless glare:
And the grip it perches by –
Clenching a whole tree.

Peter Walton, from The Cheerfulness of Sparrows and other poems | Shoestring Press

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Spindle Tree

Spindle Tree
One of the great sights of autumn in the local woods and hedgerows is the spindle tree.

A relatively small and unassuming tree for most of the year, the spindle comes into its own in October as its distinctive pink-red fruits stand out amongst its dark red leaves. There is a tall and very beautiful spindle in the meadow of the Blacklands reserve, opposite Castor Hanglands, and a number of others along the western edge of Royce Wood.

The white wood of the spindle has been used from ancient times for making – yes you guessed it, spindles! The ‘spinsters’, usually unmarried girls, held raw wool in one hand and rotated it onto a spindle with the other. The wood of the spindle was also known as skewerwood and pegwood – indicating its other uses.

Previously the powdered leaves and seeds of the spindles were dusted onto the skin of children and animals to drive away lice.

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Tree Sparrow

Tree Sparrow
Similar to a house sparrow in appearance, the tree sparrow [click to listen] has become, in recent years, a distinctive feature of Helpston’s bird life.

A once common bird of hedge and field, John Clare wrote about tree sparrows noting:

Henderson saw a pair of tree sparrows agen open wood they are very like the house sparrows but smaller. They build in old willow trees and make a nest and lay eggs very like the others but they never haunt the villages.

Tree sparrows suffered a catastrophic 90% decline in population during the 1980s and 1990s, probably due to agricultural intensification, although there is evidence that this bird has historically had a boom and bust population.

More recently the population has bounced back somewhat nationally with Helpston becoming a particular stronghold for this bird locally. A small flock of 10 birds appeared at Swaddywell Pit in 2002 and there were over 60 there in the winter of 2004/5 and between 60-80 in 2005/6.

And contrary to John Clare, there is also now a small breeding population in the village itself with birds coming regularly to garden feeders. Tree sparrows take readily to nest boxes and can raise up to three broods of young each year, although their nests are some of the messiest you can find.

Interestingly although tree sparrows are seed eaters during the winter, they raise their young mainly on insects.

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Lapwing or Peewit

Lapwing or Peewit

They are as common as crows here in spring.

Peewits are easily tamed and are often kept in gardens were they are said to do much good by destroying the slugs and worms on which they feed.

Quite a lot has changed around Helpston since Clare wrote those words in the early nineteenth century. Lapwings are no longer ‘as common as crows’, indeed in spring their distinctive swooping courtship display can usually only be heard [click to listen] in the fields around Swaddywell and Castor Hanglands and occasionally around Steeping Wood. In 2008 three pairs established territorities near Swaddywell, with young appearing in late May.

Lapwing are more common in winter when large flocks gather on the flat fields between Helpston, Maxey and Etton and birds can often be seen flying over the villages. In the late 1990s flocks of several thousand were present in this area. More recently numbers have declined and in 2006 the highest count was just over one thousand birds.

And – to the best of our knowledge – there is no recent evidence of anyone in Helpston taming a peewit and keeping it in their garden to eat slugs and worms!

The pewet hollos chewsit as she flyes
And flops about the shepherd where he lies
But when her nest is found she stops her song
And cocks [her] coppled crown and runs along

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The woodcock is a strange bird. It looks a lot like a fat over sized snipe, with its mottled plumage and long beak. But is ‘strangeness’ is not so much its appearance, but what is does and what it might do!

At dusk in spring the male woodcock emerges from its home in the woods and starts an eerie display flight (known as ‘roding’) across the tops of trees and over adjacent fields. Fluttering its wings and croaking gruffly as if flies [click to listen].

John Clare doesn’t seem to have had much knowledge of woodcocks, stating in one of his letters,

I have seen odd ones here till the beginning of May and I often thought that such never went away but bred here.

At that time the woodcock was probably a rare breeding bird across most of England.

During much of the last 100 years, however, woodcock were relatively common breeding birds in the woods around Helpston. Villagers report them ‘roding’ over Royce Wood and across the gardens on Heath Road and there were in the region of 10-20 pairs in Castor Hanglands in the 1970’s. As late as 2001 they were a common sight at the Hanglands but in 2004 and 2005 there were no reports of ‘roding’ birds at all.

Woodcock are still fairly common in winter when they are often flushed at dawn and dusk from ditches and woodland, including Royce Wood, Castor Hanglands and Swaddywell Pit. These birds are probably migrants from Scandinavia rather than resident breeding birds.

Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread

As to what it might do, there are many stories of female woodcock picking up their young between their legs and carrying them to safety when disturbed.

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The weary woodman rocking home beneath
His tightly banded faggot wonders oft
While crossing over the furze-crowded heath
To hear the fern owl’s cry that whews aloft

The nightjar or fern owl was a feature of the night time landscape for John Clare and particularly, he records, of his ‘love rambles’. ‘This bird was one of her [Patty – his wife] curositys .

It very often startld me with its odd nosie which was a dead thin whistling sort of sound which I fancied was the whistle call of robbers for it was much like the sound of a man whistling in fear of being hear.

They were commonly found on Emmingsails heath, where their distinctive song would have been a feature of spring evenings [click to listen].

Nightjars haven’t bred locally for quite some time, although odd birds have been seen in the area, for instance at Castor Hanglands in 1979. However, the nightjar population is on the increase generally across England and there is plenty of good habitat for them still at the Hanglands, so perhaps they may return in the future.

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Blue, Great, Coal, Marsh and Long-tailed Tits

Blue, Great, Coal, Marsh and Long-tailed Tits
Helpston’s woods and gardens provide homes for five species of tit, all of which come readily to bird tables and feeders during the winter and all, bar the long-tailed tit, frequently use the nest boxes in Royce Wood.

The long-tailed tit was know to Clare as the ‘bumarrel and in Yorkshire [it is called] the pudding bag’. He wrote:

The oddling bush close shelterd – hedge new plashd
Of which springs early likeing makes a guest
First with a shade of green though winter dashed
There full as soon bumbarrels make a nest
Of mosses grey with cobwebs closely tyed
And warm and rich as feather bed within
With little hole on its contrary side

The marsh tit was a bird that Clare noted but didn’t recognise,

a little nameless bird with a black head and olvie green back and wings – not known – it seems to peck the Ivy berries for its food… I fancy it is of the tribe of the Tit mice.

Another species of tit, the willow tit, used to breed in Royce Wood, but has not been seen for some time, part of a catastrophic decline in numbers across England.

All five species of tit have distinctive calls. [click below to listen]

Long-tailed tit
Blue tit
Great tit
Marsh tit
Coal tit

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Barn Owl

Barn Owl
The barn owl is a distinctive bird if it is seen hunting just before dark in the fields north of Helpston. It also has a very distinctive call [click to listen] earning it the name of screech owl.

Barn owls still breed around Helpston. Over the last few years they have mainly been found to the north of the village and they can be seen hunting along Maxey Road at any time of year.

In 2007, however, they returned to two locations south of the village – occupying both new and old sites – and being seen hunting around Royce Wood in the evening.

In remains to be seen how well they will prosper in these new haunts – the extreme rain fall in June and July 2007 will have made it very difficult for them to successfully raise young, as barn owls, with their very fine, easily water-logged feathers, cannot hunt in wet conditions.

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Dunnock or Hedge Sparrow

Dunnock or Hedge Sparrow

The tame hedge sparrow in its russet dress
Is half a robin for its gentle ways
And the bird loving dame can do no less
Than throw it out a crumble on the coldest days.

The dunnock [click to listen] remains a common garden bird in Helpston. It is not a sparrow at all, but rather the only British member of the accentor family.

On the continent it is an elusive and rarely seen bird. In Britain it is certainly not a showy bird, but is nevertheless easily seen as it feeds unobtrusively on the ground, never on bird feeders, often rummaging around underneath trees and bushes.

But don’t be taken in by this lack of external show.

The dunnock’s personal life is nothing if not racey and you may want to consider whether you want them in your garden after all!

Its mating system includes a good deal of partner swapping and embraces, as Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey note in ‘Birds Britannica’, ‘polygyny (two females with a single male), polyandry (a female with two or three males) and polygynandry (two or three males sharing two, three or even four females)! Dunnocks mate more frequently than has been recorded for any other small bird – once or twice an hour over a 10 day period.

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Whitethroat & Lesser Whitethroat

Whitethroat & Lesser Whitethroat
John Clare wrote that the whitethroat is ‘a bird little know celebrated for its song which often imitates the nightingale in variety and loudness’.

The happy white throat on the sweeing bough
Swayed by the impulse of the gadding wind
That ushers in the showers of april – now
Singeth right joyously and now reclined
Croucheth and clingeth to her moving seat
To keep her hold and till the wind for rest
Pauses she mutters inward melody
That seems her hearts rich thinkings to repeat
And when the branch is still her little breast
Swells out in ratures gushing symphonies

The whitethroat is quite probably the commonest of our summer migrants around Helpston. This member of the warbler family can be heard singing loudly from any patch of hedgerow, throwing itself up in the air to deliver its scratchy song [click to listen]. The road between Woodcroft Castle and Maxham’s Cottage is a particularly good place to find them, but they can also be heard along Maxey Road and at Swaddywell. In 1969 the whitethroat population collapsed completely following an extensive drought in its wintering areas south of the Sahara. Numbers have been recovering ever since.

Its relative the Lesser Whitethroat is less common, but also has a distinctive song, a dry rattle emanating from the depths of large hedgerows [click to listen]. This is one of those birds that is more often heard than seen. A male can be heard singing in the summer in the fields behind the Heath Road paddock. Other regular breeding sites are at Steeping Wood, Bainton, Maxey and Swaddywell Pits as well as the Hanglands.

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Bee Orchid

Bee Orchid
Look out for bee orchids on the top field at Swaddywell Pit during June. Each flower of this plan looks like a bumble bee. The idea is to attract a real bee in order to bring about pollination, but strangely this elaborate ploy is a bit redundant as bee orchids pollinate without the help of bees anyway.

Bee orchids vary in numbers enormously from year to year. The population at Swaddywell returned when the land fill site was capped and the original top soil was pulled back across the site.

John Clare wrote about the bee orchid in a poem dedicated to Swordy Well.

I’ve loved thee Swordy Well and love thee still
Long was I with thee tending sheep and cow
In boyhood ramping up each steepy hill
To play at ‘roly poly’ down – and now
A man I trifle o’er thee cares to kill
Haunting thy mossy steeps to botanize
And hunt the orchis tribes where nature’s skill
Doth like my thoughts run into phantasys
Spider and bee all mimicking at will…

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Six Spot Burnet Moth

Six Spot Burnet Moth
This strikingly coloured moth can be found on the grassland sites around Helpston, including both Swaddywell Pit and Castor Hanglands. The moths have three pairs of red spots on each wing and fly during the day.

All burnet moths are extremely poisonous. Their bodies contain cyanide derivatives which are formed by the caterpillar from its food plants, stored up and passed on to the moth. These act as a deterrent to birds which learn to reject the moths as a food source.

Six spot burnets live in colonies and lay their eggs on the leaves of the birds foot trefoil.

How the moth got its name is unclear. The name burnet usually means dark brown, from the French burnette. It is also the name of a number of wild flowers, including salad burnet. Equally it may derive from the association of the moth’s red spots with burning.

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Hawk Moths

Hawk Moths
The sight of a privet hawk moth caught in a moth trap (all moths are released and suffer no harm) never ceases to create both surprise and awe. These are seriously big moths, fitting neatly into the palm of an adult hand.

The privet hawk moth bears the scientific name Spinx after the way it rests with its wings closed over its body, like the winged monster in Greek mythology. The caterpillar burrows into the ground to form a chrysalis nearly 6 inches into the soil, where it may remain dormant for up to two years.

Four species of hawk moths are resident around Helpston – privet, poplar, elephant and pine. The caterpillar of the striking elephant hawk moth can retract its head into its body when threatened, causing the front of the body to swell up like an elephant.

In some years, these resident hawk moths are joined by the migratory hummingbird hawk moth. The hot summer of 2003 produced many records of these wonderful moths in gardens around the village. Like the hummingbird it feeds by inserting its long tongue deep into flowers. It seems to particularly like red flowers, such as valerian.

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Beautiful China Mark

Beautiful China Mark
The beautiful china mark is a small moth that can be found in the reeds at the edge of the main pond at Swaddywell in the summer moths.

Unusually the larvae of this species of moth are aquatic. Most moths at the larval stage take the form of the more familiar caterpillar, feeding on plants and grasses. The larvae of the chinamarks live in the ponds feeding on aquatic vegetation.

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Brown Hare

Brown Hare
Hares are relatively common around Helpston. They are frequently seen along the Woodcroft-Marholm Road, particularly around Steeping Wood, and also at Swaddywell, Castor Hanglands and in the fields along the Maxey Road (literally, one was seen running straight down the middle of the road in 2002).

Hares can occasionally be seen actually in the village itself.

John Clare captured the spirit of the hare in his poem, Hares at Play

The birds are gone to bed the cows are still
And sheep lie panting on each old molehill
And underneath the willow’s grey-green bough
Like toil a-resting lies the fallow plough
The timid hares throw daylight fears away
On the lane road to dust and dance and play
Then dabble in the grain by nought deterred
To lick the dew-fall from the barley’s beard
Then out they sturt again and round the hill
Like happy thoughts – dance – squat – and loiter still
Till milking maidens in the early morn
Gingle their yokes and sturt them in the corn
Through well-known beaten pates each nimbling hare
Sturts quick as fear – and seeks its hidden lair

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The badger grunting on his woodland track
With shaggy hide and sharp nose scrowed with black
Roots in the bushes and the woods and makes
A great huge burrow in the ferns and brakes

So starts John Clare’s poem about the badger. It goes on to describe a common enough scene in the nineteenth century, badger baiting and the ultimate killing of the badger by dogs.

Badger baiting has been illegal for many years and badgers are relatively common around Helpston, although sadly they are most often seen lying dead at the side of country roads, particularly in the spring, when the cubs leave the set.

There are badger sets all around Helpston – at the top of Heath Road and in Castor Hanglands and a particularly large and old set near Steeping Wood. In 2005 a new set was established at Swaddywell Pit, demonstrating a healthy and expanding population. In the past badgers have been seen in the village itself, although there have been no reports in recent years.

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Nightingales would have been much commoner in the early nineteenth century and indeed throughout most of the twentieth century they could be heard singing from Royce Wood in the early summer, bringing their wonderful song [click to listen] right into the heart of the village itself.

Despite this reduction in range, mainly due to loss of habitat (the original Royce Wood was cut down in the 1960’s), Helpston is still a good place to find nightingales. Birds sing in Castor Hanglands, Southey Woods and Bainton Pits and until quite recently from Oxey Wood too. In 2004 there were eight singing birds at the Hanglands, with a further 2 at Southey Woods and 9 at Bainton. Back in 1965 a total of 23 were reported from the Hanglands alone.

The first nightingales arrive from 20 April onwards, although as Clare describes their song gets better and stronger as their short season progresses, ceasing abruptly in early June.

When first we hear the shy come nightingales
They seem to mutter o’er their songs in fear…
But when a day or two confirms her stay
Boldly she sings and loudly for half the day

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Clare describes children in Helpston watching bats fly over head on summer’s evenings

On summer eves with wild delight
We bawled the bat to spy
Who in the ‘I spy’ dusky light
Shrieked loud and flickered by;
And up we knocked our shuttlecocks
And tried to hiy the moon,
And wondered bats should fly so long
And they come down so soon

Bats are thought to have been more affected by the intensification of agriculture than any other British animal. The felling of old trees and the loss of nesting holes in roofs and barns combined with the reduction in food sources, particularly beetles, have led to some species declining by over 90%.

Bats are very difficult to identify on the wing, but three species can still be found around Helpston and picked out in the summer sky with some confidence.

Pipistrelle bats are very small and can often be seen hunting over gardens and by the light of street lamps in Helpston itself. They make their nests in roofs and lofts.

Noctule bats are much bigger – about the size of a swift – and fly higher in the sky, swooping down to catch their prey above fields and hedgerows. Noctules have been seen recently at Bainton Pits and hunting over the fields at the top of Health Road and over Swaddywell and Ben Jonson Pits. They nest and roost in trees and can live for ten years and more.

Often called the water bat, Daubenton bats are also very distinctive in the way they hunt, flying low over water, searching for water based insects, such as mayfly, and sometimes even small fish! The main pit at Bainton is a good place to look for them in April and May.

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The hornet is the largest British wasp. Across the UK numbers of hornets have declined markedly in recent years, perhaps as a result of the loss of old trees in which it nests.

Around Helpston, however, hornets remain common. They frequently use the nest boxes in Royce Wood, building their complicated nest structures out of a paste that they make from rotten wood which the Queen chews and mixes with saliva. A distinctive feature of a hornet’s nest is that it is continually guarded. You can usually seen a couple of hornet’s standing guarded at the main entrance – particularly noticeable when a nest box is being used.

Hornets are also often seen around Woodcroft, along the road to Marholm, reflecting the number of old oaks in that area. Nests have also been found in Castor Hanglands. Hornets also often appear in moth traps, reflecting their nocturnal as well as diurnal hunting routine. They feed mainly on flies, but also take bees and dragonflies.

In September 2008 there were two hornet nests in the Royce Wood nest-boxes, one clearly visible at the southern end of the main north-south ride through the wood – see pictures below.

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Great Crested Newt

Great Crested Newt
Living near Peterborough, it is sometimes hard to understand what the fuss is about great crested newts. They seem to turn up almost everywhere – and in good numbers, the brick pits at Orton have a population of some 30,000!

But this is their European stronghold – as a result they are a highly protected species. Locally they can certainly be found at Swaddywell and Ben Jonson pits, but there are probably smaller populations in other areas around the village and there are reports of them turning up in garden ponds too!

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Muntjac Deer

Muntjac Deer
The muntjac is a small deer that originates from south Asia. It was first brought to Britain in 1838 by John Russell Reeves, but the current population probably stems from introductions by the Duke of Bedford in 1900.

The muntjac is the smallest deer in England and is now a common feature of the natural world around Helpston. It can often be seen crossing the main rides in Southey and Royce woods or scuttling into the woods alongside Heath Road. From time to time it turns up in the village itself, one got stuck in the railings of a gate on Heath Road one Christmas day in the 1990s.

Even more often the muntjac can be heard barking at night from Royce Wood [click to listen].

One reason for the success of the muntjac and its rapid spread across England is that the does can conceive within days of fawning and may give birth every seven months. Unlike native British deer there is no set breeding season.

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Fallow Deer

Fallow Deer
Fallow deer can be regularly seen around Helpston, often feeding in small parties in the fields between King Street and Heath Road. They turn up frequently in Royce Wood and are common in all the local woods, particularly Castor Hanglands.

Fallow deer are much larger than muntjac and come in several colour varieties. The most common is chestnut brown with white spots. In all phases the long black and white tail is distinctive.

Rival males fallow deer (bucks) fight fiercely during the rutting season (October – November) and can heard bellowing from deep in the local woods [click to listen].

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The cuckoo like a hawk in flight
With narrow pointed wings
Wews oer our heads – soon out of sight
And as she flies she sings
And darting down the hedge row side
She scar[e]s the little bird
Who leaves the nest it cannot hide
While plaintive notes are heard

[from The Cuckoo]

The cuckoo is a fascinating bird, not least because of the short space of time in which it is with us. Many adult birds arrive in early May and have left our shores by mid July, indeed there is an old rhyme that states

In April I open my bill
In May I sing night and day
In June I change my tune
In July away I fly

Cuckoos are well known for laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, but it is less well known that they remain loyal to a single host species, individuals lay their eggs in the nests of the species they themselves were brought up by and are able to produce eggs that mimic those of the host ! The most common host species are the meadow pipit and dunnock.

Cuckoos are the subject of much folklore. One theory was that cuckoos passed the winter deep inside hollow trees. Another that they transformed themselves into birds of prey during the winter.

Nor were such tales just the product of ignorance. The eminent British Ornithologists Club was long divided between those convinced that cuckoos laid their eggs on the ground, picked them up in their mouths and then deposited them in the nests of their hosts and those who argued for a more normal manner of egg laying, directly into the host nest.

Those in favour of the ‘carrying’ method argued that it was physically impossible for the large cuckoo to lay eggs normally in the small nests of its hosts. In fact the cuckoo is able to literally squirt the eggs into the nest in a matter of seconds.

In the last few years the best places to see and hear cuckoo around Helpston have been Castor Hanglands , Southey Woods and Bainton Pits. Three birds, two males, were seen at the Hanglands in May 2006.

Sadly the village itself hears the sound of the cuckoo much less frequently than in the past. Up until very recently its evocative call was a frequent sound across the Heath Road paddock and from Royce Wood, but since 2004 it has become much scarcer, although one was heard calling along Heath Road in mid May 2006. This is part of a wider national decline of up to 40% in the overall population.

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John Clare records keeping a tame hobby, although in fact this was probably the much commoner kestrel, not least because there are very few records of hobby breeding in the region before the end of the nineteenth century.

Today the hobby is a much commoner, although still reasonably scarce, breeder around the village. This is one bird that has been increasing its population in recent years, across the country, largely as a result of the creation of new habitats in disused gravel pits.

Birds can often be seen hunting for large insects, particularly dragonflies, over the water at Bainton Pits and around Swaddywell. In September they can occasionally be seen over the village itself hunting for house martins.

It is our only summer migrant bird of prey, arriving back from its African wintering grounds in early May.

The hobby’s latin name, falco subbutteo, means a falcon that is smaller than a buzzard, but is more commonly associated with the table football game. The inventor of subbutteo named it after the hobby, his favourite bird!

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Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard
John Clare would have been very familiar with the buzzard, which must have been a common bird in the area in the early nineteenth century. He described it as

of an idle disposition and not unlike the kite while perched but quite different when on the wing – it flyes in a flopping manner, something like the owl.

Sadly for much of the intervening period buzzards would have been a very rare sight indeed. Their numbers were drastically reduced by both direct persecution and the loss of food, following the reduction in rabbit numbers in the 1950’s. By the mid 20th century their range was restricted to strongholds in the uplands of the west and north of Britain.

Today we can make similar comparisons to those of John Clare as both the red kite and the buzzard are increasingly frequent visitors to our area, with buzzards now breeding regularly in the local woods and arguably the most common bird of prey around the village.

It was only really in the late 1990’s that buzzards made their come back with occasional birds being seen over Castor Hanglands and then a small breeding population becoming established. Increasingly small family groups can be seen in the late summer and autumn, with reports of up to fourteen birds over Sutton Wood, for instance, in September 2010. Increasingly too they can be seen away from the wooded areas, frequently seen over Etton Maxey pits and out across the open fields of the Fenland.

The call of a buzzard is a distinctive mewing sound – compare it with the more whistling note of the red kite by clicking on the following links one after another – Buzzard and Red Kite

A sign of just how far the buzzard has recovered is that is now believed to be Britain’s commonest bird of prey.

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