Tag Archives: hedgerow

Insectivora

The hedgerows and the edges of country paths are home to an immense variety of small creatures, especially those which aren’t in the firing line for agricultural chemical spraying, and it can be easy to overlook them.

Last weekend I spent a morning chasing insects around and I followed a red admiral butterfly into a thicket of nettles where it sat tight with it’s wings closed. Over the next twenty minutes it very briefly opened its wings, but only partially, but enough to enable me to see that its colours were pristine:

And then it opened them fully, and the colours really were sumptuous:


…well worth half an hour stood in a nettle bed!

But I thought the half hour definitely wasn’t wasted when I looked down at my feet and saw this cluster of peacock caterpillars eating nettle leaves:

I moved to one side to get some pictures of the caterpillars, and fortunately after I’d spent some time doing that the red admiral was still in situ.

Peacocks are hardy butterflies which can be found over most of the UK including the Shetland Isles and can be found hibernating in garden sheds. They emerge from hibernation at any time of year if the weather is warm enough, they mate in March and lay eggs then the caterpillars can be seen from the middle of May into July.

Not only are they hardy, they are quit beautiful too. A close look at their wings reveals a fabulous array of brightly coloured detail:

Male peacocks hold fort in their territory and wait for passing females to pass by when they fly up to greet them and attempt to mate. Male and female peacocks are very difficult to tell apart and watching the males performing this courtship behaviour is one way to differentiate the genders.

And close to the same spot I was looking at the flowers and I spotted this hoverfly cleaning his eyes:

…and this beetle wandering over a convulvulus flower, I don’t know what it is but it has gorgeous colours:

The brambles in the hedgerows were also full of bees in the sunshine, many species of honey bees and bumble bees were harvesting nectar from the flowers:


White tailed bumble bee flying from flower to flower feeding on bramble nectar

And than this marvellous creature was hunting in my kitchen last week:


Violet ground beetle, isn’t he magnificent!

Violet ground beetles are carnivorous, as are their larvae. They hunt at night and hide up during the day under log piles or other cool dark places. They eat a variety of insects, including a number of species that gardeners would be glad to be rid of. They’re big beetles, around 3cm long, and they have irridescent blue or violet edges to the thorax and wing cases. So don’t use chemicals in your garden – let these guys get rid of your pests!

And now I’m looking forward to some warm sunny July days when the surrounding fields are full of butterflies. I’ll share some more insect photographs with you then.

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Natures harvest – sloe gin

Guns Lane is an ancient right of way linking Histon with Willingham and then Ely. It has survived the centuries without being turned into a road or the hedgerows being ripped out and ploughed over. Consequently it is lined for much of its length, at least stretches of the part between Histon and Westwick, with numerous species of trees and bushes.

One bush to be found in good numbers is the blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) which at this time of year is festooned with sloe berries. Three weekends ago I interrupted my walk on Guns Lane to collect a box full of sloes and when I got home I made a bottle of sloe gin, which should be ready just in time for Christmas. To the uninitiated imbiber I can heartily recommend sloe gin. The fruit are free and readily available in a hedgerow near you, it’s very easy to make, and the end result is delicious.


Guns Lane Histon – the yellow leaved bush on the right is blackthorn

If anyone has tasted a sloe berry, inadvertently or otherwise, you’ll know that sloes are totally unfit for human consumption. They have an astringency in my experience unrivalled – apart from perhaps a quince. I don’t know if any other creatures can eat them but no one I’ve asked has heard of any animals feasting on them. Which may explain why there are so many in the hedgerows deep into winter.


Sloe berries in late summer…

… and in winter.

In some parts local wisdom suggests picking the sloes after the first frost. I think the reason for that is so the skins are split, or at least permeable, and the gin can soak in and dissolve the good stuff from the berries. It can be made with berries harvested before the first frost but then you simply need to prick them with a knife or put them in the freezer for a day or two prior to use.

Actually making the sloe gin is very straightforward. You need a 75cl bottle of gin (it doesn’t have to be good quality – any cheap and cheerful gin will suffice). Clean a teacup full of sloes and prick them or freeze them if required, empty the gin bottle and place the sloes and a teacup full of sugar  into it. Top it up with gin, put the cap on, lay it down, leave it for 6 weeks remembering to turn it to give it a gentle mix once a day. And that’s it. Six weeks later you’ll have a deliciously fruity and splendidly alcoholic winter warmer, perfect for a frosty walk in the countryside or standing on the terraces watching a match.

The finished product… what a gorgeous colour!
And it tastes lovely too.

This year I was going to experiment and flavour my gin with a little vanilla but I didn’t have a vanilla pod to hand when I made it so I stuck to tradition. After six weeks strain the gin through a clean muslin and it’s ready to drink as a digestif, just because it’s delicious.  If you have a really cheap and nasty bottle of red wine of the kind someone who doesn’t like you very much may have left behind after a party, steep the used sloe berries in the wine for 1-2 days then enjoy with a slab of mature stilton.

Happy days!