January 1. The traditional New Year’s Day outing took place under fine, cold, conditions. Alan, Helen, Jonathan, Monica and Steve began by searching round the information centre off the Coton Footpath, which has been seeded with meadow flowers, and a new pond. We stayed here for over half an hour, finding around 30 species. We continued round the Reserve, finding a spot out of the breeze for a picnic lunch. Continuing up to the viewpoint, we found some snow-banks persisting from the pre-Christmas snow. At the top we had splendid views across the surrounding countryside. The total for the day was 112 vascular plant species and a total of 231 records, along with a miscellany of birds, mammals, mosses, lichens and fungi.
February 21. Uncertain weather – there had been heavy sleet and rain earlier in the day – was probably the reason only two people turned out for the second Coton Countryside Reserve survey. But apart from some hail showers early on, Monica Frisch and Alan Leslie enjoyed a bright afternoon concentrating on the eastern half, especially the edges of the Bin Brook and the field margins.
The vegetation had not grown much since the visit on 1st January, no doubt due to the cold damp winter, though the leaves of Lords-and-Ladies Arum maculatum were unfurling nicely, the Hazel Corylus avellana was in flower and one willow was covered in silvery pussy-willow catkins. Nevertheless we made some additions to the lists for the two eastern 1-km squares. In a ditch we found two small seedlings of Buddleia Buddleia davidii and just one spike of Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara coming into flower. In the hedges we recorded Italian Alder Alnus cordata, Spindle Euonymus europaeus, with the remnants of a fruit to confirm the identification, and a climber which Alan identified as Hop Humulus lupulus from the very rough stems. We identified Square-stalked St. John’s Wort Hypericum tetraptum, Nipplewort Lapsana communis and Charlock Sinapis arvensis from dead stalks and fruits. There were fresh rosettes of Green Alkanet Pentaglottis sempervirens and leaves of Sweet Violet Viola odorata.
The highlights were two clumps of snowdrops growing on the banks of the Bin Brook. These were not the common Galanthus nivalis but G. plicatus, larger and with broader pleated leaves. Also on the banks but a bit further on were some leaves which Alan thought might develop into Leucojum. We shall have to return to check on a future occasion. Also to be checked are the row of poplars near Wheatcases, which seemed to be of several different species, and the docks growing under them which had leaves reminiscent of Fiddle Dock (Rumex pulcher).
March 28. Despite advance threats of rain from the Met Office, the weather on the day was fair. Jonathan and Monica checked the car park area round Wheatcases, noting that signs of growth were still few and far between, as were signs of anyone else arriving. We set off towards the View Point and on crossing the road were warned by a passing cyclists that the red flag was flying indicating that firing was taking place at the rifle range. This had been very audible all morning! Nearing the top, Charles rang up to ask where we were, and we suggested meeting by the road. On the way down we passed a cheery armed guard who made sure we didn’t stray into harm’s way (the route was off our trail anyway). In the hedgerow we came across a yellow flowered shrub, which on meeting up with Charles was identified as Cornelian Cherry Cornus mas. Continuing along the brook we spotted some lighter stems close to more G. plicatus, which turned out to be Few-flowered Leek Allium paradoxum aka White bluebell. We just made it back to the Coton Footpath at 1:30 in time for lunch as planned so as to be ready for the afternoon party.
Numbers soon swelled and around a dozen admired the mass of frogspawn in the pond, with tiny wriggling tadpoles just starting to emerge. Jonathan showed the liverwort Aneura pinguis that he’d spotted on the bank of the pond, Jess admired a large earthworm Lambricus terrestris that seemed equally able to move forward or backward, and then we started a slow passage round the reserve, demonstrating some of the common and less common plants on view. There were several clumps of Plicate Snowdrop growing along the brook, often in an odd location for planting, and we thought that seeds might have been washed downstream from gardens in Coton. On the other hand we thought a clump of Blue Anemone Anemone apennina growing near the sewage works must have been introduced despite the rather odd location. Part way round we had a good view of a pair of buzzards Buteo buteo circling around before they flew off into the distance. There were a lot of 7-spot ladybirds Coccinella septempunctata, some engaged in making sure that there were even more, but no other species. We encountered several queen bees, but they weren’t keen to stay put long enough to confirm their identity, thought in the end the consensus was that they were all Buff-tailed Bumble Bees Bombus terrestris. By the end of the day our plant count had reached over 160 species, sub-species and varieties.
April 25. The morning saw the break of the drought after several weeks without rain. Nothing daunted Jonathan and Monica met at the sewage works to look round a field that we hadn’t visited previously. Walking round the edge we added several species to the list, which would have included honeybees except that they all seemed to be in their hives in one corner of the field. Completing the circuit we carried along Bin Brook and found a completely unexpected green lane (with several garden escapes), which lead into a very hummocky and unimproved meadow. Here we found Ladies Bedstraw Galium verum and field woodrush Luzula campestris, and Jonathan found several liverworts along the Brook. Coming back we navigated a ditch and found Crosswort Galium cruciata at the corner of Rectory Field. After a lunch, where we added another grass to the list, we returned to the CFP entrance to greet the afternoon party. This slowly swelled in numbers to a dozen, covering all ages. Having pointed out some of the introduced wildflowers in the entrance area, we proceeded down the spine road, often trying some of the edible plants, including hedge garlic and dandelion, but avoiding parsnip. The arable weeds field had a magnificent display of bittercress, and also a spectacular forest of the fertile cones of field horsetail near Bin Brook. The new pond at Wheatcases had several additions, including introduced water soldier and a water crowfoot, which seemed to key following inspection of the nectar pits to R. trichophyllus. We decided that a sedge was too far from the edge to be accurately identified. From there we continued to the Viewpoint, passing on the way some Goosegrass Galium aparine, which Michaela (the youngest member of the group) found great fun sticking to her clothes. At the top we had good views across Cambridgeshire, with notable landmarks of the Schlumberger “tent”, St John’s, King’s College, the Catholic church and Addenbrokes hospital. Coming down we inspected a badger sett, then proceeded across Hawks Way looking at some of the arable weeds in the set-aside. Middle Green proved rather disappointing, as although it is ancient ridge and furrow, the grassland is much improved and species poor. Although we saw several species of bee, every time we tried to collect them for identification they flew off, and only red-tailed bumble-bee Bombus lapidarius was positively identified. The flora records for the day added a further 50 species, with a total of 120 additions, as well as miscellaneous birds, mammals, amphibians and insects.
May 27. For the first of the evening walks we visited the north west part of the reserve, though it took a little while to get there. A small group of five met by the footpath and first inspected the vegetation of the rendezvous point, with its introduced mix of wildflowers. Progressing along the spine road we compared trefoils and medics, and warned of the dangers of wild parsnip. Although we didn’t find anything else unusual, we did add a further 25 species to the reserve list. A subsequent visit in early June by Jonathan Shanklin to patrol the areas we didn’t have time to visit added more species bringing the total to over 240. He also made a further visit later in the month to check up on orchids reported by Les Bradford and found that her land included large swarms of common spotted and some southern marsh in the wood, along with bee orchid on the higher ground.
June 24. A small group of botanists (Alan, Jonathan and Monica) assembled at the Coton meeting point, and first assessed four roses that Jonathan had collected earlier. Three had been planted – Sweet Briar Rosa rubiginosa is a favoured planting in the reserve, but Short-styled Field Rose Rosa stylosa was a more unusual find in the motorway hedge. A third rose planted in the copse was not yet identifiable, but the leaves were downy . The final one was the common Dog Rose Rosa canina, which as it turned out was the only one that we encountered during the rest of the evening, which was intended to target roses and brambles. The group then proceeded down the spine road, spotting one or two additions, including slender tare, a generally rare species, though this is its heartland. Reaching the motorway bridge, we were joined by Clare, and here found several new species, which appeared to like the different environment of the bridge embankment. Species included Basil Clinopodium vulgare, Round-leaved Cranesbill Geranium rotundifolium, fennel Foeniculum vulgare and the only new bramble of the evening Rubus conjungens. We returned through the “weed field”, which has shown an interesting succession through the year, running through bittercress, horsetail, groundsel and now sow-thistle and willowherb. A few oddities also surfaced including a few plants of the hybrid Ryegrass Lolium x bouchaneum. Back on the spine road we reached the new pond where a wide variety of aquatics have been introduced. Some of these were deliberate such as the Purple Loosestrife Lythrum salicaria and water dropwort, which were in flower, but others were probably accidental such as Water Bent Polypogon viridis that we found at the pond edge. The pond has been quickly colonised by invertebrates and marginal plants had many dragonfly exuviae. One was inspected and demonstrated the amazing grip of the feet, which made for a reluctant transfer from hand to hand. The party returned on the circular route, although we kept encountering interesting plants, finding Treacle Mustard Erysimum cheiranthoides on the rough ground near Wheatcases, a Pyramidal Orchid Anacamptis pyramidalis in full flower in the hedge and Dwarf Spurge Euphorbia exigua along the field margin. As it got darker we sped up a little but on entering the ridge and furrow field Monica pointed out Wall Barley Hordeum murinum(not new) and Jonathan suggested that meadow barley Hordeum pratense should be present and then immediately found it. By the time we returned to the meeting point the sun had set, but we had made an additional 45 records of which 22 were new species taking the total species count to around 280.
July 22. Thunderstorms were forecast, but in the event the drought did not really break and whilst threatening clouds surrounded the area, only a few drops fell. Butterflies were in short supply, in contrast to the previous day when a part from the Wednesday volunteer group had seen a good selection of species including White-letter hairstreak Satyrium w-album flying above some of the big elms. A larger than usual group assembled at the Coton Footpath entrance and were briefed about Cambridge Past, Present & Future and the Reserve by Carolin Gohler, the Chief Executive of the Society. Moving along the spine road, Jonathan pointed out the seed heads of Strawberry Clover Trifolium fragiferum along the far side of the ditch, which Carolin said had not been introduced. Turning off past the Recreation Ground we looked at a few of the grasses along the field margin, and the Stinking iris Iris foetidissima growing in the hedgerow. The new plantation at the end of Rowans Field had had soil from Hayley Wood introduced, but no obvious plants appeared to have come with it, although Jonathan found an awned bent Agrostis sp on the track, it appeared to key to common bent A. capillaris. Access to Bin Brook was rather impeded by vegetation, so we pressed on to the ridge and furrow field of Middle Green. The Brook was full of invasive Himalayan balsam Impatiens glandulifera and one willow had a strange mossy gall. Long Green had recently been topped, and only a few arable weeds were identifiable, however the motorway bridge bank was resplendent in Teasel Dipsacus fullonum, with Stone Parsley Sison amomum coming up. Returning along the Brook we noted that there had been less bank collapse in the area that was thick with horsetail, so maybe this was a way of strengthening it. We crossed over to look at part of Hays Ends and Hawks Way which had been left uncultivated. There was some Dwarf spurge Euphorbia exigua in Hays Ends and rather more in Hawks Way, but no sign of any Broad-leaved Spurge Euphorbia platyphyllos, which Jonathan had found earlier in the week in Further Field on the other side of the motorway. Altogether we added a dozen plant records of which 5 were new.
August 29. With a return to Sunday visits, Steve Hartley and Jonathan Shanklin carried out the morning patrol, finding a few new species. The rate of finds was clearly dropping, suggesting that the list of vascular plants for the site is nearing its conclusion. After the usual picnic lunch we headed for the motorway bridge, casting slightly anxious looks at encroaching dark clouds. As we began to head back towards Wheatcases Barn to meet the afternoon party driving rain and wind arrived, more reminiscent of autumn than the end of summer. We found shelter in the Barn and a few more people arrived to begin the second part of the day. Fortunately as we discussed plans the rain eased and it remained dry for the rest of the afternoon. Our route took us up the hill and then back via Les Bradford’s farm
September 26. Despite a cold morning with fleeting patches of drizzle Jonathan Shanklin covered some of the northern part of the reserve. The first find was the introduced Long-sepalled Hawthorn Crataegus rhipidophylla, planted in the copse by the Coton Footpath. Some of the other plantings are also likely to be this or its hybrid with the ordinary hawthorn. Trying a slight variation of routes, the other side of the recreation ground hedge had a planted Rowan Sorbus aucuparia and Swedish Whitebeam Sorbus intermedia. The wet weather had demanded Wellington boots, and this allowed some exploration of Bin Brook. A surprising addition was Hard Shield-fern Polystichum aculeatum opposite gardens in Coton, suggesting a possible planting, though it was clearly thriving. Also in this section was Enchanter’s Nightshade Circea lutea. Heading back towards Wheatcases Barn, the fleeting showers began to get less fleeting, and by the 2pm start time of the planned lichen survey it had set in for the rest of the afternoon. These were atrocious conditions for a survey, so our attempt at completing the OPAL Air Quality survey fell by the wayside, nevertheless a stalwart band of six including Mark Powell, the County Recorder, set off up the hill. Ash trees, some quite ancient provided a good substrate, and Mark showed common species such as Yellow scales Xanthoria parietina. Along the way Mark explained some of the features of lichens and explained that he had been looking at wattle laths to find lichens dating back several hundred years and how this was being used to compile an account of lichens in lowland Britain prior to the industrial revolution. Along the brow of the hill the old elder trees attracted Mark’s attention, and he vowed to return under better conditions for another look. We still managed to identify 20 lichens with a couple more not being nameable. Helene Davies was another member of the party, however fungi were rather sparse. We did spot some rather desiccated (despite the weather!) Chicken-of-the-Woods on a willow, a Sticky Scaly-cap Pholiota gummosa and a ring of the relatively uncommon Satin Shield Pluteus plautus near the top of the hill. With the rain still falling, the party returned to the Barn and decided to call a halt rather than investigate any lichens on the bridges over Bin Brook and the M11. Mark revisited the elder bank on October 8, his finds including three notable lichens: Caloplaca ulcerosa (scarce, but throughout lowland Britain), Lecania cyrtellina and Piccolia ochrophora (rare, some eastern occurences).
October 31. A spell of mild weather made for potentially good prospects for finding fungi. Whilst rain was in the offing we only experienced a very short shower in the morning and a few spots throughout the afternoon. The morning botanical party (Alan Leslie, Monica Frisch, Steve Hartley and Jonathan Shanklin) began by looking at hawthorns along the edge of the copse by the Coton Footpath. There was quite a variety of fruit and leaf shapes, and we decided that whilst the basic tree was the common hawthorn Crataegus monogyna, there was clear influence of other parents including Midland Hawthorn C. laevigata (with some plants being 90% this), C. heterophylla and C. rhipidophylla. We then moved on to the Bin Brook, to check the fern that Jonathan had found the previous month. After a bit of wading through the brook Jonathan refound it, with Alan thinking it a bit odd, but probably Polystichum setiferum rather than P. aculeatum. A nearby garden had both species in it, and after taking specimens home Alan thought that a hybrid was possible. On the way back to the meeting point we noted several fungi in the meadow and the party had to be dragged past them to get to the start on time. Here we had our best turnout of the year, with 21 assembling, with a good boost from members of the Cambridge University Mycological Society. Lead by John Holden, we started by showing a specimen of Verdigris Agaric Stropharia aeruginosa from the nearby stubble field (contrasting it with the S. caerulea found the previous day in the Botanic Garden), and some Dog’s Vomit Mucilago crustacea on grass near the entrance. We spent an hour scrabbling through the copse and scrub near the footpath, and whilst we found around 15 species, none were spectacular. One interesting find was a Red Slug Arion rufus, though it was showing its pale colouration with an orange margin to the foot. We moved on to the ridge and furrow meadow, and whilst past spraying to “improve” it had removed any interesting vascular plants, the fungi were still there. There were some large specimens including Blewits (with some Field Blewit Lepista saeva being taken home to eat) and Agarics, the delicate Pleated Inkcap Coprinus plicatilis and at least four waxcap species including a Parrot Waxcap Hygrocybe psittacina. In total we found around 34 different species.
November 28. When reminding members of the CNHS about the bryophyte excursion an injunction was given that it would only be cancelled in the event of a blanket of snow covering the ground. A light dusting of snow and an overnight temperature of -7ºC did not therefore deter the group of stalwarts who assembled at the Martin car park with the temperature still at -3ºC, and which did not rise above freezing all day. Mark Hill, Chris Preston and Tom Charman provided expert assistance with identification and recording, with Jonathan Shanklin and Kevin Hand completing the party. We started by looking round the car-park and showing some of the common bryophytes, including Brachythecium rutabulum a pleurocarpus moss which is abundant in Cambridge lawns, Fissidens taxifolius an acrocarpus moss which has flat shoots and Syntrichia ruralis, colloquially known as the car-park moss on account of its predilection for tarmac. Jonathan lead the group on a circular, clockwise walk that was designed to look at a variety of habitats and visit all the monads of the Reserve. Going up the hill we found a small amount of the liverwort Pellia endivifolia, one of the commoner thallose liverworts that grows on shaded stream banks. Attempting to find some additional mosses in the new copse by Rectory field we noted several lichens on the ash trees (Lecanora sp and Xanthoria parietina). Lunch was taken near the top of the hill and we descended down to Bin Brook to look at an older area of stream and scrub. Along the Brook, in an area visited several times previously Jonathan spotted some Hartstongue Fern Asplenium scolopendrium, which we had not previously found within the reserve boundaries. Returning via the scrub at the end of the meadow we joined the spine road, where the ditch bank turned up a few additional species, including a small piece of the liverwort Aneura pinguis and Bryum gemmiferum. A detour via the motorway bridge found a few more species, but the left-aside field proved disappointing and we returned to the car-park as cloud began to cover the sky. Despite the conditions we found around 30 species, all characteristic of the general arable chalky clay environment.
CNHS has returned to the Coton Countryside Reserve for its 2020 surveys and a diary of the visits is here.