For decades, countless eccentric naturalists have explored the many acres of Wheatfen Nature Reserve.
Like any hobbyist group, naturalists come in all shapes and sizes, and also with many quirky traits and behaviours. In the past you would have been forgiven for thinking that we all came bearing a big bushy beard full of many interesting fly species, along with wide a brimmed hat and a big net grasped in hand. Despite being a keen naturalist myself, I like to think that I am reasonably normal in appearance and behaviour, although perhaps some might have something to say about that…
We are all on a similar mission as we amble around the reserve, sticking our heads into bushes, peering intently at minute invertebrates, or at times putting on a turn of speed in pursuit of an unobliging insect. To those who just visit the reserve for a peaceful walk: do not be alarmed, naturalists have been known to flee at the sight of fellow humans. No stick has been left unturned; no leaf unexamined, with many an unwary specimen scrutinised, meticulously studied and recorded. The world of species identification means all to the passionate naturalist, and such passion can at times become fiery.
Within the Warden’s office at Wheatfen, much debate and light-hearted banter can often be heard over a cup of tea (and an unhealthily large stack of biscuits) as the latest discoveries are analysed. Specialist books are pulled off the shelves and hand lenses polished for a closer look as every colour, hair and scale is examined. It still amazes me how people staring at the same specimen can describe it through such a wide colour spectrum.
Over ten thousand different species have been recorded over the last one hundred years at Wheatfen. One thousand of these are fungi, making Wheatfen one of the most recorded sites in the UK. Records range from the common and obvious things such as silver birch trees, to the incredibly rare Galleruca laticolis beetle, to be found nowhere else in the UK. Some of these records date back pre-Ted Ellis, during the 1920s and 30s, when the then-owner of Wheatfen, Captain Cockle, took an interest in the diverse flora and fauna across his estate. A large percentage of the records are from Ted himself, who spent over 40 years studying the 140 acres of fen, reedbed, carr woodland and open water. Not only did he observe and study species that could be readily identified with the naked eye or by using a good dichotomous key in the field, he also went further and examined the obscure micro-species. In his untidy, slightly chaotic study he spent many hours peering through his microscope, trying to identify things such as rust fungi. These appear as small stains or colouration differences on plants that many would not even notice, let alone put a name to.
On starting the warden position at Wheatfen back in May 2017 I was set the challenge of finding a species new to the reserve; the Holy Grail. No matter what the task for the day is; mowing, bridge building, dyke dredging or surveying, a naturalist’s mind never stops whirring and wildlife is at least being subconsciously acknowledged, even if an exact identification does not immediately spring to mind. It was one sunny morning at Wheatfen two summers ago that I spotted an unusual looking aphid species. It is often slightly odd observations like this that trigger an alarm bell in my head; these aphids just happened to look different from anything I had seen before. This particular colony were dark in colour and were drinking the sap from creeping thistle. To be honest they nearly got the chop, as at the time I was strimming a path and the thistle was heavily leaning inwards, partially blocking passage. At the last second the aphids caught my eye through the protective visor, and I neatly flicked the strimmer up and over the thistle. After much research and later confirmation by a local aphid expert (yes, such people exist) the species was identified; Uroleucon cirssi,a new species to Wheatfen. Since then I have been lucky enough to add a few more new records to the reserve list, although being here most days does give me an unfair advantage.
Over the past couple of months, we have been lucky enough to add two fascinating new species to our reserve list. It is always with great excitement, when an unusual species is noted, that the record books get pulled from the cupboard and checked as the discoverer waits in anticipation. Kevin Radley, one of our volunteers, photographed a White-barred Clearwing Synanthedon spheciformis along Smee Loke, back in late May. The larvae of this stunning looking moth species feeds on birch and alder trees, burrowing into the wood where they live for around 2 years. The clearwing species list for Wheatfen is short and patchy, and so it took but a moment to declare this White-barred individual as, until that day, unrecorded.
The second species, discovered by David Borderick a week or so later, is the Giant Sawfly Cimbex conatus. This sawfly species is a whopper, being around 3cm long. There have only been 47 records of this species in the UK since 1990, and so it is certainly somewhat a rarity. Again, it was a very welcome addition to Wheatfen’s fauna, and I only hope I am lucky enough to see this special sawfly over the summer.
All records are vitally important in directing how we manage the reserve. Before undertaking any conservation management, we check our species records and surveys (and undertake new ones) to ensure that no works will be detrimental to any species population. Such records shape our management plan, a flexible, adaptive document to ensure we protect and enhance the reserve in the best way possible. Any records, whether of common or rare species, are always much appreciated. Please email these in where possible. The important thing to remember, is that it matters not how rare a species may be. If it is a species new to you, then it is another window opened, offering an even greater view into the marvels of the natural world.