A daring rescue
Our wildlife encounters of the day began with a daring rescue inside the church room during the March AGM of the Launceston Area Parish Wildlife Group (LAPWG). Our Vice-Chair Jen and her husband Pete managed to rescue a small tortoiseshell butterfly that had woken up and was trapped indoors, where it would rapidly run out of energy and moisture. Wide awake, it tried to fly against the window and was heading up and out of reach. Thankfully, it was gently captured and contained, and Jen placed it amongst the ivy behind the building. A little wildlife-handling expertise and experience is always useful.
A scenic valley ramble
After the AGM, which is briefly described later, most of us headed out along a narrow public footpath through the damp but lovely Inny Valley. We were in the parish of St Clether, eight miles west of Launceston and on the edge of Bodmin Moor.
Most of the walk (it could have been a very short pilgrimage) between the Church of St Clether and a holy well, was through a lovely private nature reserve, labelled with a sign requesting no hunting, shooting or fishing.
The valley sides were lush with grass – proper grass, rather than the flat, uniform green of a reseeded modern pasture. Here there were tussocks galore and some patches of reeds – excellent habitats for voles and therefore potentially brilliant hunting grounds for vole eaters such as owls, kestrels, foxes, stoats and weasels.
Voles and their signs
Before the walk, I had asked local naturalist Tony Atkinson about some cut lengths of reed or grass stem that I had found in a puddle in my local woodland. The ends were neatly sawn at a 45° angle and the lengths were floating together in a puddle on one side of a grassy path. I knew that this meant voles, but which kind? Tony told me that they were doubtless the work of a field vole.
Field voles are the larger ones that leave little piles of grass stems, whereas bank voles have a less grassy diet, eating other kinds of plant material including seeds, fruits and leaves. I often find their nibbled hazelnut shells when hoping to find nuts with the smoother-rimmed nibbles of dormice. Tony also told me that the habitats of these two different voles often overlap, so there is no reason not to expect field voles in woodland or bank voles in more open fields.
A mammal hunt
The first mammal signs to be spotted at St Clether were molehills, pointed out by our mammal expert Dave Groves from Cornwall Mammal Group https://www.cornwallmammalgroup.org/
At once, Dave was off down the valley on a mammal hunt, looking for signs of otters (the most frequent proof of otter activity is the characteristic dropping, or spraint), and also maybe something that would have been impossible to contemplate not so long ago – signs of beaver activity.
Sadly, neither were found, but the molehills were quite impressive. For anyone thinking that ‘impressive’ is not the word they would use for molehills, they are great for aerating and draining the soil, and the crumbly soil provides an ideal nursery for the seedlings of wild flowers.
I once found a cat-killed mole in the garden and rescued a living mole from a road, finding the velvet coat wonderfully soft and the mole itself, with its mobile nose and shovel feet, incredibly endearing. (My roadside mole made no attempt at biting and I am used to handling various animals, but always be cautious and take expert advice about approaching and touching wildlife.)
Meanwhile, the other walkers spotted a heron, a buzzard overhead, and two mallards flying up from the quite large ring-shaped pond beside the river. The pond was covered in duckweed, but this makes excellent cover for frogs, toads and their spawn. It also represses algal growth, may reduce the amount of surface water for mosquito larvae, reduces evaporation, keeps water pure, and is apparently used in human medicine for both internal and external conditions. And of course, it provides tasty food for ducks. Apparently it is high in calcium and protein, which are needed in egg production, plus xanthophylls and carotenoids, which help provide the orange colour of the egg yolk.
I was most impressed by the vegetation on the ground – the clumps and swirls, tufts and whirls that form wherever we allow plants to grow. I don’t think you need to know the names of each plant to appreciate them, although it does add to the interest when you realise the sheer variety of nature. There were vivid greens down by the river, where the soils are rich and feed the lush grasses, ferns and mosses with their nutrients, thanks to river silt and rain washing.
The trees along the river were silvery and grey-brown or purplish – still bare and skeletal, although spring buds will be emerging along their naked twigs. Paler clumps of tall grasses, like unruly abandoned hay bales, contrasted with the greens, browns and greys of reeds and occasional rocks, and here and there, a burst of bright yellow advertised the presence of gorse flowers – never out of season.
On the steep opposite side of the valley, brown grassy stems, not yet superseded by this year’s new growth, formed a thick blanket – probably excellent cover for secret vole runs.
The holy well
We reached a little gated sanctuary, where the chapel of the fifth century holy well, apparently on a 4th century site – and the holy well itself – were found. This is the largest holy well chapel in Cornwall, I read afterwards. We were at the place where the hermitage of St Clether himself had once stood.
A sense of history oozed from the buildings, and there was water to be seen in a recess of the little chapel near the well itself. The water here was apparently given miraculous healing qualities as it flowed over and through the bones of St Clether, which once lay beside the altar. Also fascinating were the carvings around the doorways. What a peaceful spot, sacred for its natural beauty and the spirit of history.
As we absorbed the atmosphere of this special little place, the heavens opened and we sought sanctuary inside the chapel. It was mostly bare stone, but with wooden benches and a beautiful high ceiling made from planks of wood.
If we had known that the heavy shower was not the start of a continuous downpour, we would have continued along the valley. Apparently it’s a lovely walk, and one for another day.
A churchyard for nature
As the group returned, a mistle thrush was singing – a lovely welcome, and a reminder that churchyards can be fantastic wildlife sanctuaries.
Back at the church, I was also interested in the abundant lichens on the walls. Different varieties are found on the different aspects of the building. We also admired several varieties of daffodils, growing in abundance and interspersed with primroses and celandines. These will be valuable to any early bees. It may have been a damp start, but as we look forward to another year of LAPWG activities, spring is definitely on the way.
A fifth century holy well on a 4th century site – for more information, see: https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/cornwall/ancient/st-clether-holy-well-chapel.htm
If you are interested in your own church grounds as a wildlife sanctuary, there are schemes across the country. For those in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset, the following page has contact details for each of them and other links to advice: https://ecochurchsouthwest.org.uk/actions/living-churchyards/
The LAPWG AGM
The AGM before the walk was a convivial gathering, and featured more than just the usual AGM stuff – the reading of last year’s minutes and the (albeit interesting and entertaining) reports from Treasurer Irene and Chairman Ian. Quite a large group of us crammed ourselves into the basic but lovely stone Church room in the parish of St Clether, named after a Welsh missionary who followed his brother St Nectan to what is now Cornwall. Well done to Dave and Mary Groves, for walking there. (I did check the location on Google Maps, and it estimated that it would take me 5 hours from home to get there on foot.)
Although there wasn’t room to most of us to follow any suggested ‘novel coronavirus’ guidelines that may exist, telling us not to sit in close proximity to one another, there was certainly enough room for everyone to enjoy a variety of cake, coffee and tea and to have a nice chat. Jen, who is LAPWG’s Vice-Chair and chief events and communications person, ran through the exciting activities planned for the year ahead, which include a wide variety of outings, not just confined to the LAPWG area and including some key events by other groups. Watch this space for more reports and in particular, please see the website for details of forthcoming events: https://www.launcestonparishwildlife.org.uk/