Last few weeks at Arne

June is a glorious month!


Southern marsh orchids at RSPB Arne

It’s prime time for orchids and they seem to be everywhere I look now. We’ve got a lovely crop of southern marsh orchids on the reserve near the Shipstal ponds which are lovely to see there and very popular with the visitors.


A closer look look at a southern marsh orchid

I went to another of the RSPB’s reserves in Dorset for the first time a few weeks ago, with the estates team. Garston Wood is an area of ancient woodland near Shaftsbury, it’s famed amongst those in the know for spectacular displays of bluebells in the spring. When we went, they were all over but we did find some lovely early purple and common spotted orchids.


Common spotted orchid in Garston Woods

We were there to tidy up some logs left behind, following some clearance work to the rides through the wood. As part of the management of the wood, some areas have been cleared to allow more light in and provide more varied habitats for plants and other wildlife. Greatest biodiversity is often found on the edges, where one habitat merges with another so it’s important to manage the land in a way that will promote diversity.

During our work a very lucky palmate newt was spotted on one of the damp logs that had been piled onto the trailer. Very lucky to have avoided being squished!


Palmate newt at Garston Woods

As well as seeing other parts of the Dorset Reserves, I’ve also had plenty of opportunities to explore Arne and find out what each week brings. On an early morning walk, I spotted this labyrinth spider web. These are a kind of funnel-web spider but unlike their more famous Australian cousins, they are (mostly) harmless. The web was easy to spot in the morning dew but there are loads of them about now and easy to find if you are looking out for them!


There is someone at home!

Another seasonal sight on sunny days on the reserve are clouds of dancing male Nemophora degeerella. These are a longhorn moth whose caterpillars feed on leaf litter in deciduous woodland. They are beautiful moths with distinctive gold bands and striped patterns on their wings.


Nemophora degeerella in woodland at Arne

The moth traps have also yielded plenty more fascinating moths in the last few weeks. The contents of the traps have been becoming more numerous and varied with impressive hawkmoths being present most weeks too!


Treble Lines (Charanyca trigrammica) 

A fairly common moth with three distinctive lines across its wings. The photo shows two colour variants.


Oak Hook-tip (Watsonalla binaria)

Hook-tips are named as a group because of the curved tips of their fore-wings. The oak Hook-tip is fairly common in the south and found in oak woodland where the larva feed on oak leaves.


Peppered Moth (Biston betularia)

Probably known to a lot of those who studied GCSE biology as the classic example of the success of one genetic variant over another due to local environmental conditions. This black and white patterning is the typical form but an all black melanic form can also be found. In the big industrial cities of the north during the 19th and 20th centuries, the dark form became dominant. The simple explanation is that during the industrial revolution, the factories were pumping out huge amounts of smoke, leading to soot blackening of the tree trunks that the moths rest on. The dark forms were effectively camouflaged and avoided predation. The lighter speckled forms, while very well hidden on the light lichen covered trunks of unpolluted trees were very visible on the darkened trees. Since environmental standards have improved, the typical form is now dominant throughout the UK.


Small Square-spot (Diarsia rubi)

A pretty little moth. Common in the UK and particularly associated with damp marshy areas.


Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi) and eggs

This is a very tatty example of a fox moth. As they get older, their wings become more ragged. A freshly emerged moth has very bright clear markings on its wings and sharp crisp edges too.


Puss Moth (Cerura vinula)

Looking a (very little) bit like a fluffy white cat, the adult moth is very attractively patterned. It’s fairly common throughout the British Isles.


Iron Prominent (Notodonta dromedarius)

Presumably so-called because of the rusty red colouring on the patterned wings.


Eyed Hawk-Moth (Smerinthus ocellata)

Although I didn’t manage to get a picture, this moth has a dramatic blue and black eye pattern on its hindwings.


Poplar Hawk-moth (Laothoe populi)

Unusually, this moth rests with it’s hindwings forward of the forewings giving it a very distinctive shape. It is very well camouflaged on tree trunks as you can see in the photo!


Brown Silver-line (Petrophora chlorosata)

This is a common little moth which is often seen fluttering up  during the day if you walk through bracken.


Ichneumon Wasp

We also occasionally get other insect life in the moth traps. Cockchafers  are common as are the smelly Black Sexton beetle. This Ichneumon wasp was a bit more unusual. Ichneumon wasp are a group of long this wasps that tend to parasitise other insects, particularly butterfly and moth caterpillars. The eggs are laid in the host and when they hatch, the host provides the larvae with their first meal!

It’s been pretty challenging to fit everything I wanted to into this post, so I’m hoping from this week on, I will be able to stay up-to-date by writing a weekly post on what I’ve learnt and what’s going on at the reserve.

I’m planning to move things around on the blog a bit to give all this non-making stuff a place of it’s own and will try to get back to making things soon!

A brief post (in both senses)

I made more pants!

It shouldn’t be so exciting but I’m really pleased. They are so quick to sew up, I’ve managed to squeeze them in around everything else I’m trying to fit into my life at the moment.P1030192

The orange and black pair are made with some awesome lycra type fabric. I’m planning to make some shorts or leggings with the rest! The black and white pair are made with a remnant of light jersey. I bought all the fabrics and stretch lace edging for these in Fabricland in Portsmouth. I was so excited to see it since the more local one I used to go to closed years ago.

I still love the Rosy Ladyshorts pattern from Grainline but I’ve also recently bought the Barrie Boy Cut Briefs pattern from Kitschy Coo. They are a similar style but a different construction, being made from a front piece and back piece rather than two side pieces. It will be interesting to compare them!

Sheep pigs

Lowland heath is one of the most threatened habitats in the UK, with a decline of nearly 85% in the last 200 years. Here in Dorset the RSPB manages and helps to manage many areas of lowland heath which are sadly very fragmented. One of the most biodiverse habitats, it is also home to some very specialised species such as the Dartford warbler – Arne’s poster bird – which would not survive were its habitat to diminish too much. Lowland heath is also important for other scarce birds such as nightjar as well as the nationally rare sand lizard and smooth snake and a whole host of dragonflies, beetles, spiders and plants.

Well managed heath on the public reserve

Well managed heath on the public reserve

A lot of the RSPB’s work in Dorset goes on away from  the main public reserves at Arne, Radipole and Lodmoor. A few weeks ago I went with the estates team to Grange Heath, near Creech.  Historically, most of southern England would have originally been lowland heath until the land was developed for another purpose. Until relatively recently, Grange was given over to forestry but under RSPB management, it is being returned to valuable lowland heath. Apart from the odd scots pine, most of the trees have been felled.


Looking over Grange

Once gone, the heathland can regenerate from the seeds and other plant-life that have remained dormant in the ground. As the photo above shows though, after years of softwood plantation, the ground is left covered in a suffocating layer of pine needles and other debris. For healthy heathland to develop, this layer must be removed.

The conventional way to do this is to use diggers and other machinery to scrape the top layer away. However, for this project, a more environmentally friendly alternative is proving pretty effective!


A friendly and curious bunch of hard working piglets

Grange heath is home to a lot(!) of Mangalitza pig. They belong to The Salt Pig in Wareham and live free range in certain areas of the heath. By rooting around as they forage for food, they turn over the earth and clear the way for the new heathland plants to take hold again.

The work all done by hardworking pigs

The work all done by hardworking pigs

As the picture shows, apart from trees and gorse, the ground is completely bare earth now. The pigs are rotated around different areas so that the whole area will eventually be systematically cleared. Now, these are just piglets. I titled this post sheep pigs, and now I’ll show you why!

Teenage mangalitzas, still wearing their woolly coat

Teenage mangalitzas, still wearing their woolly coat

These pigs are a few months older than the other piglets and have a thick curly winter coat which they are still wearing. While at Grange, I was also lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the newest arrivals to the group. When they are born, these piglets are stripy, like wild boar!

Only a few days old!

Only a few days old!

The younger pigs tend to get very excited at the presence of a human – I suppose they think they might be fed! The adults in their pen though are much more laid back and definitely enjoy a good back scratch.


The grown-ups take it easy

Ostensibly, we were at Grange to move some fallen trees and repair the fences that they fell on. Unfortunately it turned out that the task was a bit bigger than had been realised…


Bitten off more than they could chew?

Which happily left some of us with a bit of time to look around at the wildlife. We went for a bit of a walk through the bog, spotting plenty of sundews and seeing a newly emerged dragonfly among other things.


Common toad


Striped ladybird


Mystery caterpillar – if you recognise it I’d love to know!

Hopefully from now on I’ll manage to maintain a weekly update of goings on at Arne. I found the use of the pigs as a land management tool fascinating so had to finish off this post but I’ll try to keep more up to date now!

Sourdough success!

By George, she’s got it!

I’ve had Horace and Fergus for just over a month now and I think I might, just might, have got the hang of fitting them into my life!

I’ve downsized both so they don’t use so much flour and moved Fergus into a yoghurt pot too as it’s more fitting for his diminished stature :) I was removing nearly two cups of starter at each feed and adding another cup of flour and water. Now I remove about a cup and add a half cup of each.P1030198


Happy bubbly starters

I’m also having to feed them twice a day as they seem to be so active now. They are happy now and I’ve found a routine that works for me so I’m planning to stick to it for the time being!

I’m making bread  in some form almost every day now which uses one cup of Horace or Fergus in the morning. The starter removed in the afternoon feed and the spare starter from the morning feed all goes into a jug in the fridge and each morning we’re making a batch of sourdough pancakes. This means we’re not having to discard any starter now and the pancakes are great for breakfast and cold as sandwiches.

The new bread making routine goes something like this:

First thing (usually about 5-7 am):

Feed Fergus and Horace

Use one or t’other to make ‘sponge’ for bread

Add other to yesterdays afternoon discard and make pancakes

Go out to work / volunteer

When I get in (usually about 3-6 pm):

Make bread dough from ‘sponge’

Feed Fergus and Horace

Put discard in a jug and leave in the fridge overnight

Through the evening

Knock back and knead dough every hour or so

Just before bed

Shape the dough and leave to prove overnight

First-thing (5 am)


And start all over again!

And hey, look how good the bread looks now! P1030195P1030194P1030197

The new method uses a wetter dough and I also add a good splash of oil  to the dough which seems to give it a more moist and tender crumb. The repeated knocking back maker the dough softer and lighter until, in the words of River Cottage’s Dan Stevens “it’s as soft and fluffy as an angels pillow”. Lovely.

Watching the feeders

One of my favourite things about manning the information hut at Arne is watching the comings and goings of the birds and other wildlife on the feeders. It’s amazing how unfazed they are by the comings and goings of visitors and how close they allow you to come.

Even the most common of garden birds are lovely to watch and when you look closely you come to realise just how pretty they can be!


Blue-tit and male siskin


Great-tit and goldfinch


Coal-tit, two male house sparrows and a male chaffinch




Male siskin, female greenfinch, male greenfinch, goldfinch


Male siskin, male greenfinch


Female chaffinch, two male siskins


Two male chaffinches


Male siskin, female chaffinch

Long time, no post!

Ahhh! It’s been crazy here recently. I just seem to have so much to do and not enough time to do it! This is a quick summary of things I meant to write a proper post about but just didn’t get round to it. Hopefully soon I’ll be up to date!

I’ve been baking sourdough for nearly a month now and getting much better at it. I tried keeping Horace and Fergus in the fridge and feeding them less often but that didn’t seem to be successful. Fergus turned proteolytic leading to flat, dense bread as the gluten in the dough was broken down. I took them out of the fridge and am now feeding them twice a day which they seem to be much happier about.

Evidence of a proteolytic starter

Evidence of a proteolytic starter – the gluten is breaking down resulting in a loss of elasticity in the dough


Result – once released from the proving basket, the loaf flattens and splits producing a dense bread with lots of surface splits

Feeding Horace and Fergus twice a day results in a lot of starter to discard. We’ve experimented with different ways to quickly use up excess so it’s not wasted. Crumpets and flatbreads were lovely but very time consuming to cook. Now we’ve settled on pancakes, which are quick and easy to make and also excellent for eating cold or reheated. Even as sandwich bread for packed lunches!

Making sourdough pancakes

Making sourdough pancakes

I’ve also had the pizza oven fired up recently, making sourdough pizza and attempting to bake a loaf in there. Limited success on both counts but I intend to practice a lot more over the summer!

Making sourdough pizza

Making sourdough pizza

First attempt at baking sourdough in the pizza oven

First attempt at baking sourdough in the pizza oven

I’ve now started making a much wetter dough which produces nice big air bubbles, although it is harder to handle initially. I’m also adding olive oil to the dough which makes the bread a bit more tender. I’m so pleased with my experiments so far and have invested in a couple of proper proving baskets to try out a different loaf shape too!

In other baking news, I recently made a cake for a local ringing event.

A bell-shaped cake...

A bell-shaped cake… it got painted gold shortly after this photo was taken (I.e. in the frantic 5 minutes before my lift arrived when I decided it needed something more)

So far, so ordinary.


Best thing I have ever made!!

Best thing I have ever made!!

It’s a bell-shaped battenberg cake, and it actually worked!! So pleased. Can you tell?

I’ve also made a lot of strawberry jam recently. What with it now approaching peak strawberry season at the market, we occasionally have left-overs, especially if the weather has not been great. I’ve had over 5 kg of strawbs so far and made a lot of strawberry and redcurrant and strawberry and rhubarb jam. Both lovely and delicious with hot buttered sourdough toast!

Well, I think that’s a successful tour of my recent foodie experiments. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep more up-to-date from now on!

Finally some knitting done!

Sorry, it seems like ages since I’ve finished any crafty projects…  not sure if sourdough counts!P1020946

I seem to have very little time for knitting or sewing at the moment. I’ve put aside the Bellringing Jumper for now as it’s really a winter project and plan to focus of a few smaller knitting projects for the summer.

For the last couple of months, my companion on train journeys has been my blue raspberry socks which are finally finished!


My pretty new socks :)

I used Express Lane by Diane Mulholland with a few mods. I wasn’t sure about the short row toe method in the pattern so used my usual method, casting on 32 sts using turkish cast-on then making paired increases every other row until I had the full 60 sts.

I did use the method described for the heel and though I quite like the effect, I found all the yarn-overs and p3tog and k3tog quite fiddly and I’m not quite sure why they were necessary. Other than that I enjoyed knitting the pattern. It looks pretty and was easy to memorise. Especially important for me, it’s fairly easy to spot where you’ve gone wrong too!


I love the tonal colouring of the yarn

These socks were knitted with yarn I dyed with food colouring. It’ll be interesting to see how the colour holds up in the wash! My favourite part is probably the short row areas of the heel on the blue sock, the gradient dyed repeat of the yarn is really shown off to best advantage here. I hope I can try dyeing my own sock yarn again and next time I will properly measure the length of a knitted row to achieve a self-striping effect over the whole sock.

Monday moth morning

On Mondays in May we have moth mornings at Arne where visitors can have the opportunity to see what has been collected in the moth traps overnight. This week, I was treated to an introduction to this fascinating world.

Moths are a brilliant indicator of the health of a habitat. The greater the variety found, the greater diversity of other wildlife can also be supported as moths are often a vital food source for many birds and animals. They are also often very specific about their food plants and environment so getting moths particular to the kind of habitat you are trying to create shows that the land is being well managed.

This post covers a selection of the moths that we found this week.

Note – The moths were identified during the event and all other information I’ve mostly got from

Maiden's Blush (Cyclophora punctaria)

Maiden’s Blush (Cyclophora punctaria)

Maiden’s blush  – a pretty, delicate little moth, this is found in oak woodlands and the caterpillars feed on oak leaves. It is fairly common locally in the south and had two flying generations, first in May/June and then again in August.

Male Muslin Moth (Diaphora mendica)

Male Muslin Moth (Diaphora mendica)

Muslin moth – these show clear sexual dimorphism where the males and females have different appearance. We found several of these in the moth traps, all light grey/brown males with bright orange under the thorax. Females are white and fly during the day so aren’t usually found in the traps. They are pretty common throughout the UK and live in a variety of habitats.

Female Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi)

Female Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi)

Fox moth – terrible picture, sorry! In this species it is the females who fly at night and are caught in the moth traps. They are bigger and greyer than the males which are generally reddish brown (hence fox?!) These are common locally and open woodlands, moors and commons where the caterpillars feed on a variety of plants including heather and bramble. This moth seemed to have spent all night depositing her eggs around the trap and we found several clusters!

Probably fox moth eggs...?

Probably fox moth eggs…?

Pale Tussock (Calliteara pudibunda)

Female Pale Tussock (Calliteara pudibunda)

Pale tussock – an interesting looking moth with distinctive tarantula-like legs sticking out forwards at rest. Males are smaller with darker markings. These are pretty common in England and Wales.

Light Brocade (Lacanobia w-latinum)

Light Brocade (Lacanobia w-latinum)

Light brocade – a striking moth, it reminds me of those paintings you do in primary school by splodging paint on a piece of paper then folding it in half :) These are pretty common in the south and there were several in the trap this week. They live near rough ground and heathland on calcareous soil.

Lesser Swallow Prominent (Pheosia gnoma)

Lesser Swallow Prominent (Pheosia gnoma)

Lesser swallow prominent – Prominents are a group of moths that share an upright, narrow resting position and often prominent humps or ridges on the upper surface. The larger white patches distinguish it from the swallow prominent which is also a fairly common in the UK.

Coxcomb Prominent (Ptilodon capucina)

Coxcomb Prominent (Ptilodon capucina)

Coxcomb prominent – typically a rich brown with a distinctive cream tuft on the thorax, they feign death when handled. Fairly common, they fly in two generations, in May/June and again in August. The caterpillars feed on deciduous trees.

Buff-tip (Phalera bucephala)

Buff-tip (Phalera bucephala)

Buff-tip – Another really distinctive moth. It looks very much like a small birch twig and is found in mixed woodland. It’s quite common in the south and found throughout the UK.

Great Prominent (Peridea anceps)

Great Prominent (Peridea anceps)

Great prominent – a dullish looking moth, it’s found mainly in the south but also in the Lake District. It is found in oak woodlands where the caterpillars feed on oak leaves. One of these took a fancy to one of the visitor hut staff and stayed on his jacket all day, bit of a conversation starter!

In addition we saw a couple of more moths that I didn’t manage to get a photo of.

Horse chestnut – uninspiring in appearance this was the least frequent of the moths we found this week. It doesn’t feed on horse chestnut, despite the name, the caterpillars mostly feed on heather. They are found on lowland heath and can be quite common locally.

Angle shades – very distinctive, it’s wings are held in angular furls at rest. They can be found from May to October throughout the UK but more frequently in the south.

Not the most interesting post to some I guess, but it’s a useful record for me!  There will be more, sorry! (Not sorry)

Down at the reserve

In just two weeks so much has changed down at Arne. Most of the trees have their summer coats on now and the woodland areas of the reserve have become cooler and shadier than before.


The lush, green early summer colour of the woodlands

Swifts have suddenly appeared in much greater numbers now and hobbys and spotted flycatchers have also been regularly spotted. The kestrel pair at the farm now have four eggs and the barn owls in their nest box have six.

Ms Kestrel showing off her eggs on the live video feed

Ms Kestrel showing off her eggs on the live video feed

The reserve at Arne is lucky enough to be home to all six of the UKs native reptile species. These are viviparous or common lizard, sand lizard, slow worm, smooth snake, adder and grass snake. Last week, staff and volunteers had a reptile survey training day where we learned how to check tins and felts for smooth snakes, slow worms and adders. These were just one metre square sheets of corrugated tin or roofing felt which were laid strategically over the heathland . These sheets warm up under the sun and in the morning the reptiles crawl underneath to warm up for the day ahead. It was great to see and hold my first smooth snake and see a bright green male sand lizard too!

A stone chat poised at the top of a scots pine on the heath

A stonechat poised at the top of a scots pine on the heath

Other recent wildlife sightings include stonechats, mistle thrush and long-tailed tits. All these have very distinctive calls which I’m trying to learn to recognise. Stonechats make a loud chirping sound like two pebbles being knocked together and the mistle thrush I saw were emitting their loud warning call, like the sound of a football rattle. Long-tailed tits are just the sweetest ball of pink, black and white fluff with a deceptively loud voice!

On Friday evening we also enjoyed a camp out on the reserve and were fortunate enough to hear and briefly see a nightjar. The loud whistling call during flight and the chirring song are easy to hear after dark, in the absence of most other bird calls. In June and July there are weekly nightjar walks which I hope to go on to hear and see more of these special birds.

I’d like you to meet Fergus and Horace

Recently there have been some new additions to the family.

Meet Fergus and Horace, my sourdough starters!


Fergus bubbling away happily


Horace, looking a bit more scummy but hopefully also living a happy life in his yoghurt pot

Fergus is a wholemeal starter I began myself just over 2 weeks ago. Horace is descended from an existing sourdough starter and was brought to the UK  and posted to me by a lovely friend whose parents own a bakery in the Netherlands. They both smell quite distinct and different and I’ve enjoyed experimenting with both now that they’re up and running!

I’m using locally produced, organic stoneground flour from Stoates flour for feeding the starters and making the bread. Sourdough is a tricksy thing to fit into daily life as it can require a lot of attention and needs regular knocking back and kneading throughout the day to build up the structure. I think I’ve found a system that works though.

Both starters live in the fridge as they ferment more slowly at lower temperatures and can be left longer between feeding. I am trying to alternate using Fergus and Horace making about 2-3 batches of bread per week.

The process

In the evening, 2 days before I want to bake the bread, I make the sponge. This is a wet kind of batter using the starter, flour and warm water. I leave the mixture overnight for the wild yeasts to do their work.


A sponge made from Fergus

In the morning I add more flour and salt to make the bread dough. This is kneaded then shaped into a ball and left to rise and I go about my daily business. When I get home in the afternoon I knock back the dough, give it another knead and shape it and let it rise for about an hour. This is repeated several more times during the evening until it’s time for bed.


Bread dough being left to rise

After a day of nurturing I shaped the loaves and left them to rise overnight in baskets. First thing next morning I baked!


The first loaf from Fergus

I’ve made a few loaves now and realised that I’m probably not kneading enough as the dough doesn’t quite have the structure it should. The bread has ended up spreading out quite a lot. I hope I will be able to get better results in the future!