March 2018 report - People & Nature Strategy

Benson Nature Group has been rolling its sleeves up this month to begin cracking into a substantial programme of work to deliver the parish People and Nature Strategy.  We developed this last year as part of the neighbourhood planning processes.  There are multiple projects to get our teeth into, but after some lively debate, we’ve agreed that the starting point needs to be a logo and branding for the materials, website and signage we’ll be developing. We’d really welcome some help from a member of the community with skills in this area.   Do you have experience of the branding process? Could you offer a small amount of time to support us in developing some ideas?   Please contact Edel McGurk on edel.mcgurk@yahoo.co.uk   

 

In the meantime, the regular programme of BNG events continues.  We had a great turnout for our March event, a talk by Anthony Roach on Earthworm Watch, a citizen-science project dedicated to mapping the distribution of earthworms, understanding the benefits and filling gaps in knowledge, particularly for urban soils. 

April 2018 report – Swifts, Chris Mason

 

We had another well attended BNG event this month - lovely to see some new faces there! Chris Mason treated us to a fascinating talk about swifts, which by all accounts do actually sleep, eat and mate on the wing!  Swifts are yet another species in trouble nationally, with really steep declines in recent decades. That’s for a range of reasons, a decline in insect abundance and a loss of nest sites being two. Often people are not even aware they have swifts nesting in their property because they are a pretty tidy bird, leaving very little mess at or beneath the entrance to their nests.  The consequence of that is that the little holes the birds nest in often go un-noticed when building renovations are done. There are things we can all do about that, retaining nest sites and providing nest boxes with right sized access hole.  In Benson, our Neighbourhood Plan requires developers to incorporate wildlife-friendly features, including swift bricks, into the houses they build.  It’s a real sound and sight of summer, swifts screaming over head, and we do have them in Benson. Watch out for their scythe-like shape careering overhead, particularly around the Crown pub. They’ll return from their breeding grounds in Africa shortly.

In other news, Tom Stevenson, our Chairman has been marshalling an army of volunteers from Wallingford Green Gym to make a start on access improvements at Warwick Spinney, one of the village’s lesser known green spaces.  For those who don’t know where that is, it’s the meadow across the road from McDonald’s at the Elmbridge roundabout, just to the west of the footpath to Warborough.   (At the moment, you will need to sidle round the side of the rusty gate!) Bought by Benson Community Association to celebrate the millennium, everyone in this community has a stake in it.  The site is tricky to get to, however, and feels a bit under-used and unloved.  There is masses of scope to enhance the habitats at the site for the benefit of wildlife and for people to enjoy. We’ve planned a project in partnership with BCA, though which we will improve the accessibility of the site.  Do take a look at the management plan on our website bensonnaturegroup.com - navigate to the Warwick Spinney page under Green Spaces or contact our Chairman if you’d like to look at a hard copy.  And even better, do let us know if you’d like to lend a hand. Contact Tom Stevenson on 01491 836888 or email: thomas.stevenson@ntlworld.com

May 2018 report - Activities of "Wild Oxfordshire"Roselle Chapman

Bees have smelly feet - well, who knew!! And we have quite a rare species of bumblebee in Benson that looks like it’s wearing a black velour tracksuit! It’s called the Large Garden Bumblebee or Ruderal Bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus), and has a particularly long tongue, feeding on the everlasting pea plants in the village. All fascinating facts relayed in a very entertaining talk by Roselle Chapman, Wild Oxfordshire’s community ecologist at BNG’s May meeting at the Cress Beds visitors centre. Bees leave a smell on the petals when they’ve taken nectar from a flower, which tells the next bee that there is no point in visiting. When you’re visiting 10,000 flowers in a day, that half a second saved makes a big difference to your efficiency! You can see the effect in action if you see bees flying close to a flower and then veering away. Bees and other pollinators are a particular focus in the work we have underway in the village - make sure you’re choosing plants for your garden that provide them with sources of nectar through the season.

June 2018 report - Crowmarsh Battle Farm

We had a good turn out at our May event at the Cressbeds when Philip Chamberlain from Crowmarsh Battle Farm in Preston Crowmarsh talked us through how his farming operation runs.  Philip is farming on an enormous scale in the local area, with a mixture of land that his family owns, a number of Farm Business Tenancies and several contract farms as well. It was fascinating to hear about the integrated farm management approach Philip takes, and the role technology plays in helping the farm optimise with incredible precision the planting of seed and input of chemicals and fertilisers, based on a detailed mapping of crop yields and nutrient status in the soil.  All of the machinery uses satellite data to do this, and a stat that really stood out was that if Philip found an error of more than 2cm in the tracking, he’d be having words with the manufacturer!   Of course, intensive efficient production is only one part of the story for Philip’s business - using government environmental stewardship grants, he invests a lot in creating habitat for wildlife on his farm too.  Members of the BNG are looking forward to seeing how all this looks on the ground when Philip hosts a farm walk for the group on Saturday 30th June.  

September 2018 - New Green Spaces

In a change from our usual style of event, our September meeting saw us run a workshop to gather members' ideas and suggestions on what the new green spaces in developments to the north of the village should look like.  We started off with an overview from Jon Fowler of the Neighbourhood Plan, looking particularly at what the green infrastructure and environment policies require developers to do.  I then gave an overview of the wider suite of projects that have started to emerge under the People and Nature Strategy that we produced last year for the parish.  It includes the work with the school that Imogen Parker wrote about last month, and an ambitious  array of projects to enhance specific sites and ensure the new green spaces become part of a network that is designed to cater for the wildlife and people we hope will use them.   With that in mind, the whole group gathered around an enormous map extracted from the latest Littleworth Road planning application and discussed ideas to incorporate into the new green spaces.   They include mosaic of planting, particularly trees and meadows for the benefit of wildlife, creation of ponds and scrapes, a community orchard, space for community gatherings/picnics/BBQs, a 'learn to ride your bike’ space, a skatepark and MUGA, and the importance of the providing shelters/places for older kids, who often simply want somewhere dry to hang out with their friends.  We also talked about the challenges of meeting the aspirations of a range of users in one space.   If you’ve got ideas to lob in the pot, please do send them to me at edel.mcgurk@yahoo.co.uk - we are working with the developers and their consultants on the detail, so now is that opportunity to influence this.   

 

Finally, we were really excited to be able to unveil BNG's new logo!  The result of a lot of work over the summer, the creation of the logo was achieved with the help of a grant from Benson Community Association, enabling us to bring in the advice of Peter Cox Design, based in Shillingford. We’re really pleased with it and feedback from the members was unanimously positive.  We will now build this new branding into the look and feel of our website and materials, and get it out there on FB and Twitter.  

October 2018 - What's the point of Wasps

Being stung by a wasp, as many of us have been, negatively colours our perceptions of these creatures and their portrayal in popular culture only serves to re-enforce our negative impressions. With 150,000 species globally (of which 9 in the UK), wasp species vastly outnumber bee and ant species combined. Yet their value to the environment is under-appreciated by the public as well as by the scientific community, particularly when compared with the public’s positive attitude and the considerably greater research effort in relation to bees.

 

This was the message articulated in this month’s wide-ranging, entertaining and captivating talk by Dr Seirian Sumner, a national expert in social insect behaviour at University College London, where she undertakes leading edge scientific research and goes by the Twitter handle of @waspwoman.

 

To underline the diversity of wasps the audience participated in a “Wasp or Not” interactive session where we tried to establish from photos whether we were looking at a wasp, a fly or a bee. With survival strategies including mimicking moths and mantises, and their enormous variety of shapes, colours and sizes, it is no wonder this was an interesting but perplexing task. Did you know that wasps play at least as important a role in pollination as bees? And that they are one of nature’s best predatory pest controllers? (For example, it is estimated that a single colony of yellow jacket wasps can devour 250,000 aphids in a season.) Or that wasp larvae are high in protein, low in fat and are consumed in wasp cookies in Japan?

 

To learn more about the under-documented behaviour of wasps, a citizen science project, “The Big Wasp Survey”, was launched in 2017 by Dr Sumner and attracted a huge response. Its aim, to build a map of the biodiversity and distribution of wasp species across the UK, involved beer-trapping wasps in gardens and sending the “catch” to her team to be analysed.

 

It is planned to continue this survey on an annual basis. No doubt Dr Sumner’s on-going research will only serve to re-enforce her wordle that wasps are “diverse, sophisticated, phenomenal and essential” and that “we should all learn to love wasps”.

November 2018 - Conker Tree Science

What a fantastic talk we had in November by Michael Pocock by CEH on the subject of Conker Tree Science. Delivering far more than billed by the title, we were treated to a hugely entertaining run around the history of horse-chestnut trees in our landscape, their arrival from the Balkans, and the arrival hundreds of years later of the Horse-chestnut Leaf Miner Moth from the same part of the world.  A beautiful micro-moth, no bigger than a grain of rice, this insect is responsible for the leaves of most horse-chestnut trees turning brown over the summer. Touching on the evolution of citizen science, the testing of biological pest-control, and the role of international trade in trees in the spread of pests and disease, we finished up with some thought provoking discussion on how our views on tricky questions eg about non-native species is often influenced far more by our individual values than the science.  Next month, we host our AGM. Our chairman, Tom will do his annual run down of what BNG’s been up to this year, and business over, we’ll toast the great year we’ve had with a glass of wine. Tuesday 11th December, Canon’s Room, 7.30 pm.