September 2022 Sign-off

We are now at the end of our 5-year study of Cambridge wildlife, and our book The Nature of Cambridge will be published on 21st October 2022.  In it, we give a comprehensive overview of the city and its wild inhabitants, including geology, climate, urban development, plants, animals, nature conservation and comparison with other cities.  It is still available from the publisher at the pre-publication price of £17.50 plus £4.00 delivery charge.  To order it go to the publisher’s website where it is prominently displayed.

Committee members were asked for their individual comments on how this study has affected their appreciation of local wildlife.

Mark Hill, project leader, botanist and bryologist said, “Our project began with a discussion at the council of the Cambridge Natural History Society in December 2015.  The first committee meeting was held on 7th January 2016.  We decided to call ourselves NatHistCam and to be separate from CNHS.  I chaired the committee and acted as its secretary.  Progress was initially rather slow, with an official launch at the CNHS conversazione in June.  We planned for the main project to run from 2017 to 2019, after which we would write a book.  By autumn 2016 we had set up a website, filmed for Cambridge TV in Paul Rule’s garden, planned a garden survey and a mistletoe survey, planned for monthly blogs, and presented our proposals at a meeting of CNHS.  We were ready to go.  Over the succeeding years, the project has changed and grown, but the two main aims have succeeded, with a book to appear in October 2022 and involvement of the wider public through monthly blogs by Olwen Williams and Bob Jarman.  The project had no outside funding.  We have enjoyed ourselves and all of us have learnt many things.”

Duncan Mackay, generalist with special interest in invertebrates says, “When I started to consider this project, I had some misgivings, because I thought it was going to be yet another story of environmental doom and gloom. I produced a little film with the message that “Cambridge is getting bigger and bigger and wildlife is getting squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces”.  But as the project went along, it became increasingly clear that the opposite was in fact true…. Cambridge really is a wildlife hotspot and there is a wonderful concentration of species within the city.

I looked at the dragonflies and wondered how close to the Wicken Fen count of 22 species we could achieve. I could hardly contain my delight when the city total reached 24 species. Yet we found that the same great diversity was true for so many other species. However, the corollary of this is that the range of species is so much lower elsewhere.  I think we have in the city the sort of diversity that Victorian naturalists found in the countryside, but now with the widespread use of pesticides and herbicides and the loss of natural habitat, we have such a decline in diversity elsewhere in the county that soon we will be building wildlife corridors out from the city in order to recolonise the surrounding area.” 

Monica Frisch, botanist, says, “Working on NatHistCam has been a very rewarding experience and has revealed a great deal of fascinating information about flora and fauna in the Cambridge city area. The book will be an invaluable record of the natural history of Cambridge.” She sent a picture of a Willow Beauty Moth, found in the house and returned to the garden.

Willow Beauty Moth
Monica Frisch

Paul Rule, generalist, entomologist and photographer, whose garden had a mention on BBC Springwatch 2020, says, “As of the end of September 2022, my total garden species count had reached 1,234 species. Of these, 980 are invertebrates and several new ones are added each week. We are now in peak spider season and my two star additions in the last week of September were both arachnids.”

The Pirate Spider Ero tuberculata is a species recorded at only one other location in Cambs (Wicken Fen). The other highlight was finding the first Pseudoscorpion in leaf litter. The Dimple-clawed Chthonid, Ephippiochthonius tetrachelatus is not uncommon, but at only 2mm in length and hidden away from the light, they are rarely seen. There was also a Jumping Spider, Heliophanus flavipes and a Green Crab Spider, Diaea dorsata.

He records a female Garden Spider, Araneus diadematus, who was approached by a male of the same species. Before seduction could begin, she just pounced on him and started to bundle him up for her next meal. Then there was the spider being attacked by a Spider-Hunting Wasp, probably Auplopus carbonarius. Not a good week for spiders?!

Chris Donnelly, Cambs Geological Society says, “On a Fen Edge Trail walk in June, we looked at the geological setting of both the wildlife and history of the city – enjoying a different perspective to the usual Cambridge walk. The current Cam, fed mostly by streams from the Chalk, is much smaller than the ice-age, powerful river that created the valley and deposited huge amounts of gravel, forming several ‘terraces’ of higher land on either side. Both wildlife and man have made use of this drier, more free-draining land – as we saw when looking across at the King’s College Chapel and its flowering meadow, both sitting ‘high’ up on the 1st /2nd terraces.  (The walk happened to be exactly when King’s new wildflower meadow was in full bloom.)  There’s lots more about local geology in the book….”

Illustrating Cambridge Geology – the gravel terraces above the Cam (King’s College new wildflower meadow in the background). Chris Donnelly

Bob Jarman, our resident Birding expert, sent a picture of a Willow Emerald damselfly (with its distinct pterostigma!).  “It is a recent colonist and new to me at Logan’s Meadow.  The rare wader, a juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper was found just outside our study area near Shelford. It breeds in high the Russian and Canadian Arctics. Most over-winter in South America but some take a westward migration into Europe – there are about 50 UK records each year.” He also mentioned a number of Sept/Oct 2022 sightings of both Wrynecks and Whinchats.  Read his chapter, which describes the huge and unexpected number of bird species, including those flying over at night (NocMig recording) and the high density of raptors in the city.

Shaggy Mouse-ear-hawkweed WikiMedia

Jonathan Shanklin, County Botanical Recorder says, “Despite the tetrad TL45J having one of the highest species counts in the country it is still possible to find additional species.  Whilst at the Cavendish Laboratory in mid September I found a patch of Pilosella flagellaris (Shaggy Mouse-ear-hawkweed), whose only other site in the NatHistCam area is on Newmarket Road.  This demonstrates that recording is never complete and that there will always be new or overlooked species to discover in the City.” (Pilosella flagellaris is  very similar to the more common Mouse-ear-hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum), but distinguished by Pilosella flagellaris having have two or more flower heads produced from one stem.) 

My own comment, “We have all found a new curiosity about wildlife outside our original area of interest. The scale insects on my apricot tree; the white mites running over a slug, in and out of its pneumopore; the empty snail shell hanging from a spider web (some spiders eat snails); the mass of Garden Spider spiderlings which dropped from the bunch where they had hatched when disturbed and then gradually reassembled: these were all observations made in the back garden where I take breakfast every day.

From here, I have done a weekly bird count over the last year, admired the mixed flock of rooks and jackdaws in the winter and the heronry in the spring. The thing I have enjoyed most about writing this blog has been the enthusiasm of my many contributors – to whom much praise and thanks. I hope they will enjoy the book.”

I finish with Duncan’s comment: “The team spirit and the inspirational cooperation and sharing of ideas that came from the project was truly wonderful. I was very honoured to have been president of the Cambridge Natural History Society for at least part of the time this was going on, but the real honour should go to the presidents and others who put it all into action and got us all out in the city looking at the wonderful diversity that was really there.”

Olwen Williams October 2022