St Mary’s Church in Lower Higham is my top favourite church. Apparently a church was present before the Norman Conquest but, starting with the Normans, it has been altered many times since. It is now “redundant” and in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. I have never known it to be closed. But it is not the history or the architecture that attracts me to the church. It is, as the phrase goes, “Location, Location, Location”. Only a short walk from the river Thames it is right on the edge of the wet grassland which for centuries has been used for grazing cattle and sheep. Perhaps in Saxon times the Thames saltmarsh would have extended right up to the church but, over time, fields were reclaimed from the tide by dragging up earth walls and digging ditches. What we have today is a mosaic of fields with the field edges delineated by the original sinuous saltmarsh runnels and rills and by the straight hand dug ditches. The last major work was carried out in the early 1980s when a new seawall was raised to protect the area from rising sea levels. This slow change has created a precious open habitat for birds such as redshank and lapwing and also for a wide range of invertebrates that are associated with the watery world of the ditches. The land is now managed by the RSPB. St Mary’s has always been at the centre of our visits. It has been somewhere to lean our bikes, the bench by the south door has been a place for morning tea, picnic lunches or just somewhere to rest our legs. The church has kept us cool and has kept us dry. Above all it has been somewhere to go to take a few steps back, to slow down and let the world go by. People will have been doing much the same for hundreds of years. Sally and I used to go there so often that, many many years ago, I decided it would be a great nature study area for a long term project. So I bought a large scale map of the 1km square around the church with the intention of systematically observing and recording the wildlife – researching for continuity or change. Although we have visited many times since, and I have the nature notes, the project came to a very swift end.
A few weeks ago, on a beautiful sunny morning, Sally and I visited St Mary’s. After tea and a look inside the church, we walked to the old pond by the former pub “The Sun”. Here we saw a dragonfly hawking amongst the bulrushes and for ages it refused to stop and have its picture taken. I thought it looked like a southern migrant hawker (Aeshna affinis). Eventually it stopped, briefly, and Sally did well to get this photograph. I have only seen this species 3 or 4 times before – it is sometimes called the blue eyed hawker.
We walked on past the pub to the light woodland that has grown up over the last 30 years. I was hoping we would find some willow emerald damselflies (Lestes viridis or whatever it is now called) – in fact we found at least ten individuals hanging almost motionless in the trees. I have never seen so many! This species is quite unusual because of the position of the wings at rest. It is often written that dragonflies hold their wings out straight at right angles to the body while damselflies hold their wings flat along their backs. Well, the willow emerald (and others in this group) have clearly not read the books and choose to hold their wings at a different angle. Sometimes they are called “spreadwing” or “jet winged” damselflies. However, their most unusual habit it that they don’t lay their eggs in the water or on plants in the water. Rather, the female lays her eggs in the twigs of the trees overhanging the water. The larvae hatch and eventually bite their way out of the twig and fall in the water to continue their development.
We returned to the church for our picnic lunch and then made our way across the marsh towards the river. As we walked alongside one of the ditches we noticed lots of small red-eyed damselflies (Erythromma viridulum) perched on the greenish algal scum on the water surface. I don’t know why but they love sitting on the scum. If you want to find small red-eyed damsels don’t look for them but look for scum! In the right place and the right time of year they will be there. The very similar red-eyed damselfly doesn’t use scum but prefers sitting on lily pads. That’s my theory anyway – it may get more complicated if the water surface has both lily pads and scum! There were so many small red-eyed damsels in the ditch they we gave up counting.
Back home, all of these sightings were transferred to the online iRecord database. I do try to get things correct so I often check my identifications with the guide books – I compare them with the photographs Sally has taken. My copy of the Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland published in 1997 did not mention any of the 3 species that we had seen that day. So I turned to my copy of the Field Guide to the Dragonflies of Britain and Europe published in 2006. This included the willow emerald and the small red-eyed damselfly and stated that they had just “arrived” in south-east England. The southern migrant hawker was in the book but it was stated not to occur in Britain. If only I had kept my long term project going I would know when they had arrived in Lower Higham. Now, my best “guesstimate” is that the small red-eyed damsel arrived about 2004, the willow emerald became established in 2014 and the southern migrant hawker in 2017 (all +/- a few years!).
And the same story can be written for most other groups of insects – new species of crickets, bees, wasps, moths, flies and beetles are arriving and can be found around St Mary’s church. Life at Lower Higham may look and feel as if it is set in the slow lane – but it is not. We are witnessing incredibly rapid change in our fauna. Although insect brains are only tiny clusters of cells they are capable of responding to climate change. Surely we, and particularly our politicians, are capable of doing as much.
Thanks to Sally for the photographs.
Postscript. The beautiful bud gall (on oak) of the cynipid wasp Andricus gemmeus – arrived about 2010 (more or less)