Tag Archives: Newhaven

The curious incident of the dung beetle in the night-time

My father made eye contact and said something along the lines: “Can you hear that?” To start I wasn’t sure whether he meant Radio 4 droning away in the corner of the room, my brother careening down the stairs, or the kettle whistling on the gas in the kitchen. No, he was referring to an almost inaudible tick, tick, tick, coming from the window. He had the knowing look of someone who is about to show off something new.

As a 10-year-old, it was not unusual for me to be sitting in the lounge, as we called my father’s book-lined sitting room. Whilst he sat in the centre of the room behind the large polished wooden desk strewn with pens, papers and books, perhaps a microscope and a drawer of insects, I’d be perched at the smaller bureau-style table against the wall. Maybe I’d be doing homework. Actually, I’m not sure 10-year-olds had homework then. More likely I’d be writing up my own nature diary from whatever family trek we’d been out on that day. I might even have been pinning my own insect specimens, or doodling a sketch of a plant, or a map.

The tapping was definitely coming from outside the window. We drew back the curtains, but the brightly lit aura of the room barely penetrated the dark outside. There was nothing I could see. My Dad knew better. Slipping on shoes we tripped round to the front of the house to see what was going on.

The noise had stopped when we got to the window, but Dad pointed to the windowsill, probably just at or above the level of my eyeline. There, crawling across the yellow paintwork was a beetle.

Medium-sized (12 mm), elongate, parallel-sided, subcylindrical, dark brown nearly black, it had shortish stout legs and strongly clubbed antennae. Aphodius rufipes was my first dung beetle. It had flown in from the flood-plain grazing meadows that flanked the River Ouse hereabouts. Many hundreds of metres probably. Quite an achievement for a half-inch insect.

Aphodius Reitter 3 copy

Some handsome dung beetles. Aphodius rufipes is top right.

I strain now, but I can’t quite remember whether I thought this an odd thing for a beetle. Maybe the notion of dung recycling had already crossed my radar. I certainly understood about stag beetle larvae living in rotten wood. I probably knew about drone flies breeding in flooded tree holes. It’s all decaying organic matter.

It wouldn’t be long before Dad would also show me the huge dumbledors, Geotrupes spinipes, or maybe it was stercorarius, heaving its juggernaut way through the fingers of my clasped hand, then flying off, like a miniature helicopter. The power of the toothed legs amazed me, and the feeling of that downdraft as it buzzed away stays with me still.

Dissecting a cow pat came naturally to me. Other dung beetles followed. The great glossy Aphodius fossor, slightly shorter, but thicker and heavier than rufipes, was a favourite, so too was the small mottled and rather rare Aphodius paykulli. The chunky earthmover shape of Onthophagus coenobita appeared when I graduated to dog dung, and the mythically horned Minotaur beetle, Typhoeus typhaeus was eventually dug up from under rabbit crottels in Ashdown Forest.

I still find Aphodius rufipes occasionally. In cow or horse droppings. Never at my lighted window though. But whenever I hold its  smooth elegant shape in my fingers, I still think back to the warm summer Newhaven evenings, and the delicate head banging on the lounge glass.

I just can’t remember a time before insects

I inherited my interest in natural history from my father. When asked, he would claim to be ‘just a botanist’, but he always carried an insect net, and during his lifetime he amassed a large collection of insects across all orders. He also knew a thing or two about snails.

Even before we moved to Newhaven (in May 1965), I remember being out with Dad, or with the family, walking in the Surrey woods or along the North Downs. My first taste of fizzy orange juice was at the cafe near Box Hill railway station, surrounded by crowds of mods and rockers. I didn’t like the bubbles on my tongue, ‘hot’ I thought. The motorcycle policeman suggested we get on the train with the mods, rather than the more unstable and possibly more violent rockers.

I don’t quite remember this though.

Selsey v.60028

Two-year-old me.

It seems the indoctrination had started early. This was from our holiday to Selsey Bill, in May 1960. Even before this I was apparently dragged about the countryside, literally, in a large-wheeled push-chair, adapted for rough terrain by the addition of a stout pulling chain to the front axle, when extra power was needed to get along muddy bridleways.

My earliest insect collection (mostly butterflies, dragonflies and bumblebees, if I remember right) no longer exists, but a few surviving specimens linger  in the drawers today. According to my old catalogue, specimen 1a was the giant weevil Liparus coronatus from 1967 . Some of the memories are there though. Around the time of our first arrival in Newhaven I chased clouded yellows across the cliff-tops at Telscombe. A short walk over the downs to Bishopstone and it took several bites from saucer bugs (Ilyocoris cimicoides) and water boatmen (Notonecta species), before I worked out that I had to be carefully picking things out of the pond-dipping net.

I grew up thinking it was perfectly normal to spend every sun-lit weekend hour squelching across the marshy meadows of the Sussex river valleys, scrambling up the stepped sheep-rutted scarps of the chalk beacon hills, and pushing through the dense woods and copses of the Weald; then to sit down at a desk in the evening to pin insects onto setting boards, or fair-copy write-up my nature notes.

This picture is from much later, July 1983, when I was visiting my parents, but similar images from the previous 25 years would have shown the same thing — a shared interest in natural history. Thanks Dad.

July 1983015

Father and son.

A woodlouse as big as a hen’s egg it seemed

There are some events significant well beyond the moment of the actual encounter. They become seminal memories, key turning points in a life, or major influences on future choices. For me, many of these moments appear to involve finding a particular insect. Or in this case a crustacean.

Aged 11, I started at Newhaven Tideway Comprehensive School. It was right on the other side of the town, a good 2 miles walk away;  there were various possible routes, but to start with I took the Drove Road into town, then along the West Quay Road, and finally up Gibbon Road to the school. Things have changed a lot since — at that time there was a bustling harbour with a good dozen or so large wooden jetties along this side of the River Ouse, each with several fishing trawlers moored. There was also a large quay area with scoop-cranes to unload gravel and sand from cargo ships. It wasn’t the most direct way to school, and usually took me nearly an hour, but it was the most interesting.

When the tide was out, the muddy and rocky river bank was exposed, and dawdling home I would often go right down to the water’s edge to skim stones or turn over rocks looking for small shore crabs. It was on one such slippery exploration that I hauled over a slimy algae-covered boulder to reveal a biological marvel — the biggest woodlouse I had ever seen. It seemed as big as an egg when it first scuttled off. It was certainly very large, probably the maximum 30 mm that this fantastic creature can reach.

It could have been the Kraken.

It could have been the Kraken.

I had never seen anything like it, and knew I had to show it to someone, or they would never believe me. Armed only with a battered briefcase full of exercise books I had nothing to contain my treasure. I was not to be daunted. I walked the rest of the way home with the beast trapped in my cupped hands.

I was slightly deflated to learn that the sea slater, Ligia oceanica, was a widespread and common sea critter, but nothing could take away from me that initial sense of wonder. I still get a thrill when I find one now, under a stone by a rock pool or on the saltmarshes of the Thames Estuary. I was most pleased to find them crawling up the rotten wooden fenders deep in Deptford Creek (where this photo was taken in May 1998) and at the outfall of the River Wandle at Wandsworth, I think the UK’s most inland record.

But despite my childish over-exageration, in the intervening 40 odd years, I still don’t think I’ve ever seen one quite as big as that first.

Top snail

On 17 September 1967 the Jones family set off on a walk over the South Downs between Denton and South Heighton, in East Sussex. We’d moved to Newhaven a couple of years before, and such was the novelty of countryside (we’d lived in South Norwood, near Croydon previously) that we would still all go on family outings together — nature-watching, picnicking and mud-gathering. Even though I was only 9 I remember it vividly. My father was showing me some of the ‘sheep’ snails in the  grass growing at the side of the footpath.

These are small snail species, prettily marked with bands of black or brown, varying from stout globes to tight spires. Sheep snails are so named because, as the tale goes, they are so numerous in the downland turf that sheep can’t help but eat them inadvertently, and this gives a special flavour to Sussex mutton. It’s a nice tale, but who knows?

My mum bent down and picked up one from a grass stem and my dad’s face rose with astonishment. She had found the top snail, Helicella elegans, one of Britain’s rarest molluscs.

Helicella elegans, aptly named for its elegant conical form.

Helicella elegans, aptly named for its elegant conical form and delicately precise markings.

A cursory search showed that there were thousands of them along the bank of the deeply cut, and obviously ancient, trackway across the downs. And as the day progressed, it soon transpired that this was going to be the largest colony of the snail anywhere in Britain (actually there are only two other UK sites known). There were loads of them, extending for several hundreds of metres along the banks of the various byways hereabouts.

Over the next few months, whenever walks took us this way, we’d always stop and have a look for them, and over time we found the snail along several kilometres of pathway, the banks of which were remnant rough flowery grassland remaining where much of the gentler slopes of the downs had been ploughed for arable crops.

I can’t remember the last time I picked one up there, probably in the early 1980s when this photo was taken.

So what a delight to be walking out across these same tracks yesterday, now with my family in tow, and ‘Grandad’ as he is now telling the same sheep snail anecdotes. “What’s this one” says Lillian, plucking a small snail off a grass stem.

It can only be one thing.

Still as dainty as ever, but now Trochoidea elegans.

Still as dainty as ever, but now Trochoidea elegans.