HIGHGATE COMMON - Invertebrate skulduggery
Updated: Jan 28, 2022
(Nearest post code DY7 5BS)
Visited by Zak and Shep
It was a beautiful warm spring day when Julie brought us for a walk at Highgate Common in Staffordshire.
Boris Johnson had just announced the easing of the Lockdown rules and the car parks were heaving with humans.
Julie knows Highgate Common very well so she was able to find a less busy place in which to park our car.
Despite the fact that it was still March the ground felt really hot to our paws. The trees were still leafless so there was little shade. Being mainly black dogs, it felt a little bit uncomfortable and we panted in the unseasonal heat.
Everything was springing to life, and many trees were already in bud whilst other early flowers were covered in frothy white blossom. In places the wind had already dislodged the blooms and the ground was littered in petal confetti.
The air was heavy with birdsong and butterflies already flitted above our heads. It was a perfect afternoon.
The soil at Highgate is sandy and soft. At muzzle level the ground is busy with so many different insects scurrying about their business completely ignorant and dismissive of us.
This is one of the reasons why Highgate Common is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is blessed with such an enormous number of invertebrates. Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, who own and manage the site are justifiably proud of their mini-beasts and there are many information boards along the trails which tell humans about the lifestyles and habits of all of these creatures. Some of the boards make terrifying reading.
There are female wingless wasps that pretend to be delicious hairy, black ants. These ‘velvet ants’ allow themselves to be ambushed and caught by green tiger beetle larvae only then for the larvae themselves to be injected with the wasp’s eggs. When the wasp larvae hatch, they eat their way out of their live beetle host.
The green tiger beetle, itself, though very beautiful to look at with its bright green, yellow spotted back is also a ferocious predator and lies in wait for unsuspecting spiders, caterpillars and ants, its sickle shaped jaws at the ready.
There are all kinds of other treacherous activities taking place. Cuckoo bees sneakily abandon their eggs in the nest chambers of other bees. Oil beetle larvae hitch rides on unsuspecting pollen-gathering bees, only to disembark in their nest chamber and then devour all of their eggs as well as the pollen and nectar that had been collected. Spiders are chased, across the sand by fleet-footed wasps which paralyse them, drag them back to their nest and allow their hungry babies to eat them alive.
Meanwhile bog bush crickets rub their legs together to busk serenades and mark out their territories, and, on warm summer evenings female glow-worms point their bottoms in the air and flash for passing mates.
Much of the day to day life of Highgate Common happens at our muzzle level. The bare sandy soil over which we run and play provides homes for so many different creatures, some of which are very rare.
Today the Common bustled with activities. I felt so happy to hear the young humans laughing and playing and to see our canine friends running around but it is important that we are mindful of all of the animals and plants that live here.
As part of our walk today we followed one of two waymarked trails and these trails enabled us to escape from the madding crowd and explore the more wooded habitat. Here the birdsong was particularly melodious as the male birds competed with each other for mates.
Some birds, like skylarks, nest on the ground so it is really important that we don’t stray too far from our owners at this time of the year.
Our trail today led us past a large pond edged with rushes and reeds and Shep and I would have loved to jump in for a swim. Julie stopped us in our tracks because she knows that our ‘spot on’ flea medication could potentially eradicate all of the bugs and beasties living in the pond, leaving the frogs and newts with no food.
This pond is lucky to be quite tucked out of the way. The pond closest to the main car park is not quite so lucky because there always seem to be stick-retrieving dogs splashing around in it.
Maybe that is not such a good game to play!!
Highgate common is certainly a wonderful place to visit for dogs and their humans all of the year round but it also an amazing place for wildlife to live.
With so many more people visiting it, there is an increased danger that we will damage this beautiful place irreversibly. It is up to all of us – dogs and humans alike to treat it with respect.