Natural History of Smallcombe
Bath Nats involvement with Smallcombe Cemetery began in 2013 when we were approached by the Chair of the Smallcombe Project Team to visit and comment on the natural heritage. This was needed to support their Heritage Lottery Fund application to fund restoration work. We were quickly able to recognise how special Smallcombe is from preliminary inspection, but committed ourselves to undertake more detailed biodiversity surveys as part of the funding bid.
Alongside the survey work we led walks for supporters to introduce them to the natural history of the cemetery. We have also maintained a link with the project team and attend meetings to feedback our survey findings and provide information about sensitive areas of the site which assists the work on the physical restoration and social heritage aspects.
What’s special about Smallcombe Cemetery?
The current species list is the result of past informal surveys and more recent structured and walk-about survey work undertaken by several members of Bath Nats covering most of the groups of organisms – some in great detail, some requiring further work.
If you have visited the Cemetery you will have appreciated the beauty of the place and the special atmosphere there. The list of nearly 650 species seems a good number for a small site not far from the centre of Bath, so what is it that’s special about Smallcombe that might contribute to this number? It surely must be explained by the great diversity of habitats found there – the grassland, woodland, stonework, pathways, walls, banks, slopes and micro-habitats!
Black & Red Froghopper
5 to Look for:
The rich biodiversity of the site is evident from a group such as lichens for which 101 species have been recorded.
These records were made as a result of a 20 plot ‘fungib’ exercise in February 2015. Despite having the assistance of enthusiastic volunteers and some specialist books we struggled with the ID of such a difficult group, especially as many of the lichens were grazed by snails and looked atypical.
Expert assistance in the form of Dr David Hill from Bristol was called in and David joined us for a day and contributed many of the species on the current list. Many of the lichens are difficult to identify but there are a few to look out for if you are visiting:
Parmelia saxatilis is a common species seen on rocks near the coast and known as ‘Crottle. It occurs on the top of granite monuments mainly in the non-conformist part of the cemetery.
The concentric circles of Rhizicarpon petraeum are quite easy to spot on monuments whilst the luminous green covering of Psilolechia lucida is characteristic of dry shaded acidic rocks (monuments).
On the flat graves you may notice one of the Dog Lichens (Peltigera hymenina) with its eye catching red apothecia on a grey thallus. In a similar habitat is Mealy Pixie Cup (Cladonia chlorophaea) which covers an entire grave in the non-conformist area.
On a sandstone monument in a very shaded area under large conifers there is another interesting species that has colonised the edge of the monument forming pinkish –red mosaics. Opegrapha gyrocarpa is a species of sheltered base-poor rocks mainly in the north and west of UK.
Trees and shrubs
Much of the character of the cemetery comes from the mix of trees and shrubs on the site, many of which – as we have been able to see from old photos – are part of the original planting. Paul Wilkins undertook a tree audit in 2015 and has provided a list of 33 species together with a plan of where they grow. The principal species are: Yew, Cherry and Portugal laurel, Ash, Hazel, Oak- both Holm Oak and English Oak, and Holly, with single occurrences of Silver Birch, Lawson’s Cypress, Western Red Cedar, Norway Spruce, Scot’s Pine, Goat Willow.
It is interesting to note that there are two forms of Yew – the Common Yew and the Irish Yew which is variety ‘fastigiata’ with its curlier foliage and more columnar habit. The Irish Yew also bears rosette- like artichoke galls- caused by gall midge Taxomyia taxi.
A list of 144 species has been compiled mainly due to the recording work of Rob Randall and Helena Crouch. There are plenty of spring flowers such as Hedgerow Cranesbill (Geranium pyrenaicum), Early Dog Violet (Viola reichenbachiana), and Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) although rather less summer flowering herbs to provide nectar.
The speciality of Smallcombe is Coralroot (Cardamine bulbifera) that grows mainly in the woodland part of the Cemetery close to Smallcombe Wood where it also occurs. This delicate pink flower can be difficult to spot but its dark bulbils are quite distinctive. These bulbils, which are modified shoots, are the principal means of vegetative propagation. This is not a widespread species but tends to occur on chalk and calcareous soils and is known from similar habitats nearby such as Prior Park.
Eighteen species of grass have been recorded which includes one of our beautiful native species- Quaking Grass (Briza media) that occurs in the non-conformist part of the cemetery. Nearby a species of poor often base rich grassland has been found: Tor-grass (Brachypodium rupestre ).
As well as herbaceous plants there are a 6 species of ferns and horsetails. There’s plenty of Hart’s Tongue Fern, (Asplenium scolopendrium) and Soft and Hard Shield Ferns (Polystichum spp). The diminutive Wall Rue (Asplenium ruta-muraria) grows on the lower boundary wall. And of course there’s Great Horsetail (Equisetum telmateia) – an impressive plant most noticeable for its tall fronds but often missed earlier in the year are the spore-producing strobili which look entirely different.
Of the 70 species of fungi recorded we were pleased to find some waxcap species as these can be indicators of unimproved grassland of high conservation value. One of the first we found was Butter waxcap (Hygrocybe ceracea).
Large clumps of Clustered Brittlestem (Psathyrella multipedata) regularly occur in autumn in the cemetery and recently we noticed that most of these seem to be associated with the graves themselves. A little internet research raised the possibility that this is a species of deeply buried wood!
In 2014 before the dividing wall was rebuilt the laurel leaf litter produced a mass of Slender Clubs (Macrotyphula juncea). This isn’t particularly common and although it has been affected by the rebuilding work we will look out for it again in the future.
By far the rarest fungus encountered was in February 2015 when we were visiting to do the lichen survey. I noticed a small patch of Capillary Thread Moss growing on a memorial with tiny little orange cups of a bryophilous fungus amongst it- that is a fungus growing on a moss.
My father, an amateur mycologist, specialises in small fungi. Knowing that I am interested in mosses he had suggested I keep an eye out for bryophilous fungi. Inevitably some was collected and sent to him. He identified it provisionally as Octospora coccinea but was unsure because there are very few records. He needed verification so sent it off to Kew Gardens where there is a specialist unit of mycologists who keep the national fungal herbarium collection, and they were able to confirm the identification. As Kew didn’t have any English material in their herbarium this tiny specimen is now in their collection!
So this is now confirmed as a new record for VC 6 North Somerset! Although it did persist and produce new cups in June 2016 by the autumn the moss clump had completely disappeare
Mosses and liverworts
One of the first structured surveys undertaken at Smallcombe was a detailed 20 plot ‘fungib’ survey of bryophytes which have been supplemented by many ‘walk-about’ surveys throughout the year. We now have a total list of 80 species and have a definite bryophyte ‘hot spot’ –an ‘interesting bank’.
There are plenty of different habitats for mosses to grow so this explains some of the diversity. However the ‘interesting bank’ produced some unexpected species which indicate more acid conditions than we expect in the area. These include Green-tufted Stubble Moss (Weissia controversa var. controversa) and Aloe Haircap (Pogonatum aloides). We realised that the bank was a bit sandy but were unsure why until someone mentioned the old sand pits on the opposite side of the valley which are in line with this bank. So there is probably a band of Bridport (Midford) sand that outcrops here making the conditions slightly acid.
A photo taken of the Aloe Haircap later revealed an unrecorded leafy liverwort hiding in the background. After many delays to locate, identify and confirm the species it was finally revealed as a new record for the Bath area: Straggling Pouchwort (Saccogyna viticulosa), which is only known from 3 places in Somerset near Burrington Combe!
Later an area laid bare by clearance of Cherry Laurel produced a temporary flush of 5 previously unrecorded moss species to add to the list
It has been somewhat less easy to add to the animal records but there are forty-four birds species including Stock Dove, Jay and Raven. Mammals include Grey Squirrel, Bank Vole, Wood Mouse, and Roe Deer. It is only recently that we have been able to visually confirm the presence of Rabbits and are still waiting for sightings of Badger although their presence is evident, and bats are also present but the species are unknown.
The stone mason also reports finding several toads using the wall for hibernation and other amphibian species include Common Frog and newts but the species are not known. Both Slowworm and Grass Snake were seen at the Summer Hay-raking event.
Seventeen species of snails have been recorded by Andy Daw including Blind Snail. A search for slugs was made to add to the mollusc species but there seem to be few species present.
Most of the 53 moth species recorded are the result of one night’s moth trapping by the Moth Group. They include Satin Lutestring, Chocolate Tip, and Canary Shouldered Thorn. Micro-moths such as Psychoides verhulla which inhabits the sori of Hart’s Tongue Fern are also present.
In contrast only six butterfly species have been recorded, and these are mainly species that require grasses as larval food plants. The sparsity of summer nectar producing plants may be relevant to the butterfly records. After three years of visiting we finally spotted a Red Admiral on 23rd November 2016!
Other arthropod records are still being gathered as identification work to complete a pitfall trapping exercise of ‘creepy crawlies’ was delayed by illness. However at least 60 species have been recorded and these include the tiny Paidiscura pallens spider that produces an exquisite white egg capsule on the underside of oak leaves.
So what have we learned of the biodiversity of Smallcombe Cemetery? We now know that it has good biodiversity probably because of its diverse habitats and varied geology. We know a lot about the lichen flora and bryophytes and that there are some rather special but tiny things such as the bryophilous fungus which is a new Vice-County record and some unexpected bryophytes new to the Bath area!
However there are some obvious gaps: badgers, bats, newts, slugs to name but a few! Of course this is just a snapshot and as we have already seen, changes in management can rapidly generate changes in biodiversity- at least temporarily and for some types of organism.
However we have learnt enough to be able to share useful information with Smallcombe supporters and members of the public – and the recently installed information panel provides some examples of things to look out for.
Whilst we have been occupied recording species the Smallcombe project team have also been exceedingly busy with the restoration project, and if you visit you will see the results of their work. The restoration work not only makes the place safer and more appealing to visit but also opens up new niches and habitats for colonisation by wildlife. Hopefully the interest of Bath Nats members will continue so that we can document how nature responds to the restoration, management and increased attention of visitors.
If you haven’t visited yet please go, otherwise please keep visiting and recording so that we can keep adding to the records and possibly find some more ’notables’ whether big or small!