Water Dragons

With their shimmering hues and elegant flight, dragonflies and damselflies bring a touch of glamour to our waterways this time of year

IImage of a dragon fly rested on a twig

Conor Jameson

Posted on 16/08/2019

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On a recent, warm summer evening, I was enjoying a glass of wine in the garden of distinguished ornithologist Nigel Collar, admiring a small, unkempt wildflower patch. It looked a little past its peak – some of the plant stems were sagging, but it was alive with hoverflies and other nectar loving insects. And then, as though guest of honour, a dragonfly arrived, and began to patrol in that magisterial way dragonflies do. It seemed to be tracing the very edge of the wildflower patch, turning the corners abruptly – with a faintly audible twitch of its wing-blades – to make repeated circuits of the mini ecosystem below it.

“Well, that’s a ringing endorsement of a wildlife garden if ever I saw one,” I remarked to Nigel. This mini predator was in effect giving its seal of approval to the food chain of which it was now at the head. Nigel seemed pleased.

My guess was this was a southern hawker dragonfly, in part because it’s one of the commoner and more widespread of our 50-plus species, and it’s one that I became acquainted with through some early wildlife gardening – specifically pond making – efforts. When you see a dragonfly at rest, you have a chance to examine their exquisite shapes and colours in detail, and match them to the pictures in the books. The southern hawkers in my garden were laying eggs on vegetation at the pond edge. In late summer I witnessed some of the larvae emerging slowly from the water, to climb stems and break out of their skins to unfold as the adult, flying form.

The dragonfly and damselfly season starts in April when the earliest fliers get on the wing after emerging from their watery larval nurseries. It reaches a peak in high summer, when, for many nature enthusiasts, it takes over from birdwatching, as many of our birds are in their post-breeding moult and lying low.

Valuable wildlife corridors

The network of waterways managed by the Canal and River Trust provides an important infrastructure by which dragonflies and damselflies can breed and disperse. In recent years some interesting changes have been noted by the Trust’s ecologists in the distribution of different species.

Many of our dragonflies and damselflies are on the northern edge of their European range here. Not surprisingly then, the south and east region of England has the greatest variety of species within the UK. There are a number of species you can find here, and not elsewhere, including at the Trust’s sites.

Dragonflies and damselflies tell the story of how even subtle long-term changes in climate and temperature can have significant effects on the distribution map of our wildlife. With increasing temperatures overall, there has been an increase in species arriving from the south, and a pressure on those preferring the cooler conditions of the north. Of the latter, we have one or two species. Most are widespread, where there is suitable wetland habitat, further south. A few species are very specialised and fussy about the conditions they need.

The Trust’s northern waterways are particularly important. “Dragonflies and damselflies do really well in our canals in Yorkshire and the North-East,” ecologist Jonathan Hart-Woods tells me. “The Pocklington Canal has recorded over 14 species of dragonfly, for example, which is unusual for this far north. The canal is renowned among dragonfly experts and enthusiasts, and is mentioned in one national field guides.”

Whatever the species, a visit to any good stretch of canal and river in late spring and summer will be rewarded with views of these extraordinary insects living out their adult life stages, hawking for prey, mating and egg-laying. You might it even spot one being hunted itself, perhaps by a small, dashing falcon – a species that’s also been on the move northward in recent years.

What’s clear is that dragonflies and damselflies are an important as well as eye-catching part of our wetland ecosystems, and will reward the onlooker who takes a bit of time to get better acquainted with them in all their colourful, intricate forms.

Where to find dragonflies and damselflies:

NORTHEAST

The UK has two species of what are called demoiselle damselflies – the banded, and the beautiful. The latter is well named, such is its elegance and vividness of colour. And it is one species at least that has a distinct preference or the south and west of the UK. Dragonfly watchers won’t encounter it in the north and east.

“One species we have seen a dramatic increase of in recent years in the north has been the banded demoiselle,” Jonathan reports. “When I started on the waterways nearly 20 years ago you would never see one north of the Humber, and now they are everywhere across the Yorkshire network. This could be climate change in action. The distinctive smoky clouding on the male’s wings make it very easy to see and identify, and the female is an eye-catching metallic green.”

Caitlin Hayman, who works for the Trust in Yorkshire, nominates a favourite stretch of the Chesterfield Canal between Clarborough and Retford as being particularly rich in a variety of species.

Falstone Moss in Northumberland is home for the golden-ringed dragonfly, black and common darters, and large red, azure and emerald damselflies.

Coatham Marsh, run by Tees Valley Wildlife Trust, is good for common darter, common blue and large red damselflies.

At Potteric Carr, run by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, 21 species of dragonfly and damselfly have been recorded, including azure damselfly, brown hawker and common darter.

NORTHWEST

Black Lake in Cheshire is a site managed by the Cheshire Wildlife Trust. There you’ll find brown hawkers, ruddy darters and four-spotted chasers darting over the bog and its delicate layer of sphagnum.

Foulshaw Moss in Cumbria is noteworthy because Cumbria Wildlife Trust are working hard to reintroduce rare species here: the white-faced darter. Work is also being carried out to install board new walks, but visitors can still get to the viewing platform for a good spot of wildlife watching.

At Summerseat Nature Reserve, nestled in a bend of the River Irwell in Lancashire, you’ll find broad-bodied chasers, large red damsels and emerald damselflies gracing the reserve’s two ponds.

EAST MIDLANDS

The Trust’s senior ecologist Paul Wilkinson recommends the Anglesey Branch Canal, Wyrley and Essington Canal, Daw End Canal and Rushall Canal for dragonfly spotting. These sites offer four-spotted chaser, broad-bodied chaser, common darter, emperor, brown hawker, southern hawker, red-eyed damselfly, azure blue, common blue, large red, and blue-tailed damselflies.

At Earlswood Lakes you’ll find another impressive mixture, among them broad-bodied chasers, common darters, emperors, southern hawkers, red-eyed damselflies and blue tailed damselflies. Red veined darters were also spotted here last month. The lakes are a superb place for a walk, plus a bite to eat at the tea room in the craft centre.

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust looks after Carr Vale Flash, which has recorded 17 species. The emperor dragonfly, four-spotted chaser, black-tailed skimmer and ruddy darter are its ‘big four’ – rare elsewhere in the county. There’s a picnic site, should you wish to pack a lunch.

WEST MIDLANDS

Cramer Gutter and Catherton Common are Shropshire Wildlife Trust sites that have golden-ringed dragonfly and one of the few populations of keeled skimmers in the West Midlands.

Bateswood, managed by the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, has common darter and black darter, four-spotted chaser and emperor dragonflies, as well as common blue, azure, emerald and blue-tailed damselflies.

Swift Valley, run by the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, near Rugby and beside the River Swift, boasts hairy dragonfly, small red damselfly and southern hawker on its list.

Feckenham Wylde Moor, a Worcestershire Wildlife Trust site, used to be a great marsh, and what’s left is being restored. Dragonflies and damselflies are responding in good numbers. It has large red damselfly and the emperor dragonfly, to name just two.

LONDON AND SOUTHEAST

The Trust’s Penny Foster suggests Tring Reservoirs, which have been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in part because of the site’s diverse odonata (as dragonflies and damselflies are collectively known to science), including the ruddy darter. The site is a group of four reservoirs that supply the Grand Union Canal, on the border of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. They are managed by the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust.

Another reserve well worth visiting is Foxearth Meadows, Essex, near the River Stour. It has the pretty willow emerald, a damselfly that has just colonised the UK, among its 21 species. And Wat Tyler Country Park, also in Essex, isn’t too far away.

WALES AND SOUTHWEST

Trust ecologist Laura Mulholland recommends Caen Hill Flight in Devizes as being particularly good for many species of dragonflies and damselflies. “Anyone keen to overdose could walk the entire length of the Bridgewater and Taunton Canal,” she says, adding “It’s only 14 miles long and could be walked in a day!”

Other dragonfly hotspots include Dowrog Common in Pembrokeshire, which has small red, blue-tailed and southern damselflies, and Stover Country Park in Devon, recommended by the British Dragonfly Society.

Derek Parker