Rich Burkmar

An economically curious ecologist

Sandhill Rustic Dreaming

A singing Robin once stirred me from a garden reverie on a gentle September afternoon. Its song, imbued with autumn melancholy, seemed to express both mortality and living beauty. I looked up at the singer, back-lit by late afternoon sunshine filtering through the elder where it perched. A light rain fell, bending, scattering and amplifying the light around the bird. For a few sublime seconds I lost all sense of myself. There was the exquisite scene before me, but no me; no past and no future. It was profoundly peaceful.

A perfect moment in time – that’s how I think of it – a glimpse of Gillespie Magee’s and Basho’s face of God1A haiku by Basho (1644-1694) reads: ‘How I long to see / Among dawn flowers / the face of God’. The poem ‘High Flight’ by the Spitfire pilot Gillespie Magee (1922-1941) ends: ‘And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod / The high untrespassed sanctity of space / Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.’. I’ve known a handful of moments like this and they’ve all taken form during solitary contemplation of nature. I cannot lose myself in company; with other people I’m always aware of my reflection, or perhaps my shadow. Other people have brought me moments of greater happiness – for example when my children were born – but none can bring me the peace that nature sometimes does.

On a warm mid-August evening in 2008 I sat alone in the low fore-dunes of Lancashire’s Sefton Coast waiting for the sun to go down. I was keeping an appointment with a rare and beautiful creature that is as much a part of this coast as the dunes it was named for. A year before I had contributed to the discovery a colony of the Sandhill Rustic moth here, four years after it was last seen on the Sefton Coast2Also instrumental in the discovery of the new colony were Graham Jones – a long-standing sandhill rustic enthusiast who had recorded the last moth seen on the coast in 2003 – and Sefton Coast Ranger Pete Gahan who found the very first sandhill rustic moth from the new colony in 2007.. It was feared extinct in Lancashire but the elusive beastie had only moved a few kilometres up the coast, its changing distribution mirroring the dynamic embryo dunes it dances around.

Now I was embarking on a two-week study for a masters degree during which I would spend, weather permitting, every night searching for Sandhill Rustics along a four kilometre stretch coast running from Ainsdale to Southport and collecting data that I hoped would illuminate the their relationship with this magical shifting place. I had planned it for a year and it had consumed my thoughts. Every Sandhill Rustic I found would become a precious line in my spreadsheet, another hard-won point on my graphs.

I had tried to imagine every conceivable way in which it might pan out and account for everything that could go wrong. But adult Sandhill Rustics are only abroad for a few weeks in late summer, spending the rest of the year as eggs, caterpillars and pupae amongst the roots of the grasses on which they feed under the low embryo dunes, and I had just a fortnight’s annual leave to do my fieldwork. I knew that a week or so of cold, wet nights would blow my carefully laid plans out into Liverpool Bay like so much sand.

And yet, as I sat and watched the sun set, an extraordinary calm settled on me. Right then, there was nowhere in the world I would rather be, nothing I would rather be doing and, for once, no-one’s company I wanted for. I sank my hand into the warm sand and lifted it, letting the grains spill between my fingers, wondering, as I watched them catch the light summer breeze, if there were more grains of sand on all the beaches on the earth than there were stars in the universe. For a few precious seconds I lost myself to another perfect moment in time and so began my Sandhill Rustic dreaming.

The Dreamtime of the Australian Aborigines is a multi-layered world view embodying systems of belief, ritual, land stewardship, social relationships and much more. It would be a difficult thing for someone like me – a product of western culture – to understand even if I had access to an encyclopaedia of information on it, but the Dreamtime is maintained by closely guarded oral and ritual traditions; outsiders only catch glimpses of its incredible richness. The traveler and author Bruce Chatwin saw more than most, giving fascinating insights in his book Songlines. I first read Songlines over 20 years ago when I was in my late twenties and it left an indelible impression on me; it coloured the way I see the world.

The songlines are held to be the original routes of ancestral creatures who sang the world into being as they walked the land of the Dreamtime. They form a network covering Australia, connecting key features of the landscape and sacred sites (often one and the same). Landscape, animals, plants and people are all inhabited with Dreamtime spirits and the songlines are both routes and stories which are periodically re-walked and and re-told to bring them alive, allowing them to exist. Every time a songline is sung, the world and its spirits are created again.

In the oral tradition of the Aborigine Dreamtime, people are responsible for specific parts of songlines, each focused on the spirit of a different animal, plant or place. The spirits and songlines entrusted to a person are their dreamings. Someone may have a honey ant dreaming, another a eucalyptus dreaming, someone else a billabong dreaming and so on.

In the event, my two-week night-time odyssey on the Sefton Coast went largely to plan with just a single night lost to bad weather. On many nights I was on the beach from dusk to dawn and, perhaps inevitably, I fell in love with the place. During those two weeks in 2008, that stretch of sand belonged to me at night; it was my place. I came to recognise individual dunes by their silhouettes; different patches of sand couch and saltmarsh grass revealed their unique characters to me; I learned the most auspicious places to stop for a cup of tea or take a short nap; and of course I discovered the sites beloved of the Sandhill Rustic moth. For two weeks I strived to see as a Sandhill Rustic does, to think like a Sandhill Rustic does; I followed the songlines of the Sandhill Rustic and collected my data along the way.

As an academic endeavour it was a great success; the Sandhill Rustics gave up many lines of data to my spreadsheet which were, in turn, consumed by my GLMs and GIS3Generalised Linear Models and Geographic Information Systems. and transformed into colourful maps illustrating habitat suitability models for the moth. The examiners of my thesis4MSc thesis, R. Burkmar. Habitat requirements of the Sandhill Rustic moth. were suitably impressed and awarded it a favourable mark, which I suspect was largely based on the unfathomable statistics and the prettiness of the maps

But for me the greatest legacy of the project is an abiding relationship with the Sandhill Rustic and its home on the Sefton Coast. It’s a cliche, but it’s true: the more you find out about any part of nature – even the tiniest part – the more, you realise, is unknown. In Britain the Sandhill Rustic is represented by three distinct and widely separated coastal sub-species and there’s another one in Ireland and yet more on continental Europe where some sub-species favour dry inland areas. Each sub-species has exacting habitat requirements that are frequently very different from each other. How did their geographic isolation come about? Are these sub-species on the way to evolving into distinct species?

On the Sefton Coast, and along the coast of North Wales, the Sandhill Rustic is largely confined to low embryonic dunes dressed in sand couch (the main food-plant of the caterpillar) that are regularly inundated by the tide. These rare conditions are restricted to small areas and, probably as an adaptation to this scarcity, the Sandhill Rustic is less flighty than other moths: it would not pay to fly too frequently and risk losing touch with the only place for miles around where you and your con-specifics can survive. And yet, when a new patch of this dynamic habitat developed a couple of miles from the main colony on the Sefton Coast – with no suitable habitat in between – Sandhill Rustics found it within a few years and established a flourishing colony there. Did the adult moths fly there? Or did they perhaps travel there passively as larvae within the stems of their foodplant when it was uprooted and transported by winter storms? That is, after all, how the seeds of their foodplant must have arrived.

But is there even more to this relationship with the sea? Why do Sandhill Rustics favour areas where their foodplant is covered, from time to time, by high tides? Immersion may be important in some way, perhaps acting as a trigger that enables the short-lived adults to synchronise emergence from their subterranean chrysalises, giving themselves, and each other, the best chance of finding a mate. Certainly on some nights the proportion of freshly emerged adults (identified by their habit of holding their new inflated wings above their backs to dry) is staggeringly high compared to the average night, suggesting a synchronised emergence. But this idea has not been empirically tested.

Science doesn’t yet have all the answers to these questions, but in my dreaming there are answers. My mind’s eye looks down on Britain and, like a time-lapse satellite image spanning hundreds of millennia in minutes, ice ages come and go, sea levels rise and fall and the very shape of the country changes and shifts. Here and there, where the land meets the sea, dunes rise and fall, they expand and shrink, they migrate along the coastline, sometimes joining neighbouring dunes and sometimes splitting and separating. Similarly, over the millennia, dry grassy and heathy inland habitats come and go and move around the shape-shifting landscape. Superimposed over these places are the Sandhill Rustic populations – or rather their ancestors – here joining, there splitting and drifting apart as they follow their migrating habitats. Some populations separate for so long that they start to speciate – becoming distinct sub-species. As the current climate develops, woodland dominates inland and sandhill rustics only remain in populations around the coast where conditions are to their liking. The populations around the shores of Liverpool Bay and North Wales evolve an intimate relationship with the sea, using currents and storms for dispersal, ensuring that they keep pace with their dynamic and mobile habitat, and using the tides as a clock to synchronise their emergence and maximise breeding success.

Every year, towards the end of July, my thoughts return to the Sandhill Rustic and, pretty soon after that, my footsteps to the Sefton Coast. For a night or two each year I walk the Sandhill Rustic songline, finding and recording moths and keeping my dreaming alive. It’s a sort of touchstone for me – one of those annual events that all naturalists use to recharge their spirits and, I believe, re-affirm their own identity. We all have our touchstones, our sacred sites, our dreamings.

Australian Aborigines inherit their dreamings – not directly from their mothers or fathers, but from a place. When an expectant mother first feels her baby move in her womb, the place where she is – and its associated dreamings – become the responsibility of her unborn child. We naturalists choose, or discover, our dreamings rather differently – our two traditions are, after all, worlds apart. I’m not trying to equate Aborigine dreamings and the passions of naturalists, but I do believe that there are interesting parallels. Not least a deep – often spiritual – connection to the landscape and the plants and animals that we share it with, a feeling of responsibility towards them and a sense that man is not above nature.

Some years before I discovered my Sandhill Rustic dreaming, I spent a few hours in the company of other ecologists on the Sefton Coast where a gifted teacher5Paul Rooney, Liverpool Hope University. inspired us by bringing the dynamic geomorpholgy of the dunes alive in our imaginations. “This place is made by Sand and Sea and Wind.” He repeated it like a mantra – Sand and Sea and Wind. As he, and we, became more and more transported by his narrative, his words took on a kind of rhythmic quality – Sand and Sea and Wind. I think about it now as part of his songline – part of his dune geomorphology dreaming.

Many naturalists, I’m sure, would prefer to think of their ‘taxonomic interests’ rather than their ‘dreamings’ and, lets be honest, listing your dreamings rather than your taxonomic interests on your CV might not maximise your employment potential! But I’ve met many naturalists whose interest in nature is so passionate and so inseparable from their identity, that ‘taxonomic interest’ just doesn’t seem to do cover it, so I often think of them as having their own dreamings. I’ve got friends an acquaintances with all sorts of dreamings – from the very general to the very specific – bird dreaming, Sphagnum dreaming, Berwyn Mountain dreaming, Sand Lizard dreaming, moth dreaming, Hen Harrier dreaming, snail dreaming, bat dreaming, bee & wasp dreaming, grass dreaming, Sefton Coast dreaming, fungi dreaming, flowering plant dreaming, hoverfly dreaming, river dreaming, conifer dreaming, cranefly dreaming, bramble dreaming…there are many more. I have other dreamings too – a spider dreaming and a Meadow Pipit dreaming, to name a couple.

Our dreamings take shape at the place where what we know meets what we imagine. We must hope that what we know and what we discover will provide us with the tools we need to address the unfolding environmental crisis, but it is the spiritual power of dreamings that can persuade a confused and prevaricating world that it is worth fighting to save the minutiae of nature and its myriad stories written on the landscape over millennia.


  • 1
    A haiku by Basho (1644-1694) reads: ‘How I long to see / Among dawn flowers / the face of God’. The poem ‘High Flight’ by the Spitfire pilot Gillespie Magee (1922-1941) ends: ‘And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod / The high untrespassed sanctity of space / Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.’
  • 2
    Also instrumental in the discovery of the new colony were Graham Jones – a long-standing sandhill rustic enthusiast who had recorded the last moth seen on the coast in 2003 – and Sefton Coast Ranger Pete Gahan who found the very first sandhill rustic moth from the new colony in 2007.
  • 3
    Generalised Linear Models and Geographic Information Systems.
  • 4
  • 5
    Paul Rooney, Liverpool Hope University.