Denizens of the Lithosphere

Looking up my Nature Notes for last Spring, I see that I referred to the Great Storm of Oct 16th 1987 which had blown down one third of my vast 300 year old oak, shattering my garden sundial. Small signs of habitation were revealed round its base, and I tentatively identified them as being evidence of the increasingly rare TOVES Dodgsonii.

This is a fast disappearing species, happiest among the stony nature of sundials and it is said, with a strange taste for cheese.   Its present rarity  has little to do with the growing evidence of climate change, but more,  results from  changes in the built environment Dulwich has offered   likely habitat sites due to the number of houses with large gardens, built in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Much care was given  then to the arrangement  of the garden , and frequently ‘invegetate ornaments’ were included, in the design of its ‘landskip’, as originally advised by Alexander Pope , the 18thC  poet and writer. Sundials were particularly popular  and the stony  plinths and columns provided a perfect environment for the rare and unusual toves. By nature toves hibernate during the cold months, (just as well this past hardest of winters) and then, as seasonal temperatures rise, they can occasionally be observed at daybreak and at  the brillig hours of early evening, moving in their peculiarly giratory  manner. Of course, the sundials, being positioned to catch the sun’s rays and the marking of the hours, their stone plinths and columns absorb the diurnal warmth, much to the benefit of the toves’ preferred habitat.   The naturally forming lichens and mosses too add to the richness of the lithosphere.

Perhaps I may add that, during the War, my mother had nominated me as the Family Vegetarian (Green Junior Ration Book ), which entitled the family to extra Hen Food, (in lieu of egg allocation), and a double cheese ration. The toves in our large Victorian garden seemed particularly to appreciate a few extra crumblings.

Professor Dodgson of course was a mathematician but also a very keen naturalist, writing widely on a variety of species, often quite poetically. As a Don at Christ Church, Oxford, he had ample opportunity to explore and note any evidence of sightings of these shy creatures, surrounded as he was  by so many old stone buildings, let alone the opportunity afforded by the nearby  Oxford Botanical Garden. Apparently though, he was not able to discover any toves in Tom Quad at Christ Church itself, so one must assume that the watery basin, which surrounds the statue of Mercury, was an insuperable barrier to it’s colonisation.

So with the help of the Dulwich Society’s Wildlife Group, a last effort is being made in making people aware of  the threat to the toves’ habitat. Due to the demands of increasing population pressure, we have the continuous threat of demolition, significant house extension and back-filling in our area, and there are fewer large gardens left with traditional ornamental features.

Finally, It is not clear how  degraded old stone work and  statuary have to be to attract initial colonisation, but may we hope that one day  the base of our ‘Edward Alleyn and His Boy’, now protected as it is, might eventually achieve the appellation of a new SSSI*?

* Site Of Special Scientific Interest

J C Peppercorn

Go to top