Tag Archives: grassland

2017 butterfly walks report

2017 has been a great year for butterflies on Rowley Hills and our two organised walks have been a great success, attracting 12 visitors in June for the first walk and 21 for the second walk in July.Saturday 24th June was sunny and butterflies were plentiful. Ringlets are the commonest butterfly on the hillside in June, and during the walk 149 individuals were counted. The Large Skipper is not large at all and only slightly bigger than its cousin, the Small Skipper. To get a good look at one is not always that easy, especially in bright sunshine when they seldom if ever land. It’s only when they do so that the brown markings are visible on their wings which satisfactorily distinguishes them from Small Skipper. During the walk a fleeting glimpse of a Painted Lady butterfly was a real bonus. This butterfly, whose ancestors started their migration northwards from Africa earlier in the year, several generations down the line, has finally arrived in Britain and it’s highly likely that this individual was only passing through on its way towards Scotland and beyond. This is the longest migration by any one species of butterfly and we felt very privileged to have seen one. For those interested in reading more about the incredible journey of the Painted Lady butterfly go to http://butterfly-conservation.org/5183-2342/painted-lady-migration-secrets-revealed.html and other similar websites.

The numbers of Marbled White on Rowley Hills had still to peak but nonetheless we still managed a count of 17. In some years hundreds can be seen fluttering above and in between grass tufts searching out mates, or in the case of females, randomly scattering eggs on to blades of grass as they go, across the whole of the hillside. Other butterflies and day-flying moths seen on this first walk were Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown, Six-spot Burnet, Latticed Heath and Burnet Companion.

In contrasting weather conditions, our second butterfly walk on Saturday 15th July started off overcast and cool with a blustery wind. This did not deter 21 people from turning out and as the morning passed conditions improved considerably, although we never actually saw any sunshine. When butterflies shelter from the wind and rain they get well down into the vegetation making finding them difficult. However, it wasn’t long before one sharp-eyed group member spotted our first butterfly of the day, a Small Skipper. This small, orange-brown butterfly looks very much like the Essex Skipper. Both are found on Rowley Hills and a close inspection of the underside of the antennae is necessary to separate the two. Good photographs of both can be found in books and on the internet for those interested in seeing the differences. It wasn’t long before we spotted the first Marbled White of the day, soon followed by a Ringlet, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, and Shaded Broad-bar. The distinctive black spots on a red background of the Six-spot Burnet is a warning to would-be predators that they are distasteful and should be avoided. The closely related Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet has very similar markings and both were seen during the walk.

Bung containing Six-belted Clearwing pheromones

We were fortunate to have Richard Southwell, a well-respected local lepidopterist with us today, and he had brought pheromones along with him to try to lure Six-belted Clearwing moths. This black and yellow moth has long been known from the Portway Hill site, but is rarely if ever seen. To look at, the adult moths are similar in appearance to wasps and hoverflies and this is possibly one reason why they go unnoticed. As we approached the land owned by the Wildlife Trust, Richard went on ahead of the rest of the party and hung the netted pheromone bung close to a patch of Bird’s-foot Trefoil, the moth’s food plant, in the hope of attracting moths to the lure by the time we got to him. Alas, on this occasion nothing came. Not to be deterred we continued our walk, heading upwards along the recently opened route through the old quarry, which brought us out at the top of Bury Hill Park. As we walked, Bullfinch, Goldfinch and Speckled Wood butterflies were noted.

Bury Hill Park (image © Mike Poulton)

The views towards Birmingham and beyond from the top of the park are quite stunning, and in the unmown grassland, patches of Harebells were now flowering. Bury Hill Park grassland probably has the largest population of harebells in the whole of the Black Country and it was reassuring to see that the council had left the grass uncut giving the harebells the opportunity to flower and set seed.

Labyrinth spider web (image © Mike Poulton)

Moving on from here we followed the track along the rear of the gardens in St Brades Close passing several webs of the unmistakeable Labyrinth spider Agelena labyrinthica. The webs of this spider are constructed in south-facing hedgerows from July to September and are sometimes so thickly woven that they appear white in colour. At the one end is a funnel shaped retreat, and further down the funnel there is a labyrinth of tunnels which gives this spider its name. Hidden deep down in the centre is the egg sac containing the developing young. The females remain with the young until they are ready to leave the web and in the event of the mother dying before the spiderlings are ready to leave the web, the young will eat their mother!

Case Bearer moth on Compact Rush (image © Mike Poulton)

Even in the driest of summers the ground at the rear of the gardens in St Brades Close is always wet. Rushes, sedges, Tufted Hair-grass, Great Willowherb and Reed Canary-grass thrive in these conditions, and as we passed our eyes were drawn to the numerous little whitish-coloured cases attached to almost every flower head on the Compact Rush. These were later identified as Case Bearer moth larvae Coleophora sp. This is a large group of similar-looking micro-moths whose larvae feed on flowers and seeds of various plants from within protective silken cases. 

A little further on we arrived at the only known patch of Sneezewort on Portway Hill and nearby, a large Roesell’s Bush-cricket was spotted in the grassland.

Sneezewort (image © Mike Poulton)

Roesel’s Bush Cricket (image © Mike Poulton)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making our way back towards the start point a second attempt with the pheromones this time proved successful and within less than two minutes of positioning the bung near to a patch of Bird’s-foot Trefoil, several male Six-belted Clearwing moths had come to investigate. It was difficult to determine just how many individual moths there were as they fly so quickly but we estimated that there were at least 12. Flushed with success the pheromones were put down in two other spots where Common Bird’s-foot Trefoil was growing, and on each occasion clearwing moths appeared in no time at all. A great finale to another interesting walk.

Six-belted Clearwing (image © Andy Purcell)

Six-belted Clearwing (image © Mike Poulton)

Mike Poulton, July 2017

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New summer events!

We’ve added a couple of fantastic walks to our events programme for this summer. Hope to see you there!

Portway Hill butterfly walk, Saturday 24th June 2017, 10:00am – 12:00pm. Join us and the Wildlife Trust for Birmingham & the Black Country for a guided walk around the Rowley Hills. The flowers on the hillside should just about be at their best by this time and if the day is sunny we will see many species of butterflies, including Marbled White; Portway Hill is one of this species’ hotspots in Birmingham and the Black Country. Meet on St Brades Close; ensure you are dressed appropriately for the forecast weather conditions, and wear sturdy footwear. No need to book, just turn up!

Butterflies, day-flying moths and wildflowers walk, Saturday 15th July 2017, 10:30am – 12:30pm. Join FORH Chair Mike Poulton and Richard Southwell from Butterfly Conservation West Midland Branch for a fascinating walk seeking out the butterflies, day-flying moths and wildflowers of the Rowley Hills. We will even be using pheromones to attract particular species! Walking boots are recommended and binoculars would also be useful. Meet on the roadside near the Total garage on Wolverhampton Road, just below the Brewers Fayre/KFC at the entrance to the Portway Hill site.

Marbled White butterfly (Melanargia galanthea) (image © Mike Poulton)

 

Earth Tongue fungi on the Rowley Hills

Some more interesting fungi have been spotted on the Rowley Hills recently, and their appearance this late in the year is undoubtedly due to the unseasonably mild weather we’ve been having. These are Earth Tongues, which are important indicators of nutrient-poor grasslands of high value for nature. They normally appear during October and November, and from their appearance it’s obvious where their name comes from! There are several similar-looking species and the shape of this one suggests it is a Trichoglossum; it’s not possible to make a more accurate identification without a microscope.

Earth Tongue (Trichoglossum) (image © Mike Poulton)

Earth Tongue (Trichoglossum) (image © Mike Poulton)

Earth Tongue (Trichoglossum) (image © Mike Poulton)

Earth Tongue (Trichoglossum) (image © Mike Poulton)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even at this time of year, nature still holds surprises – there is always something interesting to see! Click here to read a bit more about Earth Tongues.

Fungal fiesta!

There are some amazing fungi out on the Rowley Hills at the moment! These photos were taken by Mike Poulton last week. We’re not great on fungi identification so if you know what any of these are, please let us know. And if you’ve seen any interesting fungi, plants or other wildlife on the Rowley Hills recently, get in touch!

Rowley Hills butterflies in a new report and book

The large expanse of open, uninterrupted grassland on the Rowley Hills situated between Portway Hill and the Birmingham New Road, known as Portway Hill Open Space, is currently one of the best sites in the West Midlands for Marbled White and Small Heath butterflies. Mike Poulton has been studying populations of these two butterfly species for the past five years and has produced a short report summarising his findings so far. The overall picture is a mixed one, with Marbled Whites thriving but Small Heaths declining. Click here to read the full report.

Marbled White butterfly (Melanargia galanthea) (image © Mike Poulton)

Marbled White butterfly (Melanargia galanthea) (image © Mike Poulton)

Small Heath butterfly (Coenonympha pamphilus) (image © Jane Tavener)

Small Heath butterfly (Coenonympha pamphilus) (image © Jane Tavener)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In related news, Pisces Publications have a pre-publication offer on for ‘Butterflies of the West Midlands’. This new book, the first ever on the butterflies of the West Midlands, includes a butterfly walk on Portway Hill; it will be launched in Spring 2016 and can be ordered from http://www.naturebureau.co.uk/bookshop/butterflies-west-mids-detail.

Butterflies of the West Midlands

Butterflies of the West Midlands book.

Recent wildlife sightings

We’ve had some great wildlife sightings in and around the Rowley Hills recently! If you’ve spotted anything interesting, please do let us know.

At this time of year, the Hills host a continuous flow of migrating birds, which stop off briefly to rest and refuel before continuing their journey south. Recent sightings include Tree Pipit, Redstart, Linnet, Grey, Yellow and Pied Wagtails, Siskin, House Martin, Garden Warbler, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Swift, Spotted Flycatcher, Sedge Warbler, Blackcap, Swallow, Willow Warbler,  Mistle Thrush, Raven, Peregrine, Kestrel, Buzzard and Sparrowhawk. Many thanks to Ian Whitehouse who regularly tweets his Rowley Hills sightings and photos!

Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) (image © Ian Whitehouse)

Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) (image © Ian Whitehouse)

Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis) (image © Ian Whitehouse)

Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis) (image © Ian Whitehouse)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Local resident Andrew Cook also sent us these brilliants photos of a male Kestrel sitting on his garden fence. The Rowley Hills are a great spot for Kestrels as the grassland provides the perfect habitat for voles and mice, which are the Kestrel’s preferred prey. It looks as though this Kestrel may be resting after having recently eaten, as there is a small amount of blood on his beak and talons.

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) (image © Andrew Cook)

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) (image © Andrew Cook)

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) (image © Andrew Cook)

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) (image © Andrew Cook)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another nice local record came from Lukas Large, who recorded this video of a Humming-bird Hawk-moth feeding on nectar from Red Valerian in his garden. As the name suggests, this moth resembles a Hummingbird in flight as it hovers and darts between flowers, its wings humming; Red Valerian is one of its favourite food plants. Humming-bird Hawk-moths migrate to the UK in summer from southern Europe and north Africa.

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) (image © Doug Barber)

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) (image © Doug Barber)

And finally, some more great news about the Harebells growing on the hillside above Bury Hill Park. Because Sandwell Council very kindly agreed to delay mowing the grass here in order to help conserve these wildflowers, we have been able to collect a large amount of seed from them. For most of the Harebells on that site it is probably the first time they will have produced seed in living memory as by now the whole area would normally have been cut. The seed capsules will now be left to dry out and the resulting seeds sown in suitable locations elsewhere on the Rowley Hills to help to conserve a scarce Birmingham and Black Country plant. This is great news for conservation and biodiversity in the Rowley Hills and we are very grateful to Sandwell Council for their cooperation with our request to put the mowing in this area on hold.

Report from SandNats walk

SandNats exploring the Rowley Hills (image © Mike Poulton)

SandNats exploring the Rowley Hills (image © Mike Poulton)

SandNats exploring the Rowley Hills (image © Mike Poulton)

SandNats exploring the Rowley Hills (image © Mike Poulton)

On Saturday SandNats (Sandwell Valley Naturalists’ Club) held a guided walk on the Rowley Hills, concentrating on wildflowers and invertebrates. The weather was perfect – warm and sunny – giving optimum conditions for spotting insects, and the walk was a great success, with several rare insect species being recorded.

 

The group walked a circuit around the old Blue Rock Quarry. Although the height of the flowering season has now passed for many plants, there were still quite a few in flower including Burnet-saxifrage (Pimpinella saxifraga), Hare’s-foot Clover (Trifolium arvense), Red Bartsia (Odontites verna), Lucerne (Medicago sativa) and others. There were plenty of butterflies around, including a few Marbled Whites (Melanargia galathea), by now looking somewhat worn. As well as these we saw Large, Small and Essex Skippers, Large and Small Whites, Small Copper, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Common Blue, Comma and Red Admiral.

Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus) (image © Jane Tavener)

Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus) (image © Jane Tavener)

Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus) on Lucerne (Medicago sativa) (image © Jane Tavener)

Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus) on Lucerne (Medicago sativa) (image © Jane Tavener)

Robin's Pincushion gall produced by the wasp Diplolepis rosae (image © Jane Tavener)

Robin’s Pincushion gall produced by the wasp Diplolepis rosae (image © Jane Tavener)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a noticeable passage of migrating Swifts heading south at one point, and quite a few House Martins feeding high overhead. We did particularly well for raptors, seeing Buzzard, Kestrel, Peregrine and Sparrowhawk. A pair of Ravens also flew overhead while we were looking around the Wildlife Trust’s viewpoint near the dolerite crags. Small songbirds were relatively quiet as expected for the time of year but we did see quite a few Goldfinches.

Six-belted Clearwing (Bembecia ichneumoniformis) (image © Jane Tavener)

Six-belted Clearwing (Bembecia ichneumoniformis) (image © Jane Tavener)

The highlight of the day was the discovery of a Six-belted Clearwing moth (Bembecia ichneumoniformis) on the Wildlife Trust’s Portway Hill reserve. This unusual moth mimics hoverfly species with its black and yellow stripes and clear wings, and is patchily distributed throughout parts of the southern half of Britain. It’s a great find for the Rowley Hills and also shows that the management the Wildlife Trust are carrying out on their land is contributing positively to biodiversity.

Roesel's Bush-cricket (Metrioptera roeselii) (image © Jane Tavener)

Roesel’s Bush-cricket (Metrioptera roeselii) (image © Jane Tavener)

Another highlight was a Roesel’s Bush-cricket (Metrioptera roeselii), a medium-sized cricket which has been expanding its range north over the past few decades.

 

After a few hours of enjoyable wandering, sharing of knowledge and great wildlife sightings, it was time to head back home for a late lunch!

The Rowley Hills 8th August 2015 (image © Jane Tavener)

The Rowley Hills 8th August 2015 (image © Jane Tavener)

Grass cutting delayed to conserve wildflowers on Bury Hill

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) (image © Jane Tavener)

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

The Friends of Rowley Hills are grateful to Sandwell Council Parks and Green spaces for their recent support to protect a rare floral display of Harebells that are growing on the hillside above Bury Hill Park.

Our organisation requested that the grass cutting be delayed while these plants were in flower, until it was time for them to seed. The Harebell, a native plant with delicate blue bell-shaped flowers, was once very common but has declined alarmingly in our area in recent years. Up on the Rowley Hills above Bury Hill Park is the largest population of this plant left in Sandwell and probably the largest population remaining in the whole of Birmingham & the Black Country. Now that the cutting has been delayed, these flowers will have enough time to finish flowering and set seed, to ensure that they continue to thrive on the hills and that local people can continue to enjoy them. It’s great news for conservation to get such support from Sandwell Council.

Bury Hill Harebells, July 2015 (image © Mike Poulton)

Bury Hill Harebells, July 2015 (image © Mike Poulton)

Rowley Hills wildlife update – April and May 2015

11th June 2015

Here is the latest wildlife update from the Rowley Hills, written by plant and butterfly expert Mike Poulton.

Following a warm April with days of uninterrupted sunshine, May has been rather disappointing with cool and unsettled conditions and temperatures below the seasonal average.

Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni) (image © Mike Poulton)

Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni) (image © Mike Poulton)

Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells were the first butterflies to show on the hillside this spring and good numbers of both could be seen throughout April.  On 9th April I recorded my first Brimstone for the Rowley Hills. This is a strong flying butterfly and merely passing through the site as neither of the caterpillar’s food plants, Buckthorn and Alder Buckthorn, occur anywhere on Rowley Hills.

As we moved into May there were very few butterflies and day-flying moths on the wing and my count for the month was well down on previous years.

Green Hairstreak butterfly (Callophrys rubi) (image © Mike Poulton)

Green Hairstreak butterfly (Callophrys rubi) (image © Mike Poulton)

On the 15th a Green Hairstreak was seen in the hawthorn-colonised meadow near the top of Portway Hill. The following week, on the 21st a second individual showed further down the hillside on the land owned by the Wildlife Trust. This small, inconspicuous butterfly overwinters as a chrysalis and is one of the first to appear when conditions are favourable in the spring. At rest, always with closed wings, the green coloration of the lower wing merges in with the surrounding vegetation and it is only on calm, sunny days when in flight that the brown upper side of the wing is visible. There is only one generation of Green Hairstreaks each year and when blustery and cool conditions prevail for days on end without sunshine, very little flying activity takes place. The butterflies stay well down in the foliage for protection from the wind and rain and there they remain until conditions improve. Small colonies such as this one, with little chance of natural recolonization from a site nearby, face local extinction when the short-lived adult butterflies perish before they have an opportunity to mate.

The Small Heath is another notable butterfly found on the Rowley Hills and individuals are just beginning to appear. They range across the whole of the hillside and can be seen from May right through to August. Fine-leaved grasses are the caterpillar’s food plant and the threat to the future survival of this species on the Rowley Hills is from encroachment to the grassland from bramble and hawthorn. When at rest, always with wings folded, they are exceptionally difficult to locate.

Another species that first appears in May is the Common Blue. On Rowley Hills there are two generations of this butterfly each year. The first generation is on the wing during May and June with the second generation appearing in August and September. Few Common Blues have so far been seen and this could impact seriously on second generation numbers later in the summer.

St Mark's Fly (Bibio marci) (image © Mike Poulton)

St Mark’s Fly (Bibio marci) (image © Mike Poulton)

St Mark’s Flies have been exceptionally abundant on the hillside this spring and towards the end of April and the first week of May, wherever one walked, these large, black flies could be seen alighting on grass stems and hovering around hawthorn bushes.  Their season is short and by the middle of May they had all gone.

Bumble Bees have been fairly common this spring and, unlike butterflies and moths, they will fly in blustery and overcast conditions. The early flowering Bush Vetch, whose flowers are a rich source of nectar is particularly common up here on the hillside and eagerly sought after by bees.

As we move into June many of the early summer-flowering plants such as Oxeye Daisies, Broom, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Common Vetch, Oxford Ragwort, Hairy Tare, Mouse-ear hawkweed, Beaked Hawk’s-beard and Hogweed are now in flower and June and July are the optimum months to visit the Rowley Hills to see the butterflies and flowers at their best.

During the winter of 2012, a sowing of Yellow-rattle was carried out on the Wildlife Trust site. This annual is partly parasitic on roots of grasses and the purpose of the sowing was to reduce the vigour of the coarse grasses and encourage the spread of the wild flowers found here. The sowing has been a great success with thousands of these yellow-flowered annuals blooming and spreading throughout the hillside. A particularly impressive display can at the time of writing be seen on the Wildlife Trust site.

Water-stressed bank overlooking houses where Tall Mouse-ear Hawkweed can be found

Water-stressed bank overlooking houses where Tall Mouse-ear Hawkweed can be found

Late May and early June is the optimum time to search for the flowers of Tall Mouse-ear Hawkweed on the steep-sided bank overlooking the houses where it is mixed in with other similar-looking yellow, dandelion-like flowers and with which it can easily be confused. This is one of several uncommon plants that thrive up here on the Rowley Hills and although not a native plant in Britain it nevertheless looks very natural where it is growing.

Hopefully, during the next few months we can look forward to long sunny days with not too many wet days in between. Butterfly numbers should start to recover this month and all of the rain we have experienced over the past month should keep the vegetation looking fresh and green for weeks to come.

Mike Poulton 04/06/2015

Easter on the Rowley Hills

8th April 2015

On Monday, plant and butterfly expert Mike Poulton carried out the first of his 2015 butterfly transects on the Rowley Hills, on the lookout for butterflies, birds, plants and other spring interest. Here is his report from the transect.

It’s Easter week and spring has finally arrived here on the Rowley Hills. The sun was shining brightly as I strolled across Portway Hill Nature Reserve on my first Butterfly Transect walk of 2015.

Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera) in the Rowley Hills (image ©Mike Poulton)

The main aims of a butterfly transect is to count numbers of each species of butterfly seen on a weekly basis at a given site throughout a full butterfly recording season from April to September inclusive. The chosen transect or route remains constant from year to year and is divided up into a maximum of 15 sections. A count of the butterflies seen in each section is carried out each week and the results entered onto a recording sheet. These records are then submitted to Butterfly Conservation’s ‘Butterfly Monitoring Scheme’. By keeping weekly records comparisons with previous years can be made showing which species are prospering and those that are doing badly. Comparisons can also be made of the dates when different butterflies first appear. For example, here on the Rowley Hills, in an average year the first Marbled Whites can be expected around the middle of June, reaching a peak during the first 10 days of July and then slowly tailing off through the second half of July with just an odd individual or two persisting into the first few days of August. A cold spring could delay this emergence by as much as two weeks. A warm spring will advance the first sighting by several days.

Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera) (image ©Mike Poulton)

Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera) (image ©Mike Poulton)

There was a great deal of bird activity on the hillside; Magpies, Robins, Blackbirds, Carrion Crows and House Sparrows I see regularly, and today I also noted Chaffinches and caught a fleeting glimpse of a Lesser Whitethroat, or was it a Whitethroat? Unfortunately the encounter was somewhat brief as it flew off in pursuit of one of two Long-tailed Tits that departed from the same Hawthorn bush. I also heard and then had a good sighting of a Chiffchaff calling from the top of one of the Cherry Plums that grow here. This shrub is very obvious on the hillside now with its leafless twigs smothered in 5-petalled, white flowers that open just before the leaves unfurl. Further into the site I spotted two Foxes blissfully unaware of my presence sleeping side by side in the warm sunshine half way down a secluded steep bank.

 

Peacock butterfly (Inachis io) (image ©Mike Poulton)

Peacock butterfly (Inachis io) (image ©Mike Poulton)

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) (image ©Mike Poulton)

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) (image ©Mike Poulton)

There was a great deal of butterfly activity from Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells. These two showy butterflies have only just emerged from hibernation having overwintered in sheds, garages and old buildings. The male Peacocks were having aerial tussles with each other, darting off in an instant at the sight of a passing female of the species. The eggs of both are deposited on newly emerging stinging nettle leaves with a preference shown for plants growing in sunny places. The resulting caterpillars build a communal web in young leaves near the top of the plants and remain quite conspicuous, feeding both by day and night. Feeding continues until around mid-summer when the caterpillars pupate to produce the next generation of butterflies that will be seen on the hillside later in the summer.

Apart from Cherry Plum and the golden bloom of Gorse which covers the bank near the Wildlife Trust land, there are very few plants in flower on the hillside so far this year. I saw the occasional Pussy Willow, Colt’s-foot, Dandelion and Lesser Celandine in flower but the main display of flowers is still more than a month away.

Mike Poulton