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Psychedelic nights in Derbyshire. By Patrick Barkham

Blog | By Patrick Barkham | Mar 20, 2024

Illustration by Gary Wing

To hijack L P Hartley, the night is a foreign country; they do things differently there. And if that’s true, a night walk with a UV torch is an expedition to another planet.

This was a simple stroll round a small common in the ordinary English countryside on a dark, dank night.

I set out with my friend Jeremy Buxton, a farmer, and David Atthowe, a young man who is a kind of natural explorer. David has started night strolls with UV torches, which are a tool to take us into another wavelength.

He handed us a torch each. These were ordinary-looking black torches, albeit unusually heavy. We strode down the track and onto Booton Common to a soundtrack of distant tawny owls. The night was still and dripping wet, with dense cloud sheathing any sight of the moon, the stars and passing satellites. We flicked on the torches – and were soon stopped in our tracks.

Lichen that was yellow by day was revealed under torchlight as brilliant orange. Algae on a fence post that were unnoticed in daylight now shone vivid red. Woodlice scurrying along a branch showed up as luminous blue.

Our torches unveiled the natural biofluorescence of animals, plants and fungi. Biofluorescence is the absorption of light by living organisms who then emit it as bright blues, greens, reds and yellows. This ultraviolet light has wavelengths shorter than those detectable by the human eye, but many other animals can see it, and communicate with it.

We may be naturally blind to it, but increasingly affordable and portable UV torches are bringing it into our vision.

We walked slowly on down the footpath which skirted the common, field-edge oaks looming above us. I stopped to examine a brown slug. It emitted brilliant fluorescent yellow slime as I touched it. Jeremy was sidetracked by an earthworm, which revealed twin dotted lines of turquoise on its belly.

We began giggling. I’m such a square that I’ve never taken a trip, but this must be what trippy looks like. The English countryside at night was flaunting its flamboyant psychedelic tendencies.

A humble grey-brown moth turned purple and pink under UV light, and nettles wowed us. Those growing in sunny spots remained green, but plants in shadier areas sported leaves of vivid maroon. Spiders seemed to vary depending on species and also their age, shining bright blue or yellow.

We continued round the common, hoping to stumble across a blue-glowing hedgehog or mole, which are David’s favourite discoveries this year. While the scientific community has documented biofluorescent communication among marine organisms such as sharks for years, an Australian study recently found that 86 per cent of 125 mammals had fur that glowed under UV light. North American flying squirrels shine brilliant pink.

No mammals revealed themselves, but we did discover the beauty of UV litter, even on this quiet nature reserve. Little threads from clothes snagged on branches showed up bright blue-white. I paused to inspect what seemed to be a stupendous lemon-coloured caterpillar; sadly, it turned into a lost scrunchie.

The most charismatic stars of our UV walk were, however, undoubtedly the fungi. By day, Russula fungi were a striking maroon, but beneath our torches they shone a bright lemon yellow. Artist’s conk, a bracket fungus, had a dark brown top and a creamy underside by day. Now it sported a blood-red cap with duck-egg blue beneath.

After two hours of walking at less than woodlouse pace, our torches began to dim (they require hefty battery power) and we reluctantly headed for home. The effect of all these new observations was to slow us down, and make us focus on the small things. This night walk was not only trippy but also deeply tranquil.

We walked around Booton Common, a Norfolk Wildlife Trust nature reserve with public access. Entrance: grid ref TG110228; what3words: books.yards. ghost. David Atthowe offers UV nature walks in East Anglia at revealnature.co.uk