Thursday, 18 March 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #2

More comparisons between the the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books. Spring pictures 2 and 3.

"There is a flower, the lesser Celandine
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, at the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun itself, 'tis out again!"
(The Small Celandine, William Wordsworth)

The way these Ladybird seasonal “What to Look for...” books work is to start with examples in the early part of the season and work through the season towards the next one. So, obviously, the second and third pictures from the Spring book show scenes from early Spring. The second picture in the Spring book (below) is a simple little tableau showing two displaying hedge sparrows in among early Spring flowers and a molehill.

The comments about the earlier Spring season nowadays compared with 1959-1961 in the previous post also apply here. The average dates on which these early Spring flowers appear have moved earlier in the year. The lesser celandine (latin name: Ranunculus ficaria, hence, a buttercup species), the smaller of the yellow flowers in the picture and an early source of nectar and pollen for insects, generally flowers about 2 weeks later in Scotland, on average, than in England. The average flowering date in the UK has, however, moved about 2 weeks earlier between 2001 and 2009. I couldn't find any earlier records for the flowering dates of this species, but there is clearly a change in timing taking place.

The text for the picture reports on the pair of Hedge Sparrows or Dunnocks (latin name: Prunella modularis) in the following very innocent and sweet way: "With flirting and jerking of wings, two hedge-sparrows are displaying to each other in a kind of springtime dance. It is a form of love-making." Bless!

The population story for the dunnock or hedge-sparrow (although it is not a species of sparrow) is, however, not so pleasant. Although present all year round in Britain, including most of Scotland, and breeding here, the abundance of dunnocks in Britain fell substantially between the mid 1970s and mid 1980s, after a period of population stability. Some recovery has occurred throughout the UK since the late 1990s, but the species is still "amber listed", meaning that it is thought to have had a population decline of between 25 and 50%. The figure showing its decline is quite dramatic:

It is suggested by the British Trust for Ornithology that the decline may be due to wide mis-management and deer-overgrazing of the woodland habitats for this species. One other thing about this relatively undistinguished looking bird - it has a very complex sex life!  I quote: "This unobtrusive little brown bird doesn't form pairs (like most birds), but breeds in groups of up to three males and three females, with two males and a female being the most common." It's always the quiet ones, isn't it?

Finally, the picture has a molehill (or “mole-heave”) in the foreground. Moles (Talpa europaea) belong to the same mammal family as hedgehogs and shrews, the insectivores (“insect eaters”, although moles mostly eat earthworms). You might have noticed lots of small molehills appearing in parks and grass fields in early Spring. As I understand it, this is the result of male moles heading out in search of females, digging new tunnels presumably in the hope of an encounter with a tunnel containing a potential mate. If anyone has a better understanding of this, I’d be pleased to learn what they know. Moles can be found everywhere in Britain where the soil is deep enough for their tunnelling. In a review of British mammals published by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), an amazing population estimate is provided for moles in Britain: total pre-breeding population of about 31,000,000; 19,750,000 in England, 8,000,000 in Scotland and 3,250,000 in Wales!

The trend in mole numbers is unknown; although persecution (trapping, posioning) of moles may have reduced (I no longer see fence lines with loads of dead moles hanging from them, which I used to see when I was young), according to the JNCC report, some current agricultural practices, particularly deep plouging, are detrimental to moles and the removal of hedgerows and areas of rough land eliminates the sanctuary areas from which moles could recolonise an area following cultivation. So the loss of set-aside land due to the removal of farming subsidies may affect mole populations adversely in arable areas (but who knows by how much?).

"The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing." (Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, Chapter 1).

Time to turn the page again:

The third Spring picture shows an altogether more complicated scene. An agricultural landscape with seed drilling, (by modern standards) profligate levels of rural employment, birds galore and elm trees (guess what we’ll be looking at shortly!). As an indication of how much agricultural expectations have changed since 1960, I quote the first line of text: “The elaborate tilling machine, which can till twelve drills of wheat at a time, is a far-reaching advance on the earlier hand-scattering of seeds.” This suggestion of a memory of hand-sowing really does make a link back to pre-intensification agriculture. Also, the picture harks back to a time when many more people were employed in farming - difficult to think today of three people working to plough and seed a single wheat field. This would all be achieved by one guy in a big modern tractor - no need for a man to stand on the back of the seed drill to ensure that the seeds feed evenly!

In the foreground, a group of black-headed gulls (Larus ridibundus) is seen following the tractor. The text suggests that they are picking up grain seeds, as well as worms and soil grubs. It seems unlikely that they would be taking grain, their diet usually being "worms, insects, fish and carrion". Although there is a large breeding popualtion of over 138,000 pairs of black-headed gulls in Britain, most breeding in colonies in bogs and marshes on hills and moors a long way from the sea, in winter, the population swells to nearly 1.7 million birds, on reservoirs, in estuaries, and on the coast (as well as in coastal towns), with birds migrating here from eastern and northern Europe.

In terms of the breeding population of black-headed gulls, the good old JNCC is able to advise as follows: "There has been a marked spread in northern Europe since the early 20th century and the recent colonisation of Italy (1960), Spain (1960), Greenland (1969) and Newfoundland (1977) would suggest this expansion is continuing. British and Irish populations have also reflected the increases that started during the 1900s ... More recent population changes have only been adequately documented for coastal sites, and these showed a slight increase of about 7% between 1969–1970 and 1985–1987 for Britain and Ireland as a whole ... English coastal colonies showed an overall increase of more than 30%, whereas over the same period, a 55% decrease was recorded on Scottish coasts (particularly south-east Scotland)." The apparent loss of colonies in Scotland is reported to be probably a consequence of agricultural drainage.

The displaying lapwings in the picture – also known as peewits in Scotland – offer a salutory tale under the banner of farmland bird decline but, as lapwings feature in a later Spring picture, I am going to save that for another day. Similarly for the rooks in the background, as they will feature in the next post.

The one remaining issue in this picture, and one of the most significant in rural landscape terms over the past 50 years is the elm trees (It says: "The expanding flower-buds on the elm trees are tinged pink against their dark twigs").

Dutch elm disease is one of the most serious tree diseases in the world. It is caused by two related species of fungi (Ophiostoma), spread by various elm bark beetles. Native British elm species are susceptible to the disease. In lowland central and southern Britain, with predominantly English elm, an epidemic of Dutch Elm Disease took rapid hold during the early to mid-1970s, leading to the death of most mature English elm by the early 1980s.

According to Forest Research (the research arm of the Forestry Commission), Dutch Elm disease's epidemic progress has been much slower on the large predominantly wych elm (Ulma glabra) populations of Scotland and north-west England. The result is that the first wave of the 1970s epidemic is still active and continuing in these areas today. It has moved into U. glabra populations that were not affected by the first epidemic, such as those in the Glasgow area. It is continuing to push northwards, particularly on the east coast north of Aberdeen. The disease is now well-established in an area around Nairn to the east of Inverness, with several hundred trees known to be affected.

Elm trees were never as significant a feature of Scottish rural landscapes as in England, where the loss of entire elm populations in many areas completely changed rural landscapes and their skylines.Nevertheless, elms are still regarded as an important tree in some parts of Scotland, such as North-East Scotland, and local authorities and others remain active in trying to prevent the spread of the disease. Here is Highland Council's information on this.


  1. I reserved the right to go to bed before 2 a.m. and, as I couldn't find out anything about the trends in coltsfoot (or the violets!) by 01:30, I decided to publish and be damned and, clearly, was damned!


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