Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Signs of the Times: Spring #11

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

"Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly--and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing."

Omar Khayyám

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Spring picture 12 is a simple tableau showing two magpies sitting in the branches of a larch tree, with the branch of an ash tree appearing from below. Magpies (Latin name: Pica pica) belong to the crow or corvid family and, like other members of that group, are still often persecuted (i.e. killed by shooting, or trapping then shooting) because their mode of living involves the eating of small birds, their eggs and nestlings. The text in the Ladybird book suggests that magpies also eat the eggs of birds bred for game, such as pheasants and partridges and goes on to make a highly judgmental comment about “countrymen” being justified in feeling that they have done a good deed in shooting a magpie as “it is certain that any magpie shot in April will have the egg-yolk of some other bird’s egg on its bill”. It is probably a sign of the times in which this book was originally written that the respected ecologist who provided the text for the book could profess such a belief in a children’s book, i.e. magpies were egg-eating vermin that it was desirable to shoot, as opposed to being a native element of our bird fauna, with an ecological niche of its own which is, presumably, how most ecologists today would regard this species.

Magpies are still trapped and killed today by the game management sector. It is a truly handsome bird that, as well as eating eggs, etc, also feeds heavily on insects, seeds and carrion. Like most crow species, a highly adaptable species, magpies have successfully invaded our urban and suburban world in recent decades. The occasional urban guerrilla nutcase anti magpie vigilante citizen makes a splash in the papers, with claims about outrageous numbers of magpies that they have trapped and killed. As if a beautiful small garden bird has any more intrinsic value and right to life than a beautiful black and white magpie with its iridescent blue and green wing and tail plumage. In ecological terms, magpies in gardens taking eggs and chicks are part of what the media likes to call “the natural order”. Almost all the individual organisms ever born die as eggs or young, sometimes eaten, sometimes killed by their siblings, sometimes killed by parasites, or by an unkind environment. Without predators, we’d be knee deep in everything else and natural selection would be missing a key mechanism.

The British Trust for Ornithology reports that “the remarkable adaptability of Magpies has enabled them to colonise many new urban and suburban localities since the 1960s. Magpies increased steadily until the late 1980s, when abundance stabilised”, as you can see from the following graph:

There has been a minor decrease in the magpie population of the UK during the last five years. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust suggests that, since 1990, the widespread adoption of the Larsen trap for predator control may have been responsible for a large increase in Magpie numbers killed on shooting estates, Possibly it is this that has now driven the population back into decline. It is possible that a warming climate is responsible for the strong trend towards earlier egg laying by magpies in the mid 1960’s:

The Larch (Latin name: Larix decidua) is an unusual thing in Britain – a deciduous conifer, or cone bearing tree that loses its needle in Autumn. It isn’t a native species in Britain, and there are two different records for when it was introduced first – the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora says it was in 1862 for timber, and first recorded in the wild in 1886. In his book Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey says it was in 1620 and that larch was the species planted for the first forestry plantation in Britain, on the Duke of Atholl’s Perthshire estates in the mid-18th Century. Although the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora says that there are more larch records now than in the original 1962 Atlas, it was greatly under-recorded in 1962. It is still planted a little for timber nowadays but its susceptibility to a disease, larch canker, means that other species are generally planted in preference. It is pretty widely distributed in Britain, as it naturalises in the wild easily from larch plantations. A light green in the Spring (see the picture!), larch needles go a beautiful golden colour in Autumn before they are dropped. In advance of this blog post, I have been keeping a daily eye on my nearest larch tree in the local park and it produced needles a couple of weeks ago and I saw the little pinky-purple flowers on it a week or so ago.

The other tree featured here, with its grey smooth bark, large black buds and blueish flowers, is the Ash (Latin name: Fraxinus excelsior) a common tree species found native over all of Britain and Ireland except for some more remote and upland parts of northern Scotland, the Outer Hebrides and the Northern Isles. The New Atlas records its distribution as stable compared with 1962.

The Ash is a tree with a mythological heritage. In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, the “tree of life” was an ash tree. I wonder whether it is a cultural memory of this, following all the Norse settlement in parts of Britain, that led to the ash being regarded in folklore as a healing tree, or a tree with magical properties. Richard Mabey provides a great account in Flora Britannica of the cultural importance of the ash in Britain and all the many uses to which it has been traditionally put, not least the many ways in which children in less televisually and game console demanding times used ash sticks and branches in games.


  1. Interesting - there certainly are loads more magpies than I remember as a child - as with buzzards I guess this is down to less gamekeepers.

  2. Thanks ian - yes, I wondered about that too - though clearly, there is more intensive killing of magpies in some parts of Scotland but in the Central Belt, I'd guess that is a strong driver of increasing population. I'd agree that I've seen an increase of magpies and buzzards in Stirling and in East Lothian over the last 20 years. When we first moved to EL from Ayrshire in 1970, there were NO magpies in the far East, unlike in West Scotland. It took maybe 10 or 15 years before we started seeing them in EL, so there was definitely an expansion of range.


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