Monday, 5 April 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #7

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.

"April prepares her green traffic light and the world thinks Go.” Christopher Morley, John Mistletoe

This post needs to be briefer than the last couple in the series, to allow me to catch up a little! Spring is rolling on in the Ladybird book, and picture 8 brings us to the end of March (I know it is April here-and-now, but I am falling behind a bit – but it was still March less than a week ago!)

Picture 8 presents a scene of springtime nature idyll with, as centrepiece, a bank of primroses in flower, along with the emergence of ladybirds, the opening of the buds on the elder, bringing forth its leaves, a chiffchaff (the olive green bird) newly arrived from its wintering grounds, and a large female oil-beetle.

The primrose (Latin name: Primula vulgaris) is a native plant, usually perennial (evergreen) and found across all of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Indeed, the primrose is one of the earliest Spring flowers in much of Europe (the name “primrose” coming from Old French primerose or medieval Latin prima rosa, meaning first "rose"). Where conditions are right for it, as seems to be the case in this picture, it can carpet the ground in woodlands, along hedgerows and on more shaded (North facing) grassy banks. Interestingly, its seeds are usually dispersed by ants. Richard Mabey’s “Flora Britannica” dedicates four pages to the story and folklore of this popular Spring flower, stating: “its pure yellow flowers and tufted habit – arranged naturally into the form of a posy – have made it a universal token of spring, and especially of Easter.” Very appropriate, as I write this on Easter Monday 2010! The customs and traditions associated with this welcome harbinger of Spring are fascinating but too numerous to repeat here, so I recommend Richard Mabey’s account if you want to know more. The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora reports that populations of primrose have not fluctuated markedly during the last Century in most parts of Britain and Ireland. In a Scottish Natural Heritage report from 2006 (“Natural Heritage Trends of Scotland: phenological indicators of climate change”), the results of flowering records are reviewed for Scotland - a long-term record for primroses on the Isle of Skye suggests that the first flowering date is becoming earlier by an average of a day a year, presumably as a result of a warming Spring climate.

How appropriate, too, for ladybirds to appear in this Ladybird book-focused series. Surely Britain’s favourite insects and certainly its favourite beetle, ladybirds are also beneficial to gardeners, as their larvae are voracious predators on aphids. There are 46 members of the beetle family Coccinellidae native to Britain, of which 26 species could be recognised as “proper” ladybirds. Britain’s ladybirds, however, be in trouble. I couldn’t find any readily available information on the trends in ladybird numbers or distribution since 1959-1961, but there is one recently identified major threat. According to Buglife, the Invertebrate Conservation Trust: “Familiar British ladybirds are facing their biggest danger since the last ice age. A new invader from southeast Asia, the Harlequin ladybird is threatening to displace the resident species that for generations have helped us to control aphid populations.” This undesirable, which was first introduced into Britain in 2004, has now reached Scotland, being recorded near Loch Tummel in October 2007.

A friend of mine, Craig Macadam, Buglife’s Conservation Officer for Scotland, has also said: “This ladybird can have a devastating effect on our native ladybirds. It’s not fussy about what it eats. Once it has run out of aphids it will feed on other ladybird eggs and larvae and even butterfly and moth eggs and caterpillars. Harlequin ladybirds are often found hibernating in large numbers in buildings during autumn and winter. There are cases where tens of thousands of ladybirds have been found in people’s homes.”

A survey of Harlequin ladybirds is underway – you can find out more about participating here. You can read more about the concern over Harlequin ladybirds, including the problems they raise for humans too, at this site.

The elder (Latin name: Sambucus nigra) is a very widespread woody shrub verging on being a tree, native to all of Britan and Ireland, except for the very north of Scotland and the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland). According to the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora, its current range is similar to that shown in the 1962 Atlas. It is also one of the earliest woody plants in Britain to come into leaf, hence its featuring in this picture with its new leaves. Although I will say more about elder when it re-appears in flower in the Summer book, it is worth noting here that, as one of the earliest leafing species, a study by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology showed that earlier flowering of elder can be expected as a result of climate change, by up to 4 days for every degree of average temperature rise in February and March. So the time of leaf appearance in Spring may affect the time of flowering in Summer.

The only bird in this picture is the diminutive olive-coloured chiffchaff (Latin name: Phylloscopus collybita), a warbler species almost identical to the willow warbler, both species that come to Britain to nest but spend their winters in a zone from North Africa to India. One of my posher bird books (Birds of the Western Palearctic: Concise edition) indicates that this species has only spread into Scotland since the 1950s, where its summer population continues to increase. So I assume there are now more chiffchaffs visiting Scotland than when the Ladybird Spring book was published! In 1988-91, Britain was estimated to have 640,000 breeding territories, while the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) reported that this had increased to 807,000 territories in 2000, and between 1967 and 2007, its average egg-laying date is now 14 days earlier. The population trend is a healthy one, as shown by the BTO:

Right on schedule for my blog, I heard my first chiffchaff of the year two days ago and saw the first one yesterday, both in the local King’s Park in Stirling. I had a wee moment with the bird yesterday, as I copied its simple two-note call and it zoomed down to a low bush near me to try and identify the intruder in its territory, calling back madly. It then followed me back along the edge of the wood as I walked home, mimicking it. When I was clearly at the edge of its patch, it headed back again. Incidentally, in English, it takes its name from its call, a two-note song sounding like “chiff chaff” ... or if you are Dutch, “tjiftjaf”, or German “zilpzalp” – the German is the closest to the real sound, in my view.

The only other feature of this picture is a female oil beetle emerging from its winter hiding place. I confess to knowing nothing about these and the only easily accessible general information was on the Buglife website here. Three species, including the Violet oil beetle (Latin name: Meloe violaceus), are listed on the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan due to a perceived decline in recent decades. There are few recent records, although any proper assessment is limited due to a lack of data. The beetle’s larvae are parasitic on solitary ground-nesting bees. This species is therefore reliant on healthy populations of its hosts, and many bee species are in decline. Species with highly specialised life-cycles are more vulnerable than those with a more generalist nature, especially when reliant on other species which, in turn, may be threatened or declining.

Apologies, but I failed to make this one briefer, as intended – there is just so much to say!

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