Saturday, 17 April 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #9

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.

Hail in the Spring, a start of new beginnings.
Creativity awe-inspiring gives a reason to be living.
Plant life showing life anew, a wonder to be found.
New born lambs playing in the fields, birds nesting all around
People enjoying the sun and the warmth, feeling good to be alive.
Spring gives a purpose to our lives, a touch of Paradise.”

Kay M. Sutton, Bring in the Spring

Copyright: Ladybird Books

I guess I have reached a mildly exciting stage of the Spring book with this picture, as it is the one used as the book’s cover. And, I suppose, in selecting the image for the cover, one that is reasonably iconic for the season would have been selected. And there probably isn’t a more iconic British Springtime image than newborn lambs playing “King of the Castle”! So this picture of a farmland scene also introduces blackthorn in blossom, small foxglove plants, and two birds of farmland habitats, the skylark (on fence post and in foreground) and the lapwing (or peewit).

In June 2007, an agricultural census in Scotland identified that there were 7,490,700 sheep in Scotland including 2,916,680 breeding ewes and 3,673,790 lambs. This was a 22% decline from the more than 9 million sheep being farmed in Scotland in 1997. The Scottish Agricultural College has said that “Sheep farming in harsh upland environments is economically marginal, heavily dependent on subsidies and can present environmental and animal welfare issues.” In recent years, sheep farming in Scotland has become much less profitable even that it was before and the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy is likely to result in changes (a decline?) in hill sheep numbers. It is hoped that this will lead to an increase in biodiversity.

In Scotland, sheep were inadvertently responsible for what has been described (Oliver Rackham, “The History of the Countryside”) as “the most outrageous example of the single-minded pursuit of agricultural profit”. From the late 18th Century onwards, sheep farming on moorland increased everywhere northward from South Wales. The Highland Clearances in Scotland were one notorious outcome. Between 1782 and 1854, there were many instances of unscrupulous landowners evicting their tenants “through violence, bloodshed and arson”. to make way for the then-more profitable, sheep farming. This process was not as profitable as first thought though, as the capacity of moorland for sheep grazing is not as high as was first thought. The history of sheep farming is, therefore, unarguably linked to the long, sad and inglorious story of rural depopulation in Scotland. Despite the compound human misery of the various periods of Clearances, it is also true, however, that without this despicable treatment of poor rural tenant farmers and crofters, there would have been no major diaspora of Scots to “the Americas”, Australia and New Zealand, and all the significant contributions that those Scottish emigrants made to the development of those nations. For more about the history of sheep farming in Scotland, the Scottish Agricultural College produced a report here, with a current outlook report on Scottish sheep farming here.

Moving to the natural features of the picture, there are two plant species, both of which are of considerable value to people. The blackthorn (Latin name: Prunus spinosa) is a deciduous shrub or small tree which grows across almost all of mainland Britain and Ireland. Blackthorn is valued as a hedging plant,for its hardwood branches as a source of “corkscrew” walking sticks (my Dad has made several) and, not least, as a source of its small black plums, or sloes, much lauded (not least in this house!) for their use in flavouring and colouring of sloe gin, prepared in the Autumn and usually ready to drink by Christmas. The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora reported, in 2002, that the distribution of blackthorn in Britain is stable compared to the original Atlas published in 1962.

Foxgloves (Latin name: Digitalis purpurea) are shown in the picture as small rosettes beginning their second year of growth. Under normal wild conditions, foxgloves take two summers to grow from seed to flower. Very widely distributed in Britain and Ireland, though introduced in Orkney, foxgloves grow from these rosettes, a tall flowering spike with many tapered tubular pink or, quite frequently, white flowers. Foxgloves often grow in great profusion on disturbed or formerly burnt ground (e.g. railway bankings, cleared forestry plantations). The foxglove in full flower features in a quite striking picture in the Summer book, so I will discuss its usefulness to people when I write about that picture. The New Plant Atlas reports that, when compared with its 1962 distribution, the current distribution of the foxglove is stable, probably as a result of its prolific production of seeds and their persistence in the seed bank in the soil.

The story of the two bird species here is in stark contrast to the tale of the two relatively stable featured plant species. The text for the picture says: “From January until April, skylarks can be heard singing over meadowlands and downs”. Indeed, the skylark (Latin name: Alauda arvensis) and especially its soaring flight and song have a strong cultural resonance in Britain, providing the muse for, among other delights:

- Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “blithe spirit” (“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!”),

- William Wordsworth’s “To a skylark” (“Up with me! Up with me into the clouds! / For thy song, Lark, is strong”) 

- William Blake’s “A skylark wounded in the wing, / A cherubim does cease to sing.”

and the inspiration (and indeed the musical theme) for Vaughan Williams’ “Lark Ascending” (played beautifully here by the amazingly talented young Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti). But sadly, the tale of the skylark since the Ladybird series was published in 1959-61 has been one of pretty catastrophic decline, particularly in England, where the skylark breeding population declined by 60% between 1967 and 2007, according to figures provided by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), a parlous state that has led to its inclusion as a priority species in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan, and its listing on the UK’s red list of threatened species.

Skylark numbers have also fallen steeply across Europe since 1980. Considerable research effort by BTO and other researchers in the last decade suggests that the most likely cause of the decline is: “the change to autumn sowing of cereals [I discussed this in the post on the first picture in the book]: this practice restricts opportunities for late-season nesting attempts, because the crop is by then too tall, and may depress overwinter survival by reducing the area of stubbles”.

The BTO also points out, slightly ironically, that: “before the widespread introduction of farming, it was probably quite scarce and its fortunes since have followed farming practices”. In Scotland, there has been a small annual increase in the skylark population since 1995. Changes in agricultural practices can also help with the recovery of the skylark. For example, “leaving small, rectangular patches of bare ground ('Skylark plots') within autumn-sown cereals appears to provide many of the benefits of spring-sown cereals at very low cost to the farmer”.

The lapwing, or green plover (Latin name: Vanellus vanellus) is also known as the peewit in Scotland (from an earlier name, the peewee), which is onomatopoeic for the bird’s call. The BTO provides a wee tidbit about the lapwing/ peewit: “Ever since Chaucer wrote of the 'false lapwynge, ful of treacherye', the lapwing has had an association with deceit, perhaps because of its beautiful plumage and joyous display flights”. Sounds like jealousy to me. The peewit is one of the most strongly declining bird species in Europe, having decreased in all regions since 1980.

Despite an increasing population during the 1960s and 1970s, peewits “have declined continuously on lowland farmland since the mid 1980s, probably because changes in agricultural practice have led to their breeding productivity dropping below a sustainable level”. The decline is obvious in this BTO figure:

The BTO reports that national surveys in England and Wales “showed a 49% population decline between 1987 and 1998”. Population declines of more than 50% over 15 years in Northern Ireland mirror similar declines throughout grasslands in Wales and southeast England. The Breeding Bird Survey suggests some increase in England since 1994, but a steep decline in Scotland (of 33% between 1995 and 2007). It is thought possible that the decline is resulting from an increase in grazing intensity in marginal uplands and increased predation by nocturnal mammals (88% of nest predation taking place at night by, e.g. hedgehogs, foxes), possibly associated with habitat changes. The peewit is one of the most strongly declining bird species in Europe and is now listed in the UK’s “Red list” and is the subject of an action plan under the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan.

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