Saturday, 8 May 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #13

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.

"When April steps aside for May,
Like diamonds all the rain-drops glisten;
Fresh violets open every day:
To some new bird each hour we listen."

Lucy Larcom
(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Spring picture 14 zooms down onto the (certainly deciduous) woodland floor to look at some mid-Spring flowering plants in a glade, the Adoxa or moschatel (a new species to me), wood-sorrel, wood anemones, wood violets and, top left, the first appearance of bluebell leaves. These plants frame a little bank vole emerging from its burrow.

Of course, plants of the woodland floor (understorey flora) depend on there being a woodland habitat in the first place. There is certainly lots to write about the fate of the remaining ancient woodlands in Scotland and more widely in Britain. As, however, they feature widely through all four of the books in the Ladybird “What to look for... “ series, for now I will focus simply on the forest floor plants themselves, and talk about the wider habitat in later posts. As ever when comparing what has happened to plant species since the 1959-1961 period when these pictures and their books were produced, we have access to the marvellous New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora from 2002. As explained previously, this provides a direct comparison of the recently-surveyed distributions of all British land and freshwater plants with those of 1962 when the original Atlas was published. The text accompanying the Ladybird book picture actually says very little about the plants themselves, so I’ll try to do better than that!

The New Atlas reports that the distributions of moschatel, wood-sorrel, wood anemone and bluebells are all stable compared to the 1962 Atlas. It is quite gratifying when it turns out that the features in one of these pictures haven’t gone completely to hell in a handbasket. The moschatel (Latin name: Adoxa moschatellina) is the little yellow-green flower in the bottom left of the picture. I confess I’d never heard of it before this. It is a Spring species of shady areas in deciduous woodlands, and disappears before Summer. The text describes the violets in the top right of the picture as “wood violets” but no modern book uses this name and so I assume that this is actually the Common dog-violet (Viola riviniana), the most widespread native wild violet and one of the most widespread plants in Britain, including in our deciduous woodlands (although by no means restricted to that habitat). Here is one of my own photos of dog-violets taken in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park:

We sometimes use the petals of these as a garnish on wild leaf salads in Spring, in place of borage leaves as these are only available later in the season.

The wood-sorrel, with its Latin name as Oxalis acetosella, is another edible plant that we add to salads. The text for the picture even notes that the clover-shaped leaves are sharp-tasting. The specific name “acetosella” refers to the vinegary or acetic acid component of the leaf. You don’t need to add too many of the little leaves to sharpen up a salad and sometimes, while walking through woods where it grows, I will pick and nibble its leaves to pass the time. As this is one of the few plants that thrives in the deep shade and needle fall of conifer plantations, you can find it very widely from ancient woodlands, through to modern planted commercial plantations.

As there is a splendid picture coming soon with fully flowering bluebells and the current picture only shows emerging leaves, I’ll leave the bluebells for now. The final plant to discuss here, therefore, is the wood anemone, Anemone nemorosa. Wherever you see this growing wild, you can be pretty sure that, if in a wood, it is an ancient woodland and, if not in a wood, that there used to be an ancient woodland there. The wood anemone spreads remarkably slowly, maybe a few centimetres a year – the book text points out that it spreads by underground stems and are “consequently, all close together”. So it must take centuries for it to spread into the beautiful, wide blankets of flowers that can be found at this time of year in suitable habitat. Here is a photo I took on the German Baltic island of Vilm which gives an idea of how it exists in good woodland habitat:

This anemone species also exists in some other colour forms which have been selectively bred by horticulturalists to produce the wide colour range of cultivated forms available for our gardens.

The little bank vole (Latin name: Clethrionomys glareolus) shown emerging here is in a favourite habitat for this little rodent, preferring areas of mature mixed deciduous woodland with a thick shrub layer, but also grassland habitats, young deciduous plantations, conifer plantations and hedgerows (according to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee – JNCC- in its Review of British Mammals). The JNCC also provides an estimate of how many bank voles there are in Scotland: “A total pre-breeding population of about 23,000,000; 17,750,000 in England, 3,500,000 in Scotland and 1,750,000 in Wales. A high proportion of the population is in England because this is where the majority of the hedgerows in arable landscapes are found; hedgerows in arable landscapes in England alone contain over a third of the British pre-breeding bank vole population.” It is also suggested that, although the trend in bank vole numbers is unknown, in general, bank vole numbers in Britain are “probably as great now as they have ever been.”

Speaking to staff at the Argaty Red Kite visitor centre north of Stirling this week, they think that there are very high populations of bank voles in our area this Spring, of note for them as the bank vole is an important prey item for the red kite. The grassy bank outside of their red kite bird hide (below) is riddled with vole tunnels, so maybe they are correct!


  1. As usual with this series SNB, an interesting and highly thought provoking wee piece. Not the least because I have been wondering if it's the inner wee boy that perhaps has actually kept these childhood books that the amazing drawings come from! This drawing in particular looks very familiar to me, so I'm wondering too, if this is from one of the series that I used to have in my dim and distant past......

    You know, I look forward to these posts more than you probably imagine, so keep up the good work.

    I see your icon has appeared over at Jonos 'e-clecticism'. It's a great wee treasure trove of stuff isn't it?


  2. Thanks Al - sadly, it is the inner wee boy in my father that still has the books (MY books!), so I had to go e-Baying for replacements! Thanks especally for your encouraging words. As you'll appreciate, when you fire off your blog post into the ether, its still pretty thrilling when people actually seem interested and take the time to comment. Although I'm a wee bit behind with the timetable of the books, Scotland is a wee bit behind in seasonal terms anyway, so I'm sure I can catch up and keep up! More than halfway through the first book now...

    Yes, jono's blog looks really interesting and I look forward to dipping into that well of wisdom!

  3. it is indeed a late spring here big bro...alot of folk will be reading your blog with interest without commenting.... i find that when i meet folk that read mine,hope for you its a long summer to get time to get through the next book!


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