Friday, 28 May 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #17

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.
Ask of Her, the mighty Mother.
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?-
Growth in every thing -
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and green world all together,

Star-eyed strawberry breasted
Throstle above Her nested
Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within,
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.”

Gerard Manly Hopkins, The May Magnificant, 1888

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Spring picture 18 takes us, once again, down into the undergrowth, probably on farmland. I say that as the centrepiece for this is a nestful of partridge eggs. It is surrounded by a variety of flowering plants (white dead-netle, bugle and wild arum) and some emerging fronds of bracken. The flowers have attracted a bumblebee, and there are caterpillars of two moth species, the upper one a yellow-underwing and the lower one is a tiger moth caterpillar.

The partridge, or grey partridge (Latin name: Perdix perdix) that laid these eggs would have paired up with its mate in late January or early February. Ultimately, it will spend the following winter in its family group (or “covey”). Unfortunately, according to the BTO, the grey partridge is one of the most seriously declining bird species in Europe, its decline in the UK of 89% between 1967 and 2007 reflecting this wider decline. “The Birds of the Western Palaearctic” describes the decline as follows: “From early 1950s, steady decline in mean population levels throughout range, varying from 50 to 90%, but delayed in some areas until modern agricultural methods introduced”. The BTO elaborates on this reference to agricultural intensification as the likely cause of the partridge’s calamitous decline as probably specifically the effects of herbicides on the food plants of young chicks' insect prey.

On the floral front, I won’t discuss bracken here as it appears in a few pictures’ time, a little more unfurled! The White Dead-Nettle (Lamium album) is not a native species but has been long established in Britain. The New Atlas of the Flora of Britain and Ireland identifies that its distribution has not changed. Similarly, the distribution of the lovely blue-flowered Bugle (Ajuga reptans) has not changed significantly in Britain since the original 1962 Atlas. It is described in Richard Mabey’s “Flora Britannica” as: “a finely structured and tinted plant of woodland clearings and damp grassland, quite often growing in large troops”. Most of the text accompanying the picture is actually about the wild arum (Arum maculatum), the frankly quite bizarre looking plant in the centre of the picture, with the large pale-green hood. Richard Mabey reports that this species has garnered over 90 local common names, the most well-known being Lords and Ladies, Cuckoo Pint, Red-hot Poker, Willy Lily (I wonder where they get that from?), Jack in the Pulpit, Parson in the Pulpit (and so on, it goes on!). There is a suggestion that Cuckoo Pint comes from “pintle”, a slang word for “penis”. But, as Mabey says, “for all its bawdy associations, the plant itself is a handsome and modest one, pale and sculptural in Spring.” The flower leads, later in the season, to a spike of numerous bright orange berries. The New Atlas identifies little change in distribution in Britan since 1962, but this species is thought not to be native in Scotland anyway.

The moth caterpillars? Difficult to say too much as neither of them is identified in the text to a sufficient species level to say anything very specific. There are several tiger moth species and more than one yellow-underwing species. The garden tiger moth may be the commonest and most widespread tiger moth but Butterfly Conservation, the butterfly and moth conservation charity, has identified that is is declining. The Lunar yellow-underwing moth is the subject of an action plan in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan and has just been identified as stable in population after several years of reported decline. Sorry not to say more about these but there isn’t much point as different members of each group are fairing better or worse to different degrees!

Now, I confess to a mild amusement at finding the partridge’s nest and the Lords and Ladies in the same picture here. Below is a photo I took in the very first film in the first camera I ever owned (a little Kodak instamatic that used what I think were called 110 film cartridges – kids, this was pre-pre-pre-digital!). As you can see, I’ve been rubbish at photography all of my life! I was given the camera by my parents for maybe my 8th birthday. We had just moved to the cottage on a farm near Aberlady where I lived for the rest of my childhood until I went off to university.

When we moved in, the garden was pretty untended and we found the partidge’s nest shown in the photo, with some eggs hatched and some infertile or abandoned before they hatched. The nice coincidence with the Ladybird book picture is that, over the wall from the nest, in the margin of the cereal field that bordered our garden, we found Lords and Ladies growing, at the time particularly exciting for the 8-year old naturalist who had been told repeatedly previously by his Dad that this was a very rare plant in East Lothian where we lived. Here I am, all these years later, finding these two memories stimulated by this lovely painting and my old photo.

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