Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #3

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.

"What is one to say about June, the time of perfect young summer,
the fulfillment of the promise of the earlier months,
and with as yet no sign to remind one that its fresh young beauty will ever fade."

Gertrude Jekyll

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

I’m starting this post, only the 3rd summer post, on the eve of Midsummer, which might be a bit worrying with another 21 pictures still to go, were Midsummer not more to do with daylength than the actual season of Summer and its hoped-for warm dry weather. Tonight, up here in Scotland, the night will be very short, the stars just temporary, faint visitors, with pre-dawn’s soft pink glowing light creeping up soon after 3 a.m., although sunrise isn’t till about half-past four. In the past (the good old days!), I’ve been out collecting samples on saltmarshes at high tide before dawn at this time of year and have sat surrounded by near-total stillness as the faint dawn light fades in, the brackish water of high tide licking the edges of the saltmarsh creeks and just threatening to spill out and flood the marsh, no breath of wind, the water at slack water of high tide like a mirrored millpond, just the gentle hiss of escaping air bubbling up from deep within the water-saturated soils of the marsh, and the piping calls of redshanks and oystercatchers breaking the silence. I love this time of year, when the weather turns out like it is just now.

Summer Picture 3
Anyway, this picture is nothing to do with saltmarshes or the sea! Summer picture 3 is a woodland edge, alongside some arable farmland. A green woodpecker is digging holes into a dead beech tree (killed by a lightning strike), while some young jays in a rowan tree (which is in blossom) are watching one of their parents mobbing a grey squirrel, which is running along a very solid, rustic-looking wooden fence. In the foreground, bracken is unfurling and a speckled wood butterfly has landed on the trunk of the beech tree. And, as the accompanying text says: “In the fields beyond the fence are rows of neatly hoed young turnip plants, and beyond these there stretches the pale green of young oats”. The text also clarifies that the picture was painted in northern England as the bracken and the blossom of the rowan would be further developed in the south by June.

I’ve already covered the status and changes of bracken in an earlier post here, and both beech trees and the green woodpecker already featured in another Spring post here, so I won’t say any more about them now. The speckled wood butterfly (Latin name: Pararge aegeria) is described in the Ladybird book as “one of the most beautiful and delicate of our butterflies” and was reported as being “fortunately common in English woods”. Well, that’s a helpful scene-setter for the story of the speckled wood since the late 1950 and early 1960s when the Ladybird seasons books first appeared. For the speckled wood, which prefers grassy edge habitats in shady woodlands and their clearings, has undergone a considerable expansion of both its range and its population since then. In fact, not only common now in English woods, the speckled wood has expanded both in southern Britain and in Scotland, on the west and east coasts, and has begun to be recorded inland too. The species was even recorded between 2000 and 2004 for the first time in the Western isles, where a healthy population is thriving in one of the few wooded areas of the Isle of Lewis. This information is provided in the book, The State of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland, published by a partnership led by Butterfly Conservation.

This reports that, between the periods 1970-82 and 1995-2004, range in Britain expanded by 31%, and 38% in Scotland. In terms of population, between 1976 and 2004, this increased by a whopping 160% in Britain. There also appears to be a change in the seasonal appearance of speckled wood, now being seen from early February, when previously this was typically early-mid March. The improving fortunes of this species are put down to its habit as a wider countryside generalist species, able to do well in a changing countryside where some other more specialist species have suffered declines (more on this in future posts). There may well also be a contributory element of warmer climatic conditions increasing the range and increasing the season length.

The rowan tree (also known as the mountain ash) in the centre of the picture (Sorbus aucuparia), with its white blossom, is a native small-medium tree found in woodlands, on cliffs and rocky habitats nearly everywhere in Britain and over most of Ireland. The rowan has an important place in British folklore. It has been widely planted beside houses, cottages and crofts as it was believed to provide protection against witches, a story told to me by my dad when I was a very young boy. Richard Mabey, in "Flora Britannica", reports that in parts of Scotland, there remains a strong taboo against cutting down a rowan tree. All over the Highlands, you will find lonely ruins of crofts and cottages up deserted glens (many the former homes of families moved off the land to make way for sheep farming during the period of Highland Clearances), growing next to which you will often find a rowan tree or trees, the descendants of those planted by the original inhabitants. I keep a rowan tree(let) in a pot in the garden, just in case (you never know when a witch might come calling), and we make rowan jelly some autumns from the bright red berries on the many rowans growing up on the golf course. Nearly every bunch of red rowan berries we pick has at least one big beautiful green and patterned shield bug living in it. Just for the record, the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora indicates that there has been no appreciable change in the distribution of rowan in Britain since the original 1962 Atlas, and it is spreading a little through deliberate plantings.

The jay (Garrulus glandarius) attacking the grey squirrel, while young jays look on, is another native member of the crow family or Corvidae, and is certainly the most colourful British crow species. Usually quite a cryptic bird of deep woodland, and more heard than seen, the description of its call that my dad taught me when I was young was the sound of tearing canvas, a pretty good likeness! The jay has previously been widely persecuted as part of game management, probably due to its reputation for taking birds eggs, something referred to in the Ladybird text. But my “best” bird book, “The Birds of the Western Palearctic” indicates that the diet of the jay consists of invertebrates, fruits and seeds, especially acorns, small vertebrates in winter or when feeding young, as well as carrion and domestic scraps. The jay is well-known for making caches of seeds, particularly acorns, in the ground for feeding on in winter, no doubt helping with the dispersal of acorns and the spread of oak trees. Following a reduction in persecution, the range of jays is extending into the suburbs and urban areas of Britain, and there has also been a considerable northward range expansion into Scotland since the 1970s, as a result of the colonisation of maturing conifer plantations.

The grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) was first introduced to Britain in 1828, then on a number of following occasions, but then it became illegal in 1938 to import grey squirrels or to keep them in captivity. This suggests that the risk from grey squirrels was recognized fairly early on – they cause damage to garden plants and crops, and to forestry, and perhaps their most well-known impact is the decline of the native, smaller red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris), through out-competition and the transmission of disease, a parapox virus, for which the grey squirrel is a carrier and which is generally fatal for the red squirrel. The grey squirrel is widespread in England and Wales, and patchily distributed in the central belt of Scotland and the east coast north to Aberdeen. A study in 1986 concluded that there were 865,000-5,180,000 grey squirrels in England, 57,000-170,000 in Scotland, and 7600-45,000 in Wales. This compares with estimates for the red squirrel, provided in the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) review of UK mammals, of a total pre-breeding population of about 161,000; 30,000 in England, 121,000 in Scotland and 10,000 in Wales.

The spread of grey squirrels is continuing, but changes since 1973 have been relatively small. The JNNC reports that, in England and Wales, grey squirrel distribution is nearly stable, but in Scotland there has been a steady increase through the 1980s. Here in Stirling, we are right on the front line where grey squirrels are entering the range of red squirrels. In a wood behind the University of Stirling, I have seen both species of squirrel on the same day, and I occasionally see red squirrels within a mile of my home, while the confounded greys live in and around my garden. There is more information here about the status of grey squirrels as an invasive non-native species.

The agricultural element of this picture shows fields of turnips and oats, both crops still being grown today, although I doubt very much if the turnip seedlings in a big field would be hand hoed these days (that said, there is a massive hole in my understanding of commercial-scale vegetable growing!). There is however, lots of information online about turnip farming in the British Isles in 1913!

Friday, 18 June 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #2 (Summer picture 2)

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.

“The world’s adrowse in twilight hushfulness,
There’s purple lilac in your little room,
And somewhere out beyond the evening gloom
Small boys are culling summer watercress...”

by Anna Gordon Keown, from “Reported Missing” (1916)


(Copyright: Ladybird Books)
Summer Picture 2
This is likely to be a bit of a shorter post this time as I have already covered several of the elements in earlier posts. This picture shows a shallow water scene – it could be a pond, or a slow-flowing lowland river; the text doesn’t make it clear (and it doesn’t really matter!). A female mallard and her half-fledged brood are foraging in the water below a willow tree. In the tree, a sedge warbler is hunting for insects. Yellow flag-iris is in flower, emerging from the water, alongside some water-cress, also in flower. We looked previously at the flag-iris briefly here, the mallard and the pussy-willow or sallow in the first Spring post here and, latterly, the sedge-warbler here. The yellow flag-iris in my garden pond is at this stage exactly at the moment, so I'm not very far off the mark in my self-imposed timetable for this series of posts.

I didn’t say much about the willow at the time. The two commonest willow species in Britain are probably goat willow (Salix caprea) and grey willow (Salix cinerea), also both known colloquially as pussy willow or sallow). The willow in the picture is described in the accompanying text as sallow-willow, so could be either. The “pussy-willow” fur-like male-catkin buds shown in the Spring picture are long gone by this time of year. Goat willow tolerates drier conditions that grey willow and so may also grow away from water, e.g. along hedgerows, on waste ground, etc, so I am going to assume that the picture shows grey willow.

The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora (which has been so useful for this series of posts so far) shows that grey willow has a near-ubiquitous distribution when recorded at the 10-kilometre square scale. It is generally a lowland species but is recorded across most of the Highlands too. The New Atlas suggests that the range of this species may be increasing, especially in England and the south of Ireland, although it is difficult to distinguish this as it is so frequent already!

So, the only feature of the painting that I haven’t discussed already is the watercress emerging from the water at the bottom of the picture. Richard Mabey, in Flora Britannica, points out that watercress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) “is the only British native plant which has passed into large-scale commercial cultivation scarcely altered from its wild state”, although for “state”, he clarifies that this should be “states” as there are ten other related species and hybrids, of which three are the main commercial varieties.

I hadn’t appreciated the cultural mark made by watercress down south until I read about it in Flora Britannica – lots of place names in England with “Kers” or “Kes” as a prefix relate to cress-growing. It was so important in Victorian times that special railway lines, the “Watercress lines” were established to take the crop to London (the name has stuck until today for some lines in Hampshire and Lincolnshire).

The aggregate of related species is very widespread in the wild, all across England, Wales and Ireland, and in southern and western Scotland and up the east coast to the Moray Firth and Inverness. The New Atlas reports that the relatively recent untangling of the different species and hybrids (in the 1950s) means that it is difficult to be definitive about any trends in water-cress in Britain. Although there have been some losses since the original Atlas in 1962, it is also clearly still under-recorded in many areas (i.e. no one has been to look for it properly!).

Regular readers will know that I am not averse to a free meal from the wild [Spring posts, passim], but water-cress is an edible wild plant that I avoid, as it comes with the risk of picking up and becoming infected by larvae of the liver fluke Fasciola hepatica, which has a complicated life-cycle including a stage as a parasite in a pond snail, then emerging to live on waterside vegetation (like water-cress). From there, grazing animals (or wild food eaters) can ingest them, and the life cycle is completed in the gut of the host (sheep, cow, foodie, etc) where the larvae damage the liver before emerging in “droppings”. No thanks... there’s lots of other stuff out there to eat! But thanks anyway to the water-cress and its liver flukes for giving me another opportunity to talk about parasites (remember the cuckoo bees from earlier posts? And the cuckoo?).

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #1

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.

"Then followed that beautiful season... Summer....
Filled was the air with a dreamy and magical light; and the landscape
Lay as if new created in all the freshness of childhood."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

So I managed to keep this series of posts going to complete the coverage of the Ladybird “What to look for in Spring” book – Spring 24 pictures described and compared with the world of today in 21 posts! It was definitely Summer outside as I sat down to write this in the middle of June – it was bright and sunny all day and the shade temperature reached 23 degrees C. I was a wee bit behind with the timetable of the Spring book (maybe not a problem as Scotland’s Spring season is almost certainly a little behind most of Britain’s anyway. So, before I set off down the summery road and commit myself to covering the 24 lovely pictures in the Summer book, I want to set the scene with the introductory text that prefaces the pictures of Charles Tunnicliffe and presumably written by E.L. Grant Watson who provided the accompanying words for each picture:

Cover of "What to look for in Summer"
(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

In summer, when the days are warmer and the sun rises early and sets late, there are many, many things in the country to discover, appreciate, and sometimes to collect.

Have you ever walked in the country on a summer’s night? As the sky darkens you can listen to the night-time sounds, many of which you will probably never have heard before. As you stand quite still by some field gate, you will perhaps hear the crunching of the small jaws of caterpillars, the zoom of gnats, the squeaking of field-mice, or the distant bark of a fox. You will hear, too, the passing of birds high overhead, the curlew’s call, the drumming of snipe and hooting of owls.

In this book C.F. Tunnicliffe, R.A., has beautifully illustrated in colour some of the things you can look for, and with its help you will find the pleasure of a day – or night – in the country is greatly increased.”

And with that introduction, let’s go on (together!) into Summer, as viewed in 1960 in the Ladybird book of “What to look for in Summer”!

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

The accompanying text for this painting starts with: “June is the month when the meadows are full of flowers and blossoming grasses”. And the picture is one of some black-and white dairy cows (Friesians? Holsteins? Holstein-Friesians?) in a wooded meadow, or wood-pasture. The plants in this pastoral idyll include oak and ash trees, and in the grassland, hedge-parsley, chervil, common sorrel, ox-eye daisies and buttercups. In the centre foreground, there is a male orange-tip fritillary butterfly. I’ll just mention here an error that crops up a few times in this summer book. E.L. Grant Watson’s text refers here to the butterfly unwinding its long tongue and taking “a sip of honey”. Flowers, of course, produce the sweet liquid nectar rather than honey. Honeybee honey is, of course, produced (in their honey sacs?) from nectar collected from flowers by the honey bee workers, and which is then secreted into the beeswax honeycomb cells in the hive, where it matures into the form of honey that we “steal” from the bees. I don’t know why an eminent ecologist like E.L. Grant Watson would make such a basic error (several times) about such a basic and well-known biological fact, but he clearly had a surprising gap in his knowledge! As do we all, so fates please spare me from doing something similar in this series of posts!

The little orange-tip fritillary (Latin name: Anthocharis cardamines) likes to lay its eggs on the lady’s smock or cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis, the main food plant for its caterpillars, hence the butterfly’s Latin name!). The main butterfly and moth conservation organisation, Butterfly Conservation, has published a report on: “The State of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland” which reports that the orange-tip increased its distribution (number of 10 kilometres squares where it was recorded) by 7% between the two survey periods of 1970-82 and 1995-2005, and its population size increased by a massive 22% between 1976 and 2004 (although some individual recent years, such as 2001, were amongst the worst or, 2005, the best in the period. It is believed that ongoing range expansion of the is species, thought to be a result of climate change, is driving the continuing northwards spread of this butterfly in Scotland, where it now reaches as far north as Argyll in the west and, across Highland, to Easter Ross in the east.

There are two tree species shown here, ash (Fraxinus excelsior, in the background) and oak. The oak trees are likely to be pedunculate oak (Quercus robur), also known as the English oak, a classic tree species of ancient wood-pastures, maybe like the one shown here, as well as ancient forests and coppice woodlands. Both ash and oak are both generally in full leaf by this time of year. I talked about the ash tree previously in Spring, here, and it is definitely in the background here so I won’t say any more about it. The pendunculate oak is a very widespread native tree, found all over England and Wales, and in southwest, west and all up the Scottish east coast. It is so widely planted now that it is hard to tell whether the distribution has changed much since 1960 when the Summer book was first published, but the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora doesn’t indicate much change. Richard Mabey explores the cultural and historical significance of this tree in his book Flora Britannica, if you are interested.

In wood-pastures, like that shown here, it is pointed out by Oliver Rackham in his book, “The History of the Countryside”, that the pedunculate oak is an ideal wood pasture tree, being a good coloniser of open ground, able to regrow from its deep tap-root if browsed as a seedling, and able to take good advantage of lulls in grazing pressure. The oaks of old England (and, presumably, similar habitats in lowland Scotland!) are in part the result of millennia of cattle, deer and goats eating their more edible competitors! The management of wood-pasture in Britain is well-documented from at least 1200 years ago, but it has probably been important here since Neolithic times. Ironically, the Victorians probably destroyed many wood-pastures to create their more sterile, planned and manicured public parks (no doubt, a significant improvement as far as the forward-thinking Victorian mind was concerned!).

The assemblage of plants shown here, comprising common sorrel (Rumex acetosa, called red sorrel in the accompanying text), oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare, called dog-daisies in the book), buttercups (probably the meadow buttercup Ranunculus acris and creeping buttercup, R. repens), chervil (probably rough chervil Chaerophyllum temulum) and hedge parsley (likely to be upright hedge-parsley Torilis japonica) are all native herbaceous plants typically found in meadows, grasslands, and related habitats, and very widely (in some cases such as the buutercups and sorrel, nearly-ubiquitously) distributed in Britain. For most of these plants, the New Atlas indicates that there has been little or no change in their distribution since the original 1962 Atlas was published. For oxeye daisies, there is a suggestion of a decline in range in Scotland, presumably in semi-natural habitats, as I know from observation (and the New Atlas confirms) that this species is now being very widely planted in native grassland planting schemes, for example on trunk road and motorway embankments where, perhaps botanical surveying doesn’t take place to the same extent as in semi-natural habitats as part of national surveys.

We use wild sorrel quite a lot in summer salads. Although we have both herb sorrel (a namby-pamby domestic version of the wild plant) and a red-veined variety in our herb garden, there’s something special about collecting leaves from the wild and adding them to home-grown lettuce leaves in a salad. The text in the book notes: “There are so many buttercups that the meadows are quite yellow with their blossoms”. This year seems to be a particularly good year for buttercup flowers, at least around here,

with field after field of (mostly tree-less) pasture spread with a blindingly-bright golden yellow cape of meadow and creeping buttercup flowers. And sometimes, a bed of buttercups can be the perfect place for an overly-hot terrier to cool herself off!


Just finishing off with more thoughts on wood-pasture, this habitat is regarded as a priority habitat in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan. You can see the action plan for this habitat here (go on - have a look. It is very interesting!). This plan states that, in extent, although much has been lost, transformed to agricultural land, less diverse ungrazed parkland, or indeed, planted up as woodland, there remains an estimated 10-20,000 hectares of wood-pasture under appropriate management in the UK. Although much of this is in southern Britain, there remain significant areas in Scotland, such as the Dalkeith Oakwood, south of Edinburgh, and Hamilton High Parks,  east of Glasgow. A key feature of this habitat in the UK compared to continental Europe is that our oak trees are allowed to mature to great age, maybe up to 500 years old, whereas in continental wood-pasture oaks are typically felled at a much younger age. As such, the UK’s parkland oaks often support a much higher diversity of, for example, wood-eating beetles that need mature trees or dead wood for their larvae.

I do promise to look at the ecology of oak trees in a future post as it is something I don’t know enough about but a mature oak can support hundreds of species. I looked out of my childhood and teenage bedroom window every day of my young life into a very small fragment of woodland-pasture (for cows, then horses) which contained two or three mature oak trees (one of which was good for climbing up into), so I think it is time I found out what I didn’t know or appreciate about their ecology at the time.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #21 (final post of Spring!)

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.

"Spring - an experience in immortality."
Henry D. Thoreau

A bit of a bumper post this time, to complete the stories from the Ladybird Spring book with Spring pictures 23 and 24.

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Picture 23 shows a turtle dove sitting on a branch of a horse-chestnut which is in full blossom. In the background a crowd of swifts are circling a church tower. The turtle dove (Latin name: Streptopelia turtur), a fairly lovely looking bird is, however, one that I have never seen in over 40 years of observing wildlife in Scotland. I checked with my Dad who, with maybe a further 30 years of bird watching, has never seen turtle doves in Scotland either.

I know they do turn up in Scotland – they are recorded at the bird observatory in Fair Isle and on North Ronaldsay (Orkney) every Spring, presumably on migratory passage (or gone off course on migration!). I say “on migratory passage” because maps of its breeding areas, for example in the Birds of the Western Palearctic, show that it doesn’t breed in Scotland. Even back in 1969, when my old AA Book of Birds was published, it shows only the slimmest of areas of breeding territory in Scotland, in the extreme southeast, stating that, back then, turtle doves had only bred in Scotland in the previous 25 years. I not sure that’s even the case anymore. The poor old turtle dove, for all its loveliness and its role in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, is in trouble. It has suffered relatively recent and widespread decline in Europe, particularly in the west. According to the British Trust for Ornithology, the turtle dove "is one of the most strongly declining bird species in Europe, having decreased at an annual rate of 4% during 1980–2006.” The above bird book suggests that this is “probably due to drought in its winter quarters [in semi-arid and savannah areas of Africa from Senegal to Ethiopia], shooting and agricultural changes on breeding grounds”, which agrees with what the BTO also suggests. Although the turtle dove population of Britain increased in the 19th Century and up to 1965, there has been a marked decline since the early-to-mid 1980s, as you can see from this BTO plot:

The British population was estimated to be over 125,000 pairs between 1968 and 1972, but only 75,000 territories between 1988 and 1991 and, according to the British Trust for Ornithology, from their Common Bird Census, an 87% decline between 1967 and 2007, putting it on the UK’s conservation “red list” of species suffering a decline of greater than 50%. So, I guess my chances of seeing a turtle dove in Scotland are now even slimmer!

I think that church tower in the picture really suggests that this picture was never intended to represent a Scottish scenario! I’m no architectural expert but it looks much more like a church tower that would be flying the cross of St George! The swifts screaming around the church tower are another of the things I look forward to most about Spring and the move into Summer (nearly there folks!). The swift (Apus apus) is perhaps the most aerial of birds, its short legs generally incapable of sitting it up should it accidentally end up on the ground and its long wings therefore hampering its take-off again. Apart from fleeting contact with water surfaces (while in flight), all of the swift’s normal activity takes place up in the air, from feeding to courtship, even regularly roosting in flight at night. Formerly a bird that nested, in pre-civilisation times, on the edges of crags, sea-cliffs and caves, it has largely moved over to being a species that nests on buildings, often on a flat surface under eaves, or in holes in walls, in a shallow nest of feathers, straw, leaves, etc, cemented together with saliva. So, the swift is a species for which urbanisation and the spread of cities and towns with tall buildings has facilitated the expansion of its range. And rarely can a bird have been given a more descriptive common name. I defy anyone not to marvel at racing flights of large numbers of swifts, with their long, scythe blade-like wings, screaming and screeching around buildings and turning tightly down urban canyons on warm evenings in late Spring and Summer. So, given the importance of urban areas to swifts, it is ironic that one of the proposed explanations for the decline in swift numbers shown in the BTO figure below (in this case, for the UK, but the Scottish picture is similar) is suggested to be the loss of breeding spaces in buildings as a result of redevelopment:

(From: British Trust for Ornithology)

The BTO figure above is based on its Breeding Bird Survey and there is uncertainty over the actual status of swifts. The swift has, however, been placed on the amber list of conservation concern. Other initiatives are also aimed at improving our understanding of the status of swifts (by the RSPB. Look here if you are interested in taking part), and Concern for Swifts, a small private organisation is promoting the deliberate provision of nesting sites for this species.

The final feature of this penultimate Spring picture if the horse-chestnut trees in full flower. The horse-chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is not native to Britain, having been introduced into cultivation in 1612 or 1615, then recorded in the wild by 1870 (all according to the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora). It is widespread throughout Britain and Ireland, and all over Scotland except for the central Highlands, the far north (blanket peat areas), the Outer Hebrides and Shetland. According to the New Atlas, its distribution has changed little since the 1962 Atlas was published. Richard Mabey, in Flora Britannica, points out that for a relatively new tree in Britain, in ecological terms, the horse-chestnut has made a huge contribution to popular culture. In particular, the glossy red-brown chestnuts or “conkers” are the raw material for what he says is the most widely played children’s game with plants, a game of conkers, with horse-chestnut nuts on strings, taking turns to try to smack the opponents conker into oblivion. But the horse-chestnut has also provided a symbol of “village peacefulness”, the theme of music-hall songs and a 1930s dance craze, one of the commonest elements of street names and gaggle of words and metaphors to enrich our language. There is even a World Conker Championship. Incidentally, as children in East Lothian, we ALWAYS referred to horse-chestnut trees as conker trees. I had a secret and very fruitful conker tree in the Gosford Estate woodland where I lived that no-one else knew about (I think!). We even had one at the entrance to our primary school, inside the front gate. I wonder if it is still there?

The final Spring picture, number 24, takes us down to the coast for the first time proper (we saw some terns in the distance in an earlier post).

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

We see a beautiful cliff-top scene dominated by flowering sea-pink, white sea-campion, a white flowered stonecrop (in the bottom right) and, above it, kidney vetch, all plants that flourish in this environment and are in blossom as Spring turns in to Summer. The flowers surround the nest of a herring gull containing three eggs, herring gulls are flying about the cliff face, and the flowers are being visited by a red-tailed bumblebee and, on the yellow vetch flowers, a cuckoo bee mimic of a red-tailed bumblebee. The rocks are covered in a range of yellow and grey lichens.

The cliff-dwelling coastal plants all shown in flower here are also found in other related coastal habitats. For example, the pink bauble flowers of the sea-pink or thrift (Armeria maritima) are also common in late Spring – early Summer on saltmarshes and coastal shingle habitats (although it is also found in the mountains and on mossy heaths away from the coast). Ironically, it also occurs inland alongside roads treated in winter with salt, creating ideal salt-influenced conditions for its establishment! This species has not, according to the New Atlas of British and Irish Flora, had much change in its natural distribution since the original 1962 Atlas. Its range in Scotland is stable, perhaps as the habitats where it occurs, such as the sea-cliffs in this picture, remain among the least disturbed of Britain’s natural habitats. Richard Mabey, in Flora Britannica, highlights an interesting wee tale about this species and its cultural influence. Its common name “thrift” may actually come from its “thriving” habit, growing densely where it occurs. However, “thrift” was well-enough known (or popular enough perhaps?) to be used as a visual pun, as the emblem on the rear-side of the pre-decimalisation British twelve-sided (twelve-sided!!!) threepenny bit. Mabey describes this as the coin whose physical awkwardness led to it being the one most frequently consigned to money boxes, i.e. a significant contribution to thriftiness!

Like the thrift, the other three plants shown here are distinctive elements of sea-cliff plant communities and their wonderful Springtime flowering displays. The white flowering sea campion (Silene uniflora) at the top of the picture is very tolerant of high nutrient levels which makes it an ideal candidate for sea-cliffs covered in nesting seabirds, with all the attendant inputs of “guano” that comes with this. The New Atlas reports that its distribution in Scotland, largely confined to (almost) all of the 10km squares covering the coastline, as well as a few inland upland locations, is unchanged since the 1962 Atlas. The white stonecrop (Sedum album) shown flowering in the bottom right is not a native species in Scotland, or probably over most of the rest of Britain, and, as a non-native species, the new Atlas reports that its distribution has increased markedly since the 1962 Atlas. The yellow-flowering kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria), also bottom-right in the picture, is a widespread native species, found all around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, as well as widely inland. Its distribution has been stable since the 1962 Atlas was produced. In Flora Britannica, I noted that it is capable of completely dominating bare ground where conditions are right for it.

I’ve already written about the cuckoo bee parasites of bumblebees here.

The final entry for the Spring element of this series of posts is the herring gull (Larus argentatus), represented here by the nestful of eggs and the adult birds wheeling about the cliffs. This species is definitely the definitive “sea gull” of seaside towns – noisy, aggressive (stealing food from people’s hands), splattering droppings, resting on roofs, and so on. If you follow the coverage of gull stories in the media, you would think we were suffering from a Biblical plague of gulls, rampaging through our coastal holiday resorts. So why is the herring gull now listed as a species on the “red list” of conservation concern for the UK? Truth is, there has been a decline in the breeding population in the UK since 1969 and the non-breeding population since 1981.

The British Trust for Ornithology hasn’t produced its usual detailed summary of trend information and related causes for this species (come on guys! What’s going on?) so I will speculate that the decline arises from a number of sources. My guess is that a principal cause may be the continued improvements in the regulation of landfill sites, which used to be chock-full of delicious waste that attracted huge flocks of herring gulls (plus other gulls, crows, rats , etc) and provided an artificial boost to their populations. Landfills are no longer allowed to have exposed tipping surfaces containing edible wastes, plus measures have also increasingly been introduced to prevent gulls accessing waste (nets) or to scare them off (e.g. use of trained hawks and even eagles to scare off “vermin birds”). Also, there has been a long-term decline in the size of Britain’s inshore fishing fleet which has presumably resulted in big reductions in the amount of discarded by-catch and on-board fish processing waste that used to be available to the gulls following the trawlers. Fewer trawlers = fewer discards = fewer herring gulls? Maybe!

This concludes my comparison of the British wildlife and countryside portrayed in the Ladybird book “What to look for in Spring”, seen particularly from a Scottish perspective. Hopefully it has been an interesting read and I’ll try to keep on going now with the Summer book in the series. If I have time, I’ll try to summarise in a brief post what I think the key changes have been, as seen from the Spring book.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #20

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.

The pleasant'st angling is to see the fish
Cut with her golden oars the silver stream,
And greedily devour the treacherous bait."

William Shakespeare, “Much Ado About Nothing”

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Spring picture 22, although a lovely picture in its own right, is a bit simpler to comment on than the previous one, showing a couple of beautiful brown trout rising, taking adult mayflies, with some water crowfoot, the emerging water plant in flower at the foot of the painting.

The mayflies (insects belonging to the order Ephemeroptera) have an interesting life cycle, spending a period (depending on species) of months to 2-3 years as an immature larva in an aquatic phase of its life. Once fully developed, the larva emerges from the water as a winged insect. The mayflies are the only insects to have two adult stages, the “subimago”, which emerges from the final larval stage. This, depending on air temperature, will usually moult within 24 hours, emerging as its second, “imago” stage. The Freshwater Biological Association’s identification key for mayfly larvae clarifies that anglers usually describe the subimago stage as the “dun” and the imago as the “spinner”. The name “Ephemeroptera” comes from the Greek words ephemeros = lasting for a day, and pteron = wing, referring to the brief life of the adult mayflies (also sometimes called “one-day flies”!), which doesn’t have a proper gut system and which has a short life as an adult, evolved only to emerge, mate, lay eggs and then die.

Earlier today, I met Craig Macadam, the Scottish officer for Buglife, the Invertebrate Conservation charity, and he put me on the trail of a study by the Environment Agency (EA) in England, using anglers records of adult mayflies going back many years, sometimes as far as World War Two. Sitting on the bankside for hours at a time, many anglers are very interested in which mayflies are emerging and which the trout are rising to catch and eat, as there is a fine art in making artificial flies that seek to simulate the living flies! So back in 2001, the EA exploited this interest, in some cases lifelong, by collating anglers’ personal records to assess changes in the state of mayflies. An article in the Independent newspaper here, reported that the study identified a significant decline in mayflies in southern England’s chalk streams, particularly in the last 20 years, and ascribes this to the continued increase in pesticides, fertilisers and other chemicals, particularly from intensive agriculture. A more recent (2008) article on the BBC Scotland web pages helpfully reports the general position of mayflies in Scotland, according to Buglife (and Craig), who were trying to recruit volunteer recorders for a survey of mayflies. The article reports that one mayfly species (Ephemera danica, the original “Mayfly”, which emerges when the May or Hawthorn is in flower) is making a comeback in Central Scotland’s rivers, probably due to declining pollution levels. The fortunes of other mayfly species are more mixed; although the water quality of Scotland’s rivers is generally high and has greatly improved over the last 30 years, there are other pressures on invertebrates like mayflies living in the rivers, for example, some northern and upland species are showing changes in their southern ranges in Scotland that are consistent with a warmer climate. You might be interested to look at the website for the River Fly Partnership here, a network of over 60 organisations working to conserve our river fly populations in the UK, including the mayflies.

In the picture, the mayflies are being taken by brown trout (Latin name: Salmo trutta), probably Britain’s most widely distributed and commonest freshwater fish. Lordy, what to write about brown trout? I could write pages (and pages). Many people have written whole books. So, as I don’t simply want to replicate screeds of text from my fish books, I will focus on the main point of this series of posts, a comparison of the status of the features of the pictures compared with when they were painted. Professor Peter Maitland, in his book “Scotland’s Freshwater Fish. Ecology, Conservation & Folklore”, describes the origin of all native brown trout populations in Scotland as all “descended from early post-glacial colonisation by anadromous [sea-going] trout”. Brown trout are found in Scotland wherever water quality is high enough and there are not too many predaceous fish. Populations have also been introduced very widely across Scotland for angling and perhaps for more historical fish production, and many populations are maintained by angling associations and clubs, or by fishery managers, by stocking of farmed or wild brown trout. So, since 1959-1961, it is unlikely that the distribution of brown trout has deteriorated. Indeed, the improvement in the overall quality of our rivers in the past few decades will have allowed the recolonisation of many rivers previously rendered virtually fishless (or at least troutless!) by poor water quality. Stocking and introductions will certainly have increased the distribution, but there is no overall assessment of what this may have done to the many unique, genetically distinct brown trout populations and varieties of form that led historically to an enormous range of local names for brown trout. There is a caveat to this story which relates to the sea trout, a form of brown trout that is born and grows in freshwater then goes to sea (like a salmon) for one or more years before returning to the river to breed. Sea trout have suffered particular problems in recent years but that is a fishy tale for another time.

Finally, the water-crowfoot in the picture could be one of any of a number of related water-plant species, of which Ranunculus aquatilis is probably the commonest (hence, Common Water-crowfoot!). It can cover ponds, streams and ditches in summer. The problem with reporting on how its status compares now with 1959-1961 is that, in 1962, when the original Atlas of British and Irish Flora was published, the differences between a number of water-crowfoot species had not been resolved. It is not really possible, therefore, to say whether any of a number of the water-crowfoot species has increased or declined! Water-crowfoot is not native in most of Scotland’s rivers anyway, but is more likely to be found in southern Scotland, and the River Tweed is particularly important in Scotland for hosting a number of species.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #19

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.

We’ve been rambling all this night
And the best part of the day,
And now we’re returning back again
We’ve brought you a branch of May.

Anonymous Hertfordshire May-Day folk song, reported in Flora Britannica

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Nearing the end of the pictures in the Spring book, with four to go, it already feels like Summer outside (occasionally...). Spring picture 21 is like a picture from a child’s fantasy of Spring, with a mare and her foal, blossom, chicks and orchids. In fact, the text of the book is charming: “The mare and her foal are in a lovely place on a lovely day, and have the best month of the year in which to stray at their own sweet will.” But horses aside, the wilder, natural elements of this picture are a lapwing and her chicks in a field where the bracken is growing up among the flowers of early purple orchids and lady’s smock. To complete the picture, a hawthorn tree in the hedge of the field is in full blossom and, in the background, the new, silvery, pale leaves of a whitebeam tree are opening.

I already covered the long-term problems of the lapwing or peewit (Vanellus vanellus) in a previous post in the series but with the beautiful lapwing chicks in the picture here, how could I not add a bit more? I just wanted to share the following picture, scanned in from my beloved old AA Book of Birds (from 1969), which is just possibly the cutest bird picture ever painted – not my dispassionate contribution to the assessment of the state of nature, but who cares? Everyone deserves to see and enjoy this en masse set of wading bird chicks! The lapwing chick is bottom left. If you double-click on the picture, you can take a closer look.

The bracken fronds starting to rise behind the mare first appear as little spiralling “fiddleheads” uncurling from the ground, but fairly quickly they will shoot up to form a dense green canopy. Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) is a native species of fern found in the uplands, on moorland, in forests, generally on slightly more acidic soils. Many land managers regard bracken as a problem invasive species, which can invade and ruin good grazing land. In keeping with that attitude, the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora identifies that its abundance increased markedly in the 20th century, “apparently in response to more intensive sheep grazing and more frequent burning of hill vegetation. In the 1970s, it was invading more than 10,000 hectares of agricultural land annually.” But, if you looked only at the records of bracken in Britain divided up by squares of sides of length 10 km in 1962, you wouldn’t see this, as it was recorded nearly everywhere even then. So what has happened is that its local distribution has increased in many areas. This shows the importance of understanding exactly what it is that records of nature are telling you. Looking at the trends in species in more than one way can reveal changes which would be masked by looking just at, for example, records as presence or absence in 10-km squares.

But bracken hasn’t always been a villain – it has a long an honourable history of use in rural Britain, as described by Richard Mabey in his “Flora Britannica”, including manuring and covering potato beds, for dressing leather, and as fuel and tinder. Chiefly, however, it was used as “a universal packing and padding stuff”, such as winter bedding for cattle, basket lining for fruit and fish, and padding for earthen ware and slate transport. Mabey also suggests that the decline its use as modern alternative materials became available, may have contributed to its spread. In 1990, it was estimated that bracken covered between 1.2 and 1.7% of Britain’s land area, and 15% of rough upland grazings, leading to more grazing of bracken by stock – this may be a problem as it is toxic to mammals and may be carcinogenic to humans if overeaten (the young shoots are commonly eaten in east Asia) and perhaps from over-inhalation of its spores. One to watch!

You will find fewer people complaining about the presence of native orchid species on their land, and we see the flowers of the early-purple orchid (Latin name: Orchis mascula). The New Atlas reports that this orchid, which grows on a variety of neutral and calcareous soils, is most common in “woodlands, coppices, and calcareous grassland”, as well as in hedgerows, scrub, roadsides and railway banks, on limestone pavements and moist cliff ledges. The fact that this species has, since 1962, declined particularly in central England and parts of Scotland, is largely due to felling of woodland or its replanting as conifer plantations, the intensification of grassland management and ploughing. Richard Mabey makes an interesting point – the variety of local names for this species (perhaps over 90) suggests that the early-purple orchid was once abundant and well-known. Mabey also adds that the habitats where it is found includes “precisely the kind of habitats that have suffered most from development and modern farming over the past 50 years [the precise window for this series of posts, as it happens], and where they have gone the orchid has usually vanished with them”. Maybe the early-purple orchid ought to become one of a number of flagship indicator species of the success or failure of our future efforts to prevent further declines in our native wildlife. Fin ally, the Latin name Orchis that is applied to many orchid species (such as this one) is the Latin word for “testicle”, due to the testicle-like pair of root-tubers from which orchids grow!

The other flower growing in the horse’s paddock is the cuckoo-flower, or lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis), a perennial herb typically of wet grassy areas in woodland, wet meadows and fens, upland rush pasture and springs. I think it is the main food plant for the caterpillars of the beautiful Orange-tip fritillary butterfly. There has been no overall change in its distribution since 1962. According to the New Atlas, it is quite resistant to some herbicides and so has been able to survive in semi-improved pastures.

The hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) – where to start? Also known as the May-tree, it is the only British tree to be named after the month in which it flowers. It would be difficult to cover here all the important cultural aspect of this tree in British rural culture – Richard Mabey devotes six pages of Flora Britannica to this one species. A flavour of its influence can be taken from the following quote for Mabey: “Its blossoming marks the cusp between spring and summer... It was the ancestor of the May-pole, the source of May Day garlands and the decoration of Jacks-in-the-Green and Green Georges, and one of the models for the foliage which wreathes the faces of Green Men carved in churches and inns. Superstitions about the flowers – and especially about the dire consequences of bringing them inside the house – persist more widely than for any other species.”

Regarding its superstitious status, Mabey suggests that, among other possible causes, the red berries and thorns was taken, in earlier times, as an association with the Crucifixion of Christian tradition. On the wild food front, we eat the new young leaves in salads in Spring, which taste slightly nutty. The New Atlas indicates that its distribution is stable.  As it has been so widely planted as a hedging plant for centuries, however, the extent of its natural distribution is unclear, although in northern Scotland, its distribution is often confined to the vicinity of habitation where it is almost certainly an introduction.

Briefly, the whitebeam (Sorbus aria) which is coming into leaf in the rear right of the picture, is a small-to-medium sized tree, not native to Scotland (in fact, probably only native to southern England. The New Atlas reports its distribution as stable, although widely planted, including in Scotland, in parks, gardens and streets. The new leaves of this tree resemble the buds of magnolias before they open and, with fine downy white underside and shiny slightly silvery leaf-top, must be the whitest-looking leaves of any tree native to Britain. I’ve been greatly enjoying their emergence every morning this Spring along our local park and golf course footpaths. One unusual feature of the whitebeam is its tendency to form highly-local endemic species often confined, according to Flora Britannica, to single rocky gorges and found nowhere else in the world. At least 14 of these individual species are known in Britain. Special!

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #18

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.

“A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.”

Anne Bronte (1820-1849), “The Bluebell”

I’m covering two pictures (more briefly each) in order to try to catch up a bit and allow me to start the Summer book, which should have begun in June (on Tuesday!). Ah well, Scotland’s seasons start a little behind England’s (as you’ll know if you’ve ever looked, from a Scottish perspective, at the suggested planting times in most British gardening books!). So, on with pictures 19 and 20 from the Spring book!

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)
Spring picture 19 has us out in the wild wood again, this time with a small herd of fallow deer standing among a mass of bluebells under a beech tree. There is a green woodpecker in the tree, along with a little wood warbler, while a nesting woodcock lies well-hidden and very still in the undergrowth in the extreme bottom right. A crab apple tree is in full blossom in the background.

The Bluebell (Latin name: Hyacinthoides non-scripta) is one of the most-loved and celebrated of Britain’s wild flowers, regularly voted as Britain’s favourite flower . The experience of walking through a “bluebell wood” in full flower must surely be of the finest “gentle” nature experiences that Britain offers (we don’t have cage diving with great white sharks or charging bull elephants but we do a great line in spring-time flowers!). Britain has 50% of the world’s bluebell populations. Apart from here, significant populations are only found in the similar Atlantic climates of northern France and the north of Spain. Plantlife, our leading plant conservation charity, describes the status of bluebells as follows: “Although still common in Britain, Bluebells are threatened locally by habitat destruction, collection from the wild, and from the escape of Spanish Bluebells from gardens and subsequent cross-breeding and loss of true native populations [an issue that makes it onto the Today programme each Spring now, as regularly as the report of the first cuckoo pops up in “The Times” letter page!]. Bluebells are now protected in Britain from illegal commercial harvesting, which has provided them with a safeguard, but losses from habitat destruction remain.” The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora, in 2002, reported that the distribution is relatively stable. Also, a lovely new book (new to me anyway), “The Scots Herbal” by Tess Darwin arrived in the post today – lots of useful info on Scottish plants and their uses – for instance, you can make a glue out of bluebell bulbs (I knew this already – Ray Mears did it in his Bronze Age Britain TV show by chewing up the (toxic) bluebell bulbs, and he then used the glue to stick feathers as flights onto the shaft of a flint-headed arrow he had made). So there you are, bluebells – lovely AND useful...

The beech tree (Fagus sylvatica) coming into leaf was one of the later tree species to colonise Britain after the last Ice Age and so is only native in SE England and SE Wales, but has been widely planted across the whole of Britain, not least as a popular choice of hedging plant, and so is now widespread in Scotland too. The New Atlas advises that its natural range in Britain has never been precisely defined, but this range is stable at present. As well as providing beech nuts, or “mast” in Autumn, popular with birds and pigs (and, yes, people too – I’ve eaten them), beech is also a source of firewood (I have a log store full, drying out for next Winter), a high quality, pale hardwood for wood work/ wood-turning etc and other, more unusual uses – at the moment, we have a batch of a beech leaf liqueur, beech leaf noyau, in preparation, made by pouring a bottle of (admittedly, cheap) gin over young beech leaves and letting it sit in a sealed jar for three weeks, before adding a solution of brandy and sugar. We made some last year and it is delicious. Our recipe came from Roger Phillips’ “Wild Food” book, although I found it also in Richard Mabey’s “Flora Britannica”.

I won’t say much about the crab apple in blossom in the background – very widespread, probably stable in distribution compared with 1962, according to the New Atlas, but it is pretty difficult to know whether we are talking about a truly wild crab apple (Malus silvestris sens. str.), or one that has hybridised with the introduced “domestic” apple (Malus domestica) whose fruit we more normally eat. I do remember my Dad tricking me into tasting a crab apple one Autumn when we were back visiting family in Ayrshire, his childhood haunt, and having my first unpleasant experience of the stringent crab in the raw! We have a few very prolific crab apples around the town in Stirling, each producing masses of fruit every year, but no one seems to collect and use it – something for the new Forth Valley Orchard Initiative to promote maybe? In common with all the other blossom-producing trees, our crab apples in Stirling had a cracking blossom season this year!

The birds shown here have had a variety of luck since the late 1950s/ early 1960s, as seen from the trends shown here.

(From: British Trust for Ornithology)

The British Trust for Ornithology only has a graph for the green woodpecker (Picus viridis) in England, but you can see above that it is doing pretty well, the population having risen steadily in Britain since 1966, except for a period of stability or shallow decline around 1980, probably the result of a series of harsh winters. BTO reports there was considerable range expansion in central and eastern Scotland between the periods 1968–72 and 1988–91. As green woodpeckers are adversely affected by harsh winters, its success maybe a result of climate change leading to milder winters. Any fans of Bagpuss out there? Professor Yaffle, the brainy old wooden bookend woodpecker in the popular children’s TV show of the 1970s, was supposed to be a green woodpecker, and that name “yaffle” comes from an old country name for the species, based on its loud, ringing call. It was also known as the “rain bird”. My old AA Book of Birds suggests that this is because its call was more clearly heard in the atmospheric conditions before rainfall! I wonder if that has any basis in meteorological fact?

The other two bird species, by contrast, the woodcock and the wood warbler seem to be on the slide, according to the BTO’ graphs. The woodcock (what a Latin name! Scolopax rusticola – sounds like a Doctor Who character) apparently declined rapidly and significantly on the BTO’s Common Bird Census survey plots for the three decades up to 2000. These did not, however, include many areas of coniferous forest where it is most commonly found, and as you can see from the picture, it can be quite cryptic anyway. BTO summarises possible causes of its decline: “Recreational disturbance, the drying out of natural woodlands, overgrazing by deer, declining woodland management, and the maturation of new plantations are possible causes”, but no strong hypothesis yet. And another measure, the numbers shot in Winter (including many birds coming from continental Europe in Winter) (woodcock is regarded as a gamebird as well as a wading bird by taxonomic relationship) have increased around threefold since 1945 and are currently running at a historically high level, so it isn’t really clear what the population trend actually is.

The little wood warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix) up in the beech tree has a westerly distribution in Britain and is actually quite unlikely to be seen in Scotland. It has only been surveyed latterly by the BTO, as you can see from the graph, which also shows considerable and rapid population decline since the mid-1990s (as well as an egg-laying date that is becoming earlier in the year, in response to a warming climate). Declines are apparently evident across other parts of Europe but the BTO does not offer suggestions regarding the cause.

The fallow deer (Dama dama) in the picture are not native to Scotland, or even to other parts of Britain. I’m tempted not to say anything about them, or not much. According to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s report on the state of British mammals (would you look at the state of them?), the distribution of fallow deer is” Local in Scotland, where its distribution includes three west coast islands.” But it doesn’t say which islands! Fallow deer prefer deciduous/mixed mature woodland and conifer plantations with open areas. The best estimate possible for the total pre-breeding population in Scotland is fewer than 4000, compared to maybe around 350,000 of the native red deer in Scotland. So you are relatively unlikely to see a scene like this in Scotland!

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

On to picture 20, which is fairly simple to cover. It shows a lake or loch, with a nesting coot (which I’ve discussed previously here), a group of male mallards, presumably without mates, gathered on the water (and mallards were discussed in Spring #1 here). Up in the reeds, there are two small brownish warblers, to the right a reed warbler and to the left a sedge warbler singing. In the water below, there are some large bream assembled to lay their eggs.

The common bream (Abramis brama) is a member of the carp family and for advice on its status in Scotland, I turned to Professor Peter Maitland, and specifically his book: “Scotland’s freshwater fish. Ecology, Conservation and Folklore”. The bream is not a native fish in Scotland, but has been introduced to southern Scotland, where it has been established in the Annan catchment for over a century, or longer. It has also been introduced by coarse anglers to waters in the Central Belt in the final decades of the 20th Century. Professor Maitland concludes that the bream has no special protection in Scotland and, as an introduced and potentially damaging species, does not warrant any particular measures!

The reed warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) prefers to live in reedbeds, where it is quite difficult to survey accurately, according to the BTO. Nevertheless, its population seems to be increasing (as shown above), and its range is extending into Scotland, where it is now regularly recorded as far north as the Tay reedbeds between Dundee and Perth. Like most of the other warbler species covered in this blog, its average egg laying date is advancing earlier in the year, in this case by a week between 1968 and 2007.

The sedge warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) singing near it in the picture is a much more widespread and common summer breeding visitor in Scotland, although its fortunes are much more varied over the last 50 years, as the graph above shows. Detailed analysis of BTO data has shown that much of the year-to-year variation in population size is driven by changes in adult survival rates which, in turn, are related to changes in rainfall on their wintering grounds, just south of the Sahara Desert, in the West African Sahel. Four troughs in population are related to years of poor West African rainfall, with a low point in 1984–85. Breeding records in Scotland have increased by 29% since 1995. Again, this warbler's egg-laying (average) date has advanced by nearly a week over the last 30 years, maybe an effect of warming? The sedge warbler has the most amazing, rambling and complex song that, although jarring at times, is endlessly reworked, including mimicry of other species, and has been compared with that of the nightingale!