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.


  1. The cows {coo's or more often kai pronounced like 'aye' where I come from} are a familiar sight to an Ayrshire boy like me SNB. As soon as I saw them I thought 'Ayrshires' which I believe are mainly the Fresians...........

    Although we also had a lot of the beautiful 'belted Galloway' cattle around us for some reason too.

    I can see I'm going to enjoy these posts as much as the Spring series....

    bring on summer!!!

  2. Thanks Alastair - I'm a Kilwinning boy myself - small world! I think the word "ky" or maybe "kye" is also acceptable in Scrabble, another Scots word for cattle! Ayrshire was defnitely dairy country when I was a wee laddy going back there for holidays.

    I've been itching to get on to the Summer book - lots o flovely images!

  3. Ha - now I see it written here you're right {KYE} I wrote it and thought it didn't look right but couldn't get over my mental block - or I could just blame those dyslexic fingers of mine again.



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