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!

1 comment:

  1. Here, further north than both yourself and the picture's location, the rowans have finished flowering! We also have red squirrels close by, though rather shy.


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