Saturday, 31 July 2010

New-kelele! Ukulele

Here's some pictures of my new (and first ever) ukulele - bought yesterday from Scayles Music in Edinburgh. It is a Mahalo U320T Tenor Ukulele (£69.99, with hard case). Looking forward to happy hours of strumming - and just the right size for taking in the campervan too!

Here it is with the grand hard case that came with it

Bonny wee thing!

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Little Green Men!

Since I'm on the theme of wood and woody things, this seems like a good opportunity to post up our collection of Green Men... I love the Green Man image and the harking back to earlier times, maybe even way back to the early animist religions, the worshippers of which created explanations for the vagaries, the bounty and the unpredictability of their world through sprits living in the tree, rocks, bird, animals, etc, all around them. Wikipedia says: "Found in many cultures around the world, the Green Man is often related to natural vegetative deities springing up in different cultures throughout the ages. Primarily it is interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, or "renaissance", representing the cycle of growth each spring."

We have gathered the following Green Men heads and faces over the last few years, some a bit classy, some a bit tacky!

The moss grew on this one all on its own!

Er.. that's it...

A fine sequence!

I like the progression from raw material to processed fuel, drying nicely for the winter, in these pictures from my garden! The energy of sunlight captured and stored for future use...

Sycamore in big bits

The executioner's block and axe

A good day's work done!

Monday, 26 July 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #9

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.

"Whole ages have fled and their works decayed,
And nations have scattered been;
But the stout old Ivy shall never fade,
From its hale and hearty green.
The brave old plant, in its lonely days,
Shall fatten upon the past:
For the stateliest building man can raise
Is the Ivy's food at last.
Creeping on where time has been,
A rare old plant is the Ivy green."

From: Charles Dickens "The Ivy Green"

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 9
A sunny day at the foot of a wall, we see a song thrush cracking open a snail shell on a rock “anvil”, while a common lizard and two Wall butterflies bask in the warm sunlight. A number of plant species tolerant of the dry conditions and poor soil conditions of wall environments frame the picture: some ivy (on the right) and wall-pennywort (in the centre) are creeping up the wall, while some herb-robert with its pink flowers hangs down from the top-left and the yellow flowering smooth hawksbeard is growing up from the bottom left.

I looked at the recent fate of the song thrush (Latin name: Turdus philomelos) population in Britain in Spring post number 14. In that, we saw that is a species "with mixed fortunes over the 50 years since the Ladybird book was produced. Song thrush abundance in the UK declined by 49% between 1967 and 2007, with a slight increase again in the final years of that period". I would say that I have, in the past 3 to 4 years, begun noticing both an increase in the number of song thrushes in this area and also an increase in the number of song thrush “anvils”, stones or slabs on the ground, surrounded by fragments of land snail shells. I also reported, in Summer post number 5, that since song thrushes returned as regular visitors to my garden about three-four years ago, I have been finding ramshorn snail shells from my pond, smashed open on stepping stones by the resident song thrushes. I came on this song thrush anvil in the middle of the path around my local park, so this is just a poor quality opportunistic mobile phone photo. Nevertheless, you can see the fragments of snail shells surrounding the rock in the centre.

The Common Lizard (Latin Name: Lacerta vivipara) is actually a widespread species across Britain and Ireland, preferring heathland and grassland habitats. The second half of the Latin name (vivipara) comes about as it is viviparous, giving birth to live young, unlike most other lizards which lay eggs. As a cold-blooded reptile, the common lizard is often seen basking in Summer in sheltered, sunny spots, such on a wall like this, to elevate its body temperature. You may be familiar with the survival trait shared by many lizard species, including the common lizard, of casting their tail when seriously threatened by a predator. The discarded tail continues to wiggle violently for a while, distracting the predator while the lizard makes good its escape. In due course, the lizard will grow a new tail. I had never seen this until the end of June this year when, on a footpath through a Scots Pinewood at the bottom of Cairngorm in the central Highlands of Scotland, our terrier Ella suddenly dived into a clump of grass, into which she continued to poke her nose, exhibiting signs of great excitement (definitely in hunting mode). I saw a common lizard briefly before it vanished into long grass. Meanwhile, Ella’s attention was drawn to the movements of the lizard’s tail which did indeed hold her attention as it continued to twitch sinuously. I felt sorry that the lizard had lost its tail but I would have been much more upset if Ella had killed a beautiful wild lizard, and it was fascinating to see this escape mechanism in action. It fooled Ella and she’s quite smart!

I’ve been unable to source any information on the trend in common lizard population or distribution since 1960, other than a vague suggestion that they are not as common as they used to be as a result of habitat loss due to development, and also that they are still common and widespread across Europe and not threatened. They are, by the way, also strongly protected by British law.

The Wall or Wall Brown Butterfly (Lasiommata megera) is not common in Scotland, being restricted only to Dumfries and Galloway, the Scottish Borders, a bit bizarrely remotely, on the Isle of Mull where it has recently been rediscovered. It has traditionally otherwise been common in Britain, prefers heathland and grassland habitats, open woodland and gardens, and characteristically likes to bask in the sun on open ground, on stones or on walls. There has, however been a dramatic and severe decline of inland populations since the 1970s. It has decreased both in distribution and in population sizes (as seen where populations have been monitored over the long term). The report on the State of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland identifies that there has been a decline of 38% of its distribution between the periods 1970-82 and 1995-2004, and its population has declined by 65% between 1976 and 2004. Research is underway to try to explain the decline. Despite the overall decline, there has been some minor expansion of the range of this species at the northern end, perhaps reflecting the effect of a warming climate.

The wall environment is a pretty tough one for flowering plants. Whatever soil might gather or be formed in cracks in walls is both likely to be in tiny pockets and also likely to be pretty poor in nutrients. Plants living in this environment probably also need to be capable of tolerating extremes, of drought, of cold and of desiccating winds. Both the ivy (Hedera helix) and the wall-pennywort (Umbilicis rupestris) have features of their biology that makes them well adapted to these conditions, such as thick, waxy leaves that reduce the loss of water during dry spells. The ivy is a well-known perennial evergreen climbing plant found all over mainland Britain, other than the highest mountain areas. The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora says that its distribution is unchanged since the 1962 Atlas. In the Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey compiled six pages of information about the cultural, religious and historical beliefs about ivy and its uses, along with its central role in British Christmas greenery and rituals, “the high point of the ivy’s ceremonial year.”

The wall-pennywort, or navelwort is a conspicuous species on rocky, stony and wall habitats in Western Britain. In Scotland, it is largely confined to the south-west. I presume it is called navelwort due to the similarity of the leaves’ sunken centre point to that part of the human anatomy (well, at least if you are an “inny” rather than an “outy” belly-button). Its distribution was once wider – John Gerard’s 16th Century Herbal reported it as growing at Westminster Abbey. The New Atlas reports its distribution as unchanged since the 1962 Atlas.

The other two plants in the picture are not specifically wall dwellers. The herb-robert (Geranium robertianum) with its little pink flowers is a wild geranium species which is very common across all of Britain and Ireland, except for the Western and Northern Isles of Scotland. It lives on walls, on scree and shingle, in woods, gardens and other cultivated land, woods and along verges and paths. It has a smell a bit like acrid mouse-pee which, according to Flora Britannica, might be the source of its common name, a possible ancient association with “the house goblin, Robin Goodfellow” of English folklore (see this Wikipedia entry for a useful expansion of that reference. The New Atlas says there is very little evidence of any change in its distribution since the 1962 Atlas.

The slightly dandelion-like yellow flowers on the left of the picture belong to the smooth hawk’s-beard (Crepis capillaris), a very common coloniser of nutrient-poor grasslands, wasteland, walls, lawns and rocky habitats. There is no historical, cultural or other information about this species in Flora Britannica. As well as indicating that it competes very poorly in habitats other than the open ones listed above, the New Atlas says that its natural range is stable since that published in the 1962 Atlas, although it may also be spreading through colonising suitable man-made habitats (e.g. spoil heaps and verges).

Friday, 23 July 2010

Ukelele maestros

Forget George Formby. This guy is absolutely amazing. After you've watched this, don't you ever, EVER tell me the ukelele isn't a serious instrument...

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Who's that girl?

When on a recent holiday staying with family in London, we took Ella for her her first visit to the capital of yuppy cool that is Clapham. We joked with O's Mum that Ella had, like Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, come down to London to see the Queen. So, imagine our surprise when...

But wait ... who's that in the upstairs window ...?

Surely not ... it can't be... but it is...
And you know, she never even waved back...

Signs I Like #11

Spotted on our recent long weekend in London, I wonder how often this has been an issue since the Second World War?

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #8

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.

“No bees, no honey; no work, no money”
Anon. proverb

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 8
It really is all about the birds and bees this time – literally – as Summer picture 8 shows a scene where three house martin nests under the eaves of a building, busily attended to by several house martins, are also being eyed up by a male house sparrow, potentially with a view to taking possession of one, while the nearby sweet smelling flowers of a lime tree are alive with visiting bees. In the background, in a logical progression from the previous picture, the next stage in the hay-making process of 1960 is being shown, with a farm-hand standing a-top a hay stack, arranging bundles of hay delivered up an elevator.

The house martin (Latin name: Delichon urbicum) originally nested on cliffs but seems to have adapted extremely well to nesting now under the eaves of buildings. The picture shows three nests – each has been made by a pair of house martins from up to a thousand beakfuls of mud from a nearby pond or other source of mud and, typically, house martins do prefer to nest in loose colonies. Like their close relatives, the sand martin and the swallow, house martins are aerial hunters, feeding, on the wing, on flies and aphids. The British Trust for Ornithology identifies that their loosely colonial habit and association with human settlements actually makes them extremely difficult to monitor, as the loss of a colony is no guide to decline overall as those birds may simply have joined up with another colony. The BTO reports that the available long-term data for this species suggest a rapid decline, although their Breeding Bird Survey results show an overall increase since 1994. Here is the graph for the population in England:

The species “was moved from the green to the amber list in 2002, because of moderate decline in the CBC [Common Bird Census] trend for 1974–99, and is newly listed as of European concern following declines elsewhere in Europe”. Yet, in Scotland, between 1995 and 2007, Scotland’s house martin population increased by over 100%.

Similar to what I discussed previously for the swallow and the sand martin, the success of house martins in Europe seems to be linked with the record of rainfall in West Africa, where they over-winter. I find it a pretty joyful Summer experience to watch groups of house martins, often mixed with sand-martins and swallows, busy feeding on the wing, chirruping away noisily.

The house sparrow (Passer domesticus) has to be one of the most popular species of bird in this country, probably not least down to its personification in popular culture as a “cheeky chappy” bird, the “cock sparrer”. Probably not for nothing was the happy-go-lucky pirate hero of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films was Cap’n Jack Sparrow. Unflashy brown and grey plumage, perhaps the simplest of all songs – the house sparrow call literally is just “chirp” – and a habitat selection for many sparrows in the vicinity of houses and gardens in our settlements, where they nest in noisy colonies in hedges, under eaves, etc, all contribute to our familiarity with this little bird. So, a major decline of the house sparrow in Britain in recent decades has been something of a cause celebre for the conservation movement. The British Trust for Ornithology points out that there are inadequate data for monitoring trends in house sparrows before 1976 but, as the following graph from the BTO shows, since that date there has been a significant and dramatic decline in the population of this species.

The BTO summarises the suggested possible causes of the decline of the house sparrow as including: a general reduction in food supply - less grain being spilt during agricultural operations and tighter hygiene regulations - increases in predation, and toxic additives to unleaded petrol.

There is, however, a more complicated picture – the above very strong decline at the UK level masks different trends at regional level. In Scotland, for example, as the graph below shows, in Scotland, there has been a strong recovery of the house sparrow population here since 1995 (84%).

I think I have noticed the effect of this increase here in Stirling. When we moved to our present house in the late 1990’s, I did not see a single house sparrow in this area, until about 4 years ago, when they appeared in considerable numbers, perhaps a consequence of rising populations out in the surrounding farmland.

A potential effect of a warming climate, the average date of egg-laying by house sparrows in the UK is now eight days earlier than in 1967. My favourite house sparrow moment was while growing up on a farm in East Lothian when, one day, I found two male house sparrows on our gravel path, beaks locked together in some battle for what-I-don’t-know. And they stayed like that for about another minute, unmoving, as I stood next to them until I touched one gently on the back and said “Hello”, at which point they let go, shook themselves and fled in a panic!

The lime tree in flower in the top let of the picture is the most common lime tree species in Britain, “the Lime Tree” (Latin name: Tilia cordata x platyphyllos). I learned something new in looking up information for this post. I hadn’t known that the common lime tree we see planted in parks, streets and avenues everywhere is actually a fertile cross between two other native lime tree species, the small-leaved lime (Tilia cordata) and the large-leaved lime (Tilia platyphyllos). As native trees, these latter two species have a largely southern distribution, although there are pockets of native populations of small-leaved limes in southern and western Scotland. As a native species, the fertile cross which is so widely distributed as a planted tree actually does occur in a few woods in England where both parent tree species are found. The relative size of the leaves and flowers on the lime in this picture suggests that it is the common lime hybrid. Lime flowers are wonderfully sweet-smelling and are the basis of the lindenblumen (lime-flower) tea beloved on continental Europe. We collected and dried some lime flowers last summer and kept them in an airtight jar. The addition of boiling water to a few flowers makes a subtle honey-ish tea (which apparently was used as a mild sedative during the last war). We’ve been too busy at just the wrong time this year and missed the chance to collect some fresh flowers but, a year on, the lime flowers we dried in summer of 2009 still smell sweet and are still perfectly useable.

The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora reports the distribution of this hybrid lime species as stable since 1962. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey writes: “All groups of lime trees, of whatever species, are wonderfully fragrant when in full blossom in July. They are also the noisiest of trees at this time, and the roar of bees in them can often be heard 50 yards away.” I can confirm this – our neighbours have two mature common lime trees over the wall from us and on dry days this Summer, particularly when sunny, they have been alive with bumblebees and honey bees. The loud hum reminds me of a high power electric cable and is the collective sum sound of thousands of insects harvesting nectar and pollen. And, by the way, honey produced from lime flowers is delicious.

And so, neatly, on to the bees in the picture, which look to me like honey bees (Apis mellifera). Since the Ladybird Summer book was published, coverage of honey bees has moved from specialist bee-keeping literature to the front pages of national newspapers, on account of the global decline in honey bees. This is an issue of major global concern as bees, including domestic and wild honey bees, as well as other bees such as bumblebees are responsible for pollinating the agricultural and horticultural crop responsible for one in three mouthfuls of our food. Similar to the problems in the USA, Europe and elsewhere, some 15-30% of Britain’s honey bees may have died in recent years. Proposed causes so far range from the likely to the plain wacky-sounding, from parasites like the verroa mite, diseases like the bacterial foul brood (of which there has just been an outbreak in Scotland), pesticides and other artificial chemicals, to GM crops and mobile phone signals, all hypothesised to have led to collapses of bee colonies. In practice, perhaps there are several causes all leading to colony or hive collapses alone or in combination. Such concern is there over this issue in Britain that, in a new initiative, up to £8m will be made available for research into bees by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Wellcome Trust and the Scottish Government. The new funding is in addition to the £2m announced previously by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to help bee research. The funding increase will be a big rise in government spending on bee research, which previously amounted to £1.2m annually in the UK, much of which was spent on bee inspectors.

Finally, just a quick word about the next stage in the annual hay-making process in 1960, shown in the picture’s background, where the farm-worker (Flatcap? Of course!) is loading hay bundles from an elevator on to a hay stack. Hay hasn’t been made this way done for decades, since the advent of, first, “square” (cuboid, actually) and then round hay bales, and the rise of silaging instead of hay-making.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #7

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.

"Many a long hard-working day
Life brings us! and many an hour of play;
But they never come now together.
Playing at work, and working in play,
As they came to us children among the hay,
In the breath of the warm June weather.

Oft with our little rakes at play,
Making believe at making hay,
With grave and steadfast endeavour;
Caught by an arm, and out of sight
Hurled and hidden, and buried light
In laughter and hay for ever."

Dora Greenwell, Haymaking (1865)

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)
Summer Picture 7

I’m a bit excited. I accept that, as sources of excitement go, this is pretty tame but this picture, Summer picture 7, is the one selected to represent all of Summer’s glory as the cover picture for the book “What to Look for in Summer”. And I contend that it would be difficult to argue with swallows, roses, elderflowers, butterflies and hay-making as iconic images of a British summer scene. For the farmer in the picture, on his little tractor, is indeed making hay while the sun shines, as high Summer flourishes all around him.

Swallows were featured in an earlier post, when their arrival was noted in Spring picture 12, so I’ll say no more here except to note that, as they are very busy hawking flies in midsummer, they are probably feeding young, perhaps by now a second brood, the first having flown the nest already. The Meadow Brown butterflies in the foreground (Latin name: Maniola jurtina) are identified in my copy of the State of the Butterflies of Britaina dn Ireland report (produced by a partnership led by Butterfly Conservation) as the most abundant butterfly species in Britain (i.e. the most individuals recorded in surveys), as well as the second most widely distributed (in terms of the number of 10 kilometre squares where the species is recorded), after the Green-veined White butterfly (watch out for your cabbages, missus!).  Since the Summer book was first published (my copy says 1960, exactly 50 years ago this year), the Meadow Brown has been doing well. A generalist species of grassland habitats including downland, heathland, coastal dunes and undercliffs, hay meadows, roadside verges, hedgerows, woodland rides and clearings, waste ground, parks, gardens, and cemeteries, its population is estimated to have increased by 28% between 1976 and 2004 (although there was a slight decrease of -5% in the final few years of that period).

Of the wild plants featured in this picture, the accompanying text says: “The wild, briar rose and elder are the flowers that most distinctly speak of June and midsummer.” The fact is that, as you’ll notice, we are in July and midsummer is nearly three weeks behind us – a typical condition of this series is me struggling to keep up with the timetable of the books, consoling myself only with the fact that the timing of natural events in a Scottish summer is likely to be lagging behind those down south by at least a couple of weeks. As such, even last week, I could look out of my window and see numerous elder bushes in the park, resplendent with their umbrellas of creamy white flowers. And yet,only this weekend, the lovely O and I struggled to find the few remaining accessible flower heads on those elder bushes, to make a final batch of elderflower cordial.

The elder (Sambucus nigra) is indeed an important food plant in the British countryside, which I talked about in Spring here, and promised to talk about in more detail once it appeared in flower in this current Summer picture. The black shiny elder berries that occur later in the year in great bunches like miniature grapes have long been a mainstay of the home-made wine manufactories of rural Britain. But it is the flowers that O and I relish and cherish – in particular, we make litres and litres of fragrantly-scented elderflower cordial every June and July, aiming to produce enough to see us through the long, cold winter with regular tastes of summer sunlight captured in golden liquid form. We’ve managed to produce about 15 litres this year. We use a recipe which includes the use of citric acid powder to prevent any fermentation.

Last year, for the first time, we also made elderflower champagne, which IS, obviously, allowed to ferment. I confess that, although we made about 6 litres, we haven’t tried it yet, even though it is supposed to be drinkable after a week! Now I’m a bit scared, both of the gas pressure in the 2 litre plastic bottles, and the potential alcohol content. But, versatile wild crop that it is, the elder’s flowers can also be eaten, both raw and dipped in batter and deep fried as tempura (which is just a posh way of a Scottish man justifying yet another opportunity dip a piece of perfectly innocent food in batter and deep fry the hell out of it! Deep-fried Mars Bar, anyone? No thanks!). I have to say, elderflower tempura was pleasantly, surprisingly, tasty! The raw flowers are also OK, but I do find the texture a bit odd. Incidentally, the elder is also home to the edible fungus known colloquially as “jew’s ear”, a bit of unfortunate anti-Semitic nomenclature, if ever I heard one. This weekend, we found a neglected corner of King’s Park in Stirling where a few old elder trees are covered in growths of this fungus, some of which, inevitably, we are going to end up eating! I’ll let you know how it goes...

The New Atlas of the Flora of Britain and Ireland indicates that, since 1962 when the original Atlas came out, the overall distribution of elder hasn't changed, but that it is impossible to tell introduced populations from natural ones, as it is both widely planted by people and also spread widely as seeds in bird droppings.

The wild rose dominating the bottom left corner of the picture is the dog rose, Rosa canina, although that Latin name hides a more complicated story, where a number of related groups of wild roses are brigaded under the rosy collective of a Rosa canina “aggregate”. There are also a number of hybrids of Rosa canina and other rose species and, indeed, other, completely separate wild rose species, all also referred to as “dog roses”! No-one said it had to be easy... Anyway, Rosa canina is the commonest and most widespread of these. The New Plant Atlas , while pointing out its complicated family relationships, suggests that its distribution is probably stable over the period since the publication of the 1962 Atlas. Maybe more in Autumn on rose hips and their contribution to our wild food larder...

The final element of the picture worthy of comment is the hay-making process in the background, not least to point out how the general process remains basically the same 50 years later, even although the machinery has changed, particularly the tractor. Grow grass, cut it when the weather is dry, let it dry out a bit in rows on the ground where it was cut, then gather it up to store it. Now, hay is baled; back when this picture was painted, it was a slightly different storage method, as you wil see in the next Summer picture.

A final sartorial point to note – the farmer on his tractor is wearing a pair of red dungarees – surely all farmers now wear blue ones! In fact, the boiler suit has probably largely replaced dungarees as the favoured protection for the hard working agriculture operative! And I am not sure if the flatcap, which seems to be ubiquitous on all agricultural employees featured in these four Ladybird books, has survived through to today as an obligatory piece of farmer’s protective clothing (although, obviously, still much loved by rural huntin’, shootin’ toff-types!).

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Sign of the times: Summer #6

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.

"Deep in the sun-searched growths
the dragonfly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from
the sky."

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Silent Noon

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 6
Still on the pond for this picture, we are on the pond surface with a lovely waterhen family, comprising a mother bird and a brood of seven chicks. They are swimming through a bed of waterlilies, both native species, the Yellow water-lily (Nuphar lutea) and the White water-lily (Nymphaea alba). The pink flowers of the emergent water plant, amphibious bistort, are on display at the top of the picture, and a large dragonfly, the southern hawker (Aeshna cyanea), is hovering above the lily pads at the bottom of the picture.

I deliberately shunted coverage of the waterhen from an earlier Spring picture until now, as I thought that this picture was so delightful that this is where I wanted to write about this species in more detail. The waterhen (Gallinula chloropus, more commonly known as the moorhen outside of Scotland) is, along with the coot, the other commonly-seen member of the rail family in Britain, on lochs, ponds, lowland rivers, canals, lakes and gravel pits, where it feeds while walking across floating vegetation or on surrounding damp land. There may be 240,000 breeding territories in Britain. The British Trust for Ornithology provided the long-term trend in the waterhen population below:

The BTO says of the waterhen: “While the long-term CBC/BBS [Common Bird Census/ Breeding Bird Survey] trend is of shallow increase, much of the population increase took place before 1974, when WBS [Wetland Bird Survey] monitoring began, and may have been a recovery from heavy mortality during the cold winters of the early 1960s. On both CBC/BBS and WBS/WBBS [Wetland Breeding Bird Survey] evidence, there was decrease during the 1970s and 1980s, but this has been followed by a partial recovery. A decline in the number and quality of farmland ponds, and the spread of American mink Mustela vison, which is an important predator especially along watercourses, have been suggested as possible causes of decline.”

Overall, between 1967 and 2007, the waterhen population in Britain increased by 28%. Maybe the increase in suitable habitats through the creation of gravel pits and the cleaning up of historic water pollution has also contributed to the recovery but I am only speculating. The BTO also reports that, between 1968 and 2007, the laying date for the waterhen is five days earlier on average, a possible effect of a warming climate. To conclude, the waterhen/ moorhen is not currently regarded as being of any conservation concern in Britain or Europe.

The yellow water-lily (Nuphar lutea) grows in slow flowing rivers, as well as canals and lakes with moderate to high levels of nutrients in the water, and is capable of surviving disturbance as it has many leaves growing below the surface, as well as the floating pads, which probably explains why it thrives in canal environments. The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora indicates that the distribution of this species has been stable since the original 1962 Atlas. The white water-lily (Nymphaea alba) is another native waterlily, but is less tolerant of disturbance as it doesn't have submerged leaves, only floating lily pads. It has been widely introduced in England and so its actual natural distribution isn't clear but at least it hasn't decreased in Scotland since the 1962 Atlas. In his "Flora Britannica", Richard Mabey records that the yellow water-lily has smaller fowers, held above the water on stalks, as seen above, and smells slightly of wine dregs, hence its nicknames of "brandy balls", or "brandy bottle". In the past, both water-lily species suffered from being collected from the wild for collection.

The amphibious bistort (Persicaria amphibia) is another widely distributed native water plant. This plant grows, sometimes in considerable quantity, in lakes, ponds, canals, slow-flowing rivers and ditches, is a lovely element of the British aquatic flora, and is widely distributed in Scotland, although largely absent from Wester Ross, Caithness and Sutherland and the central Highlands. The New Atlas records that there: "has been no appreciable change in the distribution of this species since the 1962 Atlas".

The inclusion in the picture of the beautiful southern hawker dragonfly (Aeshna cyanea) tells me that, like the pond in the previous picture, this pond (who knows, maybe it is meant to be the same pond?) is likely to be in southern Britain, as this is largely where this dragonfly species is found, although it has been found breeding in Scotland before. Its habitat is around ponds and lakes and it is usually seen as an adult from early June to early October (although, as in the previous picture, its larva spends maybe up to a couple of years as a ferocious underwater predator). The British Dragonfly Society has some excellent pictures of this dragonfly here. This web page says that this dragonfly species "hunts well away from water and may be found hawking woodland rides well into the evening".

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #5

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.

"Every peasant is proud of the pond in his village because from it he measures the sea."
Russian proverb

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 5

You can see from this picture that we are down in a pond – a range of ferocious predatory invertebrates on show, which bears some careful description of what is what – a great diving beetle (Latin name: Dytiscus marginalis ) adult on the centre right (with a young frog in its mandibles), and its larva at the top centre, a great silver water beetle (Hydrophilus piceus) in the top left corner, a formidable dragonfly larva in the bottom left corner, which has shot out its extendable “face mask” to grab a small worm or larva. The water scorpion (Nepa), the brown “bug” in the bottom right with the caddis larva in its jaws, is another larger pond predator that does occur in Scotland. The “water stick insect”, which should be obvious in the bottom left of the picture doesn’t occur in Scottish ponds and I don’t know anything about them. But I will find out (just not right now).

The smaller swimming bug in the top right really is a bug, the great water boatman (Notonecta) being a hemipteran, the water bug family. Although smaller than the water beetles and their larva, and the dragonfly larva (probably all the top predators in ponds, particularly those without fish), the greater water boatman is also a fierce predator.

There are also two snails in the picture, in fact the two largest species normally found in British ponds, the ramshorn snail (the lower of the two in the picture, Planorbis) and the great pondsnail (Lymnaea stagnalis) – I have both species in my garden pond, from which the ramshorn snails are regularly hoicked out by the local song thrushes and bashed to pieces on the pond’s stepping stones, to be eaten! Bottom right are a couple of caddis fly larvae, well-known as a group for their making of protective cases from a rage of materials, in this case plant fragments (but some species alternatively use gravel, tiny snail shells and other materials). It should be noted, however, that not all caddis fly larvae will make cases – there are also many so-called caseless caddis species. Obvious from the name, these are flies with an adult, out-of-water life stage, but the larval stages are spent in fresh water.

The inclusion in the picture of the great silver water beetle tells me that this pond is likely to be in south-west Britain, probably in the Somerset Levels (but maybe also in the Pevensey levels and East Anglia), as this is where this species is now largely found (it was more widespread in the past, estimated to have been living in fewer than fifteen 10km squares in Britain since 1970. It has suffered a 25-49% decline in the last 25 years in GB, probably as a result of nutrient enrichment of the small standing water bodies, ponds, ditches etc where it lives, as a result of agricultural run-off).

So far, so pond-like, and definitely not a picture from a pond in Scotland. Some Scottish pond information I found recently, from the Countryside Survey report of 2007, indicates that, between 1998 and 2007, the number of ponds in Scotland increased by 6%, so maybe the long-term decline in pond numbers is being reversed at long last. This might be the result of ponds created through funding for agri-environment measures, to improve the benefits of agriculture for wildlife, and the increase in ponds created to hold and treat run-off from roads (so-called sustainable urban drainage ponds).

Signs of the times: Summer #4

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.

“I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers:
Of April, May, or June, and July flowers.
I sing of Maypoles, Hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of the bridal cakes."

Robert Herrick, Hesperides, 1648

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 4

Here is another picture showing baby wading birds, in this case redshank chicks, with their mother in an area of flower-rich marshland. The text describes the marsh plants as comprising the pink-flowering ragged robin, the cotton sedge (with the white, fluffy seed head), the marsh pennywort, the yellow rattle, horse-tails, the tall straggly yellow flowers of the marsh buttercup, and a number of orchids.

The text makes the point that the redshank (Latin name: Tringa totanus) lays large eggs, a common trait among ground-nesting waders, meaning that its chicks are hatched as well-developed youngsters. This means that they are pretty quickly able to move about, to take cover if a predator is nearby. They are also able to begin foraging for their own food earlier than nest-born birds. Although shown here nesting in a freshwater marsh, and they do also inhabit riverine areas, moor and wet grasslands inland, the redshank is probably more often encountered, and certainly in greater numbers, on the coast, particularly on mudflats and saltmarshes in winter. To me, the distinctive call of the redshank, which I would describe phonetically as a short sharp “tyoo-yoo-yoo”, is a classic sound of the British estuary. I said in my previous Summer post that I would often hear them as the predominant bird call while I was out sampling fish on a saltmarsh in the Forth Estuary at dawn in Summer (and Winter). Although a common bird in these areas, the tale of the redshank in the last 50 years, following publication of the Ladybird series, is not a particularly positive one.

Data from the British Trust for Ornithology’s surveys, for Wetland Birds and Wetland Breeding Birds and the more general Breeding Bird Survey all paint a picture of decline in redshank populations. The BTO’s graph below shows that a moderate-to-rapid decline has taken place in the UK since the mid-1970s (population -56% between 1975 and 2007), and a considerable range contraction had occurred in many areas of the UK by 1988–91, probably as a result of the drainage of farmland.

Surveys in England and Wales revealed a decrease of 29% in breeding birds in wet meadows between 1982 and 2002. The substantial section of the British population that nests on saltmarshes decreased by 23% between 1985 and 1996, apparently as a result of increased grazing pressure. This is a more widespread problem than just the UK – redshank umbers have fallen widely across Europe since 1980. The loss of marshland through drainage, largely for agriculture will be a feature of the state of some of the marshland plants below as well. The problems of birds and plants have a common cause in this case!

The marshland habitat of the nesting redshank and its family shown here has been reported by the Countryside Survey report for Scotland (surveyed in 2007, published in 2009) as constituting about 3% of Scotland’s area, at least for upland marshland. While that figure remains relatively unchanged since the previous Countryside Survey report in 1998, it seems likely, given the declines in the marshland plants (discussed below ), that development, drainage and agricultural intensification have resulted in a decline in this habitat in the lowlands since the late 1950s and early 1960s. If I could more easily access the National Countryside Monitoring Scheme produced a few years ago by Scottish Natural Heritage, I might be able to report on the trend in area of marshland since 1947 – I’ll look into that for a future post where marshland habitat features.

The (longish list of) marshland plants shown in the picture have had varied fortunes over the time since the book was published. The lovely pink-flowered Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) in the top right of the picture is an herbaceous plant found in many damp habitats, such as wet grassland, rush pasture and fen habitats. Although the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora reports that, at the 10-kilometre square level, the distribution of this species has changed little since 1962, there are many local reports of declines as a result mainly of drainage of wet habitats and agricultural “improvements”. The “so-called “cotton sedge” in the top left, with its fluffy white seed heads, is now more commonly known as cottongrass. It is most likely the common cottongrass (Eriophorum angistifolium), a perennial plant of open, wet, peaty habitats from upland blanket bogs to lowland marshy meadows. The New Atlas says that drainage, groundwater extraction and, ironically, reductions in grazing pressure have considerably reduced its abundance in the lowlands since 1962 (although actually most of the decline took place before 1950 and has continued since).

The redshank chick front and centre is standing on the leaves of the marsh pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris), a perennial plant that forms mat-like growths found in a wide range of damp and wet habitats. The New Atlas shows that it is widely distributed in the UK and, in Scotland, this is largely around the edges. It has declined a lot in some places since 1950, particularly in SE England, where drainage and development have steadily eliminated its sites. In the bottom right of the picture, the yellow-rattle (Rhinanthus minor) is in flower. This species exists partly as a parasite on the roots of grasses and has declined on semi-natural grasslands but, as it is now included in many seed mixes for grassland creation or restoration projects, it has probably increased its distribution overall.

Behind the parent redshank are several plants of the ancient horsetail family (which have been around long enough to have been a group of plants eaten by the dinosaurs). There are several species of horsetail in Britain; since this is a marsh scene, let’s assume it is the marsh horsetail (Equisetum palustre), which likes permanently damp habitats. The New Atlas says that, although some lowland sites for the species have been lost to drainage or agricultural “improvement”, there is little evidence for any change in its overall distribution since 1962 (the original Atlas publication).

The tall, thin yellow-flowered Marsh buttercup in the top centre of the picture doesn’t accord with any common name used today – I suspect that it is the Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris) which looks just like this illustration. It prefers damp meadows and grasslands and is a characteristic plant of water meadow plant communities. It is recorded almost everywhere in Britain and Ireland (at least at the 10 kilometre square level) and the New Atlas records its distribution as stable since 1962.

Finally, the text says that there are several orchids in the picture. That purple one in the foreground with the spotted leaves might be the common spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsia), a species found in a wide range of habitats including marshes and fens. The New Atlas reports that here has been no change in its distribution since 1962, while any losses have been balanced by its ability to colonise newly available, often man-made habitats.