Wednesday, 7 July 2010

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.

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