Thursday, 26 August 2010

And you thought YOU were weary?

This is one of my favourite live recordings of all time - heck, one of my favourite recordings full-stop. Tom Waits in 1977 on The Old Grey Whistle Test performing "Waltzing Matilda (Four Sheets in Copenhagen)". What do you think he's had to do to earn a voice like that? There is such a weighty weariness combined with the beautiful melody. This gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. It would be a Desert Island Disc for me, without a shred of doubt. If you want to know more, there is some interesting background to the song here as part of the Tom Waits album "Small Change"... Enjoy!

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

And at the setting of the sun...

Sometimes Mother Nature offers up sights that just need to be shared! Tonight's views into the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park from our house and from the King's Park in Stirling, at and just after sunset...

Ben Lomond from the house as the sunset began to impress

Then, out walking the dog on the King's Park, initially O and I thought it was all over, but...

... we were wrong,

Oh so wrong...

...and it went on and on...

... and after a few more wildly florid minutes like this ...

... suddenly, it was all over...
... and we trooped off home, enriched by the experience and once more amazed at the capacity of  fleeting, temporary reflections, refractions and diffractions of sunlight on and through cloud to dazzle the senses and fill us with awe at its breathtaking beauty. And it was free too!

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #15

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've watched you now a full half-hour;
Self-poised upon that yellow flower
And, little Butterfly! Indeed
I know not if you sleep or feed.
How motionless! - not frozen seas
More motionless! and then
What joy awaits you, when the breeze
Hath found you out among the trees,
And calls you forth again!

William Wordsworth, "To a Butterfly"


(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 15
Butterflies abound in this picture! It shows a privet bush covered in butterflies from four species: red admiral, peacock, small tortoiseshell and large-white. An elderly gardener, no doubt vexed by the damage to his cabbages from the caterpillars of the large-white butterflies, is hoeing the weeds between his crops.

What would summer be without butterflies? Poorer and less magical! And in the recent succession of wet, cold Summers we have had, I’ve sometimes wondered if our butterflies would ever recover. But this Summer, on hot days, I’ve seen some lovely butterfly-related sights. Admittedly, the best have been in Pembrokeshire on holiday, along hot, sheltered, sunny paths along the coast. Being in the Pembrokeshire National Park, there is perhaps less pesticide being sprayed and certainly both more beneficial habitat management and less intensive agriculture over a larger percentage of the land than elsewhere in our crowded and over-used country, which must be good for the butterflies (and the rest of Nature!).

We also drove (slowly) through a big cloud of green-veined white butterflies which were sunning themselves on one of those steep ancient Pembrokeshire hedgerow banks, above Newport Beach, in Dyfed. We were back and forth a couple of times, and they were there all day. And my mother-in-law had five species of butterflies on her Buddleia bush at once at one sunny point during our holiday. We were also lucky enough to see Speckled wood and Comma butterflies everywhere in Pembrokeshire. But we also had a magical Scottish butterfly day in the sun last month, walking around Loch Kinord on Royal Deeside, where the grasslands around the loch were bursting with little blue or brown butterflies of various species, including the rare, and largely Scottish, Scotch Argus (you can tell from the name, can't you?!), as well as peacock and red admiral butterflies. There were also thousands of little day-flying moths, the other side of our Lepidoptera natural heritage. That’s another story for another day though; today, we are on butterflies.

Incidentally, while we are still on the subject of Welsh butterflies – lovely Welsh word of the day? Butterfly is “pili-pala” which, in our house, we pronounce as “pilly-pally” – not sure if that is correct? Maybe someone could let me know, but a lovely name anyway!

The text for this picture says: “Throughout July, the privet bush is in blossom, and to its wonderfully sweet scent come many kinds of butterflies and other insects to sup at the rich supply of honey”. It isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned this but surely E.L. Grant Watson, the writer of the accompanying text, meant nectar rather than honey? Whatever, the privet bush here is covered in butterflies and it is always, always an amazing sight when a bush full of butterflies is encountered. These days, it is probably more likely to be a Buddleia (“butterfly bush”) that provides this spectacle. In this case, there are three red admirals at the top of the bush, two small tortoiseshell butterflies on the centre-right, a peacock butterfly at the bottom with its four “peacock eyes” visible on its wings, and two large-whites on the left (above the gardener in the picture). The privet is a garden plant, not native to Britain and, while it may well be growing wild in places, I’m not minded to spend any more time talking about it here.

The fates of the populations of all of these species in Britain in the last few decades is revealed by Butterfly Conservation, the main conservation charity for butterflies and moths in Britain and Ireland. Butterfly Conservation published a report on the State of British and Irish butterflies in 2006, the information from which is also accessible in summary on their website here.

The red admiral, small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies are closely related species, member of the Fritillary family (Nymphalidae), and are all strong fliers.

The red admiral (Latin name: Vanessa atalanta) is the black, white and red butterfly at the top of the bush (there are two with wings open and one with wings closed). The State of Butterflies report says that there has been an overall significant upward trend in the size of the red admiral population in Britain since the 1970s, of 350% between 1976 and 2004, with an increased range some 25% larger. There has also been a big increase in Winter sightings of red admirals, something that was a rare event in the 1970s and probably climate change-related. It seems to be making a transition from being a summer visitor to becoming a year-round resident species.

Butterfly Conservation provides the following information: “Starting each spring and continuing through the summer there are northward migrations, which are variable in extent and timing, from North Africa and continental Europe. The immigrant females lay eggs and consequently there is an emergence of fresh butterflies, from about July onwards. They continue flying into October or November and are typically seen nectaring on garden buddleias or flowering Ivy and on rotting fruit... In Britain and Ireland the most important and widely available larval [caterpillar] foodplant is Common Nettle (Urtica dioica)”.

The small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), possibly the favourite native butterfly of my Dad, who introduced me to the joy of butterflies when I was a small child and, other than the “cabbage whites” (see below), and also possibly the first butterfly I learned to identify (not least because it was probably the one (other than the whites) that I saw most often on the farming estate where I grew up. Although some concern was raised about the status of this species in the early 2000s, its abundance has really not changed significantly since the mid 1970s (1976, actually, when the monitoring began). It remains, according to the Butterfly Conservation report, “very common in Britain and Ireland, and was the third most widely recorded species in the 2000-2004 survey.” Butterfly Conservation also says: “The striking and attractive patterning, and its appearance at almost any time of the year in urban areas have made it a familiar species. It is one of the first butterflies to be seen in spring and in the autumn it often visits garden flowers in large numbers.” The “urticae” part of its name comes from the Latin name for nettles, the food-plant for its caterpillars.

The third member of the Fritillary family shown here, the Peacock butterfly (Inachis io) has shown a long-term increase in its distribution, with a large increase in records north of the Firth of Forth in southern Scotland during the period 2000 to 2004. There was also a big appearance of Peacock butterflies in the Highlands in 2002, and the species appears to have colonised many areas of northern Scotland with, in 2004, the first sighting on the Western isles. Its range has increased by 17% between 1970-1882 and 2000-2004. The long-term trend in abundance is also upwards, an increase of +90% in Britain between 1976 and 2004, although in the last 10 years of that period, there was a shorter-term decrease of 40%.

On their website, Butterfly Conservation says the following things about this species: “The Peacock's spectacular pattern of eyespots, evolved to startle or confuse predators, make it one of the most easily recognized and best known species. It is from these wing markings that the butterfly gained its common name. Although a familiar visitor to garden buddleias in late summer, the Peacock's strong flight and nomadic instincts lead it to range widely through the countryside, often finding its preferred habitats in the shelter of woodland clearings, rides, and edges. The species is widespread and has continued to expand its range in northern parts of Britain and Ireland.”

The Large-white butterfly (Pieris brassicae) belongs to another butterfly family, the Pieridae, commonly referred to as the “cabbage whites” – the Small White (Pieris rapae- not shown in the picture) may be the economically most damaging butterfly in the world, its caterpillars eating cabbages and other cruciferous crops world-wide. My main insect book, Michael Chinery’s “Insects of Britain and Northern Europe”, claims that the Large White is almost as bad, although not as widespread. Butterfly Conservation reports that there has been a small decrease in the range of this species since the period 1970-1982, and larger fall in population size at monitored sites since 1976 (-28%), with a smaller increase in the last 10 years. It is not, anyway, usually found in northern Scotland.

Butterfly Conservation says: “The Large White is our largest white butterfly and is a strong flyer. It is not always welcomed in gardens and fields because of the damage its larvae inflict on brassica crops. The larvae are brightly coloured and conspicuous, a signal to warn predators of the irritant and poisonous mustard oils they have concentrated from the food plants. Many adults seen in Britain and Ireland have flown from mainland Europe. Numbers of both residents and migrants of this common and widespread species vary considerably from year to year.”

Beatbox harmonica

I was delighted to watch a video of a beatboxing flautist over on the E-clecticism blog, home of all manner of wonderful posts here, where jono has the knack of digging out, and putting on display, the most amazing things! The vid made me think if something I came across last year, which I enjoyed so much I bought it (or an audio version of it) later on i-Tunes. I play harmonica (poorly) but I don't beat-box - but this guy, Yuri Lane, does both - and at the same time. This is fun. Short, but fun! I hope you enjoy it too.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #14

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.

Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms...
So doth the woodbine, the sweet honeysuckle,
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.”

William Shakespeare (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”)

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 14

Down by the lake (or loch!) again. A mute swan family with parents and cygnets are in the background, cruising on the water, past a couple of anglers (in flatcaps and smoking pipes – it could be your granddad back in 1960!). A spotted flycatcher is catching flies (well, it would be!) around a hawthorn tree that is entwined with honeysuckle and bindweed, while several newly-emerged young wasps are shaving wood from the large post on which they have settled, beside a clump of the sweet-smelling, white flowering plant, meadowsweet. This is high summer now!

The spotted flycatcher (Muscicapa striata) is another bird that comes to Britain to breed in summer after over-wintering in Africa. I’m writing this on holiday, staying with family in Pembrokeshire, so I’m not only offline from web sources but also without my usual books to refer to. So, using a different source of information to the usual, the AA and RSPB’s “Complete Book of British Birds” (from 1993) reveals information I might otherwise not have found – like the fact that the spotted flycatcher is among the last of the summer migrant birds to arrive in Britain, so great is its dependence on insects that it needs to be quite sure of the supply of its food. From its name, you would perhaps expect the spotted flycatcher to be more spotty than it appears to be, but it is, in fact, the young birds that are truly spotted. I saw these birds often in Summer when I was growing up in East Lothian but where I live now, in Stirlingshire, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one (although that may be partly a function of the limited amount of time I now spend looking, compared to my youth!). They are interesting to watch, making repeated short, looping flights from a relatively high perch, to snatch a fly, before returning, usually to the same perch.

But all is not well with the fortunes of this lovely bird. The British Trust for Ornithology explains that spotted flycatchers: “have declined rapidly and consistently since the 1960s according to census data... Demographic modelling shows that decreases in the annual survival rates of birds in their first year of life are most likely to have driven the decline.” This BTO graph shows how steeply they have declined; that’s an 87% fall in population size between 1967 and 2007 (maybe that explains why I haven’t seen then around here):

And the possible cause of the decline? “Decreasing survival rates may have been caused by deteriorations in woodland quality, particularly leading to declines in the large flying insects that are food to the flycatcher, or by conditions either on the wintering grounds or along migration routes ... Since trends have been similar across UK regions and habitats, however, it is more likely that the decline has been driven by factors operating outside the UK. Spotted Flycatchers have declined widely across Europe since 1980 ... A predator 'control' experiment has indicated that the abundance of nest predators may be determining the breeding success of Spotted Flycatchers, especially in woodland, where nest success was lower overall than in gardens ..." Another study using nest cameras has identified predatory birds, especially jays, as responsible for most nest losses. I talked previously about jays here.

I discussed the story of the mute swan back in Spring post #12, here, when a pair were shown nesting on a lake, so I won’t say much more about mute swans here. Presuming some continuity in the choice of subjects by Charles Tunnicliffe, this may be intended to be the same lake, so perhaps we see the outcome of the incubation of their eggs in the four or five grey cygnets swimming alongside them here.

Turning to the plants shown here, the meadowsweet (Filipendula almeria) is the white-flowering plant in the bottom-right. It is a perennial plant (of the Rose family) found in damp or wet habitats, and, according to the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora is: “characteristic of sites where water levels fluctuate and is absent from permanently waterlogged ground. Typical habitats include wet woodland, damp meadows, swamps and tall-herb fens, damp roadsides, ditches and railway banks, and montane tall-herb communities”. Stable in its distribution since the 1962 original Atlas, it is found fairly ubiquitously across Britain and Ireland, in suitable habitats. According to Richard Mabey in his wonderful Flora Britannica, meadowsweet may first have been called this as it was used to flavour mead, although he also identifies it as another early source of salicylic acid, the original natural ingredient of aspirin (also from willow). When Aspirin was first manufactured (as acetylsalicylic acid) by the chemical company Bayer, it was named (i.e. aspirin) after the old botanical name for meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria. So there you go!

We have meadowsweet growing happily around the margins of our garden pond. My Dad, who grew up in Ayrshire in western Scotland, told me that he would never have been allowed by his mother to bring meadowsweet into the house, as there was a strong superstition in Ayrshire when he was younger that white flowers in the house would be a sign of an impending death in the household. This belief applied to any white flowers and it probably arose from the association of white flowers with funerals, or maybe with the white of funeral shrouds.

On the left of the picture, a hawthorn tree is shown covered with honeysuckle (at the top) and field bindweed. As I discussed the hawthorn in a Spring post #19 here, I won’t go into any more detail about that now.

The honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) is a native perennial deciduous climbing shrub, that grows, as here, by entwining itself up through trees, shrubs and other bushy plants like brambles, in woodland, scrub and hedgerow habitats, and on shaded rocks. According to the New Atlas, its distribution remains similar to that in the 1962 Atlas. It produces wonderfully fragrant flowers through from mid-Summer to Autumn, most fragrant at night and I still remember the honeysuckle around the front door of the house we moved to in East Lothian when I was nearly five, as it was the first time I had seen and smelled this plant – again, like bird’s-foot trefoil, this is one of the earliest memories I have of a wild plant (although in this case, it was in our garden!). Wild honeysuckle featured in our wild food harvest for the first time this year, when we collected the flowers from our local park to use in a recipe for “Peach and Honeysuckle Cheese”, although this is more like a sweet preserve similar to the quince jelly “cheese” sometimes served with the cheese course in restaurants (and at your posh friends’ houses!). The New Atlas records another five species of Lonicera honeysuckle growing in the wild in Britain, all introduced non-native species likely to have “escaped” from gardens.

As a wee Scottish addendum to honeysuckle’s story, Flora Britannica points out that, where it winds around hazel or ash, the host tree grows twisted, and such branches have been cut for use as “barley-sugar” walking sticks, once popular with Scots music-hall performers, as seen in this picture of the (from a modern Scotsman’s perspective, somewhat embarrassing) Sir Harry Lauder’s walking stick collection (see here for more details) (you see that Web? All human life is (reflected) there...):

The stick third from the right at the back looks like one of the barley-sugar-style sticks refered to above. As a final note to this subject, my grandfather once kicked Sir Harry Lauder’s backside, but that is another story altogether...

The hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium) is another native climbing (or trailing) perennial woody shrub, found (according to the New Atlas): “in hedges, scrub, woodland edges, tall-herb fens, in open Salix [willow] and Alnus [alder] carr, and on railway banks and waste ground. It also occurs in artificial habitats in built-up areas and near habitation”. The New Atlas reports that there is no change in the range of this species since the 1962 Atlas and also that the species has been introduced (as a non-native species) to Orkney and Shetland. Many people will know this species as a problematic, invasive, fast-growing and unwanted weed in their garden, a status it also has in our own garden where, if not removed while a newly emerged seedling, it will quickly entwine and bind up the shrubs and larger plants around it. But, seen in the wild, as we found it this week (in the week of writing this section, at least) on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, it can be an object of real and rare beauty, with its occasional papery white trumpet-like flowers appearing among the taller vegetation through which it has entwined itself. Seen in the evening sunlight in the photo below, it was a real tonic of a find at the end of a long, hot day of walking on the coastal path:

Incidentally, there is another native bindweed species, the Sea Bindweed (Calystegia soldanella), growing on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, which I found just after I took the above photo. It is a delightful plant, with little trumpet flowers of alternating pink and white stripes. I never took a photo of the sea bindweed that we found, as it was buried in among a load of grasses, so here is a link to someone else’s lovely photos of the flowers. The distribution of this species is extremely specific, found exclusively at coastal and island sites in Britain and Ireland, and has been relatively stable over time.

Wasps – what can I say? Everybody hates them, don’t they? Welllll, not necessarily everyone. Wasps are related to bees and ants, collectively the Order of Hymenoptera. The wasps shown in this picture belong to the family Vespidae or social wasps – there are many other kinds of wasps in Britain, beyond the stinging black and yellow species we all typically think of as wasps – there are, for example, “digger wasps”, “wood wasps” and many species of parasitic wasps. The Vespidae are represented by seven species native to Britain, including the hornet (an insect we never saw as children in East Lothian but about which we were obsessed each Summer with the thoughts of their reputation – we understood them to be vicious stingers and ENORMOUS!). Several other Vespidae species have also become established here.

From the markings on the bodies of the wasps in the picture, they look like they might be intended to be Common Wasps (Vespula vulgaris), scraping wood shavings off the post they are sitting on, to contribute to the growth and repair of their wasp’s nest (called a “byke” in Scotland). Wasps are an invaluable species to the gardener (and presumably to horticulture too). In Spring and early Summer, they catch countless numbers of aphids and other crop pest insects to feed as a protein-rich diet to their developing larvae. It is really only in Autumn that they start to become more of a nuisance, as they start to feed on rotting fruits and seem to become more aggressive as a result of the alcohol these contain (and no, before you ask, it isn’t just the Scottish wasps that behave this way...). Try as I might, I can’t track down any information anywhere about the population trends in wasps, which is a pity. So, if I do manage to find something, I will add it as an addendum here in future.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #13

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.

"As he sat on the grass and looked across the river, a dark hole in the bank opposite, just above the water's edge, caught his eye, and dreamily he fell to considering what a nice snug dwelling-place it would make for an animal with few wants and fond of a bijoux riverside residence, above flood level and remote from noise and dust. As he gazed, something bright and small seemed to twinkle down in the heart of it, vanished, then twinkled once more like a tiny star. But it could hardly be a star in such an unlikely situation; and it was too glittering and small for a glow-worm. Then, as he looked, it winked at him, and so declared itself to be an eye; and a small face began gradually to grow up round it, like a frame round a picture.
A brown little face, with whiskers.
A grave round face, with the same twinkle in its eye that had first attracted his notice.
Small neat ears and thick silky hair.
It was the Water Rat!"

Kenneth Grahame, from "The Wind in the Willows"

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 13
We are back on the canal again for this picture, having already looked at canal wildlife in Spring, here. Back then, we also, as here, saw a kingfisher. There is also a water vole feeding in the right foreground, among a collection of waterside plants: arrowheads, great water-plantain, flowering rush, on and around which are flying damsel-flies, while in the background, across the canal, some anglers are fishing (in one case, successfully, as he lands a fish).

As I discussed the kingfisher in some detail in an earlier post in Spring, I won’t say any more about it here. The other (non-human) warm-blooded vertebrate in the picture, the water vole (Latin name: Arvicola terrestris) is a rodent, found throughout mainland Britain, principally on lowland rivers and, as here, canals, although I have also seen the tunnels and signs of relatively recently discovered colonies now known to be widespread fairly high up in the Cairngorm mountains. So, we are still discovering new information about this widespread species. The water vole might be described as a member of Britain’s most threatened mammal species and, perhaps, its unluckiest mammal species. How can this be, given the public popularity of the water vole, one of the stars of the much-loved “tales of the riverbank in Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows”, where “Ratty", friend of Mr Toad was indeed a water vole? I still remember the first time I saw a water vole, when I was perhaps eight or nine, on “patrol” with my Dad, and heard the “plop” sound as the vole dropped from the bank into a little coastal stream at Longniddry in East Lothian, and watched it swim underwater, all silvery from the layer of air bubbles trapped in its fur.

As the Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s Review of UK mammals reports, at the start of the 20th century, “water voles were abundant in all suitable localities in England, were found in all low-lying districts of Scotland except Argyll, and were common in the streams of Anglesey and North Wales, but were comparatively scarce in south Wales ...Subsequently there has been a long-term decline.”

The JNCC report continues, starkly, that a field survey in the 1990s showed that there has been a steady long-term decline this century, with two periods of accelerated site loss, the first in the 1940s and 1950s, and the second between the 1970s and 1990s. The first decline: “was most marked in northern and western Britain and may correlate with increased afforestation and subsequent acidification of waterways”. The second period of loss, most marked in the 1980s: “is correlated with the spread of the American mink”. On top of this, before and as well as the escape of mink from fur farms, “habitat destruction by riparian engineering works causing fragmentation and isolation of colonies, coupled with water pollution, acted as cumulative factors which also contributed to this decline.” The extent of the decline is quite breathtaking: since 1900, 68% of occupied water vole sites have been lost, and this could be as high as 77%. Also, as the number of voles at each site is believed to decline with the percentage of occupied sites, the reduction in water vole numbers has been even greater.

Mink, particularly a female feeding young, can demolish a water vole colony in a few days of hunting activity. Valuable research at Aberdeen University has shown that water voles can tolerate predation by American mink where there are wide vegetated corridors on the banks alongside the river as mink do not forage far from the river. But the poor way that we manage the banks of so many of our rivers flowing through agricultural and urban areas, with perhaps only a metre or two’s width of uncultivated or ungrazed vegetated river bank between the river and the landuse inland simply leaves too little habitat space for water voles to survive the pressure of mink in those areas.

But all is not doom and gloom for the water vole. The species is listed as a priority under the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan (UKBAP) and this has galvanized a considerable programme of activity geared at turning around this calamitous decline. The plan has been led since 1996 by a very dynamic Environment Agency Conservation Officer, Alastair Driver – if you’ve heard radio interviews (e.g. Radio 4’s “Today” programme) or seen countryside programmes on TV which have discussed water vole conservation projects, then Alastair was either speaking or was likely to have been behind the media opportunity. I was privileged to represent my agency for 12 years on the UKBAP water vole action plan group led by Alastair and so I’m aware of a wide range of actions being taken to try to protect remaining stronghold populations of water vole across Britain, as well as reintroduction programmes, improvements in the way that the water vole’s habitats are being managed, and a water vole habitat management handbook (to which we managed to contribute some funding). There are also mink control programmes across Britain, and my own agency has found water vole populations establishing in some of the urban drainage pond schemes that we have been encouraging for many years as a part of developments, and which are now a legal requirement for all major developments. The group was also involved in helping to secure increased legal protection for water voles under British law, from killing, disturbance and destruction of their burrow systems. The campaign isn’t yet won but there are some significant strides being made now, by partnerships of many organizations at national, county and local level, to turn around the significant decline in this popular and characteristic species of British rivers, canals and wetlands.

Incidentally, my life-long interest in water vole populations in coastal burns in East Lothian has also led to my observation of water voles feeding, and forming tunnels, in saltmarsh vegetation at the foot of these little streams, where they have short sections that flood tidally. I am not aware of any other reports of coastal populations of water voles using saltmarsh vegetation in this way.

There are three beautiful waterside plants in flower in this picture. The big, butch, pink flowering plant on the right is the Flowering Rush (Butomus umbellatus). It grows both as a submerged and an emergent species, at the edges of rivers, lakes, canals, ditches and in swamps. The New Atlas reports that it has maintained its distribution since the 1962 Atlas and, indeed, has spread in the Tweed, where it was first recorded in 1956, 3-4 years before these Ladybird books were first published. Other than the Tweed, it seems that this species is not native in Scotland, although it has been introduced in a few dispersed locations across Scotland.

The small three-petalled white and purple flower above the water vole belongs to the arrowhead (Sagittaria sagittifolia) – you can also see the arrowhead-shaped leaves below. The New Atlas states that the arrowhead is a: “perennial herb of shallow, still or slowly flowing, calcareous and eutrophic water. In major rivers it may be present only as submerged leaves, but in ditches, lakes, ponds and canals it often produces emergent leaves and flowers”. It also reveals that is a distinctly southern species in Britain and is absent from northern Britain almost entirely, other than largely the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals in central Scotland, where it is an introduced species. The New Atlas reports no significant changes in distribution since 1962, other than some losses from ditches in some areas, where it remains as a riverine species.

Finally, the tall, wispy flower stalk on the left, with the tiny three-petalled white flowers, is from the Common Water Plantain (Alisma plantago-aquatica), a perennial plant growing on exposed mud at the shallow edge of still or slow-flowing waters, or in marshes and swamps. It is confined to moderately or very enriched freshwater habitats. Its range extends as a native species well up into Scotland, as far as the Moray Firth, and the New Atlas says that this well-recorded species is still found largely where it was in 1962. We have this in our garden pond (and it is quite lovely in person!).

I'm afraid the image of damselflies in the picture doesn't really give me enough to go on as far as species. Maybe I will do a special post on damsels and dragonflies in future, once I've finished this series of posts.

Signs of the times: Summer #12

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.

"Oh, the summer night
Has a smile of light
And she sits on a sapphire throne."

Barry Cornwall

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 12
I think this is the first night-time picture of this series of posts. It shows a roadside scene with a hedgehog that “has “frozen” in sudden alarm” in the verge, as car headlights illuminate a floral scene of Plantain with its brown seed heads already formed, the ground-level yellow-flowering Common Bird’s-foot Trefoil, the tall, pink-flowered Betony, grasses and White Clover, all underlain by a carpet of ground ivy. A pair of slugs are perilously close to the hedgehog. Male and female Drinker moths are also lit up in the headlights, while the “cuckoospit” foam “homes” of froghopper larvae adorn the stems of the Betony. The following discussion of the fate of the picture’s represented features is quite lengthy as there are several interesting stories raised by this collection of species (well, they interest me at any rate), so apologies for the length – I hope you think it is worth it if you make it to the end!

The hedgehog (Latin name: Erinaceus europaeus) may be the native British mammal most popular with the citizenry of the country while, at the same time being perhaps the one most often killed accidentally by the same citizenry in their cars. The hedgehog belongs to the insectivore (“insect-eating”) mammal order (Insectivora) along with, in Britain, the mole and the shrews. This implies that hedgehogs are insect feeders when, although they will take larger ground-living insects, they will also feed on other invertebrates, such as slugs and snails, and will take eggs and chicks from the nest of ground-nesting birds. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) Review of British Mammals summarises the habitat preferences of the hedgehog as follows:  “Found throughout mainland Britain up to the treeline, but scarce or absent from very wet habitats, areas of large arable fields and conifer plantations. Although there are occasional records of animals foraging at higher altitudes…, they are probably absent from many upland areas, especially in Scotland. They are also found on many islands, often as a result of introductions... Recent (1970s and 1980s) introductions include North Ronaldsay (Orkney) and St Mary's (Isles of Scilly)… Hedgehogs are most abundant where there is close proximity of grassland to woodland, scrub or hedgerow, and they are present in virtually all lowland habitats where there is sufficient cover for nesting. They are common in suburban areas, but generally scarce in coniferous woods and marshy and moorland areas.”

As hedgehogs are largely nocturnal foragers, we probably underestimate how many are living around us. I recall some research a couple of years ago that concluded that if you are regularly seeing a hedgehog in your garden, their population density and ranging behavior mean that there may be up to 26 hedgehogs actually visiting your garden. So what has happened to hedgehog populations in recent decades? The most recent estimate, in the JNCC review is, very approximately for a total pre-breeding population of about 1,555,000; 1,100,000 in England, 310,000 in Scotland and 145,000 in Wales. At the beginning of the 20th century, hedgehogs were described as plentiful throughout the greater part of Great Britain, in spite of constant persecution by farmers and gamekeepers, though scarce in the northern highlands of Scotland. The JNCC review records that, with hedgehogs being introduced to western Ross-shire in 1890 in baled hay and to the eastern parts of Sutherland and Caithness, it would appear that hedgehogs were extending their range in Scotland in the second half of the 19th century.

But it is very difficult to know exactly what is happening to population trends for a cryptic night-time mammal like the hedgehog. The JNCC report pulls together evidence from a range of published and unpublished studies that suggest that the British hedgehog population is probably shrinking. Data from a survey called the National Game Bag Census suggest a steady reduction in the numbers killed, possibly dating from before the 1960s. Whether this is the result of a population decline due to an increasing loss of suitable habitats, or a change in gamekeeping practice, is not easy to determine. There are separate estimates of around 100,000 hedgehogs killed a year on the British road network (the hedgehog in this picture is identified, in the book’s accompanying text, as having frozen in alarm as the car headlights appear – smart hedgehog!).

It is likely, however, that changes in agricultural landscapes over the past few decades would have had a greater effect on hedgehog numbers than either gamekeepers or road traffic, particularly the change from permanent grassland and rough grazing to arable farmland, a less suitable habitat for hedgehogs due to it supporting a lower earthworm population. In addition, the removal of hedgerows and resulting increase in field sizes limits the availability of nesting sites, further reducing the suitability of arable land for hedgehogs; the JNCC concludes that a shortage of suitable nesting sites generally may be a factor limiting hedgehog numbers.

There is also a suggestion that pesticide residues from agrochemicals and garden pesticides, especially molluscicides (that’s slug pellets to you and me!), potentially have an impact through the food chain, but no data have been collected on the pesticide levels present in hedgehogs, with still less available on their effects on the hedgehog population overall. The final pressure on hedgehogs identified is that of climate change – hedgehogs must reach a minimum weight of 450g in order to survive a normal period of hibernation. Hot dry summers reduce the availability of earthworms and other invertebrate prey of hedgehogs, and this may have a significant impact on hedgehog numbers and/or the survival of young. The Mammal Society provides an interesting information sheet on the hedgehog here. If you want to make your garden more hedgehog-friendly (and who wouldn't?), you could do worse than look at this website here.

The Drinker moths (Philudoria potatoria) in the picture are a widespread and abundant moth species throughout Britain, found in all sorts of open habitats. Natural England says of this species: “This large moth is common and widespread in Great Britain, and can be found in gardens where there are stands of coarse and lightly managed grasses.”

Of the plants in the picture, the plantain in the bottom right is probably the most widespread in Britain. It looks to me like the Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata), a perennial plant found extremely widely on all but the most acidic of soils. The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora reports that its habitats range across: “meadows and pastures, in upland grasslands, on rock ledges and crevices, sand dunes and cliffs (including sites subject to sea-spray), on roadsides and river banks, in cultivated and waste ground, in lawns and on walls.” The New Atlas reports that there has been no change in its distribution since the 1962 Atlas. Richard Mabey's Flora Britannica has a fascinating account of the games traditionally played by children with this aprticular species, for eample a substituted form of conkers using plantain stalks and heads instead of horse-chestnuts on strings - my own childhood experience was of using plantain seed heads to make little pop guns, folding the stalk over on itself and pulling the resultant “catch” against the seed head to fire it at the target, usually your friends!

The flower heads of the White Clover (Trifolium repens) are quite distinctive, just above the hedgehog’s head. The New Atlas identifies that this species, recorded it seems in almost every 10 km square in Britain, occurs “in grasslands on all but the wettest or most acidic soils; also on waste ground and in other ruderal habitats. It is very tolerant of grazing, mowing and trampling and is often scarce or absent in taller grassland. It is very widely sown as a component of short and medium term leys, and on roadsides, and many commercial cultivars are available.” It also reports that there has been no change in the distribution of this ubiquitous species since the 1962 Atlas.

I admit that the tall, leggy pink flowering plant, the Betony (Stachys officianalis), shown here above the hedgehog, is not a species I had even heard of before I embarked on this Ladybird book project. And checking its distribution in the New Atlas, its range barely reaches Scotland. According to the New Atlas, Betony has: “suffered local losses in England and Ireland as a result of the loss and improvement of permanent pastures, the ploughing of fields to the edge of woods with consequent loss of the marginal flora and the shading of woodland grassland following a decline in coppicing.”

This last cause of problems for this species, caused by the withering of a traditional form of management of copses and woodland, illustrates well the extent to which much of our “countryside” and all of its associated riches of wildlife (“biodiversity” simply being the current in vogue term for this richness) has been created by (and is dependent for its ongoing survival on) human action and management. Britain is not particularly rich in species per se, when compared to some of the “biodiversity hotspots” on the planet, but what it does have is a remarkable diversity of habitats for such a small island archipelago, from the remaining pockets of truly wild and relatively undisturbed habitats, such as large areas of our marine habitats (particularly in Scotland), the high montane habitats of the Cairngorms and small areas of Caledonian pinewoods, to traditionally farmed landscapes such as the machair grasslands of the Outer Hebrides and northwest Scotland, and the range of different agricultural, woodland, urban fringe and urban environments created and maintained by human activity.

This diversity of habitats has created a wide range of niches for different species, likely to be far greater than that in pre-settlement Britain, when wild forest, dominated largely by oak or pine, stretched from coast to coast, and open habitats, other than high montane, coastal dunes, and wetlands were much more restricted. What we see as countryside today, or at least perhaps up until the period of real agricultural intensification since the Second World War, is the product of hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of forest clearance and extensive (i.e. lower intensity) land management and agriculture. What has lost out over this long, long timescale has been forests and, particularly in the last century, wetlands, but Britain would not have the wide array of grasslands, lowland heathlands and other open habitats, and all their associated species, without this history of land-use.

Of course, things went very pear-shaped in the 20th century in a well-documented tale of agricultural intensification and urban development, the effects of some of which on Britain’s wildlife have been touched on so far in this series. Humans, eh? Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em...

Returning to the detail of the picture, the small yellow flowering Birds-Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), shown bottom left and centre right, is also a very widespread species of British grasslands and is absent from only the most acidic and least fertile of grassland soils. “Bird’s foot” comes from the long, narrow seed-pods which look like one; trefoil means “three-leaved”, although, for accuracy’s sake, it is actually five-leaved with two folded back, giving the impression of three.

This species could be the first wild flower that I remember learning as my dad taught me that, as well as being called Bird’s-foot Trefoil, it is given the common name “Bacon-and Eggs”, as the flowers, although shown as yellow here, often also have big splashes of a deep red/pink that looks like cooked bacon! I remember being told this when I was five or six, at Yellowcraig, a sand-dune system on the East Lothian coast for which my dad was the Ranger. Funnily enough, my wife Olivia learned another common name, “Fingers-and-Thumbs, Bellies-and-Bums” for the same plant. And if you read about this species in Richard Mabey’s “Flora Britannica", he reports that one author collected over 70 traditional names for this obvioulsy popular little flower.

I am most familiar with this lovely little plant from coastal dunes and their associated grasslands, as this is the semi-natural grassland habitat I encountered most frequently while growing up as a young, budding naturalist in East Lothian, where most of the other lowland semi-natural grasslands fell under the plough decades, if not centuries earlier (see “Betony” text above).

Funnily enough, the other habitat where I have seen this commonly (other than while hill-walking, where it is frequently seen) has been on roadside verges where, I suspect, the combination of good drainage and some fertility from nitrogen oxides in exhausts, combined with some salt from road treatments in Winter, simulates the conditions somewhat of coastal grassland. I say “funnily enough”, as I was expecting, as has been the case with some other plants in this series of posts, to find that its distribution in Scotland (and Britain more widely) has been extended along the road network, through natural spread and also from deliberate seeding as part of planting schemes for new road developments. But, on consulting the New Atlas, it seems that the: “overall distribution of this species is unchanged since the 1962 Atlas, despite the fact that it is suppressed in improved pastures and is possibly a poor competitor where grazing ceases.” It adds, however, that “Alien genotypes, introduced from seed mixtures, occur on roadsides”, so perhaps these plants shown here aren’t actually from native stock! Although, as this picture was painted before 1960, who knows whether Britain was importing foreign seed mixes for grassland planting schemes at that time, or whether this ecologically unfortunate practice has emerged since then?

Finally, the white, frothy “spit” at the junctions of the leaves and stems of the Betony have been secreted by the larvae of froghoppers, insects from the order of Bugs (Hemiptera), and are commonly knwn as spittle bugs or spit bugs. You can read more about froghoppers here. I tried to track down information about the trend in these insects in the past 50 years,since the book was published but, working from home using the usual search engine approaches, I could find nothing. I did find a general comment on such problems at the website of Buglife, the Invertebrate Conservation charity: "One of the problems facing invertebrate conservationists is our lack of knowledge on their exact status. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that there are 40,000 species and only a few hundred experts who are studying them. However what we do know presents a very worrying picture. Many species are in decline, and significant numbers of species are definitely or feared to be extinct.

  - Worldwide, an estimated 570,000 species could be extinct by 2100.
  - The British Red Data Book for Insects, published in 1987, includes 1786 species whose continued existence is threatened - and that is just for the best known groups."

Signs of the times: Summer #11

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 Starling
Of ol' Bard's fame,
Gathers together
In flocks they came.
Iridescent feathers
Flash in the sun:
A sea of subtle color
On black, each one.
Where'er they go
The people say
"Oh, nasty bird,
Please go away!"
A creeping mold,
Prolific creature;
Yet in it's way
Is nature's teacher.

Angela S. Young, "Starlings"

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 11
This picture is a busy scene on and around a roof made of very substantial stone slabs (they don’t make them like they used to!). The roof has been colonised by a number of plant species, most visibly by the brightly flowering yellow stonecrop, a Sedum species, on the bottom left of the picture. In the bottom right, another plant, the house-leek, Sempervivum, much-loved by rock gardeners has pushed out its upright flower-bearing stalks. The stone surfaces have also been colonised by a variety of orange, green and yellow lichens. The scene is busy with birds – a young pied wagtail in the bottom centre has just caught a large fly, while two adult and several young starlings have gathered at the base of the chimney, and a family of jackdaws is flying overhead.

The young pied wagtail (Motacilla alba) down at the bottom of the picture is a common, widespread insect-eating species that is doing OK, according to the British Trust for Ornithology's website. The graph below shows that the population has generally increased since 1966, with a few up-and-down movements, and since 1974, there is a possible issue about the populations living on waterways habitats, where there has been a moderate decline.

But eh population of pied wagtails has fared better over the period since the ladybird books were first published than its cousin, the grey wagtail, which I looked at in an early Spring post here. Pied wagtails gather together in large flocks in winter, perhaps including birds which have come in for the Winter from the Continent, and here in Stirling, I regularly see a flock of hundreds feeding on the local golf course early in the morning, while I am walking the dog in the Winter morning dawn gloom

As Jackdaws have already been discussed in Spring, here, I won't say more about them now.

Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), traditionally one of Britain's most numerous birds, is listed now as Red List species, such is the concern in conservation circles over the rapid fall in breeding population abundance, as shown in the BTO figure for England, below:

This has taken place particularly since the 1980's and particularly in woodland. The BTO further clarifies: "The declines have been greatest in the south and west of Britain; recent BBS data suggest that populations are also decreasing in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the trends were initially upward. The species' UK conservation listing has been upgraded from amber to red as the decline has become more severe... Loss of permanent pasture, which is the species' preferred feeding habitat, and general intensification of livestock rearing are likely to be having adverse effects on rural populations, but other causes should be sought in urban areas" [In other words - we don't know what is happening to cause a decline in urban populations]. Also, between 1966 and 2007, the average egg laying date in Britain is now 5 days earlier, perhaps due to a warming climate?

The winter roosting flights of starlings is surely one of British nature's most extraordinary spectacles - while strictly not a Summer phenomenon, I don't think Starlings feature in the Winter Ladybird book, so this is my chance to share this - the loss of sights like the following would truly be a tragedy:

(likely source of some UFO reports, anyone?)

Seeing the images of Sedum and stonecrop on the roof in this picture reminds of the growing trend for installing living roofs (also called "green roofs") on new properties, as a way increasing insulating properties, slowing the passage of rainwater into the urban drainage system and giving urban biodiversity a much needed boost. If you want to know more about living roofs, I can highly recommend the Living website here.

Of the two flowering plants shown here, only one, the yellow-flowering Biting Stonecrop (Sedum acre) (or Wall-Pepper) is truly native to Britain. The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora says of this plant: "a perennial herb of dry, undisturbed and open habitats on skeletal, or virtually non-existent, acidic or basic soils. Typical natural habitats include shingle, sand dunes, cliffs and steeply sloping, S.-facing rocks. It is also frequent on walls, roofs, gravel tracks, pavements and road verges." Its distribution has not changed since 1962, except in Cornwall and Ireland where it is now less common. Richard Mabey, in his Flora Britannica reveals what he describes as the most cryptic vernacular name of any British plant, for this one, of: "Welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk"!

The other, the house-leek (Sempervivum tectorum), strangely, also shares this vernacular name. The New Atlas says that this is a: "long-lived, evergreen perennial, planted and more or less naturalised on tiled and thatched roofs, old walls, gate pillars and porches, and in churchyards. It is also occasionally found on stabilised sand dunes".  This native of the mountains of central and southern Europe has: "been grown in gardens since at least 1200..., and was often planted on porches and roofs as a supposed protection against fire, lightning and thunderbolts. It was known in the wild by 1629." The New Atlas identifies some reports of localised marked declines since the 19th century, "especially where old cottages and walls have been pulled down and thatch has been replaced by slate."I won't say anything about the lichens here - they are a bit difficult to identify int is drawing and there will be other opportunities to tell their story!

Monday, 16 August 2010

Wizard stuff!

Now, you know I  like the ukulele and have just bought one and, obviously, the web provides some great resources when you are learning a new musical instrument. As I'd messed about the opening (two chords) of one particular track by The Who , I was delighted to find that the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain had performed it live. But, having seen the following video of that performance, I don't think it is one I'll be able to match on my own ukulele...

And see if you can spot the Bob Dylan joke near the beginning...


Thursday, 5 August 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #10

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.


She foxed him, slipping silently away
into the willow-shaded afternoon
where creamy elder blossom wandered down
as though this should have been her wedding day

He stares about him, sharp-nosed, yellow-eyed.
Nothing is moving. Poppies in the sun
hold their soft soot untouched. Where has she gone?

What sleeping leaves conceal his errant bride?
Tall by the cherry tree the foxgloves stand
pale in their purpleness, their long bells sweet
and profligate. Each one of them could fit
a lady's narrow, faithless, foxy hand."

Alison Prince, from The Whifflet Train (Mariscat, 2003)

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 10
I couldn’t improve on the text used to introduce this quite dramatic picture in the original Ladybird book: “Thunder-clouds have darkened the northern sky. In the foreground, sunshine is still bright on the bramble flowers, the foxglove and the pink campion. From the clouds, a fork of lightning flashes to earth, and nearby the thunder crackles. The farmer is just in time to stretch his tarpaulin and keep the rain from his newly-stacked hay. The clouded-yellow butterfly that is flying near the bramble will have to seek shelter if it is not to be beaten down by heavy rain – and possibly drowned.” A perfect description of the scene!

Earlier pictures in this series have featured brambles, but without much comment. The bramble (Latin name: Rubus fruticosa aggregate) is a deciduous or semi-evergreen shrub which grows across a wide range of habitats, including woodlands and scrub, bankings, heathland, hedgerows, waste ground and around old settlements, abandoned habitations and ruins. The New Atlas of the British and Irish flora describes brambles as: “a taxonomically intractable aggregate of over 320 microspecies in Rubus subgenus Rubus”, so, a genetically confusing picture that hasn’t yet been (and might never be) resolved. It is native over most of the British Isles, except Shetland and Orkney on both of which, it has been introduced) and the highest central Highlands of Scotland. The New Atlas identifies that the distribution of the brambles “aggregate” hasn’t changed since the original 1962 Atlas.

Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) are a very widespread biennial (or, sometimes, a short-lived perennial) native plant, found all over the British Isles. The New Atlas describes its habitat preferences thus: “in hedge banks, open woods and woodland clearings, on heath and moorland margins, river banks, montane rocky slopes, sea-cliffs, walls and waste land. It is often found in great abundance in disturbed or burnt areas, such as recently felled forestry plantations”. So, nearly everywhere then! And it is also widely grown as a garden plant, often little altered from the original wild form. The distribution of the Foxglove is stable since 1962, a major factor in its success being its prolific seed production and persistent seed bank. I spend a measureable proportion of every Spring’s time in the garden relocating foxglove seedlings, from the generally inconvenient locations where they have seeded in, to new spaces where I group them together in big drifts for the greatest striking effect once they flower. The foxgloves shown here are a purple-pink colour but a purely white form occurs quite commonly in the wild. There is an excellent paradox about the foxglove - it has a hightoxicity but despite this was widely used in folk medicine. Indeed, as described by Richard mabey in Flora Britanicca, the floxglove is responsible for the first experiemnts and observation that led to the formation of modern pharmacology in the 18th Century when the botanist and physician William Withering explored the treatment of dropsy using foxglove leaves. But, pharmacologically speaking, the foxglove is best-known as the source of the drug digitalis, originally extracted from foxglove leaves and still used widely in conventional medicine as a heart stimulant drug. This is also described quite well here..

The final wild plant shown on the picture is the pink campion, or as it is more commonly known now, red campion (Silene dioica), which the New Atlas says is a short-lived perennial herb found in a wide range of habitats throughout the British Isles,and the distribution of which hasn't changed since the 1962 Atlas.  I introduced this species into my garden as part of a biodiversity seed mix and it flowers for up to 7 or 8 months year.

The clouded yellow butterfly (Colias croceus) is one of the truly migratory European butterflies and a regular visitor to Britain and Ireland. Butterfly Conservation reports that: "Although some of these golden-yellow butterflies are seen every year, the species is famous for occasional mass immigrations and subsequent breeding, which are fondly and long remembered as ''Clouded Yellow Years." Butterfly Conservation's report on the State of British butterflies reports that, for this species, it's long-term population trend is massively upwards, between 1979 and 2004, an increase of 1117%, and since 1970, its range has increased by 144%. These increases are thought int he report to be "probably due to climate change."

The final element of this picture that I want to mention is the haystack that the farmer is so busy protecting from the impending rainstorm. This is the final reference in the Summer book to the hay-making process and, while I remember seeing haystacks like this when I was very young, haystacks are now typically composed of hay bales (and, as discussed previously, largely of round bales nowadays) or, in fact, hay-making, in many cases, has been replaced by the production of silage.