Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #19

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.

"Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite and furthermore always carry a small snake."

W. C. Fields

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 19
As you’ll have seen from my recent posts about our Corsican trip, I’ve had a reptile-rich time in the past few weeks. So it is quite a pleasure to see a snake taking centre spot in the next Summer picture. This adder is sitting basking in the sun in a coastal dune system, rich with beautiful flowering plants. A grayling butterfly has settled on the flowers of thyme in the foreground.

In the very top left of the picture, closer to the sea and growing on more unstable sand is marram grass (Latin name: Ammophila arenaria), one of the plant species that helps to stabilize mobile sand dunes, which ultimately assists the other plant species in the picture to colonise and grow in this habitat. This stabilizing attribute has also led to this species being deliberately planted to help restore blow-outs in sand dune systems, or to help with the building of dunes for coastal protection purposes. Marram is beautifully adapted for life in this harsh, dry environment. It has a thick and waxy cuticle on its leaf to prevent water loss, and the leaf is rolled into a tight tube to reduce the exposure of leaf surface to dehydrating winds. The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora indicates that, since 1962, the overall distribution of this species is largely unchanged, the deliberate planting having had little effect on this.

The little pink-purple flowers of the wild thyme (Thymus polytrichus) are scattered throughout the picture. According to the New Atlas, it is a “perennial herb of free-draining, calcareous or base-rich substrates, including chalk, limestone, sands and gravels. It occurs in short grassland on heaths, downland, sea-cliffs and sand dunes, and around rock outcrops and hummocks in calcareous mires. It is also frequent in upland grassland and on montane cliffs, rocks and ledges”. Although the Atlas says that there is some evidence for losses in the southern part of its range, wild thyme remains very common in suitable habitats. The concentration of the aromatic volatile oil thymol in this wild species is high enough to allow the use of this species in cooking (we’ve used it while camping). According to Richard Mabey in his Flora Britannica, it was sometimes used in Scotland as a substitute for lavender to sent clothes, handkerchiefs and household linen.

In the top-right of the picture are a couple of carline thistles (Carlina vulgaris), a distinctive plant of short, dry grasslands such as this one. The New Atlas says that it has suffered a widespread decline, with most losses having occurred since 1950. “Losses are partly due to habitat destruction and a lack of grazing”. It is very restricted in its distribution in Scotland, to a few coastal sites, although much more widely spread inland in England.

In the bottom right and to the left of the adder are the yellow flowers of the lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum), which can be found in suitable habitats from June to September (phew – I’m not completely off-schedule yet!). Flora Britannica collates interesting uses for this plant – it dries to give the smell of new-mown hay and in full flower, it smells strongly of honey. Its name probably comes from the custom of putting it in straw mattresses, especially for the beds of women going into labour. It also has coagulant properties and provided a vegetable substitute for rennet in cheese making. In fact, this was obviously a widespread use – Tess Darwin, in her book “The Scots Herbal. The Plant Lore of Scotland” reports a Scottish name “keeslip” (= cheeseslip) and the Gaelic name “lus an leasaich” (= rennet plant). In a link to this post’s coverage of sand dune plants, Tess Darwin also includes a report from an 18th Century traveller to the Isle of Barra in the Western Isles, where the collection of the extensive growths of this species, for use in dyeing of tweed, was leading to the erosion of the machair grasslands, indicating both another important historical use and the binding effect of its root system. In fact, collection of lady’s bedstraw was banned there to prevent erosion. The New Atlas reports that, although there have been some localised declines in this species since 1962, it remains common across much of its range and is a frequent constituent of wild-flower seed mixtures.

The adder (Vipera berus) is Britain’s only venomous snake which is rarely dangerous but can deliver a painful bite. It is widespread in heathlands across Britain. In Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage says of the adder:  “They are widespread but absent from much of the Central Lowlands, the Outer Hebrides and Northern Isles. Adders are found on heathland, moors, the borders of woods and fields, overgrown quarries and railway embankments. They tend to bask around sunny edges of dense ground vegetation, which provides a good source of warmth and deep cover, into which they can quickly escape when disturbed. They are absent from areas of intensive arable farming.” The BBC website has some useful background information on the adder here.

For an assessment of the status of the adder in Britain (in conservation terms), I went to the website of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, here.  According to this source, this snake species is still persecuted as well as suffering from habitat fragmentation, afforestation, public pressure, inappropriate habitat management and (inevitably) development and general tidying of the countryside. Severe declines in several English counties have already been reported ( Warks, Worcs, Wyre Forest, London, Herts). Adder population decreases have been recorded in all English regions studied, but were was most marked in the Midlands. For example, the only known adder site in Nottingham was damaged by forestry works in 2003 and the current status of that population is unknown, and monitoring in the Wyre Forest has detected decreases in the number of populations and of individuals within them (from 150-200 individuals in the early 1990s to 20-30 individuals in 2004-5- despite this being a protected site).

In Scotland, a good general publication on Scotland’s reptiles and amphibians can been found here. For Scotland, we are fortunate also to have a report on the status of the adder in Scotland, commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage, which you can see here. Unfortunately, it is quite dated, having been published in 1994 (while I worked for SNH, although I had nothing to do with this report). This concluded that, at that time, the status of the adder compared favourably with that of the rest of the UK (except SW England, where the adder is common). While the adder was perceived to have declined in more intensively farmed areas, it was apparent that it had not suffered the more widespread declines reported in England during the 1980s. The report concluded that Scotland represented an important upland area in the distribution of the adder as it is not only extensive but relatively undisturbed and remote. Work is underway nationally and locally to take conservation action for adders in Scotland. For example, there is an adder action plan as part of the City of Edinburgh Biodiversity Action Plan, which you can view here, and another as part of the Dumfries and Galloway Biodiversity Action Plan, which you can read here.

The grayling butterfly (Hipparchia semele) which is sitting on the purple thyme flowers quite inconspicuously in the picture’s foreground is a member of a species that, since the 1970s, has been in serious decline. The main conservation organisation for butterflies and moths, Butterfly Conservation, in its report on the State of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland, showed that, between 1976 and 2004, the British population of this butterfly species declined by 51%, and between the two periods 1970-1982 and 1995-2004, the distribution (the number of places the species is found) has declined by 45%. Butterfly Conservation says that such a decline in this species would have been unimaginable to entomologists of a generation ago.

Possibly, the decline in coppicing of woodlands, and the consequent decline in the creation of new clearings with their early successional stages of recovering coppiced woodland, has resulted in habitat loss for the grayling butterfly. This loss might have been offset a little by the early growth of scrub habitat on brownfield (that is, previously developed and now derelict) land, some new populations of grayling butterflies have been found, for example, on such sites alongside the River Tees in Middlesbrough, where conservation action has been taken to protect the butterflies at these sites.


  1. Fascinating as usual - and I smiled at the W.C. Fields quote.

    Pure dead brilliant!

  2. Oh, you are too, too kind Al - but I'm glad you enjoyed it though!


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