Thursday, 20 January 2011

Signs of the times: Autumn #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.

The gentle sun cobwebs brightly
his black cap, his crimson breastplate

Norman MacCaig (From: “Bullfinch on guard in a hawthorn tree”, December 1980)

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

This charming picture shows some of Autumn’s bounty of fruit being enjoyed by one of Britain’s most attractive birds (in my humble opinion). Here, as a car that looks like a psychedelic purple Hillman Minx disappears over the brow of a dip in the road, a pair of bullfinches are feeding on the berries of a road-side elder bush. In the bottom left of the picture, the golden autumnal leaves of a dwarf maple are growing under a heavily fruiting rowan or mountain ash tree, with its clumps of bright red berries.

The Scots gaelic name for the bullfinch is corcan-coille, which I think means “forest finch”, but it has managed to adapt to a wide range of the habitats that humans have carved out of the original forests of Britain. The BTO advises that the bullfinch is most commonly found in scrub habitats but also commonly in deciduous woods, pasture lands, villages and coniferous woods. Although a delightful bird to look at, the bullfinch has a bad reputation with gardeners since its diet, as an adult, is based on soft fruits, and the buds and new shoots of fruit trees and bushes, something g mentioned in the text accompanying this picture. In terms of the fate of bullfinches in Britain, the BTO reports that the UK’s Bullfinch population “entered a long period of decline in the mid 1970s, following a period of relative stability. The decline was initially very steep, and more so in farmland than in wooded habitats, but has been shallower since the early 1980s.”

Although the exact causes are not clear, it is possible that “agricultural intensification and a reduction in the structural and floristic diversity of woodland are suspected to have played a part through losses of food resources and nesting cover”. There is also a suggestion that predation by sparrowhawks may limit the colonisation of certain habitats by bullfinches. Recent figures show a slight upturn although, in Scotland, this has been more marked, with an estimated 30% increase in population between 2003 and 2008. This reflects my own, admittedly anecdotal, experience, that bullfinches are much more common in the Stirling area than when I first moved here over 20 years ago. I certainly see many more pairs in our garden and in nearby parkland woods than I used to, perhaps a response to efforts to improve marginal habitats on farmland through the so-called agri-environment schemes – and perhaps an effect of more gardeners deliberately planting fruit-bearing bushes and trees to benefit fruit-eating (frugivorous) birds. Whatever the reason, it is, to my mind, a welcome return.

Incidentally, one of the nature writers whose work I most admire, Ray Collier, has written a little article about bullfinches in the Highlands. Ray, retired after a career spent working for the government’s nature conservation organisations, is one of the contributing writers for the Guardian newspaper’ s daily “Nature Diary”. He writes beautifully in those articles, little vignettes of the natural history of the Highlands and his daily experiences and encounters, often while walking his dog. I commend his Guardian articles to you - his bullfinch text can be read here, where you can also access his other writing - under the April 2010 heading.

Both the rowan and the elder in full fruit are very powerful images of the bounty of Autumn, the energy of the Sun captured in fruity form, a highly attractive source of energy for birds building their fat stores for the winter ahead. I’ve already written about both the rowan or mountain ash) here and the elder here, so I won’t add more now, other than to say that we have managed to find ways to use both kinds of fruit in our wild food experiments – rowan berries going into rowan jelly for when we have wild Scottish venison (which a local butcher buys in from the Cairngorms National Park red deer culls), and elder variously into hedgerow jams, a somewhat failed cordial (WITH VINEGAR – IT WASN’T GOOD) and into a black berry (as opposed to purely blackberry, if you see what I mean?) fruit coulis(brambles, blackcurrants, elder) to go on ice cream. We’ve also have elderberry clumps dipped in batter and deep fried (tempura elderberries!) – deep-fried fruit? Well, this is Scotland, you know!

As for the so-called dwarf maple in the picture, with its golden Autumnal leaves, I’m afraid it is not something I can track down – it might simply represent a typical maple species that has grown in a dwarf form as a result of continued pruning/ cutting. I’m sorry, I can’t tell you anything more about it!

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