Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Signs of the times: Autumn #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.


"... the hazel bush o'erhangs the thrush,
the spreading thorn, the linnet..."

Robert Burns (from: Now Westlin Winds)

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 7
I love hedgerows. Quiet life goes on apace in a well-managed British countryside hedge, minding its own business between rounds of flailing, cutting or hedge laying (a traditional form of management for renewing a “leggy” and “gappy” hedge). This picture shows two common species of plant found in our hedgerows, especially older hedgerows. A hazel bush displays a fine crop of hazel nuts, while a dog rose below it has both scarlet red rose-hips and parasitic pincushion galls. The small blue-grey and ochre coloured bird in the middle of the hazel bush is a nuthatch. In the background, hedge clippings are being burned by a farm worker, while cows stand in the smoke of the fire to help keep biting flies away.

I wrote previously about the dog-rose here. Although I won’t repeat that story now, I do love to see wild rose hips, little shiny fat red blobs of encapsulated sun energy. It was the memory of spoonfuls of amazingly sweet and tasty rosehip syrup fed to both of us as children (as a rich source of Vitamin C) that encouraged my wife and I to have a go at making a batch a couple of years ago as part of our adventures with wild food. It was tasty but not quite how we remembered it, ours being runnier than that sweet, gloopy, golden-red/orange liquid of our childhood. The pincushion galls, the fluffy structures ont he rose stems, have been grown by the rose around the irritation caused by the larvae of small gall wasps of the family Cynipidae. In other words, the gall wasp is a parasite of the rose and induces the plant to provide a shelter for its developing larvae which feed on the rose’s tissues until ready to emerge as a winged wasp.

The hazel (Corylus avellana), a native woody shrub/small tree and one of the early post-glacial colonisers of Britain, is also one of the most useful and probably still one of the most used plants in our countryside. As well as the obvious production of hazelnuts, the hazel’s sticks and branches have been and continue to be a mainstay of the world of basket-weaving, fencing and countryside crafts (e.g. stick-making or “dressing” as it is known), and hazel was usually the wooden element of the wattle and daub (stick and mud) houses people were building in early (Bronze Age?) England at the same time that the early Scots were building multi-storey stone towers or “brochs” (but, heyho, we were all savages up here back then, weren’t we?). Hazel produces long, straight sticks easily after coppicing (cutting back down to the ground), and people have been coppicing hazel for 4000 years in Britain.

The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora indicates that there has been no change apparent in the distribution of hazel since 1962. A supposed increase in the number of occupied areas in Scotland since then is likely simply to be the result of better recording. The New Atlas indicates that “high numbers of livestock, deer and squirrels can limit regeneration, and conifer planting and the cessation of woodland management may reduce abundance locally.”

The bird in the picture, the Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) is a species always associated with trees – in woods, parklands and gardens. It is the only bird species in Britain that can easily walk vertically down tree trunks, on account of the arrangement of its toes. Nuthatches feed on invertebrates, seeds and nuts, wedging nuts into crevices and bashing them open with their strong, sharp beaks (“nuthatch”, from “nut hatchet”). Nuthatch abundance in the UK has increased rapidly since the mid 1970s and the upward trend continues.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) identifies that this increase (a population increase of 178% between 1967 and 2008) has been accompanied by a range expansion into northern England and southern Scotland. The average date of egg laying by nuthatches has advanced by a whole 11 days between 1967 and 2008. Perhaps the expansion of population and range is changing in response to a warming trend and earlier Springs.

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