Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Signs of the times: Autumn #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.

We’re for the laird’s wuid,
Geordie speels the tree,
Shakes aa the conkers
Doun on me.”

J. K. Annand (1908-1993) (from: "Conkers", in Bairn Rhymes, Mercat Press, 1999)

(Copyright:Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 11
Wow – what a festival of chestnut colours on show here – conkers from the horse-chestnut, with a beautiful little chestnut-coloured weasel, And still more autumnal fungi, with some purple-coloured wood blewit mushrooms (yet another delicious edible species).

The horse-chestnut is not a native tree in Britain, but is widespread and naturalised. We’ve looked at it previously here and now we reach the fruiting stage, with the basis for the world’s finest nut-based children’s gladiatorial game, conkers, scattered all over the ground! Just in case you've never played... look here! This is what I spent a considerable percentage of my childhood Autumns doing, collecting for and preparing conkers for. I was never any good though but I still remember the excitement at finding a big conker - would this be THE ONE? The one that is unbreakable, unbeatable and can be retired a champion of many smashed conkers? I suspect officialdom's risk aversion masquerading as supposed health and safety concerns will have stolen the joy of conker fights from many of our playgrounds. But happy to be proved wrong about that!

Wood blewits (Lepista nuda) can be found in woodlands, hedgerows and gardens. They are up there among the best of our edible mushrooms. As with previous pictures showing fungi, I’m unable to comment on how well this species has done in the past few decades, as we have no reliable long-term data on trends in populations of fungi like the wood blewit.There is more interest now, though, in understanding what is happening to our fungi and you can pick up a flavour (no pun intended) of the enthusiasm for fungal recording, conservation and gastronomy on this newish fungi site for Scotland, Scottish Fungi. I recommend that you take a look!

The weasel (Mustela nivalis) is Britain’s smallest member of the mustelid family of carnivorous mammals (otters, badgers, polecats, martins, stoats, etc). Small but fierce! Like other members of the mustelid family, weasels are highly active hunters, with sharp teeth and keen senses of sight, hearing and smell, even seeing well in the dark. Weasels will live anywhere that there is suitable cover and prey, from coastal dunes to woods and uplands. Most of their diet consists of voles and mice and weasels eat prey equivalent to about a third of their body weight EACH DAY! They will also take over and live in the burrow of a prey item, lining it with the fur of their prey.

In terms of the status of weasels in Britain over the past 50 or so years, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s review of British mammals indicates a possible British population of about 450,000, of which around 106,000 are in Scotland. At the start of the 20th century, weasels were extremely common In England, Scotland and Wales. The outbreak of myxomatosis in rabbits in the early 1950s led to increased vegetation growth and a great abundance of small rodents in 1957-1958. This led to a record catch of weasels on game estates (I refer you here back to my rant about the downer we seem to have on predatory mammals in Britian - see the second half of that post). There has been a progressive decline in the number of weasels killed since 1961, most marked in East Anglia and the East Midlands but barely noticeable in the south-west and Scotland. The gradual recovery of the stoat from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s was accompanied by a substantial decline in the number of weasels, perhaps due to competition. Since the mid-1970s, however, the number of stoats killed by gamekeepers has declined again, but there has been no apparent increase in the number of weasels killed.


  1. Great post big bro!,
    i see stoats nearly every day but been a long time since i saw a weasel,

  2. I second the first line of C-K's comment.

    Absolutely stoatin' post SNB!



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