Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Signs of the times: Autumn #9

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.

Their mass rotted off them flake by flake
Till the thick stalk stuck like a murderer's stake,
Where rags of loose flesh yet tremble on high
Infecting the winds that wander by.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley (Cancelled stanza from: “The Sensitive Plant”. Omitted by Mary Shelley from all editions from 1839 onwards, and thought to refer to the shaggy ink cap mushroom)

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 9
This picture illustrates yet again that Autumn is the best time of year for finding the fruiting bodies of fungi, i.e. mushrooms and toadstools. Here, we see a mouse, specifically a long-tailed field mouse (as it is called in the accompanying text) now known more commonly as a wood mouse, running past some shaggy ink cap mushrooms, towards a clump of Autumn crocuses, or meadow saffron. At the top of the picture, we also see some fallen sycamore leaves dotted with the black spots of tar spot fungus (more fungi!).

The wood mouse (Latin name: Apodemus sylvatica) is a native, and very common, rodent species widespread on mainland Britain and some of the islands (although usually accidentally introduced to those). I have some living behind my compost bin in the garden. Sometimes, when I lift the lid to pour the next load of green waste in, there is a panicked flurry of activity as one or two wood mice flee up and over the edge of the bin to safety. According to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s Review of British Mammals, this mouse species is “highly adaptable and inhabit[s] most habitats if they are no too wet, including woodland, arable land, ungrazed grassland, heather, blanket bog, sand dunes, rocky mountain summits and vegetated parts of urban areas”. The JNCC reports a possible UK population of about 38 million wood mice, of which maybe 15 million live in Scotland, and the UK population is thought to be quite stable (other than for significant and normal annual peaks and troughs related to reproduction, predation on young, as well as the effects of the grain harvest on populations in arable areas, and mortality from extreme winters). The JNNC also reports from one study that: “A reduction in the use of herbicides, e.g. to produce 'conservation headlands' around the edges of arable fields, leads to an increase in the abundance of both floral and invertebrate food supplies and hence to increased populations of wood mice”, so the development of agri-environment schemes through such means are good for wood mice, as well as all the species of birds and mammals that feed upon them.

The shaggy ink cap or Lawyer’s Wig mushroom (Coprinus comatus), which grows in grassland, verges and rubbish tips, is described in the book in the following terms: “no living things, except maggots and insects, are rash enough to eat the ink-cap toadstool”. Which is a bit odd really, as it is a perfectly edible mushroom , so long as you eat it when the gills are still white. In fact, in that state, my Mushroom Guide (Roger Phillips) describes it as good to eat. As it ages, however, the gills go black and begin to drip inky black liquid. That process can happen very quickly, over the course of a few hours.

The Autumn crocus (Crocus nudiflorus), also described in the picture’s accompanying text as “meadow saffron”, is not a native species in the UK. The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora describes it as “naturalised in meadows, pastures, amenity grasslands and on roadsides. It spreads vegetatively by means of rhizomes.” It was introduced in the Middle Ages apparently, and in his Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey collates information that suggests that the present scattered shotgun pattern of its distribution is strongly linked to its introduction by certain orders of monks and by Knights Templar, who all grew it to provide themselves with a cheap form of saffron. In Scotland, it is only recorded from a couple of unconnected locations so this picture could, just conceivably, be Scottish as everything else in it can also be found here!

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