Friday, 17 June 2011

Signs of the times: Autumn #14

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 pheasant cries
As if it just noticed
The mountain'

Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1827) ('The pheasant cries' – translated by Robert Haas)

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 14
A lovely Autumnal painting of pheasants and fungi. There are two brightly coloured cock pheasants perched up on a tree stump, with two more camouflaged, brown-coloured hen pheasants on the ground in the background. A clump of fungal fruiting bodies (toadstools) have emerged from the tree stump and, to the top-right of the picture, we can see the delicate pink and orange seed capsules of a spindle tree opening their valves to reveal a single seed in each one. The bracken at the base of the stump has turned a wonderful Autumnal golden-brown. I looked at bracken previously, here, when it first appeared in the Spring pictures.

The pheasant, or Common pheasant (Latin name: Phasianus colchicus) is not a native species in the UK. In fact, looking closely at the cock pheasants, the picture shows two sub-species of pheasant, from the black-necked and the white-ringed neck races. I have a new information source for the remainder of the Ladybird book blog posts, a new set of two books, a glorious new publication, 'The Birds of Scotland', produced by the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club. I’ll review the books properly soon but I’m happy to say already that they are damned good and are going to be extremely useful! And from this source, I can confirm that the common pheasant is a common and very widespread introduced resident to Scotland, particularly in the lowlands of the south and east.

The Romans introduced the pheasant to Britain sometime between 55 AD and 400 AD and, according to the Ladybird book’s accompanying text, this was the black-necked version shown as the left-hand cock pheasant in the picture, with the Chinese white ring-necked version being introduced later in this period of introduction. Although the species has been in Britain since that time, 'The Birds of Scotland' (See? Already useful!) suggests that it did not reach Scotland until the 16th Century, having become well established a century earlier in England. Its population expanded in Scotland through the 1970s and 1980s, but captive-reared pheasants are also released in MASSIVE numbers almost EVERYWHERE to supplement local populations for shooting. Reared pheasants are thought to be quite sedentary, probably moving no more than 5 km from their release point. In Scotland, the pheasant population was estimated in 2000 to be 348,000 to 367,000, about one-fifth of the UK population of 1.8 to 1.9 million but, with the releasing of all those game birds, it is difficult to know how many there really are. The trend in Scotland is probably for a slightly declining wild population.

Those fungi on the stump? They could be any of many possible species but are clearly a species that grows in and on rotting wood (a “saprophyte”). Many other fungi live commensally with trees and other plants, assisting with nutrient transfer to the higher plant while being provided with a habitat on their roots. Saprophyte fungi are essential elements of the nutrient cycles that liberate nitrogen, carbon and other substances from dead wood. Otherwise, we’d be waist-deep in twigs, bark and branches!

The spindle tree (Euonymus europaeus) is a shrub or small tree of hedgerows, scrub and deciduous woodland. With a preference for calcareous soils, it is native to England, Wales and Ireland, but only to the very southern part of Scotland, although it has been planted as an introduced species in other parts of Scotland. The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora indicates that there has been a considerable increase in the records of this species in Britain in the past 50 years, since the 1962 Atlas was published. This might, however, be due to better recording rather than an increase in its range or populations. 

I’ve recently found a very interesting website, for the organisation Plants For A Future , which promotes the conservation of plants for human use, whether for food, medicine or other uses (my interpretation of their “About us” text). It turns out that the spindle tree is resplendent with uses, including as a source of yellow dye from the seeds, and the bark is an “alterive, cholagogue, hepatic, laxative, stimulant and tonic”, and I only know what some of those words mean... and the fresh leaves and dried fruit and seeds are used “externally to treat scabies, lice, ticks and other skin parasites”. Wow... It doesn’t end there. The whole plant produces a volatile oil used in soap-making and the wood is used for “spindles, skewers, knitting needles, toothpicks, carving” and for artists’ high quality charcoal. Actually, I’m not quite sure why somebody isn’t farming this stuff!

1 comment:

  1. Great entry SNB. Make me wish it was Autumn {almost!}



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