In the late 60s and early 70s, Dutch Elm Disease wiped out millions of trees throughout the country changing the landscape for ever. A promotional campaign at the time encouraged us to “plant a tree in ‘73” and then “plant one more in ‘74” to fill at least some of the gaps.
Today, there is much talk about tree planting to lock up carbon and combat climate change. But currently this seems to assume planting will be on a relatively large scale with the expectation on rural landowners to take the initiative. However, we can all play a part.
Significant trees have a tremendous impact on how our villages look. Imagine the view up and down Tisbury High Street without the cedar at the bottom of the hill or the Christmas tree outside the Benett. Or what the Avenue would look like without the line of limes along it. But even the longest living trees will die eventually and if others have not been planted during their lifetime as replacements, their loss is a shock and leaves us all worse off.
As well as old age, we lose trees, or parts of them for numerous reasons. Ash Die Back Disease means that we are likely to lose huge numbers of ash trees in the years ahead. Will they be replaced? Trees are lost to development, while others just get too big for their location. Felling is not always necessary though as a good tree surgeon can bring the tree back to an acceptable size and shape to flourish for many more years.
Unfortunately, it is easy to have double standards on trees. We like to see them in the view but don’t want them to block our view. We like to see blossom, berries, and autumn leaf colour (ideally on someone else’s land or garden) but might not want seeds, dead flowers and leaves on our cars and gardens or noisy birds disturbing our sleep in spring.
Planting a tree is a vote of confidence in the future. The people who planted the largest trees we see around us never lived to see them in their prime as we do. By the time trees planted today reach maturity our successors may find their shade particularly welcome in a warming world.
So as autumn approaches, is there scope to plant more trees around the village? Plant a tree in ’23? Or can we find room in our gardens? Some species never grow to a great size and can be controlled but still have a contribution to make. If we already have trees around us, let’s look after them for everyone’s benefit now and in the future. Trimming, lopping, and felling without adequate replacement will inevitably leave future generations the poorer for their loss.
Midsummer is usually a time when I see fewer birds in my garden. Until recently, the sparrows had been evident as they busily created, and then fed, their brood and sparring blackbirds defended their territories. But things seem much quieter now. There may be plenty of food in the garden and countryside that they do not need to visit the bird feeder, or they may be keeping closer to cover because the adults are starting to moult.
There has been much debate about the benefits, or otherwise, of putting food out for birds in our gardens and whether we are interfering with their natural survival rates. In the UK, we collectively put out astonishing amounts of food for our birds. It allows us to see birds close-up, get a better look at their plumage and movement, which helps us to identify them more easily in the field. Of course, we all hope that in providing food we are helping them to thrive and at least maintain a stable population.
Much research has been done and the consensus seems to be that garden feeding is supplementary, that is, the birds do not wholly depend upon it and can survive without it although extra food can improve over-winter survival in several species. There is no evidence that habitual use of feeders causes birds to lose the ability to forage in the wild.
It is true that those species which use feeders have been more successful, while the populations of those that do not have been more stable, but our feeding is just one positive environmental change which is more an offset against the many other negative ones.
So, while it appears we have no need to worry about whether to feed, what is important is the way we feed the birds. Gathering many species to feed together in a way that they would not do naturally, risks spreading disease and making them a target for predators. We need to offer the best quality food we can afford, ideally putting out no more than the birds can consume within the day. A mix of different foods will support a variety of species, while your garden’s plants can help by providing invertebrates, seeds, nuts, hips, and berries for them to feed on. Ideally, there should be some food available all the year round as shortages can occur at any time. We should move feeders around to avoid an accumulation of waste and droppings. We should also avoid shrubs from which cats can pounce and locating them near nest boxes as the birds in the box may think the feeder is “theirs” and waste time and energy trying to drive off other birds. The feeders themselves also need regular (e.g., weekly) cleaning with soapy water, to help stop the spread of disease. Lastly, water is as necessary to birds as, and sometimes less available than, food. A supply of water, refreshed daily, will be welcome for bathing as well as drinking.
There are more than 35 native species of fern growing in the UK, some of which can be found locally, such as maidenhair spleenwort and hart’s-tongue fern. However, the most easily recognisable is bracken, which by July has grown to its full height, up to six feet tall.
Its name originates from the Old Norse and even today the Swedish use the word ‘braken’ meaning fern. Bracken grows where the soil is rich and has a close association with woodland, so often on hillsides and moors, for example, bracken betrays the past existence of woodland. I recently visited the Welsh island of Skomer and observed how bracken is widespread there. There aren’t any trees on the Island and have not been for many hundred of years. Other woodland indicator species there include carpets of bluebells and wood-sage.
Individual bracken plants have been known to cover as much as 3 acres, because the rhizomes (creeping underground shoots) spread over a wide area at a speed of over a metre per year. If uncontrolled, bracken can dominate the ground flora, build up a thick mat of dead material, and restricts grass available for animals. But where grazing animals keep paths open it can be an important butterfly habitat. For example, on lower slopes of Dartmoor, it is the last refuge for several rare species of butterflies including the high brown fritillary, small pearl-bordered and pearl-bordered fritillaries which needs dog violets growing in these sunny warm areas.
Bracken is normally avoided by animals, but if short of other food and forced to consume it, it can cause cancer. The spores are also poisonous, so bracken is best avoided in the late summer, when they are released. Also, bracken stands are the ideal habitat for sheep ticks, so beware!
by Andrew Graham
One of my schoolteachers used to say that if you could cover 20 daisy flowers in the lawn with one foot, it must be summer. We used to think that her summer always came a good couple of weeks earlier than ours.
There are thousands of plants in the daisy family – the Asteraceae – the name derived from the Latin for star, aster. The flowers have an easily recognisable star shape. Actually, the flower head isn’t a single flower but lots of tiny ones making up the central disc (‘disc florets’) and the surrounding ‘ray florets’ which we think of as petals. This multiplicity of flowers means that daisies are good nectar sources and are consequently attractive to pollinating insects.
The word daisy comes from the Old English of daeges eage, which means day’s eye, referring to the way the flower opens in the morning and closes at night. The symmetrical daisy flower is easy to draw so the daisy wheel is a common apotropaic sign that used to be inscribed onto the walls or beams of buildings to ward off evil (Messums barn, for example) and is now the new logo for the local Stone Daisy Brewery.
The daisy with which we are probably most familiar is the common, lawn or English daisy that we’ve all used for making daisy chains. Some gardeners see the plant as a weed, but others love to see the flowers dotting the lawn. It can grow in wide range of soils, even compacted, and spreads by both seed and underground runners.
Another common species is the much taller ox-eye daisy, often seen in meadows and hedge banks. This is our largest native daisy, a resilient perennial that sheds masses of seeds, it spreads easily and forms impressive stands quite quickly. In contrast to the common daisy, the flowers do not close at night and may glow in the dusk leading some to name it the moon daisy. The flowers are attractive to bees, butterflies, and beetles. Both daisy species are used for the petal-picking romance prediction game of ‘loves me; loves me not’.
As well as several other wild daisy species, there are numerous daisy varieties which have been bred for our gardens such as Shasta Daisies, Michaelmas Daisies, and Marguerites. Most are attractive to insects so should not be overlooked because they are ‘just a daisy.’
by Andrew Graham
After so much rain in March, as soon as the ground warmed up plant growth was rapid. So now the lanes are bursting with vegetation and flowers. Many roadsides are white with massed clouds of Cow Parsley, also known more flatteringly as Queen Anne’s Lace. In common with other umbellifers, this tall plant has large flat circular flowers made up of many smaller florets. It is extremely common and is found in all sorts of places, particularly along roadside verges. It appears to be particularly suited to this habitat where it starts to dominate other flowers. If, after mowing, the cuttings are left, the ground is enriched, and this combined with fertiliser from adjacent farmland allows strongly growing plants like the Cow Parsley to dominate. Although only a biennial, it produces lots of seed, so can spread easily. On the positive side, the plant’s mass of flowers is attractive to numerous insects including beetles, hoverflies, and butterflies.
Umbellifers are a large group and there are numerous species - good, bad and ugly - to be found in the countryside and garden. Most have white flowers but some are yellow or green while some cultivated varieties for the garden may be purple. Some, such Wild Carrot and Wild Parsley have been domesticated to give us food crops. The former, often found on chalky soils, is a lower growing plant with a collar of wonderful feathery bracts below the flower head. Its root does indeed smell like carrot but while it is far smaller than those we grow for the table, the badgers still like them enough to dig them out of our garden.
Many of our culinary herbs, for example parsley, coriander and fennel are umbellifers as anyone who has had their plants bolt will have noticed. Those with a sweet tooth will appreciate Angelica, the stems of which are crystallised for cake and trifle decoration and also provides the flavour for Chartreuse liqueur.
However, the hated Ground Elder is the bane of many a gardener’s life. Although not a large plant, once established its rhizomes spread easily making it hard to eradicate. But there are worse species. The Giant Hogweed, which was introduced from the Caucasus by Victorian plant hunters is particularly nasty. Its sap is phototoxic which means that on contact with it, your skin loses the ability to protect itself from sunlight, resulting in nasty blisters. And then there is Hemlock, most famously associated with the death of Socrates. All parts of this plant are highly toxic but fortunately it has an off-putting odour which keeps animals away and reduces the likelihood of humans thinking it might be edible.
Umbellifers are such a large group, and quite difficult to distinguish without practice and good guidebook, it is better to avoid consuming any of them, just admire the mass of flowers and leave them for the insects to enjoy.
by Andrew Graham
Rabbits are renowned as prolific breeders. Females are fertile at 3-8 months old and have a gestation period of around a month. They give birth to a litter of 4-12 kits and may be ready to mate again the next day. This, combined with the fact that they can breed throughout the year, means that in the right conditions, populations can grow rapidly, hence the expression ‘breeding like rabbits’. This proved disastrous when 13 rabbits were introduced into Australia in the 19th century where, in the absence of suitable predators, they spread across the continent in 50 years, devastating crops and the natural environment alike.
Rabbits, originally native to Iberia, spread around the continent in Antiquity and were introduced into the British Isles first by the Romans and then the Normans, as a source of meat and fur. In places, artificially built warrens were looked after by warreners, so landowners had a constant supply. Warren and coney (the old name for rabbits) crop up in numerous place names around the country as a result. Of course, rabbits are perfectly capable of making their own burrows, using their sharp claws to dig into the ground, often under sheltering scrub. From there they will venture out to feed. They have virtually 360% vision, as befits a prey species, and are always on the lookout for threats. Their white tail, or scut, provides a flashing warning sign to others when running for cover.
A sizeable colony can have quite an impact on the grassland in vicinity of the burrows, creating a closely-cropped turf, benefiting mining bees and wasps as well as herbs that cannot compete in a longer sward. Rabbits provide food for a number of species that prey upon them, including stoats, buzzards, polecats and foxes.
When we moved to Tisbury, we were struck by the absence of rabbits in the surrounding countryside. Although rabbit numbers have been increasing each spring, populations keep getting knocked back by autumn, perhaps due to diseases: myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease. When the former was first introduced to this country in the 1950s, it wiped out most of the population, since then its impact has reduced but stays active. What impact the dearth of rabbits in this area has on the breeding success of its predators? I am afraid that for the immediate future, the rabbits we are most likely to see locally are the Easter Bunnies on Easter cards (how rabbits became associated with this is an entirely different question!).
P.S. In Weymouth we were encouraged to use the term bunny in deference to Portland superstitions about use of the R word. I hope any readers from Portland have not been too traumatised by this article.
by Andrew Graham
[editor - with apologies for the late upload this month]
Now is the time when we think of Mad March Hares: seeing the animals chasing around in a field, jumping over each other and “boxing”. This behaviour, which is actually not restricted to this month, is all about courtship or partly, the refusal of courtship. Male hares – bucks - are more numerous, so females – does - that are unreceptive to amorous mates may vigorously fight them off. A female leading a potential mate on a chase across a field may be testing his speed so she can select the fastest male to father her offspring. She can produce three or four broods of young a year. These are called leverets and are born fully furred and ready to run. They will keep themselves hidden during the day returning to the doe at sunset for a daily feed and are weaned in a month.
Brown hares are preyed upon by foxes, stoats and buzzards but also subject to poaching and illegal hare coursing. They do not burrow like rabbits but live above ground and so rely on their speed to evade predators and escape to cover. They are the fastest British land mammal and can reach 40 mph at full pelt. Its long back legs provide this speed and results in a distinctive loping gait very different to that of the rabbit which is about half the size and weight. Rabbits have black eyes, very different to those of the hare which are a wonderful amber. Its ears are much longer than the rabbit with distinct black tips. Their fur is golden brown with a white belly. The other hare seen in the mainland UK is the mountain or blue hare which is mainly found on Scottish heather moorlands.
The best time to see Hares is early or late in the day. During the day they may lie up in a depression on the ground called a form. They will sit tight when approached before hurtling off at the last moment, often stopping after a while to look back then loping off at a more sedate pace. If you are lucky enough to spot them before they speed off, you can have a staring match and see how inconspicuous they make themselves, hunkered down with their ears lying along their back.
You are most likely to see them in arable farmland and wide-open grasslands, woodland edges and hedgerows – places which provide shelter. So they benefit from a mixed agricultural landscape rather than one devoted to a single crop. The downs along the Shaston Ridge and the arable fields adjacent are a favourite place to see them and they can be seen in vicinity of Tisbury although dogs running off leads scare them away before most people see them.
Unfortunately, hare’s numbers are estimated to have declined by 80% in the last 100 years. Some are now suffering from rabbit haemorrhagic disease which further threatens them. We are fortunate to still have these beautiful animals in the countryside around us.
by Andrew Graham
Readers will have seen regular notices in Focus about workdays at Oysters Coppice. With spring approaching, this small but valuable woodland is ready to come into its own. In February and March, the wild daffodils come into bloom. They look wonderful in early spring sunshine, as drifts of their small, pale yellow trumpets nod in the breeze below the hazel catkins. The wild species is probably the flower about which Wordsworth was writing in his famous poem.
Soon after the daffodils come carpets of bluebells one of the beauties of a British woodland in spring. But the wood is full of other plants and wildlife by virtue of being an ancient woodland. This is the term used to describe an English woodland that is shown to have persisted since 1600 which is when maps became fairly reliable. Ancient woodland is rare, covering only 2.5% of the country. A map from around the turn of the 19/20th Century shows a wood with the current outline, and even depicts a footpath through it running along the same line as today.
Having retained woodland cover for so long, ancient woods develop and retain rich communities of plants, animals and fungi not found elsewhere. These are lost when land is cleared for agriculture, and most will not return if a new wood is subsequently replanted on the same site.
The wood is on a gentle north facing slope dropping about 45m from top to bottom. The top (southern) end lies on sandstone but most of the wood lies on mudstone and muddy is what the wood gets in winter when the springs and flushes run with water. Where the ground is drier oaks can grow but much of the wood is dominated by hazel, ash, and the damp-loving alder. It is probably the dampness of the ground combined with the north facing slope that saved the wood from clearance for agriculture. Oysters Coppice is just one of several interconnected ancient woodlands in and around Gutch Common, probably all surviving for similar reasons which, combined, provide a significant area of valuable habitat.
Coppicing is a woodland management system which crops relatively young growth from regrown stools on a regular rotation, while retaining some longer growing standard trees above. Over centuries this would have provided an annual crop of poles for a variety of uses as well as maintaining woodland cover. This provided a relatively consistent environment within the wood, although the amount of sunlight reaching the woodland floor would vary according to how recent an area of the coppice had been cut. Ash, hazel, and alder respond well to coppicing the latter doing well in the wetter parts of the wood. The coppicing is now undertaken by volunteers to let light in and create the temporary clearings which are so beneficial for wildlife.
There is a circular path around the wood which volunteers also maintain. While visitors are welcome at any time, the owners, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, ask visitors to keep their dogs on leads and not to stray off the path. In so doing they can minimise disturbance to the wildlife communities that have taken centuries to develop.
by Andrew Graham
We are fortunate to have a range of lakes and pond in the vicinity of Tisbury. These make popular destinations for walks, are great places to look for birds and at this time of year attract increased number of wildfowl which overwinter there awaiting a new breeding season.
Fonthill Lake is the largest and close to a score of waterbirds may be seen there in winter. We are all familiar with the Mute Swans, Mallard, Coots, Grey Heron and Tufted Duck which may be seen all the year round. But it is only in the winter months that the Goosanders arrive. These are quite large diving ducks of the sawbill family (so called because of the serrations on their bills used for catching fish). The male is a very handsome black and white bird with a glossy dark green head which contrasts with its bright red bill. They appear to be quite gregarious so if there are any present, they are generally all in a group rather than scattered across the lake like the swans for example. Their numbers are increasing throughout the country so we might be seeing growing numbers at Fonthill in winters to come.
Another handsome bird is the Mandarin. Although the female of this neat little duck is largely brown and grey with a distinct white eye stripe, the male is much more striking with multicoloured plumage. It has a red bill, broad white eye stripe, orange ruff like feathers on the side of its neck, more orange sail-like feathers sticking up above its back and patches of purple and dark green elsewhere. If you catch a view of one in bright sunshine it looks terribly exotic. It was introduced from China (hence the name) and has naturalised after escaping from private collections. It likes lakes and ponds with lots of overhanging vegetation and can sometimes be seen sitting on branches above the water.
We are becoming used to seeing Little Egrets (a small white heron with bright yellow feet and a black bill) on local lakes, ponds and watercourses so it is surprising to think that they only started colonising the UK in the late 1990s. Far less frequent but occasionally to be seen in the Nadder Valley and its waterbodies is the Great White Egret, another relatively recent colonist. It is possible to confuse these two Egrets when apart, but the Great White is much larger – the size of a Heron – and has black feet and a longer, yellow, dagger-like bill. A third species, the Cattle Egret, has also expanded its range across Europe, and first bred in the UK on the Somerset Levels in 2008. Who knows how long it will be before they are seen around here?
In contrast to the Goosander, some other duck species favour salt water and winter off our coasts. However, when there is a particularly bad storm some of these might be driven inland and can turn up anywhere, so it is always worth having a close look at the wildfowl around us in winter especially after really bad weather.
by Andrew Graham
One of the joys of a still December’s day is the plaintive winter song of the robin ringing out across the garden or woodland. This is softer and lest assertively sung than in spring and summer but may be heard at any time of day especially dawn and dusk. Both male and female sing as they hold separate territories during winter: the male defends the breeding territory, while the female of the pair moves a short distance away to hold an area with good feeding opportunities.
A small, neat bird, the robin is a relative of the chats, redstarts, and flycatchers. It is common throughout the country, and resident across the whole of the British Isles mainland but for the mountaintops of the highlands.
It must be one of the few birds which everyone will recognises, with its distinctive orange-red breast the colour of which also extends up to the bird’s “face” around the bill and eyes. This very visible plumage is used in display when birds are defending territory. The bird thrusts out its breast and fluffs up its feathers to make the show of red as prominent as possible. You may see two birds facing off against each other seeing which can display most impressively before a chase ensues. The red breast provokes such a strong response that they sometimes attack their own reflection in a window. However, as male and female have the same plumage, the red breast has no courtship role. In the languages of several continental countries the bird’s name also refers to the red breast and British colonists took the term robin with them so that birds with red breasts in both north America and Australia are referred to as robins, even though they are not from related families.
We take for granted that robins are quite comfortable near humans and will hop around us looking for food items disturbed by our gardening. This appears result from people’s longstanding affection for and protection of the bird in this country. In contrast, on the continent where some huntsmen have a propensity to shoot anything that moves – including robins – they are considerably more wary.
The birds are quite short lived, many fledglings fail to make it through their first winter because, in common with all small birds, robins will lose body weight very quickly in extended chilly weather. This is when garden feeding can be critical for their survival.
Even those that survive usually only live on for a couple of years. So, although we may regularly see robins in our garden, over the years they are likely to be a sequence of different birds rather than the same ones. They are sedentary, rather than migratory, so vacant territories will likely be filled by locally bred birds, perhaps the offspring of the previous territory holder.
by Andrew Graham
Photo: Avocets (Izzy Fry)
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