Travelling today so I’m just posting a depiction of some of the autumn fruits and seeds that are ripening now. There’s a devastating report out today saying that most species in the world have halved their population during the past 40 years- truly terrifying. Conditions: A cloudy day with sunny intervals. Temperature: Max 19- Min 12 C.
This is a busy time of year for migration of many birds and other species, giving us the chance to see wintering species arrive as well as losing many we love, like Swallows and Swifts. Many migration details are only coming to light with modern technology and the development of light-weight tracking devices. The Painted Lady butterfly, for example, which comes north to the UK in summer in huge numbers, sometimes as many as 11 million of them arriving from the Mediterranean region, was for many years thought to die off in autumn. Radar tracking has now revealed that they fly back to Europe but at such heights- around 1,000 metres– that they couldn’t be seen migrating by eye! Many waders migrate here, swelling resident populations, to feed on our estuaries, (like the Godwits, with their very long bills). Some waders, such as Little Gulls, just stop off to feed, and some stay all winter. This is not surprising as 1 square kilometre of estuarine mud produces 200,000 kCal of food in a year. Probably the most awe-inspiring migration story of the lot is the Arctic Tern which in a lifetime is thought to travel further than any other creature. Travelling 20,000 miles from the Antarctic, and then back again, it has been calculated that some individual Arctic Terns will have travelled one and a half million miles in it’s lifetime, as far as to the moon and back 3 times! Conditions: A duller day with showers and cloud. Temperature: Max 18- Min 12 C
Oak Trees are host to 30 different types of gall wasps and you may have been seeing these strange growths in the trees or under them recently -in fact, on our Oak there seem to be more acorn-cups distorted by these than have matured as acorns this year- good news for the parasitic wasps that cause these ‘Oak Nuts’ or, more accurately ‘Knopper Gall Wasps’. Like other galls (e.g. Oak Apples, Oak Marbles– which we used to call Oak Apples!) they do not usually harm adult trees much but they can drastically reduce the Acorns for food for Jays etc in years like this. The larvae that hatch from eggs laid in the
forming acorn emerge as tiny Wasps from
you can see the hole they have emerged from in the photo’s. The Robin’s Pincushion is a Gall of several larvae that each have a chamber inside the ‘Pincushion’. These are quite common on their hosts, Wild (Dog) Roses at this time of year. They larvae feed on the host plant through the winter and then emerge as adults in spring. They reproduce by Parthenogenisis, not needing a male, and the cycle starts again. Conditions: Yet another still, dry and mostly sunny day in this incredible late summer spell. Temperature: Max 21- Min 14 C.
Fly Agaric are probably the best known fungi or toadstools, and widely known to be poisonous. In the Aminata family, they are related to the much more dangerous Death Cap and Destroying Angel fungi! Fly Agaric are not quite so toxic, but can make you very sick. They have been used in the past, in Europe, broken into milk, as an insecticide- it has recently been found that they contain isotonic acid which is both attractive to, and toxic to insects!. Fly Agaric also have a long history, especially in Siberia, of being used as an hallucinogen for religious and shamanistic rituals and Patrick Harding, the local naturalist, makes a good case in his lovely book, ‘Mushroom Miscellany’, for their link to the Father Christmas myth, the red and white suit, and the story of him ‘flying’. The spots, and the white ‘skirt’ on the stalk of fully grown specimens are the remains of a white cover or ‘veil’ which covers the fungi as it emerges from the ground. Like many fungi, this one is mycorrhyzal, meaning it has a mutually beneficial relationship with the trees it grows near (it particularly favours birch). It helps the tree to absorb minerals and water, while the tree helps the fungus access carbohydrates. Conditions: Another lovely, still autumn day, with sun and light cloud. Temperature: Max 17- Min 11 C
The Water Vole, our most endangered native mammal, is in the news today. The largest native vole by far, ‘Ratty’ of Wind in the Willows, has been recorded in the Highlands of Scotland for the first time for 20 years, which is really good news. The Scottish Water Voles are of different genetic origin than those found in England and Wales! Both came after the Ice Age, the Scottish ones from Northern Iberia and the others from S E Europe. The escaped and ‘liberated’ non-native Mink are thought to be a key reason for their decline, as well as the loss of habitat along their favourite ditch and river banks. They feed on grasses and waterside plants and their burrows can be detected by the ‘mown’ appearance of grass outside the entrance-holes! They are brilliant swimmers and can swim as far as 500 metres on the surface or 15 m underwater. They have several other good tricks up their sleeves to evade predators like Mink and Otter- they kick up mud from the stream floor to create a smokescreen if chased, and have several burrow entrances to make escape more likely. Water Voles also build burrows on several ‘floors’ to help survive flooding along the streams and ditches. They live in small family groups but only live for 5 months. Water Voles can, however, have a new litter only 22 days after a previous one and the young, weighing in at 5g at birth, start growing fur after a few days and are fully grown and weaned at 14 days! We used to see them regularly when we were young but I had to get up early and sit for a while along the River Derwent, near Hathersage, to photograph this one a couple of years ago. Conditions: Still and dry, with quite a lot of sun. Balmy autumn days at the moment.
Temperature: Max 17- Min 8 C.
Swags of Black Bryony berries can be seen at this time of year, draped through hedgerows in many parts of the country. They may look tempting but all parts of the plant are poisonous, containing saponins and histamine, making them extreme irritants, too. Unrelated to the White Bryony (more another time), Black Bryony is our
only native member of the Yam family. The shoots grow up in spring, twining like vines through branches of other hedgerow plants but they are only really conspicuous
when the berries turn from green to red. The flowers, too, are less obvious- small greenish-yellow six-petalled flowers among the dark, glossy, heart-shaped leaves. The name may come from the darkness of the leaves, or from the near-black tuber, which was endowed in ancient times with magical powers, probably due to the hallucinogenic properties of its toxins. Following the ancient European belief in the magic powers of Mandrakes roots, and due to no Mandrakes growing in Britain, White Bryony was known and used in traditions such as Wicca, as a substitute Mandrake, and Black Bryony as a Womandrake. Conditions: A cool, dry and cloudy day with a gentle breeze. Temperature: One of those unusual days when the night and day temperatures are stable, Max 16- Min 16C.
Conkers are falling out of the sky now! Horse Chestnut Trees, not native to the UK, can live to be 300 years old. Their sticky buds come in early spring (the sticky sap protects them from frost) and the candelabra flowers in May provide pollen and nectar for many insects, especially bees. The leaves are also the food plant for Triangle Moths and leaf-miners, which lead to the familiar white patches that appear sometimes. Scrunched up in a bit of water, the leaves also produce a mildly antiseptic soap which is handy if your out and get a bit muddy! Horse Chestnut is sometimes used in Shampoos. When the leaves start to change colour and fall, as they are already, look for the inverted horse-shoe-shaped scar (with what looks like nail-holes) they leave on the stem- this
may give rise to the name of the tree. The best thing, of course, is the slightly prickly fruit-cases which house gorgeous shiny, mahogany-coloured Conkers. These are slightly toxic but used to be ground up and given to horses to treat coughs, which may also explain the name. The well known game of Conkers, a name thought to derive from “Conch’ (the game thought to have first been played with shells) is the best known thing about them and the first record of it being played is on the Isle of Wight in 1848 though surely it has been played longer than that. Conditions: Some run overnight ad a col, dry day with some sun. Temperature: Max 16- Min 11 C.
Walking round to see a friend this morning I was crunching on hundreds of Beech nuts which had fallen on the pavement- looks like a good year for Beech ‘mast’ this year. You can try chewing on the nutty bits inside the seeds but they are very small and it takes a lot of effort for very little product! The Germans ground them for oil during both World Wars, showing how low on supplies they must’ve been. Beech pollen has been found in
Hampshire going back to 6,000 BC which, being around the time Britain became an island, makes them present long enough to be called native trees! They were coppiced extensively from the late 18th Century, when the wood became prized as the legs of the very fashionable Windsor chairs and for the contemporary naturalist/vicar, Gilbert White, the mature trees were “the most lovely of all forest trees”. This Grey Squirrel, watched this weekend, obviously found the nuts worth quite a lot of foraging effort! Conditions: A beautiful sunny start with a gentle breeze and welcome rain due later or overnight. Temperature: Max 17-Min 12 C.
Rose Hips have been valued for centuries. Gerard writes how they make “most pleasant meats and banketting dishes” and they were laboriously slit, cleaned out and sieved in the 18th century to make puree. They have a higher concentration of vitamin C than any other common fruit or vegetable, (a cup of pulp equal to 40 oranges). During World War Two, when the supply of citrus fruits was curtailed, the Government started a voluntary collection scheme and during the first year alone, 1941, 150 tons were gathered, made into syrup and distributed to school children. The annual harvest rose to an average of 450 tons a year, and collecting wild rose hips for ‘National Rose Hip Syrup’ (thought to have a higher vitamin C content in the north than the south) continued until 1950. Children and youth groups took part and could earn 3d (old pennies) a pound. If you want to do it now, you need to crush, stew and rigorously strain the hairy part of the hips out, before adding sugar and re-boiling. As we knew as children, the hairy inside seeds are brilliant as itching powder– hence the need to sieve out the irritant parts! A liqueur can be made using the hips, and brandy (expensive- I have the recipe if anyone fancies trying it and it’s much easier than making syrup!). The Haws of Hawthorn, ripe at the same time of year as Hips, can be also used to make flavoured spirit, with Vodka (I have that recipe too!) or you could just leave them to the birds, especially the thrush family, which then spread the indigestible seeds
later in their droppings. Conditions: Still no rain, heavy dews and the lovely autumn weather continues, with a lot of sun today. Temperature: Max 17- Min 10 C.
With a few days break to explore the banks of the Chesterfield Canal, here’s a lovely plant we’re bound to see along the damp paths and borders- the lovely Meadowsweet. If you scrunch up the leaves I think they smell of ‘Germolene’ but the cream, frothy flowers, around from June to September, smell of almonds and were often strewn on floors to sweeten the scent of rooms. The 17th century herbalist, Gerard, writes, in the spelling of his time : “The leaves and flours of Meadowswet farre excelle all other strewing herbs for to deck up houses, to strawe in chambers, halls and banqueting-houses in the summer time for the smell thereof makes the heart merry and joyful and delight the senses”. Meadowsweet is one of 50 ingredients of a drink called ‘save’ mentioned in Chaucer’s ‘The Knights Tale’- it was called Medwort in his 14th century and it has often been added to wine or beer. When cows grazed more in water-meadows and unimproved, damp grasslands the taste of Meadowsweet was said to be detectable, and enjoyed in the milk they gave. Like willow-bark, the root of Meadowsweet contains the painkilling property that aspirin was developed. Talking of frothy, scented strewing plants, here also is the beautiful bright yellow Ladies Bedstraw. Smelling of honey as it grows, and new-mown hay when dried, this flower was used to stuff mattresses, and especially those of women about to give birth, from whence it gets its name.
Conditions: Cloudy, dry day Temperature: Max 17- Min 14C