Strange but then Butcher’s Broom is itself a strange plant – it has no true leaves, but flattened stems called ‘cladodes’, evolved to function like leaves, along its tough, ridged stems, which give it the appearance of being evergreen. We seem to have fallen out of the tradition of cutting Butcher’s Broom stems and bringing them indoors at this time of year, when the beautiful red berries show bright against the dark ‘leaves’. We favour Holly instead. As you can see from the photos, the flowers and then berries grow from the centre of these ‘leaves’ and as you may guess from the name, they were traditionally cut and tied in bunches, when their stiffness made them a good brush for sweeping off butcher’s blocks. Related to the Asparagus, these low shrubs with their sharp flattened stems are easier to spot in winter. Conditions: Grey, mild days. Temperature: Max 11 Min 4C.
All birds need to wash to keep their feathers in good condition and Mute Swans are a dramatic and accessible (being on many lakes in local parks) way to observe just how vigorous and thorough this process needs to be. A family of five Mute Swans were washing recently (alongside some synchronised swimming Mallards, as you will see) and the photo’s show how they separate their feathers so that water gets to every part. Surprisingly little research has been done into this process but when birds are deprived of water, they have been shown to be much clumsier in flight. Regular washing is essential to condition the feathers and helps reduce damage from mites, lice and bacteria. This is why it is worth having even a little bird bath in your garden if you don’t have open water nearby. Conditions: Alternating grey and bright days. Temperature: Max 5 Min 0C.
I love watching the Heron skulking in the reeds, or taking off on the unique, lazy, m-shaped flight which you might watch on any wetland, estuary, or on the lake in your town park, transforming from a static shadowy, hunched form, unfolding
to an elegant, airborne giant in seconds. In Greek mythology Herons were thought of as bringers of bad luck. Heron’s feed in shallow water, and the Greeks realised this meant their presence would reveal, to enemies, the shallow crossing places they could use to invade. Herons used to appear on upper-class menus, as this recipe from the 1400’s shows: “Take a heron…serve him…scalding and drawing and kuttyng the bone of the nekke away, and let the skyn be on…roste….his sause is to be mynced with pouder of ginger, vynegre and mustard”. Thankfully, they (and we) are now protected from this practice! Conditions: A bright morning becoming grey and very wet. Temperature: Max 9 Min 7C.
Teal- if you have difficulty telling different ducks apart, the Teal is a good one to start with. At this time of year the Teal come further South, and West, from their moorland breeding places, and populations get boosted by arrivals from the Baltic and Siberia. These lovely dabbling ducks can therefore be seen, often in large groups, on estuaries and shallow scrapes and bodies of water, noisily sifting for seeds and small invertebrates. Teal are much smaller than Mallard, and even the female has the
stunning green wing patch but the males have very distinctive head markings and a triangle of cream at the back of their small bodies. Conditions: The mild, sunny spell continues, with colder times forecast over the weekend, so we will be getting our tender plants in. Temperature: Max 14 Min 8C.
The Red Admiral, known in earlier times as the Red Admirable, has scarcely appeared in our garden this year but was feeding in small numbers on the heavy crops of Blackberries along the Chesterfield Canal this week. While there is a small resident population in the UK, and an increasing number of Red Admirals overwintering as adults, as our climate changes, the majority migrate to our shores in spring, from Eastern Europe, and then breed here. Because numbers are swelled by migration, the numbers in any year fluctuate greatly. This beautiful, unmistakable large, strong-flying Butterfly loves feeding up on fermenting fruit like these imbibing Blackberry juice. Conditions: Cool, wet and then sunny. Temperature: Max 13 Min 7 C.
Emperor Dragonflies, one of the largest and fastest Dragonflies in Europe, able to fly at 24mph, prefer medium to large ponds, or canals, with plenty of vegetation, which is why I could watch them at the stunning Bodnant Gardens, North Wales, this week. Reaching a length of 78mm (3.1 inches) they are highly territorial and males will fight to the death. Hard to photograph on the wing, because of their speed and sudden changes of direction, they swoop to catch insect prey, including Butterflies, which they consume on the wing. They hardly ever perch. This female (they have a greenish abdomen, while the male’s is bluer) did hover and land, looking for a site to lay its eggs. I
also managed to get a shot, about six metres above ground, as two mated, flying past at high speed! Apart from their size, they can be identified by the way they often hold their abdomens bent downwards. Conditions: Grey cloud and occasional light rain. Temperature: Max 16 Min 13 C.
All plants in the Goosefoot family (which includes Quinoa) have edible seeds and the seeds of our most common Goosefoot- Fat Hen- have been found at every prehistoric site excavated throughout Europe. Fat Hen seeds formed part of the last meal of Tollund Man, the 2,000 year-old victim of hanging, and possibly of ritual sacrifice, found in a Jutland peat-bog. The young leaves of Fat Hen can be used like spinach and the seeds used in soups or dried and ground as flour for flat-breads. Known as ‘Melde’ in old English, this common plant was long
a staple in place of ‘greens’. Conditions: Cloud and sun. Temperature: Max 20 Min 13 C.