Tuesday, 29 May 2012

An undiscovered star?

Here's a puzzle? Why do we celebrate some wild flowers, and virtually ignore others that are equally beautiful or useful?

The woods to the south of the village dip steeply down to the Allan Water, where it cuts through the soft-red sedimentary bedrock beneath it. The damp, shady slopes are perfect habitat for what must surely be one of our most glamorous wild plants - water avens.  Drifts of them decorate the woodland floor - they are not a rare plant by any means. And the flowers would not be out of place in the most traditional of herbaceous borders, with their old-rose, antique pink petals, clutched into a nodding cup by a whorl of dark maroon sepals. Pale lime-green stamens counterpoint the pink, which gradually swell into soft, feathery tufts as the seeds develop.

Yet how many people can name them? Many thousands, of course, but millions could name and describe the bluebells and violets that grow beside the water avens in the woods. They receive scarcely a mention in Richard Mabey's Flora Britannica, and none at all in Milliken and Bridgewater's Flora Celtica, despite Scotland being one of their strongholds. Even Plantlife doesn't see fit to include them in their extensive, but obviously not comprehensive on-line list of British wild flowers.

Strangely, they seem to be better loved and understood in the United States, where native American tribes know them as chocolate root (though I couldn't find out if they ate it as such). The plants were used extensively in their medicine, for ailments as diverse as diarrhoea to excessive bleeding. Yet we don't seem to have developed that kind of relationship with the plant here. It's seems unfair, uncaring, to ignore some plants as we do.

But what gives a wild flower the X-factor? Why are there Cheryls and Cinderellas in the plant world? For once I don't think we can blame Simon Cowell.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Counting in a minefield


This weekend I have mostly been counting gulls' eggs. 

My daughter and I joined a team of volunteers who go out to the Isle of May each year to find and count the thousands of herring and lesser black-backed gulls' nests on the island. The process was strangely reminiscent of a military minesweeping operation. The eight of us lined up across a mapped and marked section of the island, clip boards and spray cans poised expectantly, while our leader briefed us on our tactics - cane in hand, pointing forwards, for all the world like a battle commander urging his troops into battle.

The tactics are as follows: walk forward, keeping in line, about 10ft from your neighbour, looking for gulls' nests. If you spot one mark it with the spray can and write down the number of eggs it contains. Move on. Simple. Simple, but complicated by a couple of details. While you are walking forward you are subjected to a continual bombardment by screeching, angry gulls. The gulls rarely actually strike people, but they fight a dirty war, and some of us came back decorated with very smelly battle scars. To add to the tension, the gulls nest in the same areas as the puffins, and the ground is riddled with their burrows. Put your foot through one and you risk blocking the tunnel to the nest chamber, meaning an egg or chick can be trapped inside - a death sentence. We walked as if through a minefield, trying to keep to the tussocks of vegetation and rocky outcrops. Inevitably there were a few implosions, but these were immediately rebuilt with turf and slates brought along for the purpose, and luckily there were no casualties. 

Thankfully the gulls' nests are relatively easy to spot. Perfect, round bowls of pale, dried grasses, with between one and four coffee-coloured, dark-speckled eggs huddled inside. They are surprisingly small for such impressive birds, and are hidden completely when a parent is incubating, so that the adults look like fat ladies perching on tiny stools.

But despite the risks the count has to go on. It's important to know how many gulls are on the island, and whether their numbers are stable or increasing. All the gulls are protected species, one of the reasons the island is part of the Forth Islands Special Protection Area, and it's important that we know how well they are doing here. The herring gull is the classic ‘seagull’ that we all imagine when we think of the seaside, with its silvery-grey back and keen, yellow eyes. Its close cousin, the lesser black-backed gull, stands out with its sooty-black wings and yellow legs. They breed on the island in mixed, loose, raucous colonies.

These closely-related gulls are relative newcomers to the island. They only began to breed here in the first half of the 20thcentury. But by 1970 their numbers had swelled to 17,000 – possibly as a result of the easy pickings to be had at rubbish tips on the Fife mainland, and the discards from fishing vessels. There was concern that this population explosion would damage the fragile ecological balance on the Isle of May, as the gulls can prey on other protected seabird species such as puffins and terns. And so conservationists made the difficult decision to cull their numbers to protect the other, more sensitive seabird populations on the island. During the 1970s and early 1980s over 40,000 gulls were removed. Happily this seemed to restore the balance, and in 1986 the cull was ended. Now gull numbers seem to remain stable at around 3000 pairs each year, and they are an intergral part of the island's ecology.

Managing species can be a minefield too - look at the furore inspired by removing hedgehogs from the Hebrides, or by culling red deer. Some suggest we should just 'let nature take its course'. What I think they forget is that it is almost always human intervention or influence that got things out of balance in the first place - top predators removed, wildlife introduced inappropriately, or, as in the case of the gulls, opportunistic species' populations becoming artificially high and threatening more specialist species. 

But however unpalateable it may be, there's really no going back, no reneging on our responsibilities now things are getting awkward. We got the natural world into this mess, and its up to us to try to get us out of it.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

In praise of the empress of flowers

One of the horse fields north of the village is empty just now - empty of horses that is. Instead it is filled with drifts of wild flowers, taking advantage of the respite. Chief among them are the daisies, spreading in wide pools of pink-tinged white across the close-cropped turf, speckled with canary-yellow creeping buttercups and pale blue speedwells. A glorious sight.

In some people's eyes, of course, these would be weeds, not wild flowers. Weeds because ubiquitous, rather than because they were growing 'in the wrong place'. We are very good at dismissing the common as dull, not worthy of note, boring. But we do so at our peril. Cowslips, orchids, snakes-head fritillaries - all now treasured, rare and celebrated wild flowers - were once common-as-weeds.

Luckily for the daisy, it has many supporters too - a lot of them under 10 years old. They are special for them because they are so common, not despite it. Daisies are surely the first flower most of us learn to identify as children. We draw them, pick them with our toes, make daisy chains from them - and love them for their simple beauty.

A symbol of innocence then - but deceptively complicated too. As members of the Compositeae family, a daisy is not actually one flower, but many. Each petal is a flower in its own right, as is each tiny fleck if gold in its centre. In effect every flowerhead is really a meadow. And its common name, daisy, comes from 'day's eye' - a nod to its habit of opening at dawn and closing at dusk, revealing the dip-dyed fuchsia pink edges of its underpetals as it does so.

Its scientific name, Bellis perennis, however, seems to have a much darker story. Bellis means 'in time of war' in Latin, and refers to the Romans' practice of pounding up the plants to extract the sap, which was used as a poultice for battle wounds. So its obviously a flower with a long history of living with humans.

Of course daisies aren't threatened - yet. But like the sparrows that disappeared from London, or the poppies that have vanished from our fields, who knows whether there may come a time when daisies no longer sprinkle our lawns and pastures with summer. It may be worth taking the time to really look at them while you can.

And if you need further convincing, I'm clearly not the only one who thinks daisies are worth looking at. I found this quoted in Richard Mabey's Flora Britannica, (translated) from Geoffrey Chaucer's (1343 - 1400) Legend of Good Women:


Of all the flowers in the meadow
Then love I most this flower white and red
Such as men call daisies in our town...
The empress and flower of flowers all.


Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Magic in the air

How many wildlife documentaries have you watched where the programme faithfully follows the seasons, the ice of winter gradually melting over days and weeks as the sun's strengthening rays bring on the new spring, where streams bubble with life, birds sing, flowers bloom and young animals frolic? It's all tosh.

The weather is obviously controlled by fairies. Having spent the last six weeks in a Narnia-like state of permanent winter, we woke up on Sunday morning to discover that someone had clearly managed to locate the wicked witch responsible and smothered her with her own duvet cloak. In a matter of hours the Baltic weather had been replaced by balmy summer. It had to be magic.

The magic in the air has clearly stayed around. Yesterday evening we had a phone call from our quick-thinking, bird-savvy daughter, who was out in the River Field north of the village, to say an osprey had just flown over, heading our way. We had never seen an osprey over Ashfield before, and rushed out into the front garden to see if we could spot it. There it was, sailing round and up in a thermal, long, broad-fingered wings spread wide. Its cloud-white belly and forewings were sharp against the bluing evening sky, catching the sun as it tacked gradually west.

Ospreys have made a remarkable comeback in Scotland. Thought extinct in the UK in 1916,  a single pair was recorded in  the 1950s (though one or two more may have hung on unnoticed in the meantime). Now the figure for Scotland is approaching 200 pairs, with a number nesting just 15 miles west of here near the Lake of Menteith, a prime trout fishery. Persecuted in the nineteenth century for this taste in game fish, their chief enemies now are bad weather and electricity lines. I've no idea why this one was over the village, though there are trout ponds to the north of us.

But there was more to come. Panning up from the osprey my other half noticed another, smaller shape. Smaller because higher. It was another osprey. Then two darker shapes, one large, one small, joined the pile - red kite and sparrowhawk - moving in line with the other two like aircraft in a holding pattern. While the ospreys flapped and glided their way around the warm tower of air, the kite seemed to float, deftly tilting its tail and wings to adjust its orbit with hardly a wingbeat. The sparrowhawk was actually passing through, a dark, streamlined jet of a bird cutting a direct line through their airspace.

It was a sight I suspect few have ever been lucky enough to see - two ospreys, one red kite, one sparrowhawk in one small patch of warm sky. A perfect welcome for the coming summer.

And obviously magical.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Suffering for Plantlife!

Earlier this year I signed up to do a Wildflowers Count survey for Plantlife. I'm not an expert botanist but I reckoned I could identify enough of the common wildflowers to make my contribution worthwhile. I would enjoy a gentle stroll in the warm May sunshine (my pack recommended going at this time of year if my survey area had woodland elements), the fieldbanks and hedgerows heady with cow parsley, fidgeting with bees and butterflies.

Cut to reality. I decided to go today. It was the time the handbook suggested, and crucially, my other half - a far better naturalist than I - was available to come with me. We headed off to my given survey square - an area of mixed habitats, including some conifer plantation, mixed woodland and field edge on a breezy rise just north-west of Dunblane. The thermometer was struggling to hit 7C. It was drizzling with rain and a bone-chilling wind was blowing in from the north-east.

Swathed in waterproofs, wellies and woolly hats we combed the 1km length of the survey area - a 2m strip on one side of our chosen route. The plantation at the start of our survey had recently been felled, leaving the track battlescarred with heavy-duty tyre ruts, and many of the plants spattered with ashy-grey mud. After 10 minutes my pencil-holding fingers had begun to burn with cold. It was lucky my husband was there to take over the scribing duties while I pulled my sweater down over my hands to ward off incipient frostbite. But despite the unpromising surroundings, and the fact that due to weeks of arctic weather hardly anything was actually in flower, we managed to identify 26 species of wildflowers, shrubs and trees in this short section. The most exciting plant was the smallest - a couple of tiny fronds of pignut, a small member of the carrot family that indicates that this place had been old grassland long before the conifers arrived.

As we crossed to the arable section of the route a lone yellowhammer started to sing a truncated version of its usual 'bread and no cheese' song. 'A little bit of...', 'a little bit of...' it went, as if had forgotten the lyrics to a half-remembered old favourite. The field margin by the track was a predictable tangle of nettles and cleavers, hogweed and rank grasses, but every so often we would (we = mostly my husband) find a little pearl hiding among the swine. There was a patch of black knapweed, another fine grassland flower that would shine out like a  tiny amethyst in late summer. A yellow vetching, winding its cotton-fine stem up through the grass towards the light before it flowered in a few weeks time. Even a single, gnarled hawthorn standing sentinel where once there must have been a proud, dense hedge to keep the beasts in the field. Now the field was a dark, damp desert of earth and field beans, and any wild flowers that once graced it had been consigned to history.

At the end of the track we had amassed 42 species in just one kilometre stretch of very degraded habitat. It seemed a creditable total, but how many would there have been just a few decades ago? The tiny hints of the richer, past life of the land somehow made the current paucity of plants more saddening, more maddening. Arable intensification has sucked the life out of our fields and hedgerows. Collecting the information certainly wasn't the experience I'd expected. I ended up cold, wet, and very depressed. Yet for all that I think - I hope - it was worth the effort . If Plantlife can use the information that we, and hundred of other volunteers, have collected to accurately map the places where our wild plants are found - and lost - we may be better armed to fight for their return.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Naturally tough

Yesterday has to count as one of the grimmest May days I can ever remember. The wind howled around the house like a wounded wolf, the sky was a sagging, wet army blanket, and a chill, relentless drizzle kept me indoors most of the day.

It wasn't because I was worried about getting wet, or cold. We have the wellies, the waterproofs, the attitude to get outdoors whatever the conditions. For me it was because the hard, dark weather seemed a slap in the face to the innocent young life that is appearing everywhere now - lime-fresh leaves on the birches, orange-tip butterflies flirting with the ladies smock, a deafening dawn chorus of new parents. They all seemed battered or laid low by the dreichness. At some level I think I felt that if I went out in it I would be tacitly giving my approval. I do not approve of hail in May.

Not everything was so easily cowed. As I stood at the kitchen sink I caught sight of a pair of jelly-bright goldfinches in the track behind the house. They jumped down from the old metal fence into the rough, weedy strip in the centre of the track, and began rummaging through the dandelion heads looking for the milky, half-ripe seeds they like best. It was still raining, but they seemed not to notice, concentrating instead on combing each flowerhead in turn for another tiny parcel of nourishment. They looked as if they were eating the food there and then, but they may have been taking it back for nestlings - goldfinches regurgitate food, just like penguins and cormorants.

Despite their delicate appearance, they seem feisty birds, their red, white and black striped faces reminding me of tiny, New Guinean warriors. They don't seem as nervous as many feeding birds, that constantly look about them and twitch at every leaf flick. Instead they doggedly stripped the seeds from each plant and moved on, like tea pickers on piecework. I watched them for several minutes until they suddenly lifted and fled - the golden yellow stripes of their wings a blur as they disappeared into the cherry trees. My daughter was running past - the bright blue of her waterproof a blur as she came back from collecting the eggs in the rain.

Later that evening we did venture out. Despite the continuing foul weather there were primroses and bluebells, pink purslane and stichwort in flower in the woods, willow warblers and chiffchaffs singing, jackdaws and crows riding the wind like a fairground. It seems I was the only one dismayed by the weather.

I think I need to toughen up.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Hard sell?

It's 7C outside. The rain is blurring the view through our kitchen window, but I can still make out the newly-greened branches of the cherry trees beyond, bucking and twitching in the brisk north-easterly wind. The wood burner's lit, and the cats are curled up next to me on the sofa. It would make quite a cosy winter scene, if it weren't for the fact that it's 10 May.

And there's no sign of a change in the weather any time soon, according to the forecasters. Which is especially frustrating now, as I'm due to venture out tomorrow to help support a two-day expedition with a group of new Duke of Edinburgh's Award kids. For many it will be their first experience of walking any distance in relatively wild country, let alone with a heavy pack, and making an overnight camp. If the weather's foul on their first sortie it could give them a less than ideal introduction to the joys of the great outdoors.

And I think it's important that they do have a good experience. More than just important - I think it's vital, in the most literal sense of the word. If they, and the thousands of other teenagers that will be making similar trips all over the country,  learn to love the natural world it will have a huge impact on not only their lives but on the well-being of society and the future of the environment. And if you think I'm being a little melodramatic, this is what a Natural England commissioned report, published today, had to say about learning in a natural environment:

'Hands-on contact with nature is not only essential for protecting the environment but appears to be a means of cultivating community and enhancing the mental health and wellbeing of children and adults alike.'
Natural England Commissioned Report NECR092 Learning in the Natural Environment: Review of social and economic benefits and barriers

The publication is the latest in a string of  reports highlighting the importance of getting children and young people outside in natural environments, including the National Trust's recent offering, Natural Childhood, and Richard Louv's seminal work on the subject, Last Child in the Woods.

It seems pretty obvious to me that if we want our children (and adults for that matter) to value the natural world and the environment, they've got to have contact with it. I think the advertising media call it 'brand recognition' don't they?

Of course it's fair to say that part of the 'Natural World brand' - at least in the UK - is the vagaries of the weather, and in order to develop that brand loyalty we need to encourage our 'consumers' to enjoy it come rain or shine, heatwave or blizzard. But lots of kids nowadays are never even exposed to the natural weather, let alone the natural world.

Perhaps we could learn from the gardening world, where plants raised in greenhouses are 'hardened off' by being put out in the cold for short periods each day before being planted out in the open permanently. Perhaps we need to harden off our children by letting them go out in the rain at lunchtimes, or play in the snow after school. Then we wouldn't risk them drooping at their first, hours-long encounter with a Scottish spring day in the hills.

In the meantime I'm praying for some sun.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Wild life versus wildlife

This weekend I found myself with a group of friends and family loitering at the bottom of a dark, dramatic, tumbling waterfall in the Yorkshire Dales. We weren't admiring the view, though it was stunning. We were discussing the pro's and cons of scrambling up it - and not because we were intimidated by it. A British Mountaineering Council notice at the base of the scramble warned of peregrines potentially (a key word as you will discover) nesting in the crags above the waterfall. If they were there, had decided to nest, and were disturbed, they could fly off, leaving the eggs to chill and die.

For me it was obvious. I'm a conservationist. Of course we shouldn't risk it. There was an easy detour we could use to get to the top of the climb which would keep us well away from the potential nest site.

For my companions - all keen climbers, it wasn't so cut and dried. They'd been looking forward to the excitement and fun of clambering up the gnarly, limestone rocks, and gaining height quickly. I'd been looking forward to it too. I'm not a climber but I enjoy playing at being a fearless, mountaineering type, safe in the knowledge that it's actually quite safe and escapable. I like feeling the cold, rough rocks with my hands, smelling the mossy-earth close to my nostrils. But climbing's not what defines me as it does them.

They felt that because it was only a 'potential' nest site, and because they'd seen no sign of peregrines, it wouldn't do any harm to at least make a start on the climb, with the proviso that if any birds were spotted we'd back off. I said I'd seen signs of a peregrine kill further down the gorge. My daughter said she's spotted some pellets. Not conclusive, they thought - might not be this waterfall. I said if we disturb them the eggs could chill - backing off isn't enough.

We stood for what seemed like hours but was probably more like twenty minutes trying to come to a decision. The climbers said they felt the number of places they were free to climb was gradually being eroded by increasing concerns about disturbance to wildlife - soon there will be nowhere left, they worried. There was a sense of frustration. I could tell they genuinely didn't want to disturb the birds - they just wanted to believe they probably weren't there. These are people who climb not only for the adrenaline rush but for the freedom and wildness of the experience - the very experiences many naturalists are trying to reignite in us all.They love wild-life too. We were torn between wanting to feel the wild and needing to protect it.

We didn't climb the ghyll in the end. They decided the scramble would keep for another day, and we headed up a vertiginous grassy cliff that was probably twice as risky! We saw no peregrines, though a pair of ravens wheeled above the head of the crags - probably equally grateful we hadn't invaded their territory.

And the moral of the tale? I think the moral is that we all need to be able to understand each others' points of view more clearly.  Many of us (myself definitely included), move in a bubble of certainty because most of the people we have close contact with - friends, work colleagues etc - think the same way we do, have many of the same experiences we do, and similar priorities. Because I was with climbers I was able to understand the temptation to go ahead - the lure of the scramble just in front of us that we'd walked several miles to enjoy.  If my climbing friends had had more experience of peregrines, maybe seen and identified them in the wild, the birds' welfare may have moved up their priority list.

If we deplore the rise in nature deficit disorder among our children, and strive to reverse it, we're going to have to find a way to accommodate thousands - maybe millions - more people wanting experience a wilder life. Seeing the world through a climber's eyes might be a good place to start.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Polling Day blues

Polling Day. The chance to have my say about how my council is run. Except that no-one seems to be speaking my language. Despite the polar ice caps melting. Despite now universal agreement that climate change is a scientifically proven fact, and the most clear and present danger to the future of the planet. And despite ever increasing rates of extinction, biodiversity and habitat loss, most of my local prospective councillors chose to use their pre-election communications to talk about the need to fill more potholes.

Presumably this is so that people can get around faster and make more money. Because, of course, they talked about other things too - helping local businesses, economic growth, supporting education, health, economic growth, housing, economic growth, blah, blah, blah. Only one of them even mentioned environmental issues, let alone put it at the centre of their manifesto. Even the Green candidate had shied away from the C words. No-one seems prepared to acknowledge, as they must surely realise at some deeper level, that without a healthy environment, without tackling climate change, everything else is just pie in the sky.. It's not 'either we tackle the economic crisis or we look after the natural world'. We can't have one without the other. Tony Juniper, erstwhile leader of Friends of the Earth and inveterate environmental campaigner, explained it perfectly at a recent lecture entitled 'What Has Nature Even Done For Us' that I watched on YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhPX7p9Iypw , when he said:

'The economy is not something that owns ecology...we must see the economy as it truly is, as a wholly-owned subsidiary of ecology and the natural environment'.

So it was with a heavy heart that I walked across the fields to the polling station to make my vote, knowing no candidate truly spoke for me, or the natural world. Luckily it was a glorious, almost-summer day. Skylarks singing, small white butterflies emerging like tiny brides among the lady's smock, and bluebells just beginning to prick the woods with hints of hazy colour. But it made me even more angry that nobody standing for the local council really seemed interested in protecting it.

I know I'm privileged to be one of a tiny minority that can say 'I walked across the fields to make my vote'. That's part of the problem. If everyone had daily contact with the real world I don't think we'd be in this mess - either economically or ecologically. What will it take to get decision-makers, at all levels, to see that, and be brave enough to admit it?

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Tales of the riverbank

Contrary birds, sand martins. As soon as you write about their disappearance they return, flying in the face of the weather. Because it's still cold here - though at least the sun has appeared to celebrate May Day.

There they were, as if they'd never gone away, when I walked through the River Field today. There must have been at least ten of them zigzagging over the water. Tiny brown crescents of movement, they flutter more than fly, reminding me of moths rather than birds. They're much smaller than swallows, with pale bellies and a dun band around their necks connecting the dark bands of their underwings.

The river bank in the field is sandy and eroded, leaving low, crumbling cliffs. Perfect for sand martins to nest in - if they're not washed away. One or two of them were prospecting for likely places to start burrowing, gripping onto the cliff-face with their scratchy little feet that seem too small for their bodies. Every winter the flooding river scours the banks, destroying last year's tunnels, and the sand martins are forced to start the whole laborious business again. The burrows can extend over two feet into the sand, and with just their beaks and feet to dig with progress is slow, perhaps a couple of inches a day.

The Allan Water is a good place to see sand martins, as it gently meanders through arable and pasture land. The air above the fields can sometimes offer rich pickings for these aerial grazers of tiny flies and gnats. Numbers have been good in recent years, after big population crashes in the sixties and eighties. But the crashes were linked to drought in their birds' wintering grounds in the Sahel, not habitat loss here. Don't think 'so not our fault this time' too soon though. Climate change - something we all have an influence on - could make such droughts more frequent, and agricultural 'improvements' over here to make food cheaper for us, threaten to reduce invertebrate numbers on, and above, farmland. Sand martins are on the Amber list, meaning their population trends are causing concern.

So despite them making me eat yesterday's words I was very glad to see them in the field today, ducking and diving defiantly over the river. Will it be the swallows' turn tomorrow to make me look an idiot?