Saturday, 22 September 2012

A sign of the times

It is the autumn equinox today. The day the the Equator teeters beneath the Sun before the Earth tips our northern lands over into the darker days.

And what a strange autumn it has been so far. Early and late at the same time. The pink-footed geese arrived here a good two weeks before we expected them, piercing the bubble of the still-summer swallow skies with their arrow formations.

And many of the trees are already shabby and thin like greying down-and-outs. The fruit-bearers - the cherries and apples, pears and plums, seem especially tired and sad. Almost as if they have given up for this year, having failed to produce any decent kind of crop.

And where is the hedgerow harvest? Late, rather than early, the brambles are still green on their stems, the sloes hard little pips - if you can find any at all. They won't be ripe until after Michaelmas Day - and then we shall risk the Devil having pissed on them.

I miss the blackberries most of all. Picking them is the one atavistic pleasure that even the most urbanised among us surely shares. I can't remember a September when I haven't gone out with plastic boxes and thick trousers to wade in among the tangled bushes to pick the darkly purple berries - or drupelets as we should call them, being really a cluster of smaller fruits. For many of us picking brambles is surely an annual rite of passage between summer and autumn. The season won't be truly upon us until we've done it.

The scientific name for blackberries - brambles is the Scottish word - is Rubus fruticosus agg. The 'agg' acknowledges the fact that the species is actually an aggregate of 320 microspecies, differentiated by tiny variations in leaf and growth, flowering and fruiting time, and habitat. This perhaps explains their ubiquity. There is a blackberry for everyone. And that is their great value. You are never far from a blackberry. Never far from the reminder of your hunter-gatherer roots, and your reliance on the natural world for your sustenance.

Let's hope the frost doesn't get to the blackberries before we can this year. We need all the reminders we can get.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

What a way to go

The dictionary definition of 'Go to seed' is 'to decline in looks, status, or utility due to lack of care'. Yet as the summer goes to seed, I don't see that at all.

For plants, going to seed is the apex of their existence, reproduction their reason for being. Everywhere I look now I see plants at the height of their maturity and glory. The colours and textures of their seeds are if anything more vibrant than the flowers that preceded them. Rose bay willowherb is swapping its tarty, lipstick-pink skirt for a white feather boa. The rowans are weighed down with bunches of satiny berries, shockingly scarlet against the fading green of their leaves. And those deep russet spires of sheep sorrel stand tall and proud among the bleaching grasses. I want to go to seed like that!

Not everything is there yet, of course. The meadow is still full of black knapweed - a strange name for a purple flower. One of the latest plants to flower in the meadow, its thistly flowerheads are a magnet for insects once many of the other plants have turned into bird food.

Today in the sunshine there were several peacock butterflies enjoying its late nectar, fattening themselves up for hibernation. Once a scarce visitor to these parts, peacock numbers have been increasing in central Scotland, a rise that has been linked with climate change. Apparently their numbers often increase after a cool, wet summer, as the nettles that are their caterpillar food plant grow lush and tall. If so I'm surprised we haven't had a population explosion here this year.

Despite being related to the thistles, the seedheads of the black knapweed don't turn into the shocks of white down of their spikier cousins. Hardheads is their other common name, and described the small, dark brown, acorn shaped seedheads that follow the flowers. Children often used them as ammunition - wrapping the stalk around the base of the head and shooting them at their friends. I hope some still do. Perhaps that's where the term 'gone to seed' came from.


Friday, 7 September 2012

Evolution works in mysterious ways

If Creationists wanted to cite an animal that seems to defy the theories of evolution, they should look no further than the common cranefly, Tipula paludosa.

Every year as summer fades into autumn a rag-tag invasion of daddy-longlegs stumbles into homes all over the country, crashing into lampshades, dangling helplessly from undusted cobwebs, and willfully drowning themselves in washing-up bowls and tea cups. So far this week I have rescued one from the empty bath, from which it seemed unable to escape despite intact wings, and watched one fight to the death against a window pane next to an open door.

It's the legs mainly. Why on earth do they have those ridiculous legs? Yes I've read the theories - they use them like cat's whiskers at night to make sure they don't bang into things, or as a tripod from which the female can lay her eggs in the turf, or even, like a lizard's tail, so that they can escape if caught in a spider's web. None seems to be very convincing, as surely the handicap those same legs seem to afford it outweigh any of these supposed benefits. And anyway they bang into things all the time.

Tipula paludosa, which translates loosely as 'boggy cranefly', actually begins life in the earth below our feet - in lawns, sports fields and agricultural grasslands. And its here that it seems far more at home. Its larvae - the leatherjacket - gnaws it way to adulthood via the roots of the grasses above. It's tough and hardy, unlike its kamikaze parents, and survives through the winter and into the next summer this way before emerging as an adult - if the starlings and rooks don't find it first with their probing, pointy beaks.

Yet daddy-longlegs are not without beauty. In the fields their transparent wings, with their dark, stained-glass patterns, reflect the autumn sun when they clamber among the tall grasses. And today in the drizzle I spotted one climbing slowly up a stalk with a glassy bead of rain on its back like a pearly, Art Nouveau brooch.

Despite their apparent shortcomings craneflies deserve our respect. They are one of the oldest and most diverse groups of flies - one in ten flies in the UK belongs to the group. They include the largest fly - Tipula maxima - in terms of wingspan, at 65mm, and some of the smallest, the 'bobbing' gnats. They provide an important food source both as larvae and adults for many birds. And who could fail to love a family that includes species called the hairy-eyed cranefly, and the gulper.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Going feral

'Feral' is an much-maligned term. It's often used in a derogatory sense - for someone who is unruly or untrustworthy, or for an animal that is neither pet nor wild, and as such of no use to anyone.Yet its true definition is 'something that was once domesticated, but is returning to the wild'. Surely in many cases then, a state to be desired.

The fields to the north of the village are 'feral'. Once cultivated, they are now a tangle of thistles and sheep sorrel, chickweed and redshanks, like the shaggy, unkempt pelt of a stray dog. But on a warm, summer day they hum with life - butterflies, bees, flies and the rest hopping around the buttercups and cranesbills like fleas.

Today is not a tame, summer's day. Today is as feral as the fields. Yesterday's gentle breeze and mild tawny sunlight have been replaced by a rough wind, and rain that feels like cold seaspray spattering my face. The clouds are a dirty grey flannel wiped across the face of the sky. The weather is returning to wild.

I was walking, hunched and gloomy, around the River Field, when a tight flock of small birds passed above my head, drawing sine waves in the sky with their flight. They were linnets, about twenty of them, chattering to each other as they flew like giggling schoolchildren. Linnets need feral land, land where the weeds are allowed to grow and set seed, land where the hedges and shrubs are tall and loose. Land that has been disappearing in the UK over the last 40 years.

Linnets are not a well-known bird these days. These neat little finches seldom occur in built-up areas, and their mostly streaky brown plumage doesn't draw much attention - despite the males' rather half-hearted attempts to spruce himself up for the mating season with ruffous bib and headband. Yet in Victorian times the birds were prized for their mellifluous songs, and caught in their thousands to be caged for the drawing rooms of the leafy suburbs. Their numbers plummeted as a result.

Once they fell out of favour as pet Carusos their numbers recovered, and linnets were a common countryside bird. Then came the inevitable population crash, shared by many other farmland birds, when farm intensification really began to bite in the late 1970s. The combination of increased herbicide use, and the autumn sowing of cereals - which meant no overwinter stubble fields, decimated their numbers. Since then the population has declined by over 50%, putting them on the UK Red List of threatened species.

Rough fields like ours are what they need. Unlike many birds, including other finches, they are entirely seed eaters. Their name, 'linnet', comes from the French 'linette', meaning 'flax-eater', while their scientific name Carduelis cannabina, means 'of thistles and hemp'!  They even feed their chicks on seeds - albeit the soft ones. So those tall spires of deep red sorrel seedheads, the thistledown, and the redshanks, are vital food. The scrubby hawthorns and willows that line the railway embankment and river bank are perfect nesting sites.

In the last few years things have looked up slightly. Oil seed rape has provided a new source of food over the summer, while agri-environment schemes have encouraged farmers to leave more land unmanaged. And as a result linnet numbers are going up in some places. There will be more chittering flocks flying in rough, feral  fields over glum walkers on grim days, brightening their lives. Surely, a state to be desired.

Monday, 3 September 2012

This week I have mainly been hearing buzzards...

If the the wild geese provide the soundtrack to my winter walks, the warblers to the spring, and the screaming swifts my summer music, then it is the incessant piping of the young buzzards that dominate these not-quite-summer, not-quite autumn days.

In truth the adult buzzards have been calling to one another most of the year - only falling silent in the spring when they are making their nests and raising their young. But it is now, when most of the summer orchestra has gone home, that their offspring take centre stage.

The call is really more like a distant child's whistle, blown over and over again on the same note. It's a very different sound to the wild and melancholy 'mewing' that the adults use to communicate with each other, strengthening the bonds between them, mapping out the territory that they guard jealously all year round. Instead I imagine the young pursuing their parents, mithering for titbits like nagging toddlers in a supermarket. It's one of the few natural sounds I can get tired of.

I should count my blessings. It's only 30 years ago that buzzards were relatively uncommon here, and only 60 years ago when they were a rare sight in most of the British Isles. Persecuted by gamekeepers for a 150 years, then, just as they were making some kind of recovery, starved out by the myxomatosis epidemic that decimated their staple food, buzzards have had a rough ride. Living in buzzard-empty Essex 20 years ago, I envied my Welsh friends, who could sit and watch those big, fingery-winged birds circling above, mewing - and piping - to each other. It made their lives seem closer to wildness.

There are at least two pairs around the village that I know of - one to the south that nest in a tall larch at the foot of the Big Field, one to the north, in the dark plantation that rings the Estate across the fields. I often see them launch from the depth of the trees as I walk out, drifting nonchalantly above my head before catching a thermal and rising inexorably to a speck.

Recently the UK Government contemplated funding a study to see what effect controlled culling and nest destruction might have on their population - a scheme dear to the hearts of the pheasant shooters and gamekeepers. Happily the resultant outcry brought a rapid volte face, and it seems buzzards are safe - for the moment.

For buzzards - despite their sometimes irritating children - carry a sense of wilderness wherever they spread. And we all need more of that.