Monthly Archives: March 2016

Jam Sandwiches in the Rain

IMG_5567Dear Readers, when I was in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery last week, I noticed a fox resting on a mossy mound in the late winter sunshine. The foxes here are truly wild creatures, apt to melt away into the undergrowth as soon as they see a human, so I was surprised to see this one in daylight.

IMG_5569I am always delighted by the appearance of a fox, whether he is trotting up the street after opening all the food-waste bins ( a recently acquired skill) or here in the cemetery. But it wasn’t until I got home and looked closely at my photographs that I realised that this particular fox has a problem.

IMG_5571A quick glance at the fox’s rear-end shows that he has a horrible case of sarcoptic mange. This is not unusual in town foxes, and some veterinarians believe that it might be so prevalent because of the stress and poor nutrition that urban animals are prone to. Believe it or not, according to the fox charities that I contacted (details below) this is a relatively mild case. Left untreated, however, it is likely to get worse.

IMG_5570Sarcoptic mange (also known as scabies) is caused by a microscopic mite, which burrows into the skin, causing hair-loss and irritation. The biting and scratching at the affected area can give rise to skin infection and also encourages the mites to spread, which can ultimately be fatal. Foxes can tear themselves apart trying to deal with the intense itching, to the extent that they no longer eat or drink. This is an infernal parasite, and one which is all too common.

If this was a fox that visited my garden, it might be worth working with one of the fox charities to see if it could be trapped and treated with the pharmaceuticals that are normally used – Stronghold to kill the mites, and a wide-spectrum antibiotic to sort out the infection. But there is no way that anyone will set a trap on public land, when anything from the wrong fox to a cat to somebody’s pet dog could be caught. Nor could the drugs just be left around for the fox to find, as they are dangerous to nursing and pregnant animals, and can even be poisonous.

Which brings me to homeopathy.

IMG_5568I will admit to being a homeopathy skeptic. I believe in the efficacy of herbal treatments, acupuncture, and many other ‘alternative’ therapies, but I find it difficult to believe that a solution so dilute that the active ingredient may be only a few molecules can be helpful. But be that as it may, I know that, used with foxes, a homeopathic remedy ( Arsenicum album and sulphur 30c) has proved to be extremely efficacious in treating mange. It isn’t clear why, but there is a theory that it supports the immune system of the fox, enabling the animal to resist the worst effects of the infection. It is completely harmless to other animals, and can be used without concern even amongst pregnant or lactating animals.

And so, for the past few days, I have been trudging down to the cemetery and depositing a jam sandwich, cut into 15 tiny pieces and containing exactly four drops of the homeopathic remedy, on the mossy knoll where I last saw the fox. And some days, it’s been a bit of a wild and windy walk, with a huge hail storm on Wednesday, and a relentless drizzle on Thursday. But there are compensations.


IMG_5597When faced by all the human and animal tragedy in the world, I feel overwhelmed. I have no idea where to start. There is misery at home and abroad, and everything cries out for help. In the midst of all this, I feel helpless, useless. But this is one tiny thing that I can do. Will it work? Who can say. I do know that every last scrap of the sandwich is eaten, though whether by ‘my’ fox or some other creature I don’t know.

I feel that there is something  worthwhile just in the act of witnessing, of noticing that a fellow creature is suffering, of trying to help. Compassion is a muscle that has to be exercised, and I know, for myself, how easy it is for it to atrophy. I often feel so loaded down with my own worries that I’m reluctant to take on even the smallest element of somebody else’s troubles. And yet, when I’ve finished this piece, I’ll put on my trainers and stride out, through the mud in Coldfall Wood and onwards, a jam sandwich in my pocket, knowing full well that I’m probably on a fool’s errand, but heading off just the same. This fox has crept in under my defences and looks at me with his amber eyes, challenging me not to look away.

IMG_5570 (2)Fox Charities

The Fox Project is based in Kent, and works in southern England, but will give advice if you contact them wherever you are based.

The National Fox Welfare Society is a great source of help and information, and also sends out free homeopathic treatment for mange (though I recommend providing a donation if you can afford it)

Wednesday Weed – Garden Grape Hyacinth

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum)

Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum)

Dear Readers, this is, of course, a garden plant which pops up all over the place in churchyards and close to habitation, but what a pretty one! The tiny flowers, each the colour of lapis lazuli, are delicately fringed with white, and remind me a little of old-fashioned lady’s bloomers. The name ‘muscari’ comes from the Greek word muskos and refers to the scent, although it is not to everyone’s taste – another name for the garden grape hyacinth is ‘starch hyacinth’, as some people thought that it smelled like wet laundry.

Grape hyacinths are not technically hyacinths at all, but belong to the same family as asparagus, bluebells and lily of the valley. Like bluebells, they will spread far and wide if the conditions are to their liking, and in my experience they are some of the easiest of bulbs to persuade to naturalise and to come back year after year. Plus, they provide an early source of nectar for pollinators, and I have often seen them visited by early solitary bees and hoverflies.

By This photo was taken by Ryan Bushby(HighInBC) with his Canon PowerShot S3 IS. To see more of his photos see his gallery. - en:Image:Syrphid fly on Grape hyacinth.jpg uploaded 18:23, 29 March 2007 by en:User:H, CC BY 2.5,

Hoverfly on grape hyacinth (Photo One – see credits below)

What I did not know, however, was that in addition to the garden grape hyacinth that we see everywhere, the UK has its own native grape hyacinth (Muscari neglectum). This is a very rare plant, found mainly in Breckland, and has flowers that are a deep dark blue, almost black. The smaller, bluer flowers at the top are sterile.

In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey tells of one important site for Muscari neglectum at Lakenheath in Suffolk, a place now know mostly for its air-base. One area of grassland which was full of native grape hyacinths was levelled to make concrete areas for storing bombs. When the site was dismantled in the 1960’s the plants returned, and until the 1970’s, when the area was once again flattened for housing, thousands of the bulbs flowered every year. Suffolk locals apparently call the plants ‘grey parsons’, and if you try to say grape hyacinth with a Suffolk accent, you’ll see why.

© Hans Hillewaert / , via Wikimedia Commons

Our native grape hyacinth (Muscari neglectum) Photo Two, credits below.

The garden grape hyacinth is a native of the eastern Mediterranean, from Greece and Turkey to the Caucasus (hence the species name armeniacum). In Greek and Italian cookery, the bulbs are considered a delicacy (although they are poisonous), and are either preserved or pickled in oil after being boiled. I wonder if they are used like pickled onions, to add a certain savour to cheese or cooked meat? According to the ever-interesting Plant Lives website, grape hyacinth bulbs are believed to stimulate appetite.

IMG_5555So, this little bulb, which cheerfully goes about its business with little intervention from us is a real winner in pots or containers, or at the edge of a bed of daffodils. However, in the famous Keukenhof bulb gardens in the Netherlands, they celebrate the  garden grape hyacinth by creating a ‘blue river’  which meanders  through the park, edged here by white narcissus. A bit over the top, for sure, but breathtaking nonetheless. I think I must redouble my efforts with bulbs next year.  If only mine looked these, I would be a happy woman.

By Tom Jutte

The blue river at Keukenhof gardens in the Netherlands. Photo Three – credit below


Photo One – By This photo was taken by Ryan Bushby(HighInBC) with his Canon PowerShot S3 IS. To see more of his photos see his gallery.

Photo Two – © Hans Hillewaert / , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three – By Tom Jutte

All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer