Monthly Archives: October 2021

Sunday Quiz – Spooky Songs and Poems

Photo One by Dmitry Makeev, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Not in the least spooky….(Photo One)

Dear Readers, it’s that time of year again, when small children keel over from chocolate overdose and tired parents make costumes out of tin foil and cardboard toilet roll centres because their little ones want to walk the street dressed as a robot. At least that was what used to happen in our house. Not that we had trick or treating in my day! Halloween involved, at the most, a ‘party’ where my peers gathered to scare the wits out of one another before retiring for a sleepless night at their own houses. Bonfire night was the big night, what with the baked potatoes and, in my house at least, the hotdogs. But more of that next week.

What I’d like you to do this week is peruse the lyrics below, and decide which creature they relate to. Some are from poems, and some are from songs. Extra points for the title of the aforesaid master/mistress work and for the artist/poet/author (so there are 30 points available in total). Several of the extracts below refer to the same animal, so be careful!

Answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time next Friday (5th November). The results and accolades will be posted next Saturday (6th November). I will disappear your answers as soon as I see them, but as usual if you are easily influenced write them down old school on a piece of paper first (though then you will need to rely on your own strength of will to avoid changing anything). I’m sure you are all made of stern stuff however, so you would never be tempted.

Let’s see how we do!


Twinkle twinkle little XXXXX
How I wonder what you’re at
Up above the world so high
Like a tea tray in the sky


She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.


Look, he’s crawling up my wall
Black and hairy, very small
Now he’s up above my head
Hanging by a little thread


For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.


But when the day is done
And the sun goes down
And the moonlight’s shining through
Then like a sinner before the gates of Heaven
I’ll come crawling on back to you


Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”


She doesn’t give you time for questions
As she locks up your arm in hers
And you follow ’till your sense of which direction
Completely disappears
By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls
There’s a hidden door she leads you to
These days, she says, I feel my life
Just like a river running through
The year of the xxxxxx


In touch with the ground
I’m on the hunt I’m after you
Smell like I sound, I’m lost in a crowd
And I’m hungry like the xxxxxx
Straddle the line in discord and rhyme
I’m on the hunt I’m after you
Mouth is alive, with juices like wine
And I’m hungry like the xxxxxx


The itsy bitsy xxxxxxxxxx
Climbed up the waterspout
Down came the rain
And washed the xxxxxx out
Out came the sun
And dried up all the rain
And the itsy bitsy xxxxxxxxxx
Climbed up the spout again


His fingers make a hat about his head.
His pulse beat is so slow we think him dead.

He loops in crazy figures half the night
Among the trees that face the corner light.

But when he brushes up against a screen,
We are afraid of what our eyes have seen:

Sunday Quiz – What’s That Bird? Vernacular Names – The Answers

Title Photo by Derek Keats from Johannesburg, South Africa, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Dabchick or Little Grebe (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, just two takers for this week’s quiz, and both parties did very well. Rosalind got 9/15, but the runaway winners this week are Fran and Bobby Freelove with 15/15, so well done to them, and let’s see how we all get on with tomorrow’s Halloween-themed (ish) quiz…..

Vernacular Names

  1. Cushy-doo i) Wood Pigeon
  2. Jenny g) Wren
  3. Polly Dishwasher a) Pied Wagtail
  4. Bonxie k) Great Skua
  5. Windhover l) Kestrel
  6. Willy Wix  n) Barn Owl
  7. Mavis m) Song Thrush
  8. Starnel  b) Starling
  9. Corbie  h) Raven
  10. Seven-Coloured Linnet c) Goldfinch
  11. Spug d) House Sparrow
  12. Laverock j) Skylark
  13. Gowk f) Cuckoo
  14. Tom Tit e) Blue Tit
  15. Julie-the-bogs o) Grey Heron


My Work Here Is Done

Photo One by Aiwok, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Giant Wood Wasp (Urocerus gigas) (Photo One)

Dear Readers, with a name like ‘Bugwoman’ it isn’t surprising that people often ask me what the hell something that they’ve seen buzzing around their living room light or hanging about in the shed is. Sometimes, as with this extraordinary insect, they not only ask me but find a way to gently encourage it back to ‘the wild’ with the minimum of fuss. And so it was with a colleague and a giant wood wasp earlier this week – she sent me a picture so that I could identify it. Her calmness is all the more impressive because this is a large and scary-looking beast, which can grow to a massive (for the UK) 4 cms long. Don’t laugh, African and Australian folks! Our wildlife here is, shall we say, bijou, but that doesn’t stop some folk having hysterics about it. I dread to think what they’d do if the critters were actually dangerous. Here your highest chance of animal-related demise is being run over by an agitated cow.

Anyhow. I was very envious that my colleague spotted a giant wood wasp, because I would love to see one. The female has a large ovipositor at the back end so that she can inject her eggs into the soft wood of conifers, or cut pinewood – these creatures are most often seen in pine plantations, or occasionally hanging around timberyards wearing an innocent expression. Here is a female just about to start laying her eggs into a log. It’s during this period that the females are vulnerable to predation – you can sometimes find just the ovipositors sticking into the wood where a bird has flown off with the rest of the insect.

Photo Two by Nigel Jones at

Female wood wasp ovipositing (Photo Two)

In order to attract a female, male giant wood wasps ‘lek’ – they gather in numbers at the tops of isolated or prominent fir trees, where they are likely to be seen by passing females. They also secrete a pheromone which will attract other wood wasps, so there can be impressive aggregations of the creatures. This also increases their exposure to predation, of course, but for the males the chance of passing on their genes seems to trump the danger of being eaten.

The larvae live for two to three years, getting nice and fat on the wood, before emerging. They get particularly fat because, along with the eggs, the female wasps inject a special fungus that will be ingested by the larvae, and will help them to digest the cellulose in the wood (a fascinating fact from ‘Wasps – the Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect’ by Eric A. Eaton, a great read!)

Photo Three by By Magne Flåten - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

A huge fat baby, 4.3 cm long (Photo Three)

Wood wasps have never been common creatures and so they aren’t a big problem for foresters in the UK, especially as they seem to prefer stressed rather than healthy wood, and so help to ‘tidy up’  dead trees. However, the larvae do sometimes decide to emerge as adults from stacked wood or even from pine furniture, and I can imagine that coming home to find a four-centimetre-long stripey creature flying around the bedroom might be enough to give many people pause. The ovipositor is also often misinterpreted as a massive stinger. Not so! Wood wasps are completely harmless to people. The ovipositor is what gives the wood wasp its alternative name of ‘horntail wasp’, which seems to be used on both sides of the Atlantic.

I have a great fondness for wasps and hornets of all kinds – I suppose that their status as the underdogs of the insect world makes them instantly appealing to me. It gladdens my heart whenever anyone resists their instinctive urge to swat an insect and instead becomes curious about what it is. I truly believe that the more you learn about a creature that you’re afraid of, the more measured and reasonable you can be in your approach to it. There’s a wood wasp somewhere winging its way over the the North Circular in search of a branch of IKEA with some Billy pinewood bookcases stacked and ready for shipment, all thanks to my colleague and her compassionate approach.




Thoughts on Ash

Dear Readers, I am continuing to read through Archie Miles’ book on British trees and thought that today I’d look at the ash tree. It’s one of my favourites, with its elegant leaves and those buds like tiny hooves, and the fact that we are likely to lose most of the species because of ash dieback makes them even more precious.

You might remember that in an earlier post this week, I was hoping that the Australian Raywood ashes in the cemetery might have some resistance to the disease. Alas, it appears not to be so, so even these beauties might not be spared.

An avenue of Raywood ashes in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

In the cemetery, the ashes pop up all over the place, and Miles suggests that the ash was the tree that colonised most quickly after the hurricane in 1987, and the impact of Dutch elm disease. It is a fast-growing tree, and historically known as the husbandman’s tree, used for agricultural implements and as fuel wood – it is said to burn well even when green. I love its delicacy (which gave rise to the name of ‘Venus of the Woods’) but its very short season (it is one of the last trees to come into leaf and one of the first to lose them) has made it unpopular in gardens, though I suspect that some of the fancier varieties might tickle a gardeners’ fancy.

Although some people think of ash trees as mundance, workaday trees they have a very surprising capacity to change their sex from one year to another. This is particularly confusing because ash trees can produce male, female or hemaphroditic flowers, either on separate trees or all on a single tree. Botanists don’t know why the tree can do this, but speculate that it might give an advantage when the climatic conditions for setting seed are ideal, or when there is a lot of competition. It might also be handy if a space suddenly opens up for colonisation – in this case the more seeds the better! It might well explain why ash is capable of popping up anywhere (I have one in my garden that I have to coppice every year before it takes over completely).

Photo One by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Male Ash flowers and buds (Photo One)

Ash trees flower once they’re thirty to forty years old. The flowers appear on last year’s growth before the leaves appear, but they can bloom anytime from late March to May, and Miles tells us that it’s believed that this allows the tree to compensate for damage to the earliest flowers from the late spring frosts. The male flowers appear first (as in the photo above), then the hermaphrodite flowers and then the female ones. Only the.female flowers will turn into the ash keys (known as samaras).

Photo Two by By Pleple2000 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Ash tree samaras (Photo Two)

When you consider the long associations between ash and humans, it’s not surprising that there is a lot of folklore about the tree. Miles quotes a rhyme that young women said when they were hoping to find a sweetheart:

Even ash, even ash,
I pluck thee off the tree;
The first young man that I do meet
My lover he shall be.

The young woman was supposed to put the ash leaf in her left shoe and wait to see what happened.

Ash was also supposed to be protective against snake bites, and, if you did get bitten, it was said by Dioscorides, first-century Greek physician, to be ‘singularly good against the bitings of viper, adder or other venomous beast’. More usefully in our present day, when we are unlikely to be molested by serpents, Culpeper thought that an extract from the leaves would ‘abate the greatness of those who are too gross or fat‘.

Perhaps most fascinating, however, is the belief that ash could be used to cure a rupture in a child. Miles remarks that the Reverend Gilbert White, writing in 1776, described how parents of a child so afflicted would pass the infant through the trunk of an ash tree that had been split with an axe. The tree would then be bound up again, and once it healed, so would the child. The ritual was still being performed as late as 1902 in Devon.

What a beautiful and useful tree the ash is! A glimmer of hope on the preservation of the species in light of ash dieback is the Ash Archive, which consists of a collection of 3,000 ash trees planted in Hampshire. They comprise cuttings taken from ash dieback tolerant trees observed in the wild and grafted onto ash rootstocks. Their development will be monitored, in the hope that some will have a long-lasting resistance to the fungus that causes the disease. At some point in the future it might then be possible to plant these trees, or the seeds that come from them, back into the wild. Let’s hope that there is a future for this beautiful tree here in the UK.

Photo Three by Willow, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior) (Photo Three)

You can buy Archie Miles Book ‘The Trees that Made Britain – An Evergreen History’ here.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by By Pleple2000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by Willow, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday Weed – Flowering Rush

Flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus)

Dear Readers, do you have a plant that’s your nemesis? A plant that, although on paper ideally suited to your garden, refuses to thrive? Such a plant is flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus). This seems perfect for my garden – it’s a marginal, so I should just be able to pop it alongside the pond, but the poor thing is always miserable. I have tried it in various locations, and have come to the conclusion that it must be the lack of direct sunlight, even though I have put it in the brightest part of my north-facing garden.

Photo One by Zoran Gavrilović, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo One

This is a plant that seems to have everything to recommend it to a wildlife gardener. The flowers attract a variety of pollinators, and the stems and leaves provide somewhere for dragon and damselfly larvae to cling to as they metamorphose. It is a native plant, although it is not technically a rush – it is the sole member of the flowering-rush family, Butomaceae. Richard Mabey notes that an alternative name for the plant, ‘Pride of the Thames’, is no longer so relevant – the dredging of rivers and the straightening of their banks has destroyed much of the habitat that the plant relied on. As a species we do seem to like things neat and tidy, and sadly that has ruined the biodiversity of many areas. These days, you are most likely to see flowering rush on the Norfolk Broads or the Somerset Levels, where in addition to its beauty and attraction to pollinators, it provides cover for fish such as pike.

In the USA, however, it has become an invasive species, probably because there is a lot of suitable habitat. The plant can make it difficult for animals to reach the water, and it provides cover for a number of voracious introduced fish species. However the Iroquois people use the plant as a de-wormer for cattle and horses, so it clearly isn’t all bad.

Photo Two by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

A fine stand of flowering rush (Photo Two)

As far as humans are concerned, flowering rush has provided a green or yellow dye. The Yakut people of Russia called the plant ‘bread-flower’, and made flour from its rhizomes until they came into contact with wheat – until then, the plant was their main source of carbohydrates, and the roots are a very rich source of starch.

And finally, a poem. I’m not sure if the rush in the poem is ‘our’ rush, but as this is Seamus Heaney, it will do.


For Barrie Cooke

He robbed the stones’ nests, uncradled
As he orphaned and betrothed rock
To rock: his unaccustomed hand

Went chambering upon hillock

And bogland. Clamping, balancing,
That whole day spent in the Burren,
He did not find and add to them

But piled up small cairn after cairn

And dressed some stones with his own mark.
Which he tells of with almost fear;

And of strange affiliation

To what was touched and handled there,

Unexpected hives and castlings
Pennanted now, claimed by no hand:

Rush and ladysmock , heather-bells
Blowing in each aftermath of wind.

But do let me know, readers. Which are the plants that you should be able to grow, but that just don’t work for you? And any ideas on my flowering rush would also be most gratefully received.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Zoran Gavrilović, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

An Autumn Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Parasol mushroom

Dear Readers, autumn in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery means a wealth of fungi. The cemetery is now open during the week as well as at weekends, so today I went for a walk with my friend A to see what was popping up. This parasol mushroom was a particularly fine specimen (though a closer look revealed that some little creature had been nibbling at the gills underneath, but there were lots of white fungi of various kinds. You need to be very sure about what you’re doing before you start nibbling at them, however tasty they look. I could imagine some of these bubbling away in garlic butter and finished with a touch of parsley, but personally wouldn’t dare to eat them. How about you, readers? Do you forage for mushrooms yourselves?

On the way to the cemetery, we were briefly detained by this rather unusual oak. It’s a street tree with a very upright habit – from a distance you’d almost think it was a larch. However, I suspect that it’s actually a ‘normal’ English Oak (Quercus robur) but of an upright variety known as fastigiata (otherwise known as the Cypress Oak, and becoming increasingly popular as a a council planting.

The oaks in the cemetery itself are frequently heavily infested with spangle galls, such as those in the photos below.  These galls are caused by the gall wasp Neuroterus quercusbaccarum. The wasp ‘persuades’ the plant to develop the outgrowth of tissue that covers and protects the egg and then the developing larva. In the autumn the galls fall to the ground around the oak tree, and the young wasps overwinter before emerging in the spring to lay their own eggs, normally on the leaves on the lower limbs of the tree because the wasps are poor fliers. Although they look unsightly, the gall wasps appear to live in relative harmony with the oak trees, and do no lasting damage.

Deep in the woody area of the cemetery we found this impressive sessile oak (Quercus petraea) with its surprisingly thin, elegant stems. I usually think of oaks as being robust, thick-set trees, but they can be lithe and graceful too.

And we are coming into the season for the Raywood ash trees to put on a show. These are a variety of the Caucasian ash tree (Fraxinus angustifolia ssp oxycarpa ‘Raywood), also known as the Claret ash. The variety originated in Australia but during the 1970s to 1990s it was a very popular street tree. Sadly, as Paul Wood reports in his book ‘London’s Street Trees – A Field Guide to the Urban Forest‘, Raywood ashes have a habit of unexpectedly splitting apart, not a great characteristic for a tree that comes into such close contact with people. Furthermore, it doesn’t respond well to pollarding, becoming ungainly. I shall make a point of appreciating these trees while we have them – their autumn colour is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and I am keeping my fingers crossed that they will also have resistance to the ash dieback that is going to kill most of our native ash trees.

Some of the cedars of Lebanon are in flower: I always get confused between the cones and the flowers, but these seem to be the male flowers, just cracking open to release their pollen. The female flowers are smaller and green-coloured and, if pollinated, will eventually turn into the barrel-shaped cones that are so familiar.

‘My’ swamp cypress hasn’t turned rust-brown yet, but it has produced some round, green cones. The tree got its leaves very late in the spring, so I think we’ll have to be patient for the autumn colour,

We spotted this young woodpigeon pecking about – it hasn’t developed the white flash on its neck yet. Plus I think all immature pigeons and doves spend a while ‘growing into’ their beaks (much as I had to grow into my size 8 feet, which looked a bit daft until I grew to 5 foot 11 inches tall – at that point it seemed rather important to have big feet, otherwise I’d have fallen over).

On the way out of the cemetery, we were rather surprised when A suddenly spotted a dead animal bird of some considerable size laying beside the Payne mausoleum. It turned out to be a small white goose, maybe from the allotments that border the cemetery. I have spared you a photo of the ex-goose, but suffice it to say that it was definitely demised. Was it taken by a cunning fox, or did it fly into some solid object and meet an untimely end? At any rate, it was a most surprising thing to spot on an autumn walk. We alerted the cemetery staff, and no doubt the corpse has been removed by now. Life and death are everywhere in a graveyard, and not always in the way that you’d expect.

Thanks to a Mentor

Dear Readers, in February 2014 I went on a course called ‘How to Write a Blog that People Will Want to Read’, run by the Gentle Author who created Spitalfields Life, probably the best London blog around. By the end of the weekend, Bug Woman was born. This weekend I will be attending the Gentle Author’s Advanced Blogging course, and I have no doubt that I will come back full of ideas for how to take the blog forward. But for now, I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite Gentle Author posts. A post has appeared every day since August 2009, and the Gentle Author hopes to keep going until their ten thousandth post, which will be in 2037. That seemed like a long time ago once, but now it seems just around the corner! The Gentle Author has produced a daily post despite breaking an arm, having Covid and having all manner of personal tribulations.They are an inspiration.

It might be a bit early for Christmas, but I love this post so much.

As a closet cat lady, I love this post and I love the Gentle Author’s celebration of their cats Mr Pussy and Schrodinger.

But perhaps what I like most about the Spitalfields Life blog are the pen portraits of the remarkable people who live in the area. It’s hard to choose favourites, but to give you a taster, here is George Perrin, the Ice Cream Seller, Paul Gardner, the Paper Bag Seller, and this one, which I found very moving – Sammy McCarthy, Flyweight Champion.

The Gentle Author has been very involved in campaigns to save Spitalfields from the developers who are destroying it: the campaign to save the Bethnal Green mulberry was successful (twice), the campaign to save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry continues, and there is the ongoing fight to save the Truman Brewery from becoming yet another generic shopping mall. I am not sure if the Gentle Author came up with the word ‘facadism’ for what’s happening to so many of London’s historic buildings, but it’s the perfect way to describe the cynicism of saving the facade and replacing everything else with mundane, shoddy buildings. If you want to see what this looks like, have a read here.

And finally, if you need some cheer as the long nights approach and the temperature drops, have a look at the Gentle Author’s post on winter flowers here. What a great idea!

Sunday Quiz – What’s That Bird? Vernacular Names

Title Photo by Derek Keats from Johannesburg, South Africa, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Dabchick or Little Grebe (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, common birds often have a multitude of vernacular names. But can you match the name to the bird? Below is a list of local names for bird species. All you need to do is to match the name to the actual bird.

So, if you think a Cushy-Doo is a Pied Wagtail, your answer is 1) a)

Answers in the comments by 17.00 UK time on Friday 29th October please, and the results will be published on Saturday 30th October (just in time for Halloween and the UK clocks going back). I will disappear your answers when I see them, but write them down on a piece of paper if you think you might be influenced by those who went before.

Onwards, and good luck!

Vernacular Names

  1. Cushy-doo
  2. Jenny
  3. Polly Dishwasher
  4. Bonxie
  5. Windhover
  6. Willy Wix
  7. Mavis
  8. Starnel
  9. Corbie
  10. Seven-Coloured Linnet
  11. Spug
  12. Laverock
  13. Gowk
  14. Tom Tit
  15. Julie-the-bogs

Species Names 

a) Pied Wagtail
b) Starling
c) Goldfinch
d) House Sparrow
e) Blue Tit
f) Cuckoo
g) Wren
h) Raven
i) Wood Pigeon
j) Skylark
k) Great Skua
l) Kestrel
m) Song Thrush
n) Barn Owl
o) Grey Heron

Famous Animals – The Answers!

Whistlejacket, the Marquess of Rockingham’s race horse, as painted by George Stubbs (Public Domain)

Dear Readers, we have two perfect results for the quiz this week, from Fran and Bobby Freelove and from Rayna – 20/20 for both of you, so well done! Let’s see what I come up with for tomorrow 🙂

Photo One by By Stefan Schäfer, Lich - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


a) What’s the name of the horse (and for an extra point, what does the name mean?)

Bucephalus (ox-headed)

b) Who is the man who is trying to tame the horse?

Alexander the Great


a) Who is this chimp?


b) What was special about her?

She was the first non-human to use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate


a) What’s the name of this dog?


b) She was the first animal to do what?

Orbit the earth (and was one of the first animals to go into space at all)


a) What’s the name of this magnificent beast, and what was he named after?

Marengo, named after the Battle of Marengo (1800)_ 

b) Who was his rider?

Napoleon I


a) What’s the name of this pigeon?

Cher Ami

b) What did he do to deserve a Croix de Guerre medal for bravery?

He delivered a message from his encircled battalion (part of the US 77th Infantry Division) who were encircled and being heavily bombarded by their own side. He arrived back at his loft at headquarters in spite of being shot through the breast, blinded in one eye and having one leg hanging off by a tendon. 


a) Who is this (and for an extra point, who was she named after?)

Dolly the sheep, named after Dolly Parton

b) Why did she make the headlines in February 1997?

She was the first mammal cloned from an adult cell (taken in this case from a mammary gland, hence the (rather sexist) Dolly Parton connection. 


a) Who and what is this?

Goldie the Golden Eagle

b) Why did this bird make the headlines in 1965?

Goldie escaped from London Zoo and was on the loose for 12 days, during which time he was frequently seen in Regent’s Park. He attacked and ate several ducks, and there are photos of him attempting to carry off a terrier, which was only rescued when the dog’s owner threatened the bird with an umbrella.


a) Who is this rather startled horse, and who is his owner?

Incitatus, owned by the Roman Emperor Caligula 

b) What is being proposed as the horse’s new career?

According to Suetonius, Caligula planned to make the horse a consul, though whether this was a sign of his insanity, a prank or an attempt to insult the other members of the senate by suggesting that a horse could do their job is unclear.


a) What’s the name of this Irish Wolfhound?


b) What was his reward for saving this child?

In legend, the dog’s owner, Llywelyn the Great, returns from hunting to find the nursery overturned, the child missing and Gelert with blood on his muzzle. Fearing that the dog has killed the child, his owner stabs him, only to hear the child crying. Llywelyn then finds the body of a wolf (in some variations a snake) that the dog has killed to saved the infant. The dog’s body is buried with great ceremony, but according to the legends Llywelyn never smiles again. 

And last but not least…..


a) This is Magawa. What species is he?

He is an African Pouched Rat

b) Why was he given a medal?

Magawa is trained to sniff out unexploded mines and ordnance, and had cleared 141,000 square metres of land in Cambodia, finding 71 landmines and 38 items of unexploded ordnance. He was the most successful rat trained by APOPO, a Belgian non-profit that trains the rats. He got the medal on the occasion of his (well-earned) retirement. 

Thoughts on Oaks

Dear Readers, ‘The Trees that Made Britain – An Evergreen History’ by Archie Miles  was apparently made into a television series in 2006 and I can see why – it’s full to bursting with interesting facts about our native trees. I’m sorry I missed the programmes, but there’s something rather nice about reading at your own pace without being overwhelmed by images or (increasingly) overblown background music. There is a new TV series featuring David Attenborough called ‘The Mating Game’, where the music is so overwhelming that it’s difficult to concentrate. How I hate it when the music is designed to tell you what to feel – I blame Steven Spielberg meself.

But I digress, as usual.

I will be reading this book for a while, so today here are a few facts about that most English of trees, the Oak. Except that there are two species, the Pedunculate or English Oak (Quercus robur) and the Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea). Now, one of these species has short stems on the leaves and long stems on the acorns, and the other species has long stems on the leaves and short stems on the acorns. And do you think I can remember which is which? Well, now I will, because a peduncle is a long stem, and sessile comes from the Latin sessilis, meaning ‘low of sitting’, which is not too far from ‘no stem’ in my mind. All I need to remember now is that both terms relate to the acorns and I’ll be in business for once.

Then, Miles discusses Lammas growth, which I had never heard of. Apparently, oaks often throw a new flush of growth around 1st August (Lammas Day), to replace the leaves that were lost to insect infestations earlier in the year. As Miles puts it:

During this time the tree will bear two distinct sets of leaves, the older foliage having matured to a dark green, contrasting with the bright green (or in some cases slightly reddish) colour of the new.”

Has anyone else noticed this? Something to look out for in years to come, I think.

Photo One by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Lammas growth on a Pedunculate Oak (Photo One)

Miles also talks about ‘stag-headed oaks’, where the canopy on older trees has receded, leaving dead branches sticking out through the live growth. I’ve always thought of this as a bad sign, but Miles points out that it’s a way for the tree to preserve its strength – a smaller canopy needs a much smaller root system, so it’s less ‘expensive’ for the tree to maintain. I suspect that it also reduces the tree’s exposure to the extremes of wind and weather that younger trees are maybe more able to resist.

Photo Two by Kate Jewell / Stag-headed oak, Croxton Park

Stag-headed Oak in Croxton Park (Photo Two)

In his section on ‘The Useful Oak’, Miles talks about the role of the oak in shipbuilding. Until the second half of the nineteenth century when iron hulls were introduced, wood and especially oak was the principal material used for the creation of ships. Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, took the timber of 6000 trees, 90% of which was oak, with elm for the keel and fir, pine and spruce for the masts and yards. The ship cost £63,176 to build, the equivalent of building an aircraft carrier today.

Interestingly, though, Miles points out that the most valuable commodity ever extracted from oakwoods was not the timber, but the bark. Huge quantities were used in the tanning industry from 1780 to the mid nineteenth century, with coppiced oakwoods being managed on rotation to satisfy the demand for the commodity. Miles describes the process:

“In the spring, when the sap was rising, great gangs of men and women would head into the woods, the men to cut and carry, the women to strip the bark with distinctive spoon-bladed knives called barking irons or peeling irons”.

There is a fascinating article here about the Dartmoor ‘rippers’, the people who stripped the bark in the oakwoods of the area. This was a massive industry: an average tannery could get through a ton of bark in a week. Who knew? Not me, for sure.

And finally, Miles considers the myths and legends that surround the oak tree. Oaks that bore mistletoe were sacred to the Druids, and the mistletoe retained its mystical healing powers provided it was never dropped – its magic came from its never having touched the ground. Felling a mistletoe oak was considered a terrible deed, one that would bring disaster to all those involved. It’s a great shame that we haven’t retained such a sense of the importance of trees.

Many churches contain carvings of oak leaves and acorns, and as with so many things, these symbols provide a link to the pagan past. Acorns were thought to provide protection against lightning strikes, which is why you’ll often find them carved on stair banisters or as toggles for pulling blinds. People used to carry acorns in their pockets, not just to prevent themselves from being electrified unexpectedly but also because the acorn was thought to confer good health and fertility. It’s probably no wonder that the Green Man, another pagan figure who sometimes crops up as a sculpture in old churches, is often crowned with oak leaves.

Photo Three from

Green man in Westminster Abbey (Photo Three)

And so I learned a lot about oaks from this wonderful book. The next chapter is on Ash, so let’s see what comes out of my study of that fine tree.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Kate Jewell / Stag-headed oak, Croxton Park

Photo Three from