Dear Readers, there are a number of exciting plans for Coldfall Wood and the neighbouring Muswell Hill Playing Fields this year, including a much-delayed meadow on the edge of the Fields (watch this space for more details). But today was cold and sunny, and it was good to have a walk and to see what was going on at this quietest time of the year. First up was this little chap.
How fluffed up he looks! It’s easy to forget that ring-necked parakeets are quite used to cold weather across their range – it can get extremely cold in parts of India at night, for example. These individuals were already looking at nest sites and generally making a racket.
The crows love to hang out in the trees on the edge of the fields, watching in case someone drops some food, or if there’s something or someone to play with. They seem to catch up on all the local gossip as well.
The trees seem bare, but there are already buds, and the beauty of their structure is revealed best at this time of year.
This brown rat seemed very at home along the edge of the stream – I know that people don’t like to see them, but they are extremely interesting and intelligent creatures, and very adaptable. They also ‘follow the food’, so if people didn’t drop their food, there probably wouldn’t be as many rats – anecdotal evidence suggests that the population increased during lockdown, when the woods were the only places where many people could get outdoors.
I love the way that the ice crystals on the handrails of the boardwalk form a kind of miniature forest…
and the boardwalk records the footprints of the people and animals who have crossed it. Don’t dogs get cold paws? Their pads must be warm to melt the ice underfoot.
Then it’s back home, and the squirrels have clearly discovered the bird table, which I’ve been keeping topped up in the very cold weather. They seem very well insulated against the chilly temperatures, and they don’t hibernate as such – they might sleep out the very coldest days, but will usually be out and about regularly, presumably haunting the bird feeders of everybody on the street, and trying to remember where they buried the peanuts that they collected earlier in the year. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of ‘my’ squirrels digging up a cache, so maybe it’s just easier to hunt out the fresh stuff provided by us humans. I don’t begrudge them, anyway. As I think I’ve said before, when you have a wildlife garden you don’t get to be too choosy about who turns up.
Dear Readers, a long time ago I was walking along a beach on the mainland of Orkney when I found a skull, light as paper, with a long, delicate, curved bill attached. I could not believe the fragility of it, the precision of the two mandibles – they were more like surgical instruments than something that was once attached to a bird. It was the beak of a curlew, our largest wading bird.
Curlew skull (Photo by Mr John Cummings)
That beak is there to enable the curlew to probe deeply into the mud for worms and other invertebrates, more deeply than any other bird in the country, and so it relies on the pattern of tides for its food. Its chicks, however, are incubated and hatched in the barest of scrapes in the ground. It’s been noted that curlews sometimes nest close to kestrels, so that the birds of prey will help to keep winged predators from their chicks, even though the kestrels are not averse to an occasional curlew snack.
Curlews are amongst the most widespread of waders – they turn up in coastal areas from Europe to as far east as Japan, and as far south as Cape Town in South Africa. Nonetheless, the curlew is Red Listed here due to a decline in the UK breeding population – as over 30 percent of European curlews breed in the UK, this gives serious cause for concern. What’s to blame? The usual suspects, and a more unusual one. The intensification of agriculture and the way that moors have been converted to forestry are factors in the decline of many species, but curlew chicks and eggs are heavily predated by foxes in particular. Many of the conservation organisations that are trying to save the species point at the shooting industry. The biomass of pheasants and red-legged partridges released into the British countryside solely for people to shoot is the equivalent of a quarter of British wild bird biomass annually, and as much as half in August. All these semi-tame fat birds wandering about has led to an increase in the fox population, and so the system is unbalanced – there are more foxes about, and therefore less curlews. Of course, the causes of the decline of a particular bird are many and various, but I would be looking very hard at these figures. Incidentally, the shooting industry were asked to reduce the number of gamebirds released this year because of avian flu, but the majority of birds were still released as usual.
If I sound even more angry than usual this week, it’s because curlews could be heard all across the UK when I was growing up – we used to stay in a caravan in Whitstable in Kent, right next door to the famous oyster beds and mudflats. The curlew’s call would mix with the cries of the lapwings and the other waders, and it was the very sound of being on holiday. The sound of curlews sends a shiver up my spine even now. The call was recorded at Wexford, County Cork by Irish Wildlife Sounds
Photo by Mike Pennington
All endangered species need a champion, and the curlew found one in the form of Mary Colwell, who is chair of the Curlew Recovery Project, wrote a well-received book called ‘Curlew Moon‘ about a 500 mile walk that she undertook to visit the sites in Ireland, Wales and England where the birds can be found and who founded World Curlew Day, which takes place on April 21st each year. Rather than just getting angry, she got busy, and has arguably galvanised more action to conserve these remarkable birds than any other single individual – she was named as one of the BBC’s Top 50 Most Influential Conservationists in the UK, and, with Green MP Caroline Lucas, managed to get a Natural History GCSE onto the UK curriculum. Largely thanks to her activism, Downing Street announced that the curlew was ‘the panda of UK conservation’. Let’s hope that her drive and passion, her ability to engage with farmers, gamekeepers, landowners and members of the public, can yet turn the fate of the curlew around.
Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata) at Borit, Gojal, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan Photo by Imran Shah (gilgit2,)
Winter-flowering Cherry on Huntingdon Road in East Finchley
Dear Readers, if there’s one plant that is guaranteed to be in flower on my birthday, it’s the winter-flowering cherry at the bottom of my road here in East Finchley. How welcome it is! Today the temperature is below freezing, and the road rang with the sound of windscreens being scraped, but here’s the tree, popping out its snowflake-flowers.
So, why does this tree flower from November to April, instead of in spring like any self-respecting plant? The answer is not ‘climate change’ (in this instance), or to enable the blossom to be pollinated by some particularly weather-proof bee. Nope, it flowers in the winter because we’ve bred it that way, presumably because we felt the long, dark January days needed some cheering up. On his ‘Street Trees’ blog, Paul Wood points out that in the very coldest weather the blossom actually gets frost bite and turns brown. Wood also mentions that winter-flowering cherries have a second burst of flowering in April, just as the leaves appear, and that these flowers are different from the earlier ones – the spring flowers have stalks, the winter ones don’t.
“What a strange thing! to be alive beneath cherry blossoms.”
― Kobayashi Issa, Poems
Indeed. And now, let’s see what I had to say about this plant back in 2016.
Winter Flowering Cherry (Prunus subhirtella)
Dear Readers, this plant may seem an odd choice for a Wednesday Weed. For one thing, it is not a ‘weed’ even by my very wide definition and, although it probably originated in Japan, it is unknown in the wild. But on a dark January day, with slushy snow still on the ground and with the bitter wind infiltrating every gap between clothing and skin, it lit up St Pancras and Islington Cemetery like a sprinkle of starlight.
The people of Japan have an enduring relationship with cherry blossom – the fairy Ko-no-hana-sakuya-hime, ‘the maiden who causes the trees to bloom’, is said to waken the dormant trees into blossom by softly breathing on them. These were the trees of Emperors, and much time and effort was spent in selecting the best specimens (cherry trees are capable of great variation) and developing new kinds – the Japanese have had double-flowered cherry trees for over a thousand years. Furthermore, the Japanese knew about the art of grafting one tree onto another since early times, and so could propagate a new and exciting variety by persuading a cutting to grow from the stem of a more mundane tree. This is one reason why many people believe that the Winter Flowering Cherry is a hybrid (probably between the Fuji Cherry (Prunus incisa) and the Weeping Tree (Prunus spachiana) ). In Japan, the trees are doted upon, and some Winter Flowering Cherries can reach a very impressive stature.
A pink Winter Flowering Cherry at the front of the Juinji Temple in Koshu, Japan.(Photo One – Credit below)
Cherry blossom was so much tied up with Japanese culture that the trees were sometimes planted in order to claim occupied territory as Japanese space. The ephemeral nature of the blossoms symbolises mortality in Buddhist teachings, and during the Second World War the Japanese population were encouraged to regard the flowers as the reincarnations of kamikaze fighters – indeed, one kamikaze sub-unit was named ‘the Wild Cherry Blossoms’. That these delicate blossoms could be used for such a militaristic purpose may seem strange to us now, but humans have always co-opted the symbolism of plants and animals and used it to shore up their own ideas.
Although the fruit of ornamental varieties of cherry is usually inedible, the Japanese pickle the blossoms in plum vinegar. The pickle is used with wagashi (a traditional Japanese sweet) and with anpan, which is a kind of Japanese doughnut.
Pickled Cherry Blossom (Photo Two – credit below)
A plate of Wagashi (Photo Three – credit below)
Salt-pickled cherry blossoms in hot water produce a kind of tea called sakurayu, which is drunk at festive events.
Sakurayu – cherry blossom tea (Photo Four – credit below)
The Latin species name ‘subhirtella’ means ‘slightly hairy’, apparently a reference to the young wood. I shall have to look more closely later in the year to see if the plant has a tendency to shagginess.
Although it hasn’t been cold here in London, it has felt like a very long winter, and of course we are not out of the dark yet. But it is rather cheering to see something flowering when it should, rather than months early, and if any bee were foolish enough to venture out when it gets a little warmer at least there will be something for it to feed on. I like to think that maybe the collective spirits of all the people buried in the cemetery derive some pleasure from the flowers as well. At the very least, this early cherry blossom is something beautiful for the visitors to the cemetery to gaze upon when their mood is at its lowest. Let us never underestimate the solace that nature can provide.
Anole lizard (Anolis cristatellus) Photo by Postdlf,
Dear Readers, living in the city is always a bit of a challenge if you’re used to the country – all those wide open spaces, all that concrete, all that fast food and the ever-present danger of getting squished by a bus (and that’s just for us humans). Imagine, then, the difficulties that a city environment presents to these little chaps – this Puerto Rico crested anole lizard (Anolis cristatellus) is normally found in the forests of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, but has set up home on many other Caribbean islands. Increasingly, the lizards are moving into towns and cities, and scientist Kristin Winchell and her colleagues wanted to investigate how these urban animals differed from their country cousins.
First up, Winchell’s team discovered that city lizards had longer legs, presumably to enable them to navigate the pavements and squares at speed without being trodden on or picked off by predators. Secondly, those famously sticky toe pads were larger and stickier than usual, probably to enable them to climb glass and other shiny surfaces in search of their insect prey.
Winchell did some genetic analysis of city lizards from three different cities, and discovered that all of them had changes in the genes that controlled leg and skin development – this is a fine example of parallel evolution, where unrelated animals change in similar ways because the environment provides similar challenges. She also discovered that there were changes in a group of genes that affect immune function and metabolism – lizards in cities may be eating a non-optimal diet, and may also be subject to injuries that wouldn’t befall them in a forest, so a robust immune system would be a clear advantage.
However, the group of genes that have mutated to allow the lizard’s legs to grow longer, and their feet to grow stickier can also cause limb deformities in humans – it’s interesting to consider how many lizards ended up unable to function, and also what the knock-on effect might be on their offspring. In evolution there are always trade-offs, especially on the way to the best solution for a species. Plus, things never stand still – what works in one environment might have to be fine-tuned to work in another.
Incidentally, for a short while I had a pet anole – a different species to this one, with a pink crest under his throat. He mostly lived a very quiet life, but on one occasion I saw him flicking the little flag under his chin at an uncomprehending skink. I was entranced, but I quickly realised that keeping these little creatures in captivity for my own amusement was depriving them of most of the things that they needed to thrive – a mate and a rich and complex environment. How much better to observe wild creatures in their native habitat!
Dear Readers, every night at about 3.30 p.m. there’s a gathering of starlings in the back garden, as they try to decide whether it’s safe to descend for a last feed before roosting. Some days I see the flock wheel over the house, bank and fly straight to the top of the hawthorn tree, where they sit for a while, chattering amongst themselves and checking the garden out for predators. There are a couple of cats who hang around inconspicuously, at least to me, but there are enough pairs of eyes to spot them. Plus it’s very cold today, so most self-respecting cats are looking for a spot of sunshine to sit in.
At this time of year, you can really see why the birds are called starlings – look at those silver triangles on their breasts and bellies! The sun doesn’t get into the garden much at all at this time of year, but it does burnish the very top branches, turning the iridescence of the plumage into greens and purples.
The birds are particularly reluctant to come down today because two squirrels are having a row. There is much tail-twitching and growling. Times are hard, and there are a lot of nuts stashed in the garden. Generally things are resolved after a quick chase, but there’s a lot of sound and fury before it gets to that stage. You can see the two squirrels with their tails thrashing in the first little film, and one on his or her own in the second one.
Elsewhere, the chaffinches are eating the sunflower hearts – the starlings aren’t keen on these, so they only have to fight off the goldfinches, and an occasional robin. I love their mothy flight, and the males are looking particularly dapper at the moment, in their livery of deepest pink. When a female took flight I noticed for the first time that their backs are greenish-yellow – it just goes to show that however familiar a creature seems, it can always surprise you.
Two female chaffinches
It’s going to be cold for the next few days (though we aren’t expecting snow this far south). Still, it feels like a time of slim pickings, and I shall be keeping the feeders topped up. I often wonder how these frail creatures make it though the winter, and the answer is that lots of them don’t. How much more precious, then, are the ones that survive.
Dear Readers, today I noticed that the pair of parakeets who’ve been visiting the peanuts have swelled to four. At this rate of exponential growth I won’t be able to get into the garden for small green parrots by the end of the month, but they are most welcome at their current numbers, especially as they prefer the peanuts to anything else, and they are the only ones who eat them. Even the squirrels prefer the sunflower hearts. Go figure.
Today I have mostly been involved in writing up my assignment for my cell biology OU course – it’s due on 24th January but as it’s my birthday on the 20th I didn’t want to spend all of next weekend plugging away when I could be sitting on the sofa, sipping champagne and generally being decadent. To be frank, my brain has pretty much exploded with all the new things I have to learn on the subject of enzymes and DNA and mRNA and tRNA but I have enjoyed pretty much every minute, in spite of having to work like billy-o to catch up after my illness before Christmas. One more push and I’ll be on top of everything, I reckon.
Anyhow, this is a short one today as it’s been pouring with rain and I’ve barely looked outside the door, except to note that the Christmas trees have not been collected yet and so they’ll probably be cluttering up the place for the next week. However, my lovely readers have contacted me to tell me of some innovative ways that other places are using their Christmas trees – Anne Guy tells me that her local wildlife reserve was putting old Christmas trees in the lake to act as a refuge for the fish, and Kaydee Rouge tells me that her local yarn producers Whistlebare have been feeding the trees to their angora goats, who seem very happy with the forage.
Goats enjoying the Christmas trees at Whistlebare farm
I just hope that no one has sprayed their trees with fire-retardant/fir perfume/any of the other strange potions that you can use these days, but I’m sure that the people collecting the trees will have asked. And, in the case of the goats, what a great way to convert plants into soil nutrients!
Dear Readers, here in East Finchley the absolute end of Christmas is marked by the appearance of the discarded Christmas trees outside every other house, as far as the eye can see, waiting for Barnet Council to take them away. To qualify for collection, it’s suggested that all the decorations and lights are removed (not always as easy as you’d think – in my experience there’s always some stray angel or elf or (in my case) Christmas Beetle that gets spotted at the last minute). Then, the tree has to be cut in half, which I imagine might be the source of some hilarity – certainly a chorus of Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song might be required in the houses of the over-60s.
And finally, the trees have to be put ‘at the boundary of your property’ by January 13th ‘to be collected over the next two weekends’.
I can’t help thinking that if the trees are not collected on the 14th they are going to be a right blooming nuisance for those with prams/wheelchairs/mobility issues/sight impairment for another week, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the County Roads are early on the list.
The Archers Christmas Tree from outside Budgens, waiting for collection.
One sad sight is the big Christmas tree from outside Budgens waiting to be collected. For a few years, there was a growing fir tree here, which was decorated every year, and which formed the centrepiece for the Christmas carols and the turning on of the Christmas lights. Alas, the tree sickened and died, for who knows what reason – a fairly shallow bed on a main road is probably not the best environment for a large-ish conifer, but at least everyone tried. This year there was a temporary tree. I shall be interested to see what happens for Christmas 2023.
So, what happens to all those ‘used’ Christmas trees? They are put through the chipper, allowed to compost for a bit, and then used as mulch in municipal parks and gardens, and even for things like running tracks. A tree that is recycled in this way reduces its carbon footprint by about 80% (to about 3.5kg C02e). If it ends up in landfill, a 2-metre tall tree emits about 16kg C02e, which is because a decomposing tree emits methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than methane. If you have an artificial tree, it will ‘pay for itself’ in terms of carbon after 7-20 years, depending on how it was manufactured (so I can feel nice and smug about my 30 year-old plastic tree). Probably the very best option is a potted tree which lives outside for most of the year and is brought in for a few weeks at Christmas, but that requires a fair amount of brute strength to lug it in and out of the house (and somewhere to put it for most of the year).
According to the Carbon Trust, the pot or stand should be re-used every year, as all that metal or plastic can radically impact on a tree’s environmental cost.
And so Christmas really is over, and it’s time to get stuck into 2023. Who knows what excitement it will bring? Now that the cough that has lasted nearly two month feels like it’s finally on the wane, I can’t wait.
Christmas trees outside Tony’s Continental in East Finchley at the beginning of their lives.
Dear Readers, on Fridays I try to share something that I’ve read that has cheered me up, and so this week I am turning my attention to the sloth, that ‘languid dangler’ of Central and South American forests. I was lucky enough to have a trip to Costa Rica a few years ago and fell in love with these animals, partly because they always seemed so relaxed. I especially loved this one. The only view that we got of her baby was this little limb poking out, but it could not have been more adorable.So it was with some delight that I read that sloths have been found to have a pound-for-pound grip stronger than humans, chimps or even gorillas. Researcher Melody Young, who was working at the Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica, noticed how strong (and sometimes painful) the grip of the sloths was when they clasped on to the side of her torso, and she got to thinking. She invented what sounds like a rather Heath Robinson kind of device, which consisted of a bisected broom handle and a force-measuring plate. The sloths were encouraged to dangle from it, and it was found that they exerted a force equivalent to 100 percent of their body weight, with some even getting up to 150 percent. This is twice as much force as a human or a chimp.
Sloths don’t have the musculature of primates, but their feet are extremely well-muscled, and this probably relates to their lifestyle – sloths are not agile animals, so if they lose their grip they can’t just skip merrily to the next branch like a monkey can, and so their ability to hang on becomes their main defence. There are many stories of hunters having to cut down trees to get to a sloth, and of the corpses of sloths that have been attacked by jaguars being found still clasped to a branch.
Sloth in Costa Rica
The scientists investigating the sloth think that even these grip estimates are probably much lower than the sloth is actually capable of – as one of them says, you can’t say to a sloth ‘grip that stick as hard as you can’. But there is another related mystery. While primates are predominantly right-handed/footed, sloths have a very strong left-handed bias, with the left side being consistently stronger than the right-hand side. Does anyone have any theories? I am scratching my head.
You can read the whole article here (you might need to register but you don’t need to pay anything).
And here is Finlay, one of the sloths who had his grip measured at the Sanctuary. Just look at that little face! And also look at those claws. If I was a jaguar I’d think twice about trying to eat an animal with such splendid weapons.
Long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis) Photo By Wolfgang Wander
Dear Readers, to see these impressive ducks at this time of year you need to be bobbing about in a boat turning gently green, preferably in the far north of Scotland, Orkney maybe, or Shetland. In the summer, long-tailed ducks breed in Iceland and Greenland, the tundra of Canada and the taiga of Russia, but they flee the extremes of cold in these parts to winter at sea in (slightly) warmer climes. What grace they bring to a mid-winter boat trip!
These are marine ducks, capable of diving up to 55 metres below the surface in pursuit of small fish, crustaceans and molluscs. Alas, they are not just becoming rare in UK waters, but are red-listed because they are globally threatened – their deep dives lead to them becoming entangled in fishing nets, and trawling and over-fishing are damaging the food reserves upon which they rely.
Female long-tailed duck and ducklings in Iceland – Photo By Ómar Runólfsson
Long-tailed ducks are raucous and boisterous ducks. In the Crossley Guide to British and Irish Birds, Richard Crossley and Dominic Couzens describe their antics thus:
“Groups often chase one another around in agile pursuit-flight, twisting from side to side. Makes a belly flop and big splash in water when landing. Very vocal, with beautiful yodelling call”.
As you can see from the illustration below, long-tailed ducks come in a whole variety of colours and patterns, depending on age and sex. Most ducks only have a ‘breeding’ plumage and a ‘winter’ plumage, but the long-tailed duck has three, with an additional ‘supplemental’ plumage.
And you can hear that yodelling cry below, recorded by Jarek Matusiak. To me, it sounds like the quintessence of the northlands. In Iceland, the duck is called ‘hávella’, after its call, and a particularly raucous gathering is thought to indicate wild weather to come. On the Birdnote blog, it mentions that the call has led to a variety of names for the bird, including ‘John Connally’, ‘My Aunt Huldy’ and the Cree name ‘Ha-Hah-Way’. See what you think.
Long-tailed ducks are hunted across much of their range – their gatherings must seem extensive, though I’m sure that even the hunters might realise how their numbers have declined over the years. Fortunately there is an agreement on the shooting of migratory waterbirds which has banned lead shot (waterfowl that aren’t shot are often poisoned by ingesting lead pellets), and which works to conserve birds like the long-tailed duck which cross international boundaries during their migrations.
What an extraordinary bird this is! It spends about four times as long under the water as it does on the surface, it yodels and it changes its plumage about as often as we change our outer garments in a week in winter in the UK. There are a variety of projects going on to try to save the long-tailed duck, including one by the RSPB which involves equipping gill nets (which catch not only long-tailed ducks but all manner of other marine life, including dolphins and porpoises) with a googly-eyed device that scares the birds away from the nets. However, I am in broad agreement with this blog by Simon Mustoe, which argues that this is a bit back-to-front – scaring the ducks away from their food source is no way to preserve them and the whole ecosystem. Surely controlling and limiting fishing would be a better idea?
Dear Readers, when I was writing my garden update yesterday, I suddenly wondered if I had ever done a ‘Wednesday Weed’ on hazel, and indeed I had, back in 2015. I remember wandering the streets of East Finchley on a cold and blustery day, and wondering what on earth I was going to write about, when suddenly I noticed the catkins outside Martin School. Writing this blog has really reminded me to pay attention, even on the most unpromising of days.
We are just coming up to the busiest time of the year at work, when it feels like nothing but deadlines, but I am reminded that nature is going on all around us all the time. And because I love it, here is my favourite hazel poem. I always wondered what an Aengus was, but according to the interwebs, Aengus was the god of love in Irish mythology. Yeats himself described the poem as “the kind of poem I like best myself—a ballad that gradually lifts … from circumstantial to purely lyrical writing.”
The Song of Wandering Aengus BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
I went out to the hazel wood, Because a fire was in my head, And cut and peeled a hazel wand, And hooked a berry to a thread; And when white moths were on the wing, And moth-like stars were flickering out, I dropped the berry in a stream And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor I went to blow the fire a-flame, But something rustled on the floor, And someone called me by my name: It had become a glimmering girl With apple blossom in her hair Who called me by my name and ran And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering Through hollow lands and hilly lands, I will find out where she has gone, And kiss her lips and take her hands; And walk among long dappled grass, And pluck till time and times are done, The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun.
Source: The Wind Among the Reeds (1899)
And now, let’s zip back to 2015 and see what I had to say about hazel back then.
Hazel Catkins (Corylus avellana)
Dear Readers, this week the search for a Wednesday Weed sent me in a completely different direction from my usual route. On a rainy, blustery day, I headed off towards our local primary school, to see if the playing fields there had anything growing that I had not already covered. In vain I peered through the fence at the turf, until my eyes refocused and I realised that I’d been looking at my subject all along. For what is more surprising on a January day than a plant that is already in full flower, ready to reproduce when everything else is still in bed?
Male Hazel Catkin
The male Hazel catkin has the delightful colour of a sherbet-lemon. With every damp gust, invisible clouds of pollen are released. With any luck, they will be captured on by the red female flowers who wait with open arms, a little like sea anemones.
Female Hazel Catkin
It is these female flowers that will eventually turn into hazelnuts. They will promptly be nibbled off by squirrels or, if we are extremely lucky, by dormice. Kentish Cobnuts, with their creamy white interiors and little hats of pale green, are a domesticated variety of the hazelnut, but the wild variety is perfectly good to eat, and was, indeed, one of the staple foods of prehistoric peoples. Hazel has grown in the UK for at least the last 6000 years, and only birch was quicker to colonise the country after the last Ice Age. The spread of the plant throughout Europe has been attributed to its being carried from place to place by humans. After all, nuts are a concentrated, portable form of protein and carbohydrate. What better food if you’re embarking on a (very) long walk?
The Hazel growing beside the school playing fields has turned itself into a small tree, but historically it is much coppiced, the stems being used for a wide variety of purposes. They are extremely flexible, and can be turned back upon themselves or knotted. They were woven together to form both hurdles and fences, and were also used as the framework for wattle and daub walls. They are still used in thatching, to hold the thatch down, because the hazel stems can be bent through 180 degrees. A more modern use is in the creation of sound screens alongside motorways.
Here, a Wattle gate is used to keep the animals out of the 15th Century cabbage patch. This is from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval handbook on health and well-being, and well worth further study.
And here we can see a wattle and daub construction, with the twigs visible behind the mud used to make the walls (By MrPanyGoff (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
A plant which has lived alongside us in these islands since the very beginning, Hazel has many associations with Druid and Celtic beliefs. Its stems have been used for water divination, and for the making of shepherds’ crooks and pilgrims’ staffs. A Hazel tree was believed to be the home of Bile Ratha, the poetic fairy of Irish folklore, and it was believed that eating hazelnuts would bestow wisdom. On Dartmoor, Hazel was said to be the cure for snake and dog bites. And, to prevent toothache, you simply have to carry a double-hazelnut in your pocket at all times.
The catkins are shivering in the wintry blast, and so am I. Parents are tearing past me in their cars, hurrying to pick their children up from the school gate and giving me a decidedly funny look as I stand in the rain, peering through the fence with my camera. I wonder if any of the children will get the chance to admire the catkins, the first sign that the long dark is finally loosening its grip. I hope that someone will take the time to show the little ones the ‘lambs tails’, and explain to them about this plant. After all, we have been living together, side by side, for six thousand years.