Author Archives: Bug Woman

LNHS Talks – Urban Foxes by Professor Dawn Scott

Dear Readers, as you will know I am a great fan of our urban foxes, and so I was looking forward to this talk very much. Prof. Scott did one of the earliest and most extensive studies of urban foxes in Bristol, and much of what she found has greatly informed our understanding of these animals.

Prof. Scott is very interested in how animals adapt to urban landscapes, and why some do better than others. She describes cities as ‘landscapes of fear and opportunity’. The opportunities include that cities are warmer, there are less predators, more food (especially as people deliberately feed year-round), lots of niches for refuge, and consistent water supplies. There is, however, less natural food, more competition, a higher risk of disease as territories tend to be smaller, danger from the roads, from some pets, and also, of course, a high risk of conflict with people. The animals that tend to do best are enterprising generalists – this includes foxes, but also badgers (who are increasingly being seen in the suburbs) and hedgehogs (who are now commoner in urban areas than in many places in the countryside).

Prof. Scott described how adaptation to city life for an animal usually includes an increased density of animals (as there are more food resources), higher aggression (because of competition for those resources) and much less fear of humans – this is known as ‘synurbanisation’. She considers that the extraordinary ability of the fox to navigate the 3-dimensional structures of the city to be one of its key skills in making the city its home – she tells of finding foxes living on roofs and in trees. Anyone who has seen a fox effortlessly bound over a six-foot fence will be nodding their heads in agreement.

Prof. Scott believes that an understanding of the fox would help to offset some of the hostility that people feel towards the animal. Socially, foxes tend to live in groups of 3 or 4 – typically a small ‘family’. However, foxes forage for food on their own once they’re into adolescence. They communicate mainly by smell, which explains the piles of poo and that heavy ‘foxy’ smell that they produce – it’s thought that the scent messages might include sex, breeding status and even dominance. As anyone who has been woken up in the night also knows, foxes communicate by sound too – there are over 28 different calls, including the screaming of vixens, the barking of dog foxes and the various bouts of yipping that can enliven many an early morning. However, the screaming is only likely to be heard in December – February, when the vixens are in heat and, apart from a lot of chaos when the cubs leave the den in May, foxes are generally fairly quiet for the rest of the year. Females will have a natal den where the cubs are born (frequently under a garden shed it seems), but they will move the cubs if disturbed, and adult foxes will have several rest sites in their territory where they hide during the day. They are largely, but not exclusively, nocturnal, as the foxes who turn up in my garden will attest.

Only one in five foxes will live to be two years old, with roads claiming the majority of victims. In captivity, foxes can live ten to fourteen years on average.

On the vexed question of whether we were becoming ‘overrun’ with urban foxes, Prof. Scott looked back through the records, and had done several scientific studies of her own. Her view was that urban foxes had certainly spread – in the 1980’s, 91% of cities had no urban foxes, but now most of them did, with the foxes spreading north and west. Her study in Bristol showed that there were approximately 36 foxes per square kilometre. However, in 2010 a devastating outbreak of mange killed 95% of the foxes in the city.

Prof. Scott showed several photos of foxes, some with mange, some who were simply shedding their winter coats. One way of telling is obviously bare, sore flesh, but a real giveaway seems to be if the tails are looking scratty – this is a clear sign of mange. Healthier foxes seem to be able to just shrug it off, but for foxes already weakened by bad nutrition it can be a death sentence. Furthermore, there’s no easy solution: the jury is out on the homeopathic solution that can be given without harm (and possibly without any positive effects either) but the normal veterinary treatment can only be given under controlled circumstances. Furthermore, Prof. Scott found that foxes who were taken into sanctuaries for treatment and then released back into their old territories nearly always found that a new fox had taken over their old home, and the original incumbents were usually driven out, with all the concomitant dangers of being run over as they searched for a new territory. Prof. Scott’s opinion was that, hard as it seems, mange is something that limits the numbers of foxes in an area when they get too high – it thrives in conditions where there are lots of foxes in close proximity. A more ‘usual’ population of foxes seems to be about 12 foxes per square kilometre, something seen in more recent studies in Bristol (post mange) and London.

High concentrations of foxes are often supported by feeding. In a recent study, Prof. Scott found that 36% of the people in her study fed foxes, mostly either by hand or at the back door. One fox in the study spent his whole time waiting outside the house where he was fed at 8 p.m. and then moving to house number two where he was fed at 10 p.m. There are issues around what was fed (foxes definitely like jam sandwiches but are unlikely to make them for themselves), and the danger of allowing foxes to associate people with food. Some of the more lurid headlines seem to feature foxes who feel perfectly comfortable going into people’s houses and making themselves at home, often biting people when cornered. Prof. Scott’s advice is to feed little, feed something appropriate (like dog food) and not to feed too close to the house, and certainly never by hand.

And finally, one of the questions that Prof. Scott is frequently asked is ‘do foxes kill cats?’ Well, we’ll never know for sure that there isn’t a rogue fox out there with a taste for felines, but judging by the trail camera evidence, a solitary cat can see off two foxes who attempt to snaffle her tea. Apparently in all the filmed incidents, the cat beat up the fox. Badgers trump foxes and cats, however, although there was no evidence that badgers actually hurt cats. One film clip showed a hedgehog feeding, at which point a fox picked it up and deposited it elsewhere before coming back to eat the food. It’s easy to see that that’s a situation that could lead to the fox predating the hedgehog.

So, this was a very interesting talk, with a lot of thought given to how people and foxes can live together more harmoniously. Prof. Scott thinks that understanding the fox is key, and I agree – as with everything, knowing the reason for something (such as night time screaming or piles of poo) can make it a lot more bearable. I for one love to see the touch of wildness that the fox brings, and am happy to put up with a little inconvenience for the pleasure of their company.

You can watch the whole of the talk here. Highly recommended.

A young vixen in St Pancras and Islington cemetery. My favourite British wild mammal.



The Dead Wood of Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, we all love a good tree, but what about when it’s felled or trimmed or comes to the end of its life? I took a walk in Coldfall Wood on Friday with my good friend A, as people generally don’t seem to appreciate how important dead wood is to the ecology of woodland. Just look, for example, at the moss growing on these logs. There will be all kinds of invertebrates living under the bark, and no doubt mice and beetles and all sorts of other creatures will be living in the interstices. In time the whole lot will rot down (with the aid of a whole army of fungi, insects, bacteria and other detritivores) and return to feed the new trees that will grow up in the space that the tree once occupied.

There are wood piles from when some of the trees were coppiced a few years ago, and, whilst you can only see the fungal fruiting bodies later in the year, they host a whole range of different species.

Black bulgar fungus

Candlesnuff fungus

Hairy Curtain Crust

Standing dead trees can provide roosting holes not only for the obvious candidates, such as woodpeckers and nuthatches, but also for birds such as this stock dove. These are shy little birds, smaller than a wood pigeon, with what I always think of as ‘kind’ dark eyes.

Dead trees often have a kind of grandeur and beauty all of their own. I love the peeling bark on this one, and the variety of colours on its trunk.

The Conservation Volunteers are an organisation who do a lot of work in the wood, including creating these dead hedges to protect areas from trampling. 95% of people recognise that these are meant to be a barrier. 5% take it as a challenge, and the hedges are sometimes dismantled, with the branches ending up in ‘dens’. Part of the reason for taking these photos with Friend A was to design some signage so that people know what the dead hedges are there for, so maybe we can get them left alone for longer. Getting the balance right between people exploring and experiencing the wood and its long-term survival so that future generations can also enjoy it sometimes feels like a real uphill battle, but it’s important to remember that most people do respect the woods, and that many of those who don’t are doing so out of ignorance rather than malice. Many of us seem to have become so divorced from nature and its patterns that we really don’t have the first idea about how to treat a ‘wild’ place.

A rather lovely dead hedge

And to cheer me up, the marsh marigold in the woods is in flower a good week before the one in my garden pond. There’s nothing more heartening than that glimpse of gold amidst all the green.

And hidden away, almost below the bridge, there are some enormous violets, definitely ‘blushing unseen’.

And of course some forget-me-nots.

So, let’s see where we get to with our ‘dead wood is good wood’ posters. Will they all end up in the stream? It’s possible, but I do hope that at least some people will realise that the hedges are there for a purpose, not just to be annoying. I will keep you posted!

The End of the Blossom in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Leaves are out on the cherry plum

Dear Readers, on a rather chilly blustery April day it was no surprise to see that most of the blossom on the cherry plums in the cemetery had given up for the year, to be replaced by the familiar magenta-brown leaves. Such are the pleasures of spring – blink and you’ll miss them, so speedily do the changes come at this time of year. But fortunately, as one plant ‘goes over’ so another takes its place.

Wood forget-me-knots and Herb Robert

The forget-me-nots in the woodland grave area are in full swing, but if you look very carefully you’ll see a tiny rose-red flower nearly in the centre, which I think is the first herb Robert flower that I’ve seen this year. Soon they will be everywhere, but as herb Robert was the first ever Wednesday Weed back in 2014 I will always have a soft spot for it, even if it does smell of rubber tyres. No one is perfect after all. And what is this popping up? A euphorbia for sure, and I suspect wood spurge but a ‘domesticated’ variety (Euphorbia amygdaloides var robbiae). Let me know what you think, readers.

Some cuckooflowers are in full flower further along the walk through this part of the cemetery. I say hello to the swamp cypress but it is still in its winter sleep, so I have spared you yet another photo of twigs. However, I do point out to my long-suffering husband that the cuckooflower (otherwise known as lady’s smock) is a member of the cabbage family and I know that my work is done when he sighs and says ‘I know’.


Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis)

I notice this rather strange hairy plant growing alongside some of the graves in the open area next to the main road. I have not the faintest idea what it is, but my pals over on the Wildflowers of Britain and Ireland Facebook page come back with the news that it is field wood-rush (Luzula campestris) within about 30 seconds. I shall say little about it now, but I feel a Wednesday Weed coming on…

Field wood-rush (Luzula campestris)

The red deadnettle and ground elder is having a right old time of it under some of the horse chestnuts. It’s hard to do justice to these pretty little plants from a distance, but if I lay on my stomach to photograph them I fear that I’ll need a hoist to get me back up again.

And speaking of the horse chestnut, isn’t it coming on well?

The primroses have taken over from the lesser celandine in the more exposed parts of the cemetery

I think these are the female catkins of goat willow, but feel free to correct me! I find catkins rather confusing.

What I told you all was feverfew a few weeks ago turns out to be (ahem) Oxford ragwort (Senecio squalidus) – not quite sure how I can have mistaken the leaves are clearly very different.

And look at the cherry laurel, just coming into full flower! Once it warms up a bit the bees will be delighted, especially the queen buff-tailed bumblebee that I saw earlier who was attempting to feed from a bunch of artificial flowers. There are quite a few real plants in flower, as we’ve seen, so hopefully she’ll spot them soon. I sometimes wonder if the super-sized and coloured plastic flowers act as a kind of ‘super-stimulus’, enticing bees away from things that will actually feed them. I hope not.

Cherry laurel flowers

I was delighted to see that my mallard mènage a trois were back on the bank of the stream.

The male mallards really are in spectacular condition, even though one of them appears to have no head :-). I have a special fondness for those little curly feathers just above the tail, which appear to be called the ‘sex feathers’ because only the drakes have them. I’m sure they should be called something cuter than that.

And look, the first flowers are appearing on the cow parsley/Queen Anne’s Lace (Anthriscus sylvestris).

For a final treat this week, here are some violets, coming into bloom just as the lesser celandine are finishing. For the next few months it’s just one thing after another, but in a good way for a change. Now if only I could replicate that changing cast of characters in the garden, without any weeks when everything looks a bit ugh, I would be very happy.


Saturday Quiz – Country Cattle

Title Photo By Amanda Slater from Coventry, England - Suffolk Plough Team, CC BY-SA 2.0,

A Team of Suffolk Punches (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, Saturday 10th April is National Farm Animal Appreciation Day. Who knew there was such a thing? And considering what farm animals have done for human beings over the millenia, it’s well overdue. This week’s quiz is simply a question of looking at the photos, and deciding which country the breed came from: there are fifteen in all, three from each country. An extra point if you can name the breed, so that’s a maximum of 30 points.

So, if you think the animal in Photo 1 is from France, and the breed is ‘Stripey Cow’ your answer is 1)A – Stripey Cow.

As usual, pop your answers into the comments by 5 p.m. UK time on Thursday 15th April – as soon as I see them, I shall acknowledge them and then disappear them as if by magic. I’m not always the quickest on the draw though (especially as I’m working for most of next week), so write your answers down before you put them in the comments if you’re easily influenced.


A – France

B- Scotland

C- Belgium

D. Austria



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


Photo Two By forum, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Photo Three by By Vassil - Own work, Public Domain,


Photo Four by INRA DIST from France, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Five by By No machine-readable author provided. Kries assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0,


Photo Six by By Florida Cracker Cattle Association -, Attribution,


Photo Seven by By --Böhringer - Own workQuelle: [1], CC BY-SA 2.5,


Photo Eight by By Iain and Sarah from London, UK - Sheep, CC BY 2.0,


Photo Nine by By seppingsR - Liz, CC BY 2.0,


Photo Ten by By ripperda - wyandotte haan, CC BY 2.0,


Photo Eleven by By Shcaroline - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Photo Twelve by By Eric Dobis - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,


Photo Thirteen by By Keith Roper - Mare & Foal 3Uploaded by sporti, CC BY 2.0,


Photo Fourteen by By Bonnie U. Gruenberg - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Photo Fifteen by By L. Mahin - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,





Saturday Quiz – Easter Eggs – The Answers!

Title Photo by Tony Alter from Newport News, USA, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Song sparrows in nest (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, excellent performances all round this week! We had Mike with 16 out of 20, Andrea with 18 out of 20 and at the top were Fran and Bobby Freelove with 20 out of 20. Thank you all for taking part, and let’s see what I can come up with for tomorrow…


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

1. E.  Snail. These eggs always remind me of polystyrene when I find them!

Photo Two by CC BY 2.5,

2. H. Grass Snake

Photo Three by By Manyman - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

3. G. Blackbird

Photo Four by Thomas Love, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

4. J. Robin. The American Robin’s eggs are ‘Robin-egg blue’, but the UK bird has these speckledy eggs.

Photo Five by Muséum de Toulouse, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

5. B Black Guillemot. The eggs have evolved this special elongated shape to stop them from rolling off of cliff edges!

Photo Six by Merike Linnamagi

6. C. Great Crested Newt

Photo Seven by No machine-readable author provided. Polarit~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

7. D. Curlew

Photo Eight by nottsexminer, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

8. I. Wren. The nest is started by the male and then completed by the female, who also does all the incubating and feeding.

Photo Nine by Karz09, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

9. A)  Lacewing

Photo Ten by W. Schön, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE <>, via Wikimedia Commons

10. F. Peacock Butterfly


Photo A by Francesco Schiavone, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo B by Boaworm, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo C by Alexandre Roux from


Photo D by By Andreas Trepte - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,


Photo E by Sid Mosdell from


Photo F by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo G by Stuutje1979, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo H by By Andreas Eichler, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Photo I by By Joefrei - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Photo J by By © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Photo Credits

Title Photo by Tony Alter from Newport News, USA, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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

Photo Two by CC BY 2.5,

Photo Three By Manyman – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Four by Thomas Love, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by Muséum de Toulouse, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by Merike Linnamagi

Photo Seven by No machine-readable author provided. Polarit~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Eight by nottsexminer, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Nine by Karz09, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Ten by W. Schön, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo A by Francesco Schiavone, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo B by Boaworm, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo C by Alexandre Roux from

Photo D by By Andreas Trepte – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo E by Sid Mosdell from

Photo F by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo G by Stuutje1979, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo H By Andreas Eichler, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo I By Joefrei – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo J By © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Book Review – ‘Minding the Garden – Lilactree Farm’ by Brian Bixley

Dear Readers, this book has a number of my very favourite features. It’s divided into 125 sections mapping a composite gardening year, and I do love a book that serves up bite-sized pieces of daily life. Secondly, it is intensely personal, dealing as it does with the development of a garden in Ontario, Canada over many years. Thirdly it has introduced me to many plants that I had never considered for my own tiny garden – I found myself considering small-flowered clematis to twine through my hedge, and was intrigued by the illustrations of a lesser celandine cultivar that I’d never come across in the UK. But finally what I loved most was the connections that Brian Bixley makes between the arts and the creation of a garden. It made me consider all kinds of things that I hadn’t thought about before.

But first, to the gardening itself. When I first visited my husband’s aunts in Ontario, I remember thinking that it must be hard to grow plants in such a climate, with freezing conditions for a big chunk of the year, blazing sun for another chunk and hail, wind, ice storms, drought and flood all possible for the rest of the time. Bixley likes to live on the edge and to coax all manner of plants into surviving in what might be considered borderline conditions. This is a source of both joy and despair. Like gardeners the world over, Bixley listens to the weather forecast, often with a sense of impending doom:

What kind of weirdo gets out of bed, goes to the window, pulls up the blind to see the first rays of sunlight slicing through the morning mists as they rise from the green valley below and says, “Darn it, it’s going to be relentlessly sunny today”? Or as he watched the serene Jane gazing into the teleprompter and reading, “No precipitation to worry about,” shrieks in despair?

I love that Bixley has a list of tasks that ‘absolutely must be done today’, even if they aren’t always accomplished. I enjoyed the story of him pruning the hedge, which involves all manner of tools, ladders and other accoutrements, standing back in satisfaction, putting everything away for another year and then remembering that he has some more plants to prune. That sense of the constant labour of a garden, especially an extensive one like Lilactree Farm, is I’m sure familiar to those of us with much smaller plots as we steel ourselves for another bout of hard physical work, especially as we get older. But the rewards! He grows some foxgloves from seed, as I am doing this year.

“I‘m not sure if we have grown anything quite as beautiful for a long time. They are what they essentially should be: tall, majestic, flowers opening creamily, gradually becoming a pure white. I have cut away branches from some of the surrounding shrubs so that it is possible to see the foxgloves from a distance, pale fire in the heart of darkness“.

I love that sense that a plant is ‘essentially what it should be’ – that seems to me to sum up the quintessence of gardening. When a plant is thriving happily in the perfect spot and has reached that moment when it is in full flower, before it starts to fade, I always feel my heart lift, all the more so if there is a drowsy drone of bees popping by for some nectar. The happiness is worth all the back ache and broken fingernails, and it makes up for the failed experiments, for the plants that we loved and yet lost.

Throughout the book, though, there is an underlying question. In what ways is gardening an ‘art’, like writing or painting or composing a symphony? There are many answers, of course. As Bixley points out, if you have the resources, designing (or getting someone else to design) a handsome garden is not hard. What is hard is the maintenance, the constantly changing conditions, the adjustments as some plants ‘work’ and others don’t. A book is published, a painting is hung in a gallery, but a garden is and always will be a work in progress. While we might reinterpret a novel or a play, the words don’t normally change, but the plants in a garden will flourish and die and be replaced.

On the other hand, whether we like it or not, ‘making’ a garden is just as much a creative act as any of the other arts (and you could argue that it’s much more complex). Bixley compares it to poetry – in a garden created by the gardener, we can get a clear sense of the unmediated ‘voice’ of the person who designed it, unlike with a novelist or playwright who is speaking through the voices of his characters. I think this is true, but I also know that, as in many other arts, the vision in our heads may not be what actually happens, especially in a garden, where nature has thoughts and desires of her own. I sometimes think that  all I can do it try to find what works best in my own conditions of soil and shade, and point the garden in that general direction. Every so often there is what i will forever think of now as one of Bixley’s ‘foxglove moments’ to make up for the failures.

And having made a garden, Bixley considers the role of the garden critic. In the UK there are ‘Open Garden’ schemes, whereby for a few pounds (often donated to charity) you can have a look at what other people are up to in their back gardens. Cake is often involved too, which is a great incentive. And of course the National Trust has open gardens, which are considerably more expensive. I have never visited a garden that didn’t give me some inspiration, though I have a preference for those that are filled with plants and heavy with scent rather than some of the more formal hedge and fountain designs that are sometimes favoured. It seems rather churlish to criticise someone’s garden when it’s essentially private for most of the year: the owner has been kind enough to let you in for a look, so it seems to me the height of rudeness to then castigate it. I can see a little more reason for a review if you’ve paid hard-earned dosh to look around a public garden and discover that it’s half-dead or filled with litter, but not just because it doesn’t meet with your taste. Alas, I think this attitude would put critics of all of the arts out of business within a few weeks. Bixley’s view is that there is nothing wrong with a reasoned commentary on a garden, but that (I am paraphrasing) so often the review is about the commentator and their need to attract attention to themselves rather than the garden itself. He quotes from one particular review (of Sir Roy Strong’s garden The Laskett) where the critic, Anne Wareham, complains that

“Wherever you turn, there is a new space delineated by hedges; there is no space to breathe and no escape. There is no clear sense of where to go next, creating a build-up of tension and disorientation until panic begins to seep in”.

Wareham then goes on to describe the group of people that she took to the garden as ‘angry’ and ‘savage’. Like Bixley, I find it hard to believe that a group of folk out for a nice look around a garden would be more than slightly irritated or mildly disappointed. It seems clear that the review is all about the critic and their desire to be dramatic, rather than the garden itself.

There is so much to savour in this book: thanks to Bixley I am thinking of planting some autumn-flowering crocuses under my geraniums this year. I have acquired an interest in garden history, something which had never previously crossed my mind. I am even more in awe of people who try to create magic in the gardens of Ontario than I was before. The photographs, by Des Townshend, are a delight. And I am aware that there is much in this book that I will need to read again in order to consider it properly. Fortunately, re-reading ‘Minding the Garden- Lilactree Farm’ will be an absolute pleasure.

You can buy the book, published by Friesen Press, here.

Wednesday Weed – Skunk Cabbage

Western Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus)

Dear Readers, this wasn’t a plant that I was expecting to see when I visited Golders Hill Park on Saturday. It comes from the Pacific North West, and is a member of the Arum family, much like our native Cuckoo-pint. However, Western Skunk Cabbage has much bigger, lemon-yellow flowers, and its foetid scent attracts the flies and beetles that pollinate it. Unlike cuckoo-pint, it doesn’t generate its own heat, so this doesn’t add to its attractions, but on the other hand the ‘flower’ can be up to 35 cm long, so it’s an impressive beast in its own right. It loves swampy ground, and I seem to remember seeing some on a visit to the Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario when I was there last. It is, however, horribly invasive. It arrived in the UK in 1901 and has since naturalised in swampy areas all over the country, including the Royal Horticultural Society’s own Wisley Gardens. Since 2018 the RHS has recommended that it not be planted in UK gardens, although one variety was given its Order of Merit in 2014. but you can still buy it in garden centres, even though the charity Plantlife recommends that it be listed on Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act as a non-native invasive species . I’m normally quite relaxed about alien species in urban areas, but as this one is on a watercourse that is linked to the fragile bog habitat a quarter of a mile away, I am going to report it to the City of London council who manage the Heath.

One reason that Western Skunk Cabbage can be such a problem is that it is extremely tolerant of shade: while very few native British plants survive under the thick canopy of summer in forests, this plant positively thrives. Its leaves are enormous, up to 150 cm long and 70 cm wide when the plant is full-grown It can spread for hundreds of metres along a muddy river bank and shade out everything, including the spring ephemerals who need a few months of early sun, before the leaves form on the trees. According to my Alien Plants book by Stace and Crawley, alder swamps are particularly vulnerable because they can be overrun not only with skunk cabbage but also with pendulous sedge and Himalayan balsam. Skunk cabbage propagates by rhizomes but also by seeds which travel along watercourses and get caught in the fur of dogs and wild animals.

Like so many plants, however, Western Skunk Cabbage is not a problem in its North American home. The roots are eaten by bears, apparently as a laxative or cathartic after hibernation (all that laying around is probably not good for the digestion). Native peoples did use the leaves medicinally, but as they contain oxalate crystals these were only used, once cooked, as a famine food. In normal times the leaves were largely used to wrap food. Indeed, the Skunk Cabbage is considered to be a tourist attraction in some regions, such as Mount Revelstoke National Park close to Banff, Canada, where there is a Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail.

Incidentally, according to the Iroquois applying a poultice of skunk cabbage leaves to a dog bite would not only cure the wound, but would make the dog’s teeth fall out.

And finally, a poem, by Mary Oliver, one of my favourite poets. What critics often miss is her close observation of the natural world, something that puts me in mind of a latter day John Clare. She often pulls focus from the close-up to the universal, and so she does in this poem. The last line is a stunner.

Skunk Cabbage
by Mary Oliver (1935 – 2019)

And now as the iron rinds over
the ponds start dissolving,
you come, dreaming of ferns and flowers
and new leaves unfolding,
upon the brash
turnip-hearted skunk cabbage
slinging its bunched leaves up
through the chilly mud.
You kneel beside it. The smell
is lurid and flows out in the most
unabashed way, attracting
into itself a continual spattering
of protein. Appalling its rough
green caves, and the thought
of the thick root nested below,
stubborn and powerful as instinct!
But these are the woods you love,
where the secret name
of every death is life again——a miracle
wrought surely not of mere turning
but of dense and scalding reenactment. Not
tenderness, not longing, but daring and brawn
pull down the frozen waterfall, the past.
Ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle
refinements, elegant and easeful, wait
to rise and flourish.
What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.






Nest Box Blues

My sparrow nest box from the RSPB

Dear Readers, when we had the external decorations done last year, I persuaded one of the chaps to climb up a ladder and put up the sparrow nest box that I’d been lovingly hoarding for several years. At this point, several sparrows were visiting every day, and I hoped to persuade them to linger – after all, they are a red list species and so any help that I can give them is a pleasure. I had noted, however, that the local sparrows (and the ones in Mum and Dad’s old garden) seemed to prefer thick beech hedges and holly trees to anywhere else. Communal breeders that they are, I suspect that they also need to have a big enough flock to feel safe. Nevertheless I persisted. We put the nest box in among the branches of the climbing hydrangea – by spring there should be cover. We positioned it pointing west so the babies wouldn’t overheat.

And then nothing happened for a whole year. Furthermore, I haven’t seem a house sparrow in the whole of lockdown.

However, several other birds have been to visit. A pair of coal tits popped in and found this des res unappealing. Some blue tits did the same, and then returned to their old nest box, under the eaves of the house next door. Apologies for the photo, it was taken after two cups of coffee and via a dusty pane of glass.

Now, I believe that birds prefer nest boxes where the holes are a snug fit, so this was never going to be a good choice for the smaller tits. However, in the past few days a pair of great tits have been showing much more interest, popping in and out and calling to one another. I have no idea if they will stay, but they’ve made me drop my croissant on several occasions.

So, readers, what are your experiences with nest boxes? I suspect that birds will always prefer a cozy nook in a tree or in a dense tangle of brambles, but if you’ve had any success with birds nesting in your garden, do let me know. I need all the encouragement I can get.

An April Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Primroses on one of the graves

Dear Readers, spring is really gathering pace in the cemetery, in spite of the fact that the temperature has gone from the low ’70’s at the beginning of the week to the mid 40’s Fahrenheit today. It’s a worrying time for gardeners with half-hardy plants, but the natives could care less about the cold. I saw my first wood forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica) today….

and my first cuckooflowers, also known as lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis), which are another real sign of spring for me. The cemetery has several patches of these delicate flowers. Who’d look at them and think ‘cabbage?’ but that’s exactly what they are (or members of the Brassica family at any rate).

The cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) will be abuzz soon as well – it’s naturalised itself all over the cemetery. I have one in the garden just behind my semi-circle of sleepers at the back of the garden, so I know how it self-seeds. The flowers have a heavy, almond scent that I find borderline sickly.


But look at the horse chestnut leaflets! Last week they were just emerging from their buds, but this week the familiar hand-shaped leaves and candelabra flowers are already unfurling. It’s a shame that these leaves will be blasted by fungus and leaf-miners in a few months time, but at the moment they look young and slightly fuzzy and very, very green.

It’s fair to say that the grape hyacinths are doing very well on some of the older graves.

And while the lesser celandine is disappearing in some places, it’s at its peak in others, forming a carpet of yellow flowers.

Down by the stream, the blackthorn is in flower.

And the creeping comfrey is, well, creeping along the river bank. Later on it will be overwhelmed by the Russian and white comfrey that also grows here, and so the bees will be happy for months.

‘My’ cherry plum has stopped flowering, and so it’s the copper-coloured leaves that are coming into prominence now.

On the way back, we passed a man who was planting up one of the graves. I paused to tell him how lovely it looked, and he mentioned that his wife had passed away in March and that he was sorting out her grave, and the grave of her parents and grandparents. He had a pile of paving slabs next to him and while he wanted to let me know what had happened he clearly didn’t want to talk about it. I see what a help hard physical labour is for people who are mourning, and I suspect this is for a variety of reasons: exercise brings endorphins that help to soothe, physical exhaustion is good for sleep, and I think that the physical pain can be a kind of counter-irritant for the emotional pain. Plus, I suspect that making a grave beautiful is a way of communing with the loved one who is gone, and of serving them even though they are no longer here. Finally, there is meaning in the creation of beauty, and after a bereavement everything can seem very empty.  Working in the midst of the new spring flowers and the bird song may bring a kind of solace, if even only for a moment.

I look at this Cedar of Lebanon, and think of it spreading its branches over all the many, many corteges who have passed under it. Whenever I look at it I somehow breathe in some of its peacefulness.


Golders Hill Park and the Heath Extension

Magnolia tree at Golders Hill Park

Dear Readers, how much I took for granted before this year of Covid 19! In 2019 a bus ride and a walk to Golders Hill Park and through the Heath to Hampstead Garden Suburb would have been a perfectly normal, even mundane, thing to do at the weekend. But this week we decided to catch a bus and go for a walk in these previously well-known parts of North London, and it was a revelation.

In theory, we were going to look for the West Heath bog: as you might know from previous posts, bogs are extremely rare in London, and so this little area of sphagnum moss is a most unusual habitat. But first we had to pass through the more manicured area of Golders Hill Park, with its cafe (homemade icecream resulted in a queue a couple of hundred metres long), and its animal park. And, it turns out, its stumpery, which was new to me. How extraordinary these felled stumps are, and how imaginative of the park keepers to turn them into a whole new habitat rather than just carting them away. They look like modern sculpture to me, and they were much appreciated by the pigeons and squirrels, as well as providing a nice niche for wood anemones and hellebores.

Further along the path is an ornamental lake. This year it has a bit patch of crown imperial fritillaries – these lilies are so prone to rot that the bulbs are usually planted on their sides, which makes me wonder how they managed to grow so well in such a damp spot.

Crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis)

And I was a little perturbed to see these western skunk cabbages. These are a member of the Arum family, and are become a problem in Scotland and in other damp parts of the UK. The RHS has recommended not growing them since 2018 as they are considered invasive, so I was surprised to see them here, especially next to a stream which will easily distribute the seeds along the whole length of the stream. There’s no doubt that it is an attractive plant, with its lemon-yellow ‘petals’ and pale-green spathe, though the ‘skunky’ odour, said to persist even after the plant has been picked and dried, would put a lot of people off.

So now we had the task of finding the bog. It’s outside the park itself, on the area known as West Heath, and as I know from previous bog-finding expeditions they can be surprisingly elusive, especially during a dry patch. We had a couple of false starts as we followed tributaries from the Leg of Mutton pond. I found myself wondering whether this was so named because of its shape, or because it was in some way related to the Mutton Brook which rises in my local park, Cherry Tree Wood. I had just started to voice my queries when we discovered the first glimpses of flag iris and, glory be, some sphagnum moss.

The big problem will be protecting the bog from too much trampling: this is a very delicate habitat, and with the current footfall it would be easy for it to turn into a muddy soakaway. But I know that various conservation groups have been involved in removing invasive grasses and suchlike so that the bog will at least have a fighting chance. There are little wooden bridges and boardwalks too to help keep big feet at a distance. The bog is  a bit off the beaten track as well, so hopefully that will help it to thrive. There is another tiny area of bog close to Kenwood, and that’s it for the whole of the Heath. There are plants that grow here, and invertebrates that use the area, that won’t be found anywhere else, so it’s important for biodiversity.

The bog. See how green it is!

And then we turn for home, planning to walk via the Heath Extension which borders Hampstead Garden Suburb. However, we get a little turned around, and I suddenly find myself catching a whiff of coconut. There is a small area of ‘proper’ heathland, with gorse in flower, pumping out that tropical scent. What a surprise! To find woodland, a bog and heathland within a minute’s walk of one another must be a true rarity.

Gorse heathland

I half expect to find a basking adder or spot a Dartford warbler. I wasn’t that lucky, but this little spot did make me very happy, and, in spite of it being Good Friday and very busy on other parts of the Heath, we had the gorse all to ourselves.

And then we head along North End and into another part of the Heath, and we found this gate to nowhere, next to the most magnificent tree.

It turns out that it was part of the gatehouse to the estate of William Pitt back in 1766. His house is round about here, too. It’s easy to forget that the Heath was once a series of great estates (such as Kenwood) and was also farmland, though sometimes you can be looking at something and realise that it was probably once a hedgerow.

Were those cherry plums once part of a hedgerow?

The final part of our walk takes us along the edge of the suburb. There is a fantastic wall here, full of strange manorial doors and antique brickwork.

In the distance you get a great view of Sir Edward Lutyen’s St Jude’s Church, sadly currently swathed in scaffolding.

And as we head back towards our bus, I notice the pinkest of pink magnolias, so that our walk has been bookended with such plants. It seems to be a stunning year for magnolias – I have never seen so many varieties in flower, or in such healthy profusion. What a treat, and how easy it is to let blossom time pass by without sufficient admiration time. Go out and admire a tree today, Readers! They always lift the spirits.