Dear Readers, this morning I decided to catch the bus from East Finchley down to Islington where I do my pilates (and I’m not sure if a more middle-class sentence than that was ever written). It was the most glorious day, after a week of rain, and I am always awestruck by the view as you head down from Archway towards the City. I didn’t have my camera, so these images are from my (ancient) phone, but hopefully you’ll get the idea. First up, St Pauls Cathedral and the Walkie-Talkie coming into view through the grubby bus window in the photo above.
This is a very complicated junction (the bus is heading towards central London and Holloway) but does anyone else think that this looks like a man standing on one leg while balancing a brick on one arm?
And then there’s the Shard in the distance, which looks ridiculously out of scale with everything else in London, at least at the moment.
The spire of St John the Evangelist church comes into view – at the moment there’s an enormous Christmas Tree ‘plantation’ popping up in the grounds, which will no doubt contribute to the traffic problems of the area.
But what I’m really loving are the leaves, like these yellow specimens close to the junction with Seven Sisters Road.
And how about these at the Nag’s Head junction? Everything really was illuminated this morning, in a last hurrah before the wind and the rain blow the leaves into mulch. And now, for some much-needed stretching and bending, after a week hunched over a computer.
Field Cricket (Gryllus campestris) (Photo by Roberto Zanon)
Dear Readers, the field cricket is a sturdy insect, and at almost an inch long one of our larger invertebrate inhabitants. Alas, their physical robustness did not save them from coming close to extinction – in the 1980s there were less than 100 individuals at just one site in West Sussex.
Field crickets have only one brood per year and are flightless, so they clearly can’t travel very far. In the spring, the male digs a burrow (a task which takes less than ten minutes), makes himself a little platform and then ‘sings’ his heart out, beating up any other males that wander within range. The females travel about listening to the various ‘songs’, and when they hear one that they like, mating takes place. The female then lays her eggs close to or in the male’s burrow. The nymphs hatch in the summer and shed their skins until they are large enough to survive winter hibernation, finally emerging for their final moult in April of the following year, whereupon they join the chorus. Have a listen to some field crickets in the recording below (made by Gareth K in the UK, these are some of the insects from the species recovery programme)
Field cricket next to his burrow – Photo by Roberto Zanon
So, why were field crickets so endangered? Our old friend intensive agriculture was part of the reason, along with the breaking up and reduction of habitat. But one established way of helping a species to survive is to enlarge the area where they currently live, making the edge of the habitat more suitable, and also to translocate the insects to another suitable habitat. And this is exactly what happened. Field crickets were reintroduced to the RSPB reserves at Farnham Heath and Pulborough Brooks, and corridors were established between parts of the existing sites so that the crickets could travel to ‘meet’ one another more easily. As you can see from the photo above, crickets need areas of bare ground to construct their burrows, and so areas of bramble were cleared from some parts of the reserves.
The results were very heartening. In 2010, 12 field cricket nymphs were moved to Farnham Heath. By 2013, just three years later, 43 males were heard calling at the reserve. And by spring 2019, 337 males were heard calling, a truly remarkable result, with other populations becoming established at Pulborough Brooks.
As with last week, this success story was the result of collaboration between a number of wildlife and conservation charities, but it was also picked up by the media, and the ever-popular UK wildlife TV programme Springwatch did a feature on the field cricket, an insect that I’m sure most people had never heard of or met. The collaboration continues, with local landowners meeting to discuss ways to extend the range of the field crickets even further. Although this is still a delicate recovery (after all, 337 crickets is not really very many), it is a sign of what can be done when people work together. And here is a short film of a field cricket doing what it does best – stridulating. Long may it continue.
Dear Readers, until fairly recently orchids were strange, exotic things, desperately expensive and the preserve of the very rich. And then, suddenly, they were everywhere: in the plant sections of supermarkets, in garage forecourts, on top of the upturned crates in front of the local all-night shops. But we’d better make the most of them, because I read an article earlier this week that suggests that the heyday of the cheap orchid is going to end very abruptly.
Phalaenopsis or moth orchids come from a swathe of India and the rest of south east Asia, with many species in Indonesia and the Philippines, and some in Papua New Guinea and Australia. They are epiphytes (they live on other trees) or lithophytes (which live on rocks) and they are pollinated by a variety of bees and moths, although they don’t provide nectar – many are thought to resemble female insects, and so the males rush in and attempt to mate, getting dusted with pollen in the process.
Producing flowers is extremely expensive for the plant, and so one species of Phalaenopsis recycles the flowers once they’re pollinated and turns them into leaves instead, which is a near trick if you can pull it off.
Phalaenopsis with flowers turning to leaves
In general, moth orchids have proved to be pretty tolerant in the conditions in your average house. They are tropical species so would probably prefer us to keep our houses a bit warmer, they like high humidity but seem to be able to cope without, and they thrive in relatively low light, ideal for that bathroom shelf or darkish patch in the corner of the living room. However, they must be kept at at least 60 F, and herein lies the rub. In an article by journalist and scientist James Wong in The Guardian this week, he reports being taken to a Dutch bulb grower who was shutting up shop after decades of flower-growing. He walks through a room where there are no less than two million orchids in a steamy room the size of an aircraft hangar. This is where the plants that are bought in their thousands every week are not only grown, but also propagated – every week there seem to be new varieties and new colours.
However, the rising costs of energy are thought to be about to put at least half of all orchid growers in the Netherlands, the epicentre of the potted plant, out of business. An orchid can sell to a supermarket for a euro, but cost five euros to raise.
I’ll leave the summing up to James Wong. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
“I have always been torn about plant prices. On one hand, the drive to make plants cost ever less has meant the increasing dominance of a few industry giants that stock an ever-more narrow range of mass-produced offerings. On the other hand, it has meant that species such as moth orchids have been turned from collector’s item for the wealthy to something within reach of almost anyone at supermarket checkouts.
However, the downside of this is, much like fast fashion, these artificially low prices have created a throwaway culture where once-prized plants are just binned when they stop flowering. With the current cost of living crisis, it’s difficult to argue that we should all be paying more for luxuries like plants, yet it’s years of undervaluing their true cost that has got us to a very precarious place. While the knock-on effects haven’t been seen on our shelves yet, maybe over the next few months we will begin to learn to truly appreciate these everyday wonders.” James Wong
It is possible to bring orchids back into flower again, as my Mum could testify. There are different techniques, but the plants often need a bit of a rest before they decide it’s time to get going again. As with so many flowering household plants though, I suspect that many of them end up in the bin once they’ve ‘gone over’. Maybe, as they become rarer and the price goes up, we’ll give the ones that we have a little more tender loving care.
And of course, here is a poem. Jackie Kay is a Scottish poet, who was adopted as a baby and who met her mother much later in life. I love this, and it deserves a couple of readings. See what you think.
Keeping Orchids by Jackie Kay
The orchids my mother gave me when we first met are still alive, twelve days later. Although
some of the buds remain closed as secrets. Twice since I carried them back, like a baby in a shawl,
from her train station to mine, then home. Twice since then the whole glass carafe has crashed
falling over, unprovoked, soaking my chest of drawers. All the broken waters. I have rearranged
the upset orchids with troubled hands. Even after that the closed ones did not open out. The skin
shut like an eye in the dark; the closed lid. Twelve days later, my mother’s hands are all I have.
Her voice is fading fast. Even her voice rushes through a tunnel the other way from home.
I close my eyes and try to remember exactly: a paisley pattern scarf, a brooch, a navy coat.
A digital watch her daughter was wearing when she died. Now they hang their heads,
and suddenly grow old – the proof of meeting. Still, her hands, awkward and hard to hold
fold and unfold a green carrier bag as she tells the story of her life. Compressed. Airtight.
A sad square, then a crumpled shape. A bag of tricks. Her secret life – a hidden album, a box of love letters.
A door opens and closes. Time is outside waiting. I catch the draught in my winter room.
Airlocks keep the cold air out. Boiling water makes flowers live longer. So does
Dear Readers, we woke up to a fine old foggy morning this morning – it’s just starting to brighten up but the collared doves are still confused, bless them. It got me to thinking about the only autumn poem that people regularly quote, Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’. I think it’s been ruined for many people because it was badly taught at school, which is a shame because it is actually rather beautiful, and well-observed – I love the ‘wailful choir’ of small gnats, and ‘thy hair soft-lifted by a winnowing wind’….
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; Conspiring with him how to load and bless With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, And still more, later flowers for the bees, Until they think warm days will never cease, For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store? Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind; Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers: And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep Steady thy laden head across a brook; Or by a cyder-press, with patient look, Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they? Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,— While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue; Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn Among the river sallows, borne aloft Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn; Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft; And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
However, it isn’t all about Keats. I make no apology for posting this poem by Clive James again, because it is one of those poems that leaves a silence when you finish it.
Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain. Breath growing short Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls On that small tree And saturates your brick back garden walls, So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?
Ever more lavish as the dusk descends This glistening illuminates the air. It never ends. Whenever the rain comes it will be there, Beyond my time, but now I take my share.
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new. Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame. What I must do Is live to see that. That will end the game For me, though life continues all the same:
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes, A final flood of colours will live on As my mind dies, Burned by my vision of a world that shone So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
On a more cheerful note, this poem by Gillian Clarke is rich and full of the bounty of the time, and the interconnectedness of things.
When their time comes they fall without wind, without rain. They seep through the trees’ muslin in a slow fermentation.
Daily the low sun warms them in a late love that is sweeter than summer. In bed at night we hear heartbeat of fruitfall.
The secretive slugs crawl home to the burst honeys, are found in the morning mouth on mouth, inseparable.
We spread patchwork counterpanes for a clean catch. Baskets fill, never before such harvest, such a hunters’ moon burning
the hawthorns, drunk on syrups that are richer by night when spiders pitch tents in the wet grass.
This morning the red sun is opening like a rose on our white wall, prints there the fishbone shadow of a fern.
The early blackbirds fly guilty from a dawn haul of fallen fruit. We too breakfast on sweetnesses.
Soon plum trees will be bone, grown delicate with frost’s formalities. Their black angles will tear the snow.
And finally, here’s a John Clare poem that I hadn’t read before. He always paints such a clear picture of the English countryside as it used to be. I particularly like the final verse – I was once lucky enough to see a sow and a dozen piglets in the New Forest feasting on acorns, and what a sight it was!
I love the fitfull gusts that shakes The casement all the day And from the mossy elm tree takes The faded leaf away Twirling it by the window-pane With thousand others down the lane
I love to see the shaking twig Dance till the shut of eve The sparrow on the cottage rig Whose chirp would make believe That spring was just now flirting by In summers lap with flowers to lie
I love to see the cottage smoke Curl upwards through the naked trees The pigeons nestled round the coat On dull November days like these The cock upon the dung-hill crowing The mill sails on the heath a-going
The feather from the ravens breast Falls on the stubble lea The acorns near the old crows nest Fall pattering down the tree The grunting pigs that wait for all Scramble and hurry where they fall
And so, over to you lovely readers! Do you have a favourite autumn poem? Share away!
Dear Readers, you might remember that yesterday I mentioned that this was quite a hilly walk, and so it is – peering through the autumnal smog yesterday the Shard could be seen glinting, apparently just behind the Walkie Talkie although in reality they are some distance apart. But I was more intrigued with the sunshine through the leaves, and with the fine crop of yew berries on this small tree.
Then we turn into Biggin Hill. You might have heard of the aerodrome of the same name, from which British fighter planes launched during the Second World War, but the hill itself is one of the highest points in London, at over 690 feet above sea level. On the road itself there are several references to Charles Dickens: on the site of a house where he stayed, Springfield, there is now a modern housing estate called Dickens Wood Close, and just across the road is Havisham Place.
The view from the top, on this sunny day, makes even the modern buildings of Croydon look rather splendid.
By now I am beginning to wish that I’d remembered to tie my walking boots rather more tightly at the ankle, as I am suffering from that situation where my foot slides forward and I end up bruising my second toe. And this is a rather steep incline. Still, all in all things are much more satisfactory than in any of my other choices of footwear so far. Apologies for the foot update, I fear I am becoming a foot bore.
Now, we’re in Biggin Wood, where we briefly meet up with a lady with a small Jack Russell Terrier, and her friend. They are both extremely helpful in pointing the way (it’s all gotten a bit vague at this point), and also suggesting ways to circumvent the mud, of which there is plenty, of the sticky, slippery kind. Still, we march on, past an area fenced off by Thames Water, and to which some wag has attached a sign saying ‘please don’t feed the kangaroos’, though apropos of what I have no idea.
But then, this building comes into view.
This is Norwood Mansion, and this is the only bit that survives (the East Wing). It was built for Arthur Anderson, joint founder of the company P&O (which stands for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Company, who knew?). He was MP for the Shetlands, which goes to show that absentee politicians are not a recent thing, though presumably Mr Anderson didn’t appear on a reality TV show, up to his neck in cockroaches. Anderson was also a great fan of Crystal Palace football club.
The two ladies catch up with us at this point, and tell us how wonderful the gardens used to be, and how Croydon Council have let it all go to wrack and ruin. Apparently the upper floors of the mansion are now private apartments, and the bottom part is a children’s nursery. An elderly man was sitting outside on a bench, taking in some sunshine, and we paused to look at a plaque celebrating Mr and Mrs Nettlefold. Mr Nettlefold was an industrialist who bought and then donated the land for the original local library.
The trees are splendid, as you might expect.
And now we pass onto Streatham Common, and are in some need of a cup of tea and a sit down. We are advised by our two new friends to seek out the Rookery café and so we do, and very nice it is too. A cup of builder’s tea and a toasted sandwich later, we’re ready for the final leg back to Streatham Common Station.
The Common has a rather splendid municipal horse trough, now a planter. These were put up all over London so that the poor beleaguered working horses, and cattle being driven into Smithfield, could get a drink. I can just about remember the last working horses in London – there was a milkman’s horse that used to refuse to pass one particular house until the lady owner had popped out with an apple. It was a bit of a novelty even then, in the very early sixties, and the horses were soon replaced with electric milk floats, which were rather ahead of their time.
And this is a fine view too, down to Streatham’s Parish Church of Immanuel and St Andrew, built in 1854.
Streatham High Street is said to be the longest in London at a mile and a half. It has been rather denigrated in the press – it was once voted Britain’s worst and most polluted High Street, which always seemed unfair to me, especially as it was conducted by Radio Four. I listen to Radio Four too, but it doesn’t seem to have a particularly broad demographic, and people can be so snooty. The street has a lot of very useful shops, lots of cheap and cheerful restaurants from all corners of the world, and if it’s got a few Poundshops it’s none the worse for that.
And here’s The Rabbit Hole pub, previously a coaching inn called The Greyhound, which served people travelling through Streatham and on to Brighton in the early 18th century. I confess to rather liking the rabbit and roses motif.
The Rabbit Hole pub
And finally, we pass the war memorial, all the more poignant as it’s the day before Armistice Day. The statue of the soldier is very well done, I think, though the pigeon is not quite as respectful as it could be.
And so, farewell to Crystal Palace, and Norwood, and Streatham, though we shall be starting from Streatham as we set off for Wimbledon Park, hopefully next week if the weather/train strikes/ foot problems all point in the right direction.
After the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, it is so nice to be stitching London back together again in my mind. There’s nothing like walking to help you remember a place.
Dear Readers, today was a glorious autumn day and so we set out on section 4 of the Capital Ring, from Crystal Palace to Streatham Station. We arrived at Crystal Palace station, which is really quite something – it was originally opened in 1854 to cope with the crowds arriving to see the Crystal Palace, and these days it is something of a hub, with trains to London Bridge, Victoria and on the overground to Highbury and Islington. Being a North and East Londoner I find the web of rail lines in South London very interesting – you can board a train at London Bridge, potter through Crystal Palace and end up back at Victoria Station, which feels a bit confusing to me. It must be great to have so much choice.
Outside the station I find a little patch of our old friend Gallant Soldier (Galinsoga parviflora) and nearly miss the turn of the traffic lights as a result. Curiosity is a great thing, but those of a botanical bent can be a little annoying to more destination-minded folk. Fortunately my other half is extremely tolerant of me coming to a sudden halt without signalling.
We pass the Paxton Centre, named after the man who designed the Crystal Palace, and I stand to admire the paintings of the dinosaurs and the man himself that adorn the building.
Just to digress (for a change), I was so taken with the dinosaurs on my last walk that I have been using one of the photos as my Zoom background. This is all very well when it’s a friendly team meeting, but I’m not sure that I set quite the correct professional tone when I went straight on to another meeting with a megalosaurus peering over my shoulder. Ah well, I’ve reached the stage in my working life when a little eccentricity is only to be expected.
The backdrop in question
I read with some trepidation that ‘you are now in one of the hilliest parts of South London, and will soon climb steeply over two ridges’. This week I am wearing my Austrian hiking boots, in an attempt to correct the constant problems with my feet. So far, so good.
The houses in these parts are a delightfully eclectic mix. I do love an original encaustic tiled front path…
And look what a lovely display someone has made on the steps up to their front door! If it was me I’d be tripping over them, but it seems that these folk are rather more nimble.
We climb up to Belvedere Road, and look, some of the very grand houses have an actual ‘Belvedere’, a rooftop lookout that must give splendid views over South London and maybe even the South Downs.
You can tell that houses are posh when they have a Cedar of Lebanon, usually a tree of cemeteries and grand estates, in their front garden.
There are not one, not two but three scaffolding lorries parked further up the road, erecting the trickiest, most precarious-looking scaffold that I’ve ever seen around a domestic dwelling. They mind not a jot that they are blocking the pavement, swearing their heads off and playing rap music from one of those reinforced radios that all scaffolders seem to have at full blast. They bring a fruity nonchalance to these quiet streets, and I rather admire them for it – they seem to know that nothing can happen until the scaffold is up, and they reserve the right to do this dangerous job in whatever way works for them.
And look! This is where the man who designed the dinosaurs used to live. I wonder if he knew that his ‘prehistoric monsters’ would still be delighting children, young and old, all these years later? Legacies come in such a variety of ways.
And this is the South Norwood transmitter, which is a backup in case there’s a problem with the Crystal Palace tower. According to the Croydon Advertiser, they have been dubbed ‘the Eiffel Towers of South London’, which might be pushing it a bit. They are pretty impressive works of engineering nonetheless – the South Norwood transmitter was originally meant to carry the ITV signal, back in the days when there were only two channels. Apparently from very early on people attempted to climb both towers, both for fun and to protest, which was something of a headache for the engineers who had to look after them. I can just imagine the cat and mouse that ensued.
On the corner of Fox Hill there’s this house, with its intricate brickwork, and this little metal box on the chimney stack. I’m not sure what it could be – it’s too small to be a coal hole (and clearly in the wrong place). Any ideas, Readers? I am stumped. But I do love the painted (or maybe glazed) bricks.
This is a view back down the road…
And this is a painting of Fox Hill (from the bottom looking up) by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), who clearly lived in South London for a time.
And then we enter Westow Park which is officially in Norwood (named for the Great North Wood which is, of course, in South London). Here, I fall in love with this tree. It is all on its own, and has clearly been buffeted over time. There is something very ballerina-like about it, from the twist in the trunk to the ‘arms’ held aloft. It seemed both lonely and resilient, and I found myself wishing it well.
For a moment I remembered how, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Ancient Mariner’, the mariner finds it in himself to bless the sea snakes that he sees. All his shipmates are dead, and he is alone, the albatross that he has shot rotting about his neck.
Beyond the shadow of the ship, I watched the water-snakes: They moved in tracks of shining white, And when they reared, the elfish light Fell off in hoary flakes.
Within the shadow of the ship I watched their rich attire: Blue, glossy green, and velvet black, They coiled and swam; and every track Was a flash of golden fire.
O happy living things! no tongue Their beauty might declare: A spring of love gushed from my heart, And I blessed them unaware: Sure my kind saint took pity on me, And I blessed them unaware.
I don’t know why, but it seems to me that wishing something or someone well, especially when they or it are unknown to us, adds to the sum of good in the world, and softens and opens us to truly see what’s around us.
Anyway, back to the quotidian. In amongst all the Victorian edifices, there are these flats, which must have a splendid view of the park at the front, and of the whole of South London from the back. I do hope that they’re affordable in the true sense, so that people who are less rich but just as deserving can enjoy the undoubted benefits of living around here.
We pass a boulder, one of the 20 placed around the London Borough of Croydon to celebrate its 80th anniversary in 2015. These have proved to be ‘controversial’ – they were originally placed in New Addington to deter illegal parking at a cost of £7000 according to the website ‘Inside Croydon‘, which has this to say about the current siting:
“Croydon Council, having removed the notorious 20 boulders of New Addington, have managed to come up with an idea to dispose of them which is, if anything, even worse. It has used the 50th anniversary of being incorporated within Greater London as a spurious excuse to distribute the 20 lumps of rock around the borough, adorned with plaques to mark an event of utter disinterest to the vast majority of Council Tax-payers.”
I am not sure that they are using the word ‘disinterest’ properly (a bugbear of mine) but we’ll let it pass because clearly tempers are running high, as you can see….
“It was the grand Victorian artist and designer, William Morris, who said, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” The stones of Croydon fail Morris’s test on both counts, unless each ward or high street needed something for their residents’ dogs to cock their legs against.
Oh, and the concept has another flaw: while 20 stones have been distributed, one each to a ward, there are 24 wards in the borough…”
Oh dear. I will let you make up your own mind. Croydon Council definitely hasn’t impressed its residents for quite some time, so I can see that the stones are just another way to irritate everybody.
One of the twenty ‘boulders of Croydon’
And then we leave Westow Park and walk along Eversley Road, where I am very taken by the autumn colour. Truly this is an exceptional year, though I worry that the trees are only so beautiful because the drought stressed them so much.
Soon, we will be in the second part of the walk (of which more tomorrow) but in the meantime, how about this? It looks rather like a Tudor rose inside a sun, and it’s right on the top of the roof of this rather fine house. The house next door has one too, but none of the others. As with so many roads in London, I imagine the houses were built a few at a time, sometimes by different builders. It’s what gives a street, and even part of a street, its own individual character, and I absolutely love it.
So, tomorrow we will advance through some more of the Great North Wood, find a very splendid mansion, and hear from some more locals about Croydon Council, so that will be something to look forward to 🙂
Dear Readers, I may have been rather too complacent about the bollards here on the County Roads in East Finchley a few weeks ago, because although the bollards on Lincoln Road are still resplendently upright, the one on Leicester Road most certainly isn’t. Something or someone must have hit it a right old wallop to do all that damage. What on earth is going on? Is it just the constant stream of Ocado, Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury, DPD, Amazon and Fedex vans that rampage up and down the road and occasionally have to retreat at speed? Is it a frustrated person with a sledgehammer? Is it the world’s largest mole? I am open to all suggestions, however silly, and if someone local happens to have witnessed the event do let me know. This is yet another occasion when a trail camera would come in handy.
The bollards on Lincoln Road
As you can see, the bollards on Lincoln Road are not only in one piece but are developing a little ecosystem of what looks like chickweed and possibly shepherd’s purse. Is it just that these are positioned a little further back from the corner? If I was the Leicester Road bollard I would be taking it all a bit personally.
Anyhow, I think from the tone of subdued hysteria that you can probably tell that it’s been One of Those Weeks at work. Still, it will soon be Christmas! I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but it certainly seems to have come around speedily this year. My Mum used to say that the years speed up as you get older, and she was right. But tomorrow we might actually manage to get out for a bit more Capital Ring, after being rained and train-striked off for the past few weeks. Keep your fingers crossed, and watch this space…..
Shrill Carder Bee (Bombus sylvarum) Photo by Ivar Leidus
Dear Readers, after my piece on the Barberry Carpet Moth last week, several people commented that it was nice to hear some good news for a change. And so, I’m going to make Fridays a time for finding out about all the progress that is being made to preserve our endangered species. I know that action on so many things needs to happen on a global or national scale, but I also think that what can be done at a local level by people of good will is often astonishing. We are never so powerful as when a group of us are concerned enough about something to act.
The poor old shrill carder bee is known from only five areas in the UK: the Thames Estuary, the Somerset Levels, and in Wales the Gwent Levels, Kenfig–Port Talbot, and south Pembrokeshire. The Gwent and Thames Estuary populations seem to be doing best, but when you have such widely distributed groups of bees, there’s a danger that they will become inbred, especially as the bee isn’t much of a traveller and prefers to look for flowers close to the nest. The bee has a black band between the wings, a black band on the abdomen and although in general it is a rather drab, straw-coloured bee, it has a tail the colour of Lucozade.
As its name suggests, the Shrill Carder Bee has a distinctive high-pitched buzz, and it requires areas of grassland, with lots of black horehound, birds-foot trefoil and red clover. To add to the complications, this is a bee where the queen emerges fairly late from the nest in spring, and the nest continues into the late autumn, with new queens emerging just when many farmers mow their land for hay or silage.
The bee was the subject of the ‘Back From The Brink’ project which helped out last week’s moth, and again it worked by helping the local community to identify the bee, so that they knew what they were trying to save. Then, it talked to hundreds of landowners to think about their land management – simply pushing back the final grassland cut by a couple of weeks helped to provide flowers for the bees to feed on. A well-fed queen is much more likely to survive through the winter, and to rear her youngsters in the spring. Over 189 hectares of flower-rich grassland were also restored to help the bee.
It will be a while before we know whether the bee’s populations are improving, but what gives me hope is the sheer variety of charities, local groups and councils that are involved. Buglife and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (both excellent organisations) have been leading the project, along with the RSPB. Over 55 landowners have been involved in face-to-face meetings, and over 90 local sites have been surveyed. To think that all these people are trying to save this little bee gives me hope, and reminds me that people do care about their local wildlife. Sometimes, all it takes is a little organisation, and a lot of hard work.
Dear Readers, the greenfinch was always a rare visitor to my garden – I made this post in 2014, and that’s the last time that I actually saw one so close to home. I described the greenfinch as the ‘cargo planes’ of the finch world, compared to the Concord-like elegance of the chaffinches, but how I wish that one of these chunky birds would would pop in!
Greenfinches were already in trouble in the countryside – there aren’t so many scattered seeds about as there used to be, which has impacted on a whole range of small birds. And just as they were becoming a frequent sight in gardens they fell prey to trichomonosis, which has contributed to a fall in population of about 70% across the country. The British Trust for Ornithology has detailed advice, reproduced below – this is every bit as important to prevent the spread of bird flu.
Follow sensible hygiene precautions as a routine measure when feeding garden birds and handling bird feeders and tables. Empty and air dry any bird baths on a daily basis. Clean and disinfect feeders and feeding sites regularly. Suitable disinfectants that can be used include a weak solution of domestic bleach or other specially-designed commercial products. Carefully rinse all surfaces with clean water and air dry before using. Clean your feeders outside and maintain careful personal hygiene, including wearing gloves and making sure that brushes and buckets are not used for other purposes, as some diseases can affect human and domestic animal health.
Rotate positions of feeders in the garden to prevent the build up of contamination in any one area of ground below the feeders. If you see birds of any species that you suspect may be affected by disease in your garden, particularly if you see multiple sick or dead birds, we recommend that you stop feeding for at least two weeks in order to encourage birds to disperse, thereby reducing the chance of birds infecting each other at your feeding stations. Only reintroduce feeding as long as you are no longer seeing birds with signs of disease, and closely watch for any further signs. If you see further signs of disease, once again stop feeding. We also recommend leaving bird baths empty until no further sick or dead birds are seen. (BTO https://www.bto.org/our-science/projects/gbw/gardens-wildlife/garden-birds/disease/trichomonosis)
Some farmers are also trying to help seed-feeding birds in general (many countryside birds, from yellowhammer to corn bunting are also on the Red List). They are doing this by providing winter feeding, and by enhancing the quality of the hedgerows where the birds nest, plus cutting down on herbicides and pesticides.
Greenfinch in spring in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery
Although greenfinches have a definite khaki-colour, in the right light they can glow a greenish-yellow, like the bird singing in a tree in spring in the photo above. In the right light, they can look like miniature parrots. They are feisty too, scaring off other birds at feeders and generally ruling the roost. Their heavy bills indicate that they can eat quite hearty seeds, unlike goldfinches with their delicate beaks. The song of the greenfinch rather sounds like someone running their finger over a comb, to me at least. See what you think (recorded by Stephan Risch in Croatia). It’s a very distinctive sound, and certainly made me look up when I heard it in the cemetery.
Poet John Heath-Stubbs (1918 – 2006) wrote six poems about British birds, one of which was about the Greenfinch, and specifically its song. Have a read, and then a listen. I think it’s rather good. Let’s hope that we’ll soon be hearing these birds singing in our gardens again.
On a May morning,
In the greening time
I heard a greenfinch in a college garden
Set to his jargon in a leafy tree;
The long flat call-note, which will be repeated
Through all the hot and dusty days of summer,
Subsumed in a desultory twitter:
The lazy greenfinch, thick-set country cousin
Of the trim, suburban, caged canary –
Green, green, green he calls through the green leaves.
Fruit of the Armenian Bramble (Rubus armeniacus) Photo by By Daderot
Dear Readers, when I saw an article headed ‘Beware the Armenian Bramble’ by Roger Morris in my British Wildlife magazine in October, I knew that I would have to do some further investigation. After all, brambles are a tricky bunch at the best of times, with our ‘normal’ blackberry, Rubus fruticosus, having more than 324 microspecies, all clones of one another and extremely local. But this ‘new kid on the block’ is a whole new species, imported originally because of its large, tasty and profuse fruit.
Armenian Bramble is sometimes called Himalayan bramble, though it is actually from Iran and, as its name suggests, Armenia. It is described by Stace and Crawley in ‘Alien Plants’ as ‘very robust, deliciously fruited and wickedly spiny’, and so it appears to be. Morris reports that the canes can extend 20-30 feet from the crown, much further than most of the native microspecies, and that the canes ascend to quite a height before descending vertically to root. The canes can be in excess of 25 mm at their base, and are strongly ribbed and reddish in colour, especially at the base.
Now, I am a great fan of brambles, for all sorts of reasons. They provide cover and food for many species of birds and small mammals. The flowers are a favourite with all kinds of pollinators, and of course the fruit is delicious and free. Morris thinks that while the birds who take blackberries as an autumn treat are the main reason for the spread of this plant, foxes, who seem to love the fruit, might also be doing their bit, especially as the Armenian bramble is often seen along railway embankments and in urban areas. And I remember seeing Canada geese munching on berries of ‘ordinary’ bramble in Walthamstow Wetlands. So, is this bramble really a problem?
It’s certainly become a ‘noxious weed’ in parts of the Pacific Northwest, particularly in British Columbia. It spreads quietly and almost unnoticed, but it is so vigorous that it can easily outcompete other plants, particularly for light and nitrogen. Morris has noticed that it also seems to enrich the soil beneath it: this might sound like a good thing, but many plants depend on nutrient-poor soils in order to survive without being swamped. In a note that will strike terror in the hearts of many of us, Morris mentions that:
‘Railway embankments once filled with Japanese Knotweed are now a tangle of invading brambles that are every bit as robust and persistent‘.
On the other hand, when Armenian bramble was flailed on Mitcham Common, there were concerns about the impact on the hedgehog, rabbit and fox populations, and local people regretted the loss of the berries, especially as the coming winter is expected to be so financially difficult for so many people.
So, what to do? It’s clear that Armenian bramble can be a problem, and that where it appears it’s easier if it’s tackled quickly, but how many of us could tell an Armenian bramble from a ‘normal’ one until it was too late? And as control seems to involve a lot of digging, cutting, flailing and even spraying, it’s likely that cash-strapped councils and hard-pressed wildlife organisations are going to find it difficult to control. Maybe it will be another of those plants that, except in the most delicate and well-protected of habitats, we will have to live with.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun For a full week, the blackberries would ripen. At first, just one, a glossy purple clot Among others, red, green, hard as a knot. You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots. Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills We trekked and picked until the cans were full, Until the tinkling bottom had been covered With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre. But when the bath was filled we found a fur, A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache. The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour. I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.