Saturday, 16 August 2014

Venus of the woods

With its airy canopy, the ash must be one of our most graceful and familiar trees. Norfolk has a number of fine examples, some of which are present in hedgerows around Wymondham as pollards, and the species is the second most commonly encountered of the traditionally managed trees (behind oak) on Norfolk farmland. This was a popular tree, favoured for firewood and for working into tools but old texts do introduce a note of caution, suggesting that this is a thirsty tree which can draw water away from crops if planted alongside them.

There are few really old or large specimens in the county and it is thought that the shallow-rooted nature of ash, coupled with being prone to rot, has meant that few survive to any great size. Where it does feature strongly, however, is as a hedgerow shrub, where ash would have been the main source of hedgerow firewood, favoured for burning strongly with a good flame and little smoke. The diversity of uses for ash can be seen in the writings of John Evelyn, the English writer, gardener and diarist, who wrote that ‘the husbandman cannot be without the ash for his carts, ladders, and other tackling, from the pike to the plow, spear, and bow.’ The timber is even used in the frame of the classic Morgan sports car.

As with other trees with a long history of use, there is a great deal of folklore around the ash. One of the more interesting superstitions concerns the ‘shrew-ash’, an ash tree inside which a shrew would be sealed to give the tree certain magical powers. A branch cut from such a tree could, so superstition has it, be used to stroke livestock that were sick or lame, such treatment effecting a cure. The roots of this superstition were linked to the belief that shrews could harm livestock and that lameness in cattle was caused by a shrew running over them in the field. While this may be the stuff of nonsense, some of the supposed medicinal properties of ash do have a basis in fact. It is, for example, known to have diuretic properties and can benefit the digestive system. Clearly, this is a tree with a long history of use.

Friday, 15 August 2014

A sketch of Norfolk's bird life

When it comes to capturing the wildlife of north Norfolk, it is the wildlife art of Robert Gillmor that comes most readily to mind. Robert’s work, which has graced over 150 books and hangs on many a birdwatcher’s wall, has charted the changing nature of our wildlife over many decades. His images of avocet and spoonbill, for example, reveal the return of these former breeders to our coast and his local patch.

Robert’s field sketches underline an eye for detail and the patience of the watcher, seated in a bird hide at Cley or elsewhere along the coast. It is these field sketches that I admire the most; that ability to capture the essence of a bird as it goes about its business. It is about the looking and I suspect that a good birdwatcher and a good wildlife artist will look at a bird in a similar way to one another. While the artist is looking to capture the shape of the bird’s head, the profile of its bill or the curve of the wing feathers over the tail, the birdwatcher will be looking at the same features to secure an identification.

There is, of course, an additional layer to the way in which an artist (or for that matter a photographer) looks at a bird and that is to do with composition. It is not just the nature of the bird that makes a good picture but how it is placed within the frame, the landscape or in relation to other birds. Wildlife art is not mere description, the transcription of what you see in front of you onto paper. Instead it requires interpretation and the correct treatment to deliver a picture that is pleasing to the eye. Great wildlife art delivers this, whether it is a detailed portrait of a bird or a more abstract piece portraying, for example, the moment a flock of geese takes to the air.

Examples of the Robert Gillmor’s work can be seen at several Norfolk Galleries, including the Pink-foot Gallery at Cley and the current Wonder of Birds show at Castle Museum. It also features in a new book of bird sketches, published by Red Hare Publishing.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Black-winged Stilts

The presence of a family party of black-winged stilts at Cavenham has delivered a bit of Mediterranean glamour to the Brecks. These striking waders, with their black and white plumage, straight black bill and long pink legs, are a real treat for any birdwatcher. The species is a scarce but regular visitor to Britain, originating from populations breeding in southern Europe. In some years, small numbers breed to the north of the main breeding range and birds have, on occasion, attempted to breed here in Britain. A pair successfully raised two young at Holme in 1987, rearing two young thanks to the efforts of volunteer wardens and the determination of the parents, who saw off the unwelcome attentions of grey herons, carrion crows and lesser blacked-backed gulls, among others.

The family party, made up of two adults and four juveniles, could well have bred unnoticed somewhere in Britain or they could have popped over from the Netherlands, where small numbers breed. Interestingly, these were not the only black-winged stilts in the country this year. Two pairs of these fantastic birds were known to have bred here this summer. One pair set up home at the Medney RSPB reserve in West Sussex, fledging three chicks, while a second pair nested at Cliffe Pools reserve in Kent, albeit unsuccessfully. The birds from Medney have been seen at various sites on the south coast, feeding up ahead of a movement south, likely to happen during the second half of August.

For British birdwatchers, this is a species likely to continue to tantalise, appearing as a scarce visitor and very occasional breeder. There was, however, a period when a black-winged stilt set up home at Titchwell, becoming a resident attraction over a good number of years, much to the delight of those birdwatchers interested in adding the species to their ‘annual list’. Perhaps we will see an increase in the numbers visiting, a response to a changing climate and, potentially, a northwards shift in the core breeding range. It would be a welcome addition, no doubt received in a similar manner to the avocet, whose current breeding status hides a period of prolonged absence. Certainly, the black-winged stilt has all the charm of an avocet, with the addition of a splash of colour.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Elephants in the garden

The people living next door have purchased a kitten; a mischievous ginger and white imp whose explorations of the wider world now place many of the creatures living in my garden at risk. Frogs, butterflies and bumblebees seem to be the current favourites, each of which is stalked, pounced at and, occasionally, caught. While there is something about the wide-eyed naivety of the kitten, it is worth remembering that this is a cold-blooded killer practising its hunting skills. For the frogs, butterflies and bumblebees that it stalks, this is a matter life and death.

Earlier this week I found the kitten transfixed by two elephant hawk-moth caterpillars. These are large caterpillars, though not quite our largest, and it is easy to see why they had caught the eye of the kitten. The kitten, however, seemed unsure about the caterpillars, though it had obviously found them somewhere else and delivered them to our back door. Elephant hawk-moth caterpillars tend to hide up during the day, emerging at night to feed on willowherb, bedstraw or a number of other plants. The kitten has already got the measure of me and quickly left the scene upon my approach. Both caterpillars appeared unharmed, though quite how the cat had transported them to my door was unclear. Both were released in a stand of willowherb elsewhere in the garden.

Less than 10 minutes later and the kitten was back with another elephant hawk-moth caterpillar, this time a much larger one. The caterpillar had swollen the segments with the ‘eye’ markings somewhat, suggestive of a large-headed and more threatening creature than it really is. This seemed to unnerve the kitten, which retreated when the caterpillar turned towards it. Another rescue and now I was intrigued to see if more would appear. Sure enough, another hour or so later and two more caterpillars were wandering outside the back door, although there was no sign of the kitten. Perhaps all of the caterpillars had made their own way to the door. But where had they come from? There was no cover or foodplants nearby, and what were they doing out in the daytime? It must have been the kitten – if only he’d favour the delights of an indoor life!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014


The delicately shaped flowers of bittersweet, lightly washed with purple but more boldly splashed with golden yellow, are suggestive of a broader family tree that includes both tomato and potato. The scientific name of Solanum links bittersweet with the other nightshades (placing it within the family Solonaceae) and with them it shares its inviting, though poisonous, fruits. It is these fruits that alarm cautious parents, even though cases of poisoning among children are very rare.

I have heard this plant referred to as ‘deadly nightshade’ on more than one occasion, a case of mistaken identity. Deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, is a bushy perennial with smart green leaves and purple-brown flowers. Its glossy black berries, which are green initially, are formed in the centre of the flowers – like glossy marbles, each sitting within a five-pronged rosette of green. Bittersweet, which is also known as ‘woody nightshade’, is a rambling climber, its clusters of pea-sized, scarlet red berries starting out green before maturing in colour as they ripen. These berries are oval in shape and reminiscent of miniature plum tomatoes.

Bittersweet was a familiar childhood plant, appearing each year along a stretch of hedgerow near to the house, and I can recall the warnings from my mother not to touch the berries. As the name might suggest the berries are very bitter and this makes ingestion, accidental or otherwise, less likely. Because it is rather attractive, and because the fruits are popular with blackcaps, blackbirds and thrushes, it is a plant that I like to see in hedgerows and wildlife gardens. There is, however, a tendency for gardeners to remove it, particularly so in public gardens, fearing that some child might eat one of the fruits.

Bittersweet is one of the less poisonous members of the nightshade family but there has been some debate around the degree of toxicity to humans. It is known, for example, that toxicity varies with the stage of ripeness – ripe fruits are less toxic – but it is also thought that the levels of the toxins may vary between years, influenced by the growing conditions under which the fruit has developed. A cautious approach, rooted in educating children about possible risks, should also be a respectful one, leaving the plant to grow unmolested.

Monday, 11 August 2014

The old farm

It has been 25 years, probably more, since I last walked the footpath down the hill to Sturt Farm. Back then it was little more than a narrow, sunken track running across a series of fields, a crease in these old sheep fields rather than anything more substantial. In the winter, when it snowed, we used to bring our sledges here and hurtle down a slope that steepened towards the bottom, accelerating you towards the barbed wire fence that marked the farm’s western boundary.

The slope, the fence and the path are all still there but the path itself has changed dramatically. Another fence, presumably added to keep children on the path and out of the field, has allowed a tangle of vegetation to develop unchecked. Bramble, bindweed and bittersweet clamber over nettle and hawthorn, a new generation of ruffians exploiting the landowner’s lack of interest in this small part of a once bigger plot. The top of the biggest field has sprouted the beginnings of a wood, with clumps of hazel casting damp shade on this humid morning. The air under the trees resonates as if charged with static electricity, the whine of dozen of hoverflies, holding station.

While the view from the path has been lost to the clambering plants, there is something deeply comforting about the tunnel of green that the path has now become. The prying eyes of the houses that push up against the farm’s boundary can no longer gaze on those few souls who use the path. It is the silken nets of spiders, the lack of litter and the way that the vegetation presses in, that all speak of a path little used. Running down from the ridge, the path would have once been well used, its sunken state testament to the footfalls of generations past. Even though the landscape has changed, the path seems rooted in the history of this place. It is a link back through the years, first to my childhood and then far beyond. Two hundred homes are intended for this plot of land, the planned access road to follow and replace this ancient path. The landscape changes and we mourn its passing but it remains resilient beyond the timescales that we can comprehend.