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Nature Notes from Hilltop News

Nature Notes

If you enjoy living or visiting the Chilterns you cannot fail to be impressed with the variety of landscape, wildlife and the particular weather it offers be it over the seasons of the year or just on a single day. What's more on any given day, the countryside in which the hilltop villages nestle is often characterised by having its own micro-climate compared to the neighbouring towns and countryside beneath it. This in turn has influenced the composition of local habitats and the occurrence of wildlife.

No one set of eyes, ears and sense of smell can capture the essence of the natural history of the hilltop villages. The following nature notes first published in the Hilltop News are just a simple attempt to reflect on the flora and fauna we enjoy through the seasons.

These articles were previously published in "Hilltop News".

Februrary 2015 - Hilltop Villages Noir
December 2014 - A Journey Through Trees
October 2014 - Roaming in the Chiltern Gloaming
August 2014 - The natural history of the Cosa Nostra's invasion of the British Isles
June 2014 - Orange by any other name
April 2014 - P****d as a Newt or Intoxicated as a Poet?
February 2014 - Turning over a new leaf...
December 2013 - Vestiges of Ancient Customs in the Landscape and in our Seasonal Traditions
October 2013 - The curious incidence of the bark in the night-time and the colours in the autumn
August 2013 - The Hidden Natural History of an English Churchyard
June 2013 - The Beauty in Nature and The Poetry in Fibonacci’s Mathematics.
April 2013 - A thousand acre sky
February 2013 - Just a word or two for yew: snotty-gog
December 2012 - Ashes to ashes
October 2012 - Some autumnal poetic licence
August 2012 - Water water everywhere...
June 2012 - It’s a jungle out there
April 2012 - Pimping reaches the Hilltop Villages!
February 2012 - Elementary my dear...
December 2011 - Reading the right signs and navigating Nature’s unmapped highways
October 2011 - The view from the other end of the telescope
August 2011 - Here Be Dragons or Excuse Me, Madam But There’s A Newt In Your Fruit Salad!
June 2011 - The Untamed Shrew, the Acrobatic Mouse and the Gardening Vole
April 2011 - Some musings on nature
February 2011 - Most glorious night! Thou wert not sent for slumber!
December 2010 - Four legs bad and two legs good
October 2010 - When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl
August 2010 - A song, a smell, the colour purple, and an ailing conker
June 2010 - After a winter whitewash
April 2010 - The Taste of Spring
February 2010 - Patrolling in a dignified procession of one
December 2009 - Otherwise obscured or easily overlooked
October 2009 - A thousand shades of ochre
August 2009 - September sights and sounds
June 2009 - Socialising
April 2009 - In celebration of the beech!
February 2009 - Darwin’s legacy
December 2008 - Three of a kind
October 2008 - Nature’s own autumnal aerial display
August 2008 - Stingers, Suckers, Biters
June 2008 - Black is the new grey
April 2008 - Gowk, Har and Whin
February 2008 - Spinning a tale or two about the web of life
December 2007 - What's black and white but read all over?
October 2007 - An Autumn Rainbow
August 2007 - Nature's Alphabet Soup
June 2007 - Green glow and cyanide
April 2007 - All simply in the springing of the year
February 2007 - The Hills Are Alive with the Smells of Nature
December 2006 - Ruddoc, Muntjac and Beefsteak; the Christmas Season with all the Trimmings
October 2006 - To Autumn: ”To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees...”
August 2006 - Fruits of the day, creatures of the night
June 2006 - In Celebration Of Old Moldewarp
April 2006 - All Creatures Great and Small
February 2006 - As I Walked Out One Evening...
December 2005 - White Christmas?
November 2005 - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
August 2005 - Sunny Spells, Summer Smells
June 2005 - Bum barrels, bells and whistles
April 2005 - Now Appearing In The Countryside Near You
February 2005 - The Birds and the Bees!
December 2004 - A Seasons Greetings to visitors from near and far
October 2004 - Whose house is it anyway?
August 2004 - Stop, Look and Listen - Nature is evolving all around us
June 2004 - "We have a saying around these parts"
April 2004 - The Chilterns, a good place to visit but a great place to go native
February 2004 - The Weather, Nature's Alarm Clock, provides a wake-up call
December 2003 - The Sound of Silence at this time of year is truly deafening!
October 2003 - An Oktoberfest of activity and colour
August 2003 - Balance is everything
June 2003 - Phew! What a scorcher.
April 2003 - Spring Into Action
March 2003 - A Climate of Change

Chris Brown
January 2004


Nature Notes – Februray 2015

Hilltop Villages Noir


I was staring out the window desperate for some inspiration on what to write. It was cold, grey, wet and windy. ‘Bleak’ came to mind and that rang a bell.

It was but a short jump to find the verse...

"In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone”

A neat summary for this day in early January and one for which I need to thank Christina Rossetti. Still mesmerised by this sinister outlook, the one benefit I concluded about the eggshell white sky and leafless trees is that birds alighting on trees or in flight can be seen better at this time of year than any other.

I grew up in the black and white times of the ‘50s with a father that got me interested in wildlife during expeditions out from London to the Home Counties. We busied ourselves shaking trees and bushes for butterflies and moth larvae, poking around in ditches for pond life and, the most exciting of all, surprising anything that lurked under any abandoned and usually rusty corrugated iron. In this way a growing knowledge of insects and other arthropods, reptiles and amphibians developed apace. Meanwhile, birds pretty well passed me by, so I grew up without the nous required to identify birds. I’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

Fast forward to 2015 and further study of the monochrome landscape through “the square window”, as Brian Cant or Floella Benjamin might say, reveals as yet indistinct outlines of several different birds. Distinguishing one from another is usually through having an idea about their songs and calls, or their flight patterns, or silhouettes, or their habits. All this sounds straightforward and dandy but I found it too much to bite off, at least all in one go. So I found a better approach was to pick just one bird you know visits your garden. Using, say, a song thrush, read how it is described in a field-guide. When spotting a thrush, see if you can match-up the distinguishing features that make a thrush unique: brown top (wing) plumage and buff white underside spotted with dark brown. Call sounds like “Come-out, come- out, come-out” and if you are lucky it might be cracking snail shells on a patio.

Though closely related, it differs a lot from the blackbird (male: black plumage and orange/yellow beak, female: brown tailing off blackish), on a dull day when colours are washed-out they can look very similar and are easily confused. So noticing the more subtle differences in profile is needed instead of colouration. Now read up about the mistle thrush: looks very like a song thrush but is slightly bigger and has larger and more well-defined breast spots. Now use the bit of new knowledge to separate one from t’other.

Now move on to distinguishing all the members of the tit family. Blue and great tit are easy and coal tit and long-tailed tit OK, but try comparing a willow with a marsh tit. This can be tough. I recently found a great little book to help me which I highly recommend: ‘The Helm Guide to Bird Identification’ by Keith Vinicombe. Another good challenge is sorting out the corvids -ackdaws, crows and rooks. These birds are epitome of ornithological noir!

* * *

From around 1937 until her death in 1976 Agatha Christie lived in the Chilterns near Wallingford. During both WW1 and WW2 she worked as a volunteer in a hospital. Her time was well-spent. She acquired an intimate knowledge from questioning doctors of the effects of different drugs on patients and to what extent poisons, when administered in certain doses, might remain undetected by pathologists. These days such conversations would raise some suspicions, but apparently Agatha was such a charmer that her gruesome interest in the macabre went unnoticed. A quote from her sums up her approach which produced 30 poison-based murders out of the total of 66 people dispatched in her novels. She once wrote “Give me a decent bottle of poison and I’ll construct the perfect crime.”

Agatha’s murderers tended to purchase their poisons from the high street chemist, however the plants from which many are derived can be found all around us. Most poisons are either still derived from, or at least were originally extracted from, plants and fungi. Favourites of Agatha included aconite, aka wolfbane or monkshood and deadly nightshade (the Anglo-Saxon name was dwale, which translates as ‘stupefying drink’). It is also the source of atropine, an ophthalmist’s favourite, but deadly in your cocoa.

We are familiar with foxgloves but digitalis products such as digitalin and digitoxin can keep the heart pumping or stop it. We are familiar today with what can be produced from relatives of the common poppy which, in Christie’s time, were only just becoming unacceptable drugs in everyday use. The Hilltop Villages were a major damson and cherry-producing area. The stone in the fruits of the Prunus family were a key source of cyanide, which was Agatha’s favourite poison. Taxine was a more exotic killer, apparently more difficult to detect, which is extracted from the fruit of the yew tree. Conine was another cleverly disguised poison obtained from hemlock, a relative of celery and angelica. The serious point to make about all these plants and their poisons is that there is no risk if you don’t ingest them. Botanical Noir!

* * *

I guess with the arrival of February that if worms, woodlice and beetles and their soil-loving companions were sentient beings they would be worrying that their peaceful existence was soon to be disturbed by the emergence of badgers and foxes - for whom up to 70 per cent of their diet is invertebrates - and shrews, who need to consume between 2-3 times their body weight each day to survive overnight. No wonder we can wake up each morning at this time of the year to little piles of topsoil and scrapes of leaf litter in our gardens. It’s murder on a major scale. Animal Noir!


Nature Notes – December 2014

A Journey Through Trees


The coincidence of a chance discussion and a browse through a remarkable book got me thinking how some trees have a heritage that is largely steeped in mythology, whereas others are principally valued for their practical uses. Either way the distinction is often not that clear-cut, and there is often a crossover or interconnection between myths, customs social history and crafts.

I had an interesting conversation with a local amateur historian about the Great War. Though there are many accounts of contributions of those within these shores during World War II, the same could not be said about the ‘Home Front’, which was coined for the first time at the outbreak of the Great War. Between 1939-45 there were initiatives to gather fruits from hedgerows and woodlands, from which preserves and other vitamin-rich foodstuffs could be produced. In fact we should acknowledge the contribution of Claire Loewenfeld, who lived in Buckland Common during and after WW2, who did much to encourage the collection of hedgerow rosehips and other fruits to address vitamin deficiencies being suffered by adults and children.

During the first year or two of WW1 supplies of all sorts essential to the war effort could, if in short supply, be brought across the ocean from America. However, by 1917 the Germans had cottoned on to this and deployed vessels to disrupt the supply chain. One of the more bizarre initiatives was one to boost the availability of acetone, essential for the manufacture of cordite, the explosive used in just about all armaments.

Prior to the War much of the acetone came from the USA. Recognising there was a risk to supplies a factory was established in the Forest of Dean. But it could not keep up with demand and it was decided to ‘raid the larder’ and use alternatives such as potatoes and maize. But another solution was soon developed promoting the use of the fruits of the horse chestnut, or conkers. Schools, scout and guide groups were instructed to co-ordinate collection by children. There is no evidence so far for conker collection in these villages though children at Hawridge and Cholesbury school were given afternoons off during October and regularly collected over 1800 lbs of blackberries each year for the war effort. I was told that Stone School near Aylesbury gathered over 3.5 tons of conkers in 1917!

Nationally, many thousands of tons must have been collected and the Ministry of War paid 7/6d per hundredweight. Sadly, very little of this nationwide harvest was ever converted into acetone. Apparently both the logistics of getting the conkers to the factories in Poole and Kings Lynn largely defeated the railways, and in any case the inefficiency of the industrial process resulted in only three months production, with nearly all of the conkers just rotting away in train sidings!

Meanwhile, I learnt that the pastime of ‘conkers’ is, surprisingly, a much more modern custom than one would expect. It was probably originally known as ‘conquerors’ and played, not with horse chestnuts but with snail shells.

The transition to using horse chestnuts apparently started around 1850 on the Isle of Wight. In the West Midlands, where the tradition was the strongest, it is where a short rhyme was perhaps first recited: ‘Obli, obli, onker, my first conker (conquer)’. One is left to wonder if interest generated by the mass collection of conkers during the Great War was responsible for spawning the subsequent enthusiasm amongst schoolchildren.

An ancient custom, steeped in both folklore and religion, is the preparation and ritual use of willow in ceremonies. There are many examples of willow being fashioned into ‘wands’ for use in Wicca and later Christian ceremonies, including the practice of ‘beating the bounds’. The country dance ‘Stripping the Willow’ symbolises the ceremonial removal of bark to expose the white wood. There are also connections in folklore between the woodland willow and the ‘Green Man of the Woods’ or ‘Green George’ who was, and apparently is still, venerated in Suffolk. He was depicted in the form of a man woven from willow strands and known colloquially as a wicker man. Coincidentally, the 1967 cult film ‘The Wicker Man’ is based on the book ‘Ritual’ that was written by David Pinner, who until recently lived in Cholesbury.

Weaving willow into wicker structures is an ancient craft. The book I was browsing is by the legendary, and sadly, now late Roger Deakin (book details below). He gives over one chapter to the willow and its uses. I was drawn into the story by Roger’s elegant descriptions, starting with how willow traditionally grows near water, though when farmed is more often grown on low- lying ground, such as the Suffolk Levels, where water movement is managed so that the roots always remain in moistened soil.

Harvesting starts in November and continues until mid-winter when planting or ‘seeding’ begins in earnest. Today bark is stripped by machine, saving hands being cut to ribbons. Some willow is still used ‘wet’ to make fishing creels and bicycle baskets. Perhaps the most recent trend, providing a valuable new line for the industry, is for wicker coffins. However, nearer to home, willow wicker is used today to manufacture balloon baskets and once used for housing Aylesbury Ducks sent by train to London each day to be sold at the poultry market at Smithfield.

Deakin continues with a treatise on the tradition of willow cricket bats from 1741 and how this has evolved into the profitable industry it is today. After their ‘birth’ and early life in the cricket-bat willow tree nursery this variety of white willow is planted out on the edge of the wildwood where, for about ten years, it is ruthlessly pruned back several times a year, resulting in a very dense stout tree which is eventually deemed ready for harvesting, ‘polling’ stacking, grading, compressing, cutting to size, assembling to the handle, ‘knocking in’, polishing with a horse’s shinbone, oiling and labelling ready for sale. At the start of the next season it might even get its first outing on Cholesbury Common!

We may not be able to see willow beds in the Chilterns, but there are good examples of the willow family around, like goat willow, also known as ‘pussy-willow’ that brighten up our hedgerows and woodland edges around January-February. Meanwhile, many of the horse chestnut trees we see nearby were planted as a thanksgiving tribute at the end of World War One.

** Roger Deakin’s book: ‘Wildwood - A Journey Through Trees’ is a fascinating read and would make an excellent Christmas present for anyone who enjoys trees.


Nature Notes – October 2014

Roaming in the Chiltern Gloaming


A few weeks ago we had a less than usual visitor, as twilight (aka gloaming) fell, roaming in our garden - a grey heron. It was a juvenile, distinguished by its hunchback profile and stubby grey bill, contrasted with the adroit stance and blood-orange rapier of the adult bird. When not flying overhead, we most frequently view herons at the water’s edge, riverbank, canal tow-path, through reeds or in open water, standing statuesque.

With no pond nearby, remaining motionless and allowing the prey come to within reach was not an option. Instead, this youngster contented itself with scouting for food in the long grass and beneath shrubs. Several minutes passed while it stalked its hidden prey. I’ve never had the opportunity to observe a heron at close quarters. The way this bird moved had remarkable similarities to that of a chameleon. It is interesting how these two very different animals have adopted a similar approach to finding food. Given that their chosen meal is fast-moving, they have developed a similar strategy which maximises their chances of success.

Slow, very slow, deliberate movements are interposed with a jerky swaying of the whole body, aimed at concealing that a predator is hunting down its next meal. Once in position their final movement, be it with a stiletto bill, or an elastic sticky tongue, is lightning fast. In the case of the heron the wilderness in our garden would provide rich pickings, including mice, voles, beetles, frogs and toads. Eventually it ended its roaming as dusk fell and flew off languidly. There are few animals that can be considered predators of herons. In theBritish Isles, the heron is effectively the top of the food chain. However, there is one bizarre example of the heron being taken advantage of. Some of the most reliable foods of the heron are small freshwater fish such as the stickleback. Sticklebacks forage for much of their food from the detritus that falls to the bottom of rivers. Within this muck are nutritious items such as small insects and eggs which have been deposited in large quantities.

The fish will indiscriminately consume these and unwittingly swallow eggs of tapeworms, many of which are parasitic on fish, but in some cases subsequently need to parasitize birds. In one case the chosen bird is a heron. Having been ingested by the stickleback the tapeworm hatches and grows in the stomach of the fish. Once it reaches a certain size it needs more sustenance than is available from the fish. Perhaps it induces the fish to behave differently by making it feed from near the surface of the water and in so doing the stickleback becomes susceptible to being caught by the heron. Once inside the heron the tapeworm attaches itself to the wall of the digestive tract of the bird, grows rapidly and produces eggs which are subsequently excreted by the bird, fall into water and sink into the detritus. It is worth contemplating how this complicated association between a tapeworm, a fish and a heron evolved!

I am sure many of us have experienced the reaction of friends and relatives who, when visiting here for the first time, express how surprised they are at the remoteness of the Hilltop Villages. Much of this feeling comes from the scattered plantations of beech woods, which these days have replaced the ancient oak woodlands which once covered nearly all of the Chilterns. Today there are just small vestiges of these once magnificent forests that were progressively but very gradually cleared over several thousand years. But what might be considered remote today is nothing compared to the remoteness of these hills in past millennia.

The earliest humans appeared around 400,000 years ago and there has been evidence, from stone axes found, which indicates they were roaming across the Chilterns. This was a time when the truly prehistoric wild animals roamed southern Britain, like woolly rhinoceros, mammoths, cave bears, and the giant Irish elk.

However, several glaciations have dramatically changed the Chiltern landscape and the forests first appeared around 12,000 years ago. They were originally pinewoods, replaced 8,000 years ago by birch woods (as the climate continued to warm) and eventually mixed elm oak and beech woodland from 7,000 years ago. This was a true ‘wildwood’, a habitat we cannot find in the British Isles today, but would not have been too dissimilar to that still found in the remotest parts of Canada and New Zealand. By this time the giant mammals such as wild ox, arctic fox, bison, wild horse, wolf and wolverine were already in decline, very rare or already absent from these parts.

To understand what large mammals were around in these primordial forests, good references are fossil bones and later the tools developed by humans. Some of the best evidence of the variety of wild animals encountered by man comes from the flint tools developed, with different shapes for each task or specific animal. From this we know there were brown bears, beavers, wild boars, deer, otters, pine martins and, familiar to us, badgers.

It is generally agreed that farming arrived around here between 6-4,000 years ago with wild cattle and horses being domesticated soon after. This was the start of the gradual retreat of the second wave of wild animals, most of which had probably disappeared from these hills some 3-2,000 years ago. Climate change has always played a role, whether man or naturally driven and both will continue alongside other impacts by man to influence our landscape, habitats and wildlife. Enjoy roaming in the Chilterns gloaming while you can!


Nature Notes – August 2014

The natural history of the Cosa Nostra's invasion of the British Isles


There is a small assortment of wild plants in Britain that have made their mark by taking advantage of changes in landscapes, usually through man's activities. Each have their own unique, often bizarre, story. Here is the story of just two to whet the appetite.

I recall growing up in London in the post World War II era and like many who lived in cities and large towns across will the UK can remember the large number of bombsites which were left in ruins, in many cases throughout the fifties into the early sixties. I also recall they were excellent places to visit to discover interesting butterflies and moths. For many it was not until major inner city investment commenced and resulted in the development of high-rise residential or of new industries forged in Harold Wilson's 'white heat of technology'. One of the first invaders of these derelict oases was a new urban dweller. Not human, not animal, but a perennial plant we know as Rosebay willowherb. It first came to prominence in our cities around 1940, a matter of weeks after the start of the Blitz. Not unsurprisingly then that it acquired the colloquial name of 'Bombweed'. However, World War Two was not the first time a rampant invasion by this plant had been observed as a consequence of a World War. What appears to be a sudden invasion of an otherwise innocuous and colourful plant was almost the concluding stage of a much longer-term infiltration into a wide range of habitats.

Up until the end of the 17th century it is thought it was absent from the wild habitats of Britain. Though recorded by some herbalists of the time this is probably more down to confusion with a related species which resulted in it being labelled as 'Codlins-and-cream'. Codlins is an Old English name for cooking apples and the name is on account of the similarity to ripe apples of the colour of the pink and off-white flower spikes of the closely related Great willowherb. During the late seventeen hundreds individual plants found were possibly the result of garden escapes

One of the earliest records of this plant in the wild was compiled by the early antiquarians during their archaeological investigations on ancient ruins, Not in Britain but across Mediterranean Europe, where it was found bursting out of crevices in the remains of ancient Roman and Greek buildings in Italy. One of the first to bring some back to Britain were probably some travellers to southern Italy possibly Sicily. This might have been either accidentally or on purpose, amongst their collections of artefacts. Known then as 'French Willow', it soon came to the attention of seventeenth century gardeners. Despite more frequent escapes from landscaped gardens into the countryside it remained relatively scarce well into the 19th century when it began to be found expanding its territory. Botanists considered it a rare but determined opportunist in the Home Counties and Midlands. This all began to change at the start of the 20th Century. At the time its progressive appearance was not understood. However, historians have concluded its increasing appearance in forest plantations, woodlands and heather moorlands was not a natural occurrence. Rather, during the first decade of the 20th Century the British Army began a large-scale rearmament in preparation of war with Germany. Large tracks of woodland were felled to supply timber for military purposes. Moorland was cleared of heather and planted with coniferous trees. This transformation of our managed landscapes continued apace during the First World War. After clearance the remaining 'stocklands' (areas comprising just tree stumps) were deliberately cleared by burning to enable rapid replanting. However in the interim period when trees had been removed the willowherb spread relentlessly. Not surprisingly, for this reason in the US and Canada it has another name 'Fireweed' due to its ability to be the first coloniser of newly fire-damaged forest areas. It is even incorporated into the Yukon Territory flag.

The success of Rosebay willowherb is down to the explosive nature of its seed dispersal. The average plant produces around 80,000 seeds each year. Each seed has a plume of hairs which create an aerodynamic parachute capable of transporting the seed over many miles in the lightest of breezes. En masse seed dispersal of large colonies of willowherb are known as blizzards, as the nearby trees and grassland can become clothed in a whitewash of seeds. The hairs prove useful in attaching to animals, (including horses and their mounts along woodland rides). As the seeds can remain dormant but viable for many years it is ideally suited to exploit an opportunity after a severe fire, explosion, or other disturbance.

The second plant with an intriguing story is Oxford ragwort. Like its close relative, Common ragwort, it has bright yellow daisy-like flowers. Though a different tale from that of willowherb, coincidentally its story also starts in Italy where it was first recorded in 1701 growing only on well-drained rocky ground, typically the eroded volcanic larva of Mount Etna in Sicily.

It was brought back to England and shortly after ended up at Oxford's Botanic Garden. It was subsequently classified by Linnaeus from specimens sent to him from Oxford, noting that unlike related species, its habitat was tightly restricted to poor soils comprising mainly rocks. It was originally known as 'Sicilian ragwort' actually a hybrid between two species both found in Sicily . By the 1800s though the plant had escaped the confines of the botanic garden in all directions, it was almost exclusively to be found, on the tops of the old walls of the city, growing out of crevices in the buildings of certain Oxford University buildings and in particular favoured the Bodleian Library.

Around 1830 the Great Western Railway arrived in Oxford and very shortly afterwards the ragwort was to be found growing on the tracks at Oxford Railway Station. Within a few years this herbaceous plant had spread up and down the railway line but was restricted to growing out of the granite chips and clinker that made up the 'permanent way'. A plant can produce up to 10,000 seeds per season, each with their own umbrella to catch the wisps of wind or in this case be caught up in the slipstream of passing steam engines. A chronicler in the 19th century described how some seeds got into the carriage with him at Oxford Station and travelled all the way down the line to Tilehurst where they alighted. Others wrote of finding specimens appearing at further and further distances from Oxford ending up in Penzance and into South Wales, then later spreading up from Abergavenny all the way to Hereford where it met up with those travelling up north from Oxford. From here it reached North Wales all the way to Holyhead. At the same time it also spread outwards to be found on waste ground for up to half a mile either side from the track bed. By the end of the Second World War it was also found growing on bomb sites. Oxford Ragwort reached the Scottish Lowlands in the 1950s and with the advent of the motorway network in the 1960s the plant was able to rapidly spread along the newly granite-strewn scarps and verges. In 1979 it was found for the first time across the Irish Sea, on waste ground beside a main street in Dublin. Possibly the boat-train from North Wales had been its courier? Though from a botanical perspective the plant provides an interesting story it should also be remembered that it is a serious hazard to livestock and needs to be eradicated from fields where horses or ponies might occupy or stray into.

As an interesting postscript to this essay, I found a brief comment which Richard Mabey wrote in 1996 in his Flora Britannica that (by the 20th century) that Oxford ragwort 'now brightens all the waste grounds it graces, especially in the company of Rosebay willowherb'.

Two members of the 'Sicilian Mafia' that have made our countryside and towns their home.

That's all for this time. Questions and comments to chrisbrown@rayshill.com Tel: 01494 758890


Nature Notes – June 2014

Orange by any other name


From our school history lessons many of us might recall Nell Gwyn as a mistress of Charles II. History also records that the reason that she came to the attention of the Monarch was her occupation as a fruit-seller or more accurately 'orange wench'. The oranges, which she purveyed were much smaller and sweater than the orange we are familiar with today. They were on sale priced 6d each at the King's Theatre, where Nell plied her trade and came to the attention of Charles. They were known colloquially as 'a chinese'; a reference to the geographic origins of the fruit trees which had been grown in special walled gardens in China since 2,500 BC.

The Spanish or Portuguese had brought the first oranges (or 'naranges' to be more accurate) to Europe from China around the 15th century. Somewhere along the way the 'n' was lost in translation and the first use found in English was of the word Orange referring only to the fruit. It would be another hundred or so years before the word was also used to describe the colour. Prior to this when wanting to describe the colour orange either the word red or yellow might have been used or alternately the Old English word geoluread which in modern English means 'yellow-red' or if a darker hue the OE equivalent of 'red-yellow'.

The consequence of this late arrival of the word orange in our language has been that it was not available at the time when the vast majority of our plants and animals were being described and named for the first time. It does not take too long when hunting through the names of our British wildlife to find some examples to prove this point. The Red Fox has strong associations with Celtic customs and religious ceremonies including a common familiar for witches called Rufus meaning 'red-haired'. The red squirrel, which has become an icon for British species under threat is these days restricted to a number of coniferous forest and island enclaves. The pelt of the red squirrel was much sort after in the Middle Ages as a lining for cloaks and known as 'vair' is also important in heraldic nomenclature being depicted on shields.

Amongst the bird community the most obvious misnomer is the Robin Redbreast. An anthology of the Robin in religion and folklore provides associations with Jesus Christ, whose blood was spilt on the robin's breast and in Norse mythology it was a storm bird associated with the blood and thunder of the God Thor. The sobriquet 'redbreast' and robin was subsequently applied to a wide selection of unrelated species when naming other bird species emblazoned with a distinctive breast colour, such as the American robin whose breast plumage is even more orange than its cousin the European robin. Other birds with a misleading names include the Common Redstart, the male of which uses its bright orange tail-feathers in territorial displays and the red-crested Pochard, an example of waterfowl with bright orange plumage on the head and neck. And lest we forget one of our local birds of prey the Red Kite has orange rather than red tail-feathers!

Looking for insects I was convinced the Red Admiral had red colouration but no, rather than red it has deep orange flashes! So what of the Large Red Damselfly oft seen darting and loitering near ponds around here? Wrong again, it has a bright orange articulated abdomen.

Right at the outset I knew there was at least one example of an animal species labelled 'orange' and though I trawled through several tomes I could not find any others. I stand to be corrected but the Orange Tip Butterfly has the distinction of being the only British plant or animal to include orange in its name. (Only the male displays the orange colouration). However, even this example may be more to do with a tribute to Prince William of the Netherlands and the House of Orange for which there is a wholly separate derivation of the word 'orange'. A group of closely-related butterflies were probably all given the name 'The Prince of Orange Butterfly'. Around 1750 it was properly identified as a separate species, its name shortened to Orange Tip, and was given a defined scientific name by the Swedish Biologist and father of Taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus. Amongst British wild flowers I also drew a blank. To be honest there are very few British wild flowers which are orange, but for the one or two examples I noticed rather than 'red', 'yellow' has been substituted to describe flowering plants with orange flowers, for example, the Yellow Horned Poppy. Turning to the exotic world of the lichens they also obliged with a ubiquitous variety to be found on trees and stones called the Common Orange Lichen, which was another one first described by Linnaeus. So what brought about a change? By the 18th century the word orange as a colour description had been adopted. It is also not a coincidence that Kew Gardens which was established in 1759 quickly became the dominant institution for identifying new species brought back by plant hunters from the expeditions to every corner of the rapidly expanding British Empire. So orange became part of the botanical nomenclature for newly discovered plants around the world.

That's all this time. Questions and comments to chrisbrown@rayshill.com tel: 01494 758890


Nature Notes – April 2014

P****d as a Newt or Intoxicated as a Poet?


Rupert Brooke is rightly regarded as one of our most revered War Poets. His poetry only really came to the wider public's attention in 1915 following his tragic death from sepsis in a hospital at Skyros in the Aegean Sea. However, amongst his peers he had already become recognised as one of the foremost poets of the age. he broke new ground for the time with his distinctive style of romantic poetry which incorporated imagery drawn from nature.

Like many of his compatriots, in order to escape the distractions of city life, and gain inspiration it is well documented that he frequently travelled out from London to seek solitude and tranquillity in the Chiltern Hills. Setting off from Tring or Wendover he would take the Icknield Way and then wind his way up the hollow ways to walk the hills and woodlands. It is quite possible that he wandered as far as these villages. A close friend of his, John Drinkwater, is known to have stayed at the Windmill. The Pink and Lily Pub at Parslow’s Hillock above Princes Risborough was also one of his regular haunts.

... The Roman road to Wendover 
By Tring and Lilley Hoo, ...

In 1913, and no doubt intoxicated, if not by beer by the scenes around him, Brooke wrote a poem called The Chilterns. It serves both as a poem about unrequited love (Brooke had just learnt that his affection for a girl was not reciprocated) and undoubtedly it's also an appreciation of the varied and ever-changing vistas he had become familiar with. Some particular lines of the poem stood out which I think could perfectly describe anyone's experiences of the Chilterns. The one just below, is observing the view into Aylesbury Vale has a winter feel, and the second, further down, I think must be springtime, The third below describes an autumnal scene:

... White mist about the black hedgerows, 
The slumbering Midland plain, 
The silence where the clover grows,
  And the dead leaves in the lane,...

The first few days of March brought a welcome change in the weather with a shift from the wet, if mild, winter period to warm bright and even sunny days. The signs are that Spring has been advanced a fortnight or so. It is almost as though Spring was '... like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start...' as hardly had the first day of the season had passed before white-tailed bumble bees were out buzzing the newly laid carpets of resplendent celandines that are only open for business when the sun shines, and hitherto hibernating brimstones had stoked their fires and were already circumnavigating their domains.

... The splendour and the pain; The splash of sun, the shouting wind, And the brave sting of rain ...

Whilst over-wintering invertebrates are programmed to awaken each year by reacting to a sudden, all-be-it modest temperature increase, typically amphibians, such as newts, wait out the worst of the Winter, in loose soil or deep leaf litter, and emerge from dormancy (not hibernation) during February, when temperatures rise above 0 °C and there is sufficient free water on the soil surface. They habitually return to the same water-source and having satisfied their voracious appetites with new found energy they are ready to participate in the courtship ritual. It is said the expression 'p****d as a newt' originates from the awkward lumbering behaviour of the male newt which comprises arm-waving and tail-whipping which also promotes the dispersal of pheromones as it stalks and attempts to snare a female. If two or more males are engaged in following a single female each will attempt to force the other away from the pursuit. In doing so limbs and tail will become entangled and the melee that ensues has been described as having all the hallmarks of a Greco-Roman wrestling contest. Newts need to surface to absorb oxygen through their skin. It is believed that this tussle will favour the 'fitter newt' capable to absorb more oxygen and therefore able to stay submerged for longer periods. Eventually one has to disengage and surface, the other having prevailed escorts the female as they leave the water. The male having deposited a packet of sperm on the ground it will entice the female to walk over it and absorb it. The female returns to the water to lay one or two eggs in the folds of the leaves of water plants. Interesting aside about some recent newt research. It has long been known that newts losing a tail or limb can re-grow them. However, it has now been found that in addition; jaws, eyes, hearts, intestines, spinal cords can also be regenerated and work is underway to isolate the genes responsible for this which might just have an application for the reconstruction of human organs one day!

... The autumn road, the mellow wind  That soothes the darkening shires.  And laughter, and inn-fires...

One day right at the end of May a few years back I happened to be visiting at Champneys, not for any of their 'treatments' I should add, and during the day while walking around the estate I crossed a hay meadow that was full of Yellow Rattle, a herb plant with yellow parrot-shaped flowers which gets its name from the seeds which can be heard to rattle inside the hardened fruit-capsules in the late summer. It was a stunning sight to see the shimmering yellow flowers, poking through the tall grasses. Where yellow rattle occurs this important plant is responsible for improving the diversity of meadow plants by parasitizing the grass species and drawing nutrients from their roots. Through ensuring the continuous impoverishment of the more rampant grasses it prevents them crowding out those annuals less able to compete. Not wanting to encourage trespassing, you understand, but if you get the chance it's worth a visit sometime.

Many thanks for the comments since last month, as usual, please call (758890) or email me (chrisbrown@rayshill.com) with any observations.


Nature Notes – February 2014

Turning over a new leaf...


...as we are inclined to say from time to time, not least to describe the simple action that has taken place resulting in one arriving at this page and also a decisive action bringing about a major change of direction. Such a decisive change also takes place annually when Winter gives way to Spring and again as Summer gives way to a mellow Autumn.

I recently came across several poems by a local author and poet, and sometime boxer, Vernon Scannell who grew up and lived in Aylesbury before the Second World War. In his Autobiography he recalls his frequent walks "in the Chiltern Hills above Wendover", which usually concluded with a jar or two in the hilltop pubs. The following short poem caught my eye.

The Day that Summer died

From all around the mourners came
  The day that Summer died,
From hill and valley, field and wood
  And lane and mountainside.

They did not come in funeral black
  But every mourner chose
Gorgeous colours or soft shades
  Of russet, yellow, rose.

Horse chestnut, oak and sycamore
  Wore robes of gold and red;
The rowan sported scarlet beads;
  No bitter tears were shed.

Although at dusk the mourners heard,
  As a small wind softly sighed,
A touch of sadness in the air
  The day that Summer died.

After last Summer 'died' and Autumn hastened on you may recall, somewhat unusually this year, that trees had retained almost their full complement of leaves which were then all shed in just a matter of a few windswept days. Leaf-fall is dictated by a combination of shortening day-length and falling temperatures and a relatively warm September and October served to delay this year's 'fall'. As a consequence, for a few days the ground beneath our woodland trees was swathed in an extra deep carpet of leaves, all bearing a fresh abscission scar, signifying their very recent departure from the canopy. However, within just a few days the soluble carbon molecules had leached out of the leaf-litter as water drained away.

This is the start to the process of conversion into a fine layer of dark brown compost. First on the scene in this underground world are the earthworms who churn up and transport leaf litter beneath the surface and also aerate it by creating tunnels between the surface and deep down layers. The scene is now set for the decomposers the large (or macro) fungi such as the stinkhorn which uses enzymes to dissolve the humus. The way is clear for the 'detritivores' which consume and digest the now finely tilled fragments of leaves and twigs. These are the ants, slugs , woodlice, insect larvae, mites, potworms et al. Chief amongst these though are the springtails. One of the most primitive arthropods but also one of the most numerous invertebrates in the soil, with over 100,000 per cubic metre. The final stage of conversion involves the invasion of the mycelia of microscopic fungi and the even more ancient and mysterious slime moulds, which can attack the most resistant fibrous material.

Alongside the leaves the autumn brings dead animals and birds as well as a not inconsiderable amount of animal waste deposited by our modest array of woodland inhabiting mammals. Left to rot away of its own accord it would hang around for a very long period eventually contaminating the ground. In fact so long would it take the waste materials to disappear unaided that it would only have to be a small number of seasons to pass before we would find ourselves wading waist-deep through a morass of unpleasant detritus. But as this is not the case its worth considering what happens in places where the numbers of larger animals are much greater than ours.

I recall a segment in an episode of one of Sir David Attenborough's wildlife series when he was talking about the animals of the African Plains. Here it is not the build up of vegetable matter, but rather the even more unpleasant prospect of the carcases and waste products from hundreds and thousands of large mammals, including the massive pachyderms - elephants and rhinos - and a complete alphabet soup of grazing herd animals from antelopes to zebras. Sir David explained that these vast savannahs are kept clear of dead animal remains firstly through the efforts of scavengers such as vultures. More important though is the most prodigious of insects, the African Dung Beetle. Without it parts of Africa would be submerged beneath 12 foot of dung within a year. The beetles consume such large quantities of dung that they alone are responsible for continuously refereshing grazing land. Also known as 'roller beetles' because the male of also dedicate their lives to collecting, conveying and burying dung. In doing so they not only provide a reserve of food for their progeny but greatly hasten the breakdown of the manure. Although the dung beetle plays a crucial role, they are but part of an army of organisms, such as other coprophilous insects, fungi, nematodes, earthworms bacteria etc.

Though on an entirely different scale in The Chilterns, country cousins of the African Dung Beetle are at the forefront of a comparable army of animals, fungi and bacteria whose activities result in our local woodlands being rich and diverse habitats. Mind you, though the largest mammal we might encounter today is probably a Fallow Deer. In the not too dim and distant past some 3-5000 years ago much larger mammals roamed the Chilterns, such as bears. However, if we could go back in time until what is known as the interglacial period the Palaeolithic - between 125,000 and 70,000 years ago, not only would we experience a tropical climate, but dominant animals of the period would have included both ancestral rhinos, elephants, horses and elk. So it would be correct to presume there was also a healthy community of dung beetles removing dung and earthworms turning over a new leaf!

As we move from Winter to Spring give some thought that without the activities of nature's recyclers we could not look forward once again to a fertile greening of the Chiltern woodlands.

Comments and questions welcome as always via chrisbrown@rayshill.com or Tel: 758890.