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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".

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 – 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.