Nature 2004 June

We have a saying around these parts

Weather in April and May, in contrast to last year, was characterised by lower temperatures and higher rainfall. Anyone with a rain-barrel or well will know that April with 3.25 inches (cf. 1.5 inches in 2003) and early May were in fact extremely wet months. Although May, up to writing this, has also been cooler I expect higher temperatures (over 25°C) towards month’s-end and for a few days into June followed by another wetter, cooler spell. Last year we had several days in the high 20’s in June and low thirties in July so think about buying that summer hat and sunscreen soon but wisely keep that brolly handy too!

If we were living in the 18th or 19th Century we would more likely refer to old sayings and proverbs than any amateur meteorologist’s wayward predictions! There is a fine line between folklore and science. Scientific investigation may uncover connections between an event and its cause and vice versa as sayings can provide clues leading to scientific discovery. “Ash before oak in for a soak, Oak before ash in for a splash“. This proverb has been researched recently using records taken over a 250 year period. The results showed correlations with higher average annual temperatures occurring when oak burst-bud before ash. In wetter (cooler) years both ‘burst’ together or ash slightly earlier. Average temperatures in the UK over this period have increased by around 1.5°C and oak has been up to 7-10 days ahead of ash in recent years. If this trend continues, oak might slowly shade out ash in our woodlands, changing the character of the habitat and their wildlife. This increase is one small example of how global warming can affect our landscape. By the way if we use the saying to predict the weather this year, both trees burst-bud at the same time (25th April) so according to the saying we are in for a wetter summer than usual. We shall see.

More oak trees will be good news for jays too who will be seen regularly from now on. They have a varied diet but rely heavily on acorns for food from the winter to late spring. Jays gather and secret away acorns in the autumn. They have one of the best memories amongst birds and are able to memorise even where they have hidden acorns quite far away from the tree. However, some of those they fail to find will germinate. So if you happen across a young oak sapling away from any mature trees it is more than likely that its one that got away from the jay.

Thanks for the various reports on cuckoos. The earliest I was told about for this area was 18th April, about four days later than last year. As the saying goes listen out for its tune changing in June to a whistle. Until the 18th century it was not known that birds migrated. It was believed these birds were hawks which changed into cuckoos at this time of year. The red kites are about again and I was recently told about sightings of other raptors including a pair of hobbies seen about this time last year.

For this month’s excursion my recommendation is to try out a new walk along footpaths you are less familiar such as the local history walks available from local pubs, or, or contact me for a copy. Paths and track-ways are nature’s equivalent of our motorways, enabling animals to traverse their territory or plants to disperse their seeds and very rapidly move in on new habitats.

The hedgerows defining these paths also provide a insight into the origin of these byways. Tree and shrub species give clues to a hedge’s history. Hazel, hornbeam, spindle and field maple indicate a woodland origin. Thorn hedges may have been man-made boundaries to keep animals in or out of woodland. Other may have been specially planted to provide for fuel or other needs, including furze (gorse) and holly for its magical powers as well(!), oak for building and ash for waggons, apples and cherries for food. Perennials in a hedge were also highly valued and harvested for food or medicinal purposes.

Hedges maybe the remnants of a wood which has been ‘ascarted’- cleared for agricultural purposes. If the plants seen include healthy populations of bluebell, wood anemone and yellow archangel, this is a sign it previously was part of a wood. Older hedges often zigzag to incorporate an established woodland trees now long gone. Hawthorn hedges, which date mainly from the ‘parliamentary enclosures’ of commons in the 18th/19th centuries are straighter, often ‘plashed’ i.e. laid, and contain few trees or many typical woodland plants.

You can, with surprising accuracy, estimate how old a hedge is by a simple calculation. This involves counting the number of different trees/shrubs in three, 30 yards stretches of hedge, multiplying the average of this by 99 and deducting 16! Although this might sound like another bit of folklore it is also based on some excellent scientific work done by Max Hooper in the 1950’s. Many hedges around here can be dated to between the 13th and 15th centuries and others to the time of the enclosures. If you think you have found a really old hedge, do let me know. We have an excellent network of footpaths which are well-used and normally kept clear. Usually any blockage is unintentional. A polite word with the landowner who are normally want to ensure paths are kept open anyway is usually enough. If blocked by overgrown hedges or even fences do get in touch with the Parish Council who can gently encourage some maintenance to be done.

As I started with a saying I will end with another “If bramble blossoms in early June the harvest will ensure the farmer’s in fine tune“.

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