Nature 2006 October

To Autumn: ”To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees…”

(John Keats)

It’s difficult to sum up the summer just passed. The warmest July on record, beating that of 1911, a drought order from Thames Water, lifted on the 1st September despite below average rainfall in August (3.25 inches). During the first week of September overnight temperatures dipped to near zero in the frost pocket where our garden resides but also reached 28°C on 11th of the month. The outlook for October and November is for warmer and dryer weather than usual for this time of year.

I read an article on orchards in the National Trust magazine which described how important fruit trees are as a source of food and refuge for wildlife. According to the NT only about ten percent of the 250,000 acres of traditional orchards around in 1950 remain. Until the Second World War the Chilterns was a major producer of cherries but also damsons, plums, apples, including crab-apples, and other fruit. Cider-making had also been important in 19th and early 20th centuries. Tithe map field names include: Cherry Walk, Cherry Field and Cherry Platt and Crab Apple, Orchards include: Lane’s End, Gardener’s, Foster’s, Chambers Green and Cholesbury. Most homes had at least one or more trees. Although larger orchards may have gone groups of fruit trees survive in many gardens, the remnants of old orchards, their mossy, gnarled boughs giving away their age. A local apple variety the Basely still grows locally.

Orchards have their own flora. Some flowering plants, ferns, lichens, mosses and fungi flourish in an orchard where trees suppress the normally vigorous growth of meadow grasses. Historically, others relied on soil disturbance by pigs turned out each autumn for seed dispersal and germination. The flowers, leaves, bark, holes or damaged branches support many insects, particularly moths, social and solitary bees, yellow ants and numerous beetles, such as the nobel chafer (large and metallic green). Solely dependant on cherry trees from which it recycles the deadwood, it has declined in numbers alongside the trees. Many spiders which need a healthy population of flying insects make a home in trees or at grass level. Windfalls provide a valuable autumn food store for a wide variety of bird-life, including, thrushes, redwings, fieldfares and green woodpeckers. Further up the pecking order little and tawny owls and mammals including, fox, badger, bats, hedgehog, mice, voles and our local ‘friend’ the Glis glis are regular night-time visitors! If you have one or more mature fruit trees you have the elements of an orchard habitat literally in your back garden. Even if not when out and about look out for the many ‘escapee’ apple trees on Hawridge & Cholesbury Commons or the Green at Buckland Common, dally a moment to see what’s about.

Apple Day is on Saturday 21st October, a chance to celebrate orchards, their heritage, distinctiveness and the look and taste of our native apple varieties. An excuse (if one were needed) to enjoy an apple and maybe see what is the longest peel you can make! Apple Day events are occurring all over the country. Locally, I see that on Sunday 15 October 2006 Tring Open Orchard – a listed WWI smallholding with small orchard and wildlife meadow is having an event. Contact: Martin Hicks on 01442 823188. On a day-to-day basis Mother Nature has a habit of reminding us that the evolution of plants and animals has been the result of a continuous struggle between competing species to survive. Adaptation and advantage deriving from chance mutations; aka ‘the survival of the fittest’. Darwin went all the way to the Galapagos to discover this but intriguing examples are all around us. I recently received a report from an enthusiastic Cholesbury ‘Commoner’ of an infestation of Knopper Galls on some of the oaks on H&C Commons. Knopper derives from Old German/English ‘knop’, a decorative stud or tassel on clothing. Galls are one of nature’s curiosities and are the trees’ response to infestation of acorns by the larva of a minute species of wasp. The tree tries to isolate itself from the irritation caused by the larva by producing an odd-shaped sticky-green tissue which over the autumn hardens before dropping off. This protects the developing wasp from the cold.

The second generation of adults (all female) emerge in the spring and eggs are laid in the oak’s male flowers (catkins). The larvae develop quickly. The cycle completes when the adult wasps (male and female) emerge and the females seek out the acorns. Each species of wasp produces its own distinct gall, ranging from the marble-sized spherical galls to red spots known as spangles (again a word derived from dressmaking) on the undersides of oak leaves. Galls can also be found on other plants and trees, (thistle, hawthorn, poplar and willow). One more well known example is that of robin’s pincushion on wild roses. Normally, the infestation does not cause such serious damage to weaken the tree or shrub. Presumably a balance is struck between tree and wasp that allows the wasp to eat and shelter whilst the tree benefits from the many predators after the wasp which also consume other pests infesting the tree.

There is no better time to start feeding garden birds than the autumn. Small birds in particular need to stock up on their fat reserves to survive the winter months. If you start providing food it’s also important to continue throughout the cold spell. Water is just as vital. During periods of sub-zero temperatures dehydration is as much a danger as it is in a drought. A constant supply of food and water will increase the number and variety of birds in your garden next year which will consume the pests.

Arrival of Christmas mail-order catalogues reminds me to make a couple of gift suggestions. A book that includes a contribution from Antony Worrell-Thompson alongside advice on nurturing tadpoles deserves a mention. Seriously though it’s an excellent publication from The Wildlife Trusts and the NT called ‘Wildlife Gardening for Everyone’. Dominic Couzens has become well known for his excellent observations of bird-life. The paperback version of his ‘Secret Lives of British Birds’ has just been re-published and the brilliant illustrations which accompany his short essays make this an excellent present for younger naturalists or anyone interested in learning more about what birds get up to in your garden or further afield.

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