Nature 2013 April

A Thousand Acre Sky

Three species of snake live in the UK; as we know none can be found in Ireland. The rarest of these is the smooth snake which is not native to these parts, preferring the heathlands of Hampshire, in particular the New Forest. About now both Grass snakes and Adders start to become active. Distinguishable from the adder which in contrast has dark zig-zag markings down the back, the grass snake has a lemon yellow patch on the head and olive green body. In Spring and Autumn all snakes need to bask on open ground, ideally sandy to maintain their body heat. At the height of Summer ambient temperatures enable them to be active all-day long. Hunting is achived by a combination of smell and taste achieved by sampling the air with their forked tongues. Grass snakes, in particular, are excellent swimmers and feed on frogs or fish and anything from insects to mice on land. The male grass snake can grow up to about a metre long. Mating takes place in June and the female lays eggs in June and July under rotting compost heaps. Another difference from the adder which lays it young live.

The lives of some members of our resident buglife though ever-present remain secret, mysterious or the subject of much folk history. I could pick out many such examples but I have happened on the story of the woodlouse which will serve as an admirable representative of the under-trodden class of such invertebrates. Woodlice are members of the same family as crabs and lobsters, the crustaceans. Though living on land they are almost as dependant on water so spend most of the time in the damp environment under stones or in soil cavities. This enforced obscurity just adds to the curiosity that has been generated by every tradition that has succeeded the Anglo-Saxons, who coined the term eselchans or ass-coloured. Other regional names assign woodlice to facsimiles of pigs and in Bucks they have the local name cheese-bug. ‘Cheese’ could either be down to the practice or grinding up dried woodlice and adding them to milk to induce the production of rennet or possibly derived from ‘ches’ meaning stones. The medicinal qualities of woodlice might have been originated through the belief that the capacity of some woodlice to curl up in a ball or pill hinted that they had such powers to tackle a whole range of illness from tummy-ache bladder problems or jaundice!

Lying as we do astride the “hilltops” of the Chilterns we are sometimes afforded the opportunity to gaze across ‘a thousand acre sky’. As much a part of the Chiltern Hillscape as all other of the features we take for granted. Birds of course are the main occupants of the sky. One that stands out is the Buzzard. Aside from the Golden Eagle it is our largest native raptor. Today it is not a surprise to see one or, more likely, two buzzards holding station almost motionless above the beechwood canopy. The silhouette of this bird is distinctive. Broad wings with feather-tipped fingers support a hefty body ensure it can hold station effortlessly. However, this is not the only sight you might get of this bird. Recently I have also spied a pair of birds, probably an adolescent at roost on a low-swung bough and with an adult, swooping through woodland and patrolling a much smaller domain. Buzzards inhabit most parts of the British Isles; however this was not always the case. Though today across Britain there are now estimated to be over 50,000 pairs for over 200 years previously it was the subject of much persecution, both in the field and surprisingly by writers who considered it a dull bird, which spends most of the time watching from its favourite tree roost, or lazily surveying the landscape for any carrion. Whilst true that it is an opportunist seeking out road kill, the buzzard is also capable of hunting rabbit or taking down pigeon or larger birds such as duck or even crow on the wing. At other times it will excavate for earthworms on a ploughed field. As important to the character of this bird is its call. A constant cry, a cat-like mew will dominate the usual soundscape.

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