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The most important flower

A Common Ivy flower cluster growing at The Butts, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

If we were to try to consider which one of our native flowers was the most important, which would it be? It’s an impossible question to answer, because we would have to ask: most important for what, and for whom? The rose, with so much history attached to its symbolism, might be considered our most important flower culturally; yet the daisy family Asteraceae is by far the most significant numerically, with over 22,000 species in the clan; and what of the flowering trees, where would we be without them? But ask an apiologist which is our most important flower, and the answer may surprise you; for this ‘one who studies bees’ might say with some certainty that it is the flower of the Common Ivy.

Bees thrive in summer, gathering nectar from flowers of all kinds and incidentally taking with them pollen from the male anther of one flower to the female stigma of another in the process of pollination which, in turn, allows fertilisation for the reproduction of our plants. In this respect, bumblebees, honey bees, butterflies, hover flies and many other insects do an immensely important job in our countryside: every year, simply by going from flower to flower in search of nectar (their primary food) they cause nearly all of our plants, most of our trees and most of our crops to produce seeds for next year. But what happens in mid-September and October when all the pretty summer flowers have died?

A wild bee on a Common Ivy flower cluster, Mill Lane, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Common Ivy blooms later in the year than most other plants, so it is virtually the only source of autumn nectar for bees and other insects. And what a good source of nourishment it is: Ivy grows everywhere and its flowers, which are tiny, yellow-green, and grow in spherical clusters, are laden with a rich nectar with a very high sugar content: the main ingredient these insects need. Some scientists have suggested that, without a final feed up on Ivy, most of our bees and many of our insects simply could not survive from late summer through to the next spring; and with no bees to pollinate the plants in spring, our environment would face devastation.

Common Ivy is often regarded as a garden nuisance: no one buys it for its blooms; few people even realise that it bears flowers, and certainly no one puts them on show in a vase. But this unassuming little bloom, which forms the flower-balls of the Common Ivy, just might be our countryside’s most important flower of all.

Nothing much to see

Pett Valley View. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Nothing much to see

Up on The Butts
one morning in mid-September
and what is there to see?

Nothing much
but the sun
and the waning visage of last night’s moon
a fleet of white cumuli drifting across the blue
and the shadows of them racing
like spectres over stubble fields
of corduroy and tweed

At the hedgerow
an audience of animated trees
jostles in the wind
applauding a restless sea of golden grass
that glistens and shimmers in the sunlight
as it rolls in wave on wave
towards a continent
of purple flowered marjoram

There on the distant hill
the Mansfield orchards
pattern the slope
with neat little rows of apricot
apple and plum
and the ancient trees of Whitehill Wood
define the far horizon

In the valley
a working party of rooks
has landed on the stubble
to glean spilled grain from the mud
and above them a buzzard
circles
watching their every move

Up here in the tall grass
at the style
a bank vole nibbles at a sloe
and a few heads of oxeye daisy
turn their faces to the sun
as if refuting the end of summer

No
there’s nothing much to see here
nothing much to see here at all.

*All content on this website is © Copyright Mike Burns-Stark 2017
for BridgeNature.org. All rights reserved.

Season of the fruits and falling leaves

Autumn Apples at Highland Farm, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

With the arrival of September, Autumn begins here in our pleasant verdant valley. Autumn, a season at once bringing the farming year towards its close with luscious fruits, the emptiness of fields, the sadness of decaying blooms, the first cold mornings and the fall of golden leaves. A “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” as Keats put it in his poem ‘To Autumn’.

While the names of months and days are capitalised in good English, the names of the seasons are considered generic nouns, so they are usually written with the initial letter in lower case. However, where a writer or poet like Keats chooses to personify a season by giving it a particular personality, the name of the season becomes a character’s name, a proper noun, so it is capitalised. But such is the influence of these seasonal characters upon our countryside, and so profound is the effect of the imposition of their individual temperaments upon our own lives, that we believe their personalities should be acknowledged every bit as much as the months and days; perhaps more so. Hence, throughout this piece (and in many of BridgeNature.org’s articles) the names of the seasons have been capitalised.

Today we recognise four seasons, but it has not always been so: while Summer and Winter have been accepted as distinct seasons for over a thousand years, it was not generally considered that there were two other seasons in our year until around the 16th century. In this country, up until that time, the late Summer period before Winter set in was simply known as ‘Harvest’, derived from the old Norse word ‘haust’ meaning ‘to gather or pluck’. During the industrial revolution, as more and more people moved from the English countryside to the new cities, the term lost its seasonal connotations and became just a word to describe the distant countryside activities of reaping and gathering of crops out in the fields.

Although Chaucer used the name Autumn (derived from Latin) in his writings in the 14th century, it was not until the 16th century that the word became widely used to describe the third season of the year. ‘Fall of Leaf’ became another popular, and more descriptive way to describe it too, and similarly ‘Spring of the Leaf’ acquired usage as a term for the beginning of Summer. Over the years they were reduced to the shortened forms of Fall and Spring respectively, and when the hordes of migrants travelled from these shores to the new continents of America and Australia they took those names with them. In Britain, for reasons unknown, Autumn remained more widely used than Fall; and it still is, much to the disappointment of Fowlers, the guardians of proper English, who prefer the more picturesque ‘fall’ (with a lower case f).

Fall of Leaf is surely the more poetic of the English names for the third season of the year; but in that name, and Autumn too, there is a sense of melancholy and ending, which conveys none of the joy, relief and satisfaction of the harvest: traditionally a happy time of year with feasting, singing and celebration when the work was done.

A pause, in the history of the Comma

Comma butterfly, The Butts, Bridge 2015. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

The photograph above shows one of our most beautiful butterflies, the Comma, pictured near the old railway at Bridge in 2015. Another has just been recorded near the same location in August 2017.

For hundreds of years at least, the Comma was one of the more common species of butterfly in Britain: its larvae fed on hop plants, and from the 15th to the 19th century, hops grown for brewing beer were a hugely significant crop in the British countryside. In those centuries, when sources of clean fresh drinking water were unreliable, beer, which is effectively water sterilised and flavoured by the brewing process, was the main source of daily fluid intake for the British population. In consequence the Comma butterfly would have had vast acreages of hop plantations on which to feed.

However, by the end of the 19th century, cheaply imported hops, increased taxation, changes in public tastes, and the indomitable popularity of tea (made with boiled water), meant that British hop growing went into massive decline: huge swathes of hop fields were pulled up, and the Comma butterfly, which relied on them, very nearly became extinct. It survived only in parts of Wales and in the remaining hop fields of Kent.

Yet astonishingly, just as the British people had changed their diet, the Comma seems to have gradually changed its diet too, and by adapting to eating nettles instead of hops it began to thrive again, right across the south of England. By the end of the 20th century the Comma had regained its place in the list of our most common butterflies: it was heralded by conservationists as one of the great comeback species of the natural world.

The 21st century has not been kind to British butterflies: huge areas of habitat have been lost and numbers have fallen. Yet once more the Comma appeared to defy decline, this time by increasing its geographical range across the country: it moved further north; the conservationists were thrilled. But in the annual national butterfly count of August 2016, run by the charity Butterfly Conservation, sightings of this beautiful butterfly suddenly fell by 46%*. Is this the beginning of the end, or just another pause in the history of the Comma? Only time will tell; so we too take a pause, as we wait for the results of this year’s count.

* In the same year a number of other butterfly species also saw huge declines.

Dog days and a harvest

Harvesting oats, Bridge 2017. (Picture copyright © BridgeNature.org 2017)

Historically, the term ‘dog days’ refers to the hot, sultry period of summer between early July and the beginning of September when plants have reached maturity, their growth is over and they begin to decline. This is the season of the grain harvest. In ancient times the period was recognised by the rising of Sirius the Dog Star.

Last weekend (19-20 August), the unpredictable ‘cloudy, sunny, cloudy, sunny’ dog days of summer 2017 did at least stay mainly dry, giving local farmers the opportunity to gather in the oat crop which has been ripening in recent weeks in the fields surrounding our village. The hum of the combine, the roar of tractors and the heavy thumping of empty trailers coming to be filled with the grain could be heard throughout the weekend, and sometimes late into the evening. These are the sounds of harvesting on the modern farm; and for all who do have “time to stand and stare”, as William Henry Davies put it, the modern ritual of gathering in the crop is a fascinating display of 21st century farming efficiency in our living, working landscape.

Yet it is worth pausing further, to see just who it is that may be overseeing these mighty, grunting, monster-machines that gobble up the golden harvest: when we look a little closer, we may be in for a surprise…

Zooming in on the picture reveals the surprising supervisor overseeing the harvest. (Picture copyright © BridgeNature.org 2017)

Dog star rising! Throughout the work, the little dog pictured watched attentively to all that was going on; and when there were any technical delays, he observed from the cab steps of the combine harvester, like a captain at the bridge, barking occasionally to indicate that progress should be made with all due haste.

Ah, this farming life: the great outdoors, the sunshine, the scent of the harvest and the warm summer breeze in your ears… (Picture copyright © BridgeNature.org 2017)

Throughout the pleasantly temperate weekend, local residents were out and about in the fields, often pausing on their walks to watch the work in progress and capture photographs. BridgeNature.org will present more of our own pictures from the harvest in due course. We express our thanks to the combine and tractor crews for their tolerance.

*Readers please note: the dog pictured remained in a place of safety during the harvesting operation and was not interfering with the controlling mechanisms of the machinery in movement.

Hawthorn and hedgerow

Hawthorn hedgerow, The Butts. Sept. 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

For many months of the year the Hawthorn is a rather anonymous and unappreciated prickly little bush hidden in the hedgerow; but in May, white flowers lie like an errant scattering of snow upon the tree, and the occasional delight of candy-pink blossoms cannot go unnoticed. From late August into September the Hawthorn shows off again with an abundance of little fruits which glisten like crimson jewels upon its branches.

Some Hawthorns blossom with candy-pink flowers. This one is in Bishopsbourne. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Today these rugged little trees, more correctly shrubs, are ubiquitous in the rural landscape, particularly in chalk districts, because they make ideal hedging plants on even the poorest land. In fact the very name ‘Haw’ derived from the Old English ‘Haga’ which meant hedge, and hedging to protect and confine livestock has been going on since ancient times. The Romans and Anglo Saxons liked to enclose their farmland in this way, but much of the English landscape remained fence and hedge free until the ‘inclosures’ {sec}, a set of parliamentary acts introduced over the years between 1604 and 1914, which allowed landowners to enclose millions of acres of land that, up until then, had been open and freely accessible to local people. Today it is hard to imagine a landscape devoid of hedges and fences, but, up until the turn of the 17th century, that is exactly how much of the English countryside appeared. As the Inclosure Acts came into force, millions of Hawthorn saplings, along with other prickly shrubs such as blackthorn, were reared to provide sturdy, protective hedging around the land seized by the gentry. The acts, and we must assume the Hawthorn hedges too, were hated by ordinary rural folk who lost their farms, the right to graze animals on the land, and even the right to walk over huge tracts of the British countryside.

The fruits of the Hawthorn are ‘pomes’ (like plums), not berries. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

However, historically the Hawthorn was valued by common folk for other purposes. The leaves and flowers can be eaten, and the fruits, called ‘Haws’, which are not berries but stone bearing ‘pomes’ like plums and apricots, have been used to make conserves and wine. Furthermore, the Hawthorn tree has a long history of medicinal uses: preparations made from the Midland Hawthorn have been used in traditional medicine to treat heart disorders, and some very modern scientific studies have indicated that such remedies may indeed have valid properties in the treatment of cardiovascular disease. How apt then, that in Celtic folklore, the Hawthorn is said to heal a broken heart.

Ironically, in these days of declining countryside and wildlife, our hedgerows are valued and protected for the wildlife habitat they provide, and the ordinary folk of Britain campaign to keep them intact. In this new struggle over the landscape perhaps we should remember another of the rugged, stubborn little Hawthorn’s ancient symbolic meanings: as a symbol of hope.

BridgeNature.org does not advocate or condone the foraging of hedgerow plants and fruits.

Beauty confined

Goldfinch, Ford Close, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

We think the caged birds sing, when indeed they cry.”
John Webster

Although Goldfinches are quite rare in other parts of the country, they can be seen frequently in and around the village of Bridge, which is why one of these birds features in the logo of BridgeNature.org. Today we enjoy seeing them flying in family flocks out in the wild where they belong, but if ever we need a symbol of mankind’s yearning to possess that which has a right to be free, there is none better than the Goldfinch. Sadly its striking appearance and uniqueness have been its downfall: throughout history it has been treasured for its beauty and its song, and we know that in pursuit of treasure mankind is often at its most ruthless. Historically Goldfinches have been captured and caged in large numbers.

The poet and hymn writer William Cowper, who owned two caged Goldfinches which had been bred from captured wild birds, wrote of them thus:

“They sang as blithe as finches sing
That flutter loose on golden wing,
And frolic where they list;
Strangers to liberty, ’tis true,
But that delight they never knew,
And therefore never missed.” (1)

His verse demonstrates an attitude that still persists today: “If all an animal knows is cruelty, then you are quite justified in continuing to be cruel to it, because it doesn’t know any different”. This is an expedient excuse in defence of an irresponsible attitude. Of course the morality of what we do should be judged on what we know, not what we think our helpless victims know. That excuse was expressed here, ironically, by an intelligent, sensitive man who became a passionate advocate in the movements to end the human slave trade and cruelty to animals. How to tread the difficult moral ground of what constitutes cruelty is something William Cowper pondered a great deal; but it perhaps sums up the confusion and conflicting values of his time to note that he wrote some very thoughtful letters and poems reflecting on the plight of his imprisoned Goldfinches, and even put them in the same cage so that they would have company, yet he continued to keep them in captivity for the sake of his own entertainment (2).

By the later half of the 19th century the fashion for owning a caged bird, particularly a Goldfinch, reached a peak and thousands of wild birds were trapped annually. One common method of capture was to spread a glue called ‘birdlime’ onto branches near a food source. Birds would seek out the food and land in the glue.

Towards the end of that same century, ending these callous practices against Goldfinches became a primary objective of a newly formed group called The Society for the Protection of Birds, and their campaigns inspired the ‘Protection of Birds Act 1872’, the first law which imposed some concept of protection for wild birds upon an ignorant, disinterested British population. The group was later given a royal charter and became the RSPB as we still know it today.

Despite greater awareness of the issues in modern times, owning a caged bird, particularly a budgerigar, was still a very popular practice in 1960s Britain, almost a hundred years later. Today attitudes are much changed, but, astonishingly, it still goes on and the breeding and exporting of caged finches, including Goldfinches, is still perfectly legal. Capturing and selling wild birds is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but that still goes on too. Birdlime is still openly used to trap wild birds in Spain, despite EU efforts to ban it.

(1) William Cowper, ‘The faithful Bird’.
(2) Refers to: William Cowper, Letter to the Rev. William Lunwin. 1783.


 

At the end of the working day

End of the line. Simmentals on Great Pett Farm, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Few of us can say that in our working days’ toils we nurtured and maintained the very countryside which formed the backdrop to our village life; but such is the working life of the local farmer, and it leaves a legacy in landscape which will remain forever in the minds of all those who experienced it, as a place of childhood adventure, youthful rites of passage, happy times with family and tranquil contemplative walks in scenes of rural idyll through all the seasons of the passing years.

As our village farmer Brian Mummery opens the field gate to his herd of Simmental cattle for the final time and retires from his working days, the people of Bridge should be immensely grateful to a man who has contributed so much over so many years to our local landscape and ecology.

The fields, the hillsides, the grass and the greening hedgerows will of course live on (if we don’t build on them!) but they will not be the same. The rural landscape of the Nailbourne Valley is not some magically self-perpetuating garden, as people may like to assume. Our countryside is managed with planning and hard work, and where it appears beautiful to us, that aesthetic value has often been achieved with careful consideration, creative imagination and a certain love for the land. Things may be very different in the future. Farming is still, without question, the most important industry in this country and over the years Great Pett Farm, our local farm, has played its part in feeding the nation with pasture-fed beef, oats, wheat, barley, beans and other crops too; but as we lose more and more of our precious farmland to housing, our local fields may be subject to new initiatives in intensive agriculture in the years to come.

Masterpiece in a meadow. Wild flowers on chalk down at the Butts, June 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

In recent decades, an increasing awareness of the importance of biodiversity has been a new imperative for farming in the developed world, and nowhere is this more important than here in our own little sector of the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, an agricultural region with the same status as a National Park. Here Mr Mummery has maintained our local farmland to high modern ecological standards while creating and presenting a landscape of great visual charm. He has restored chalkstream water meadow, maintained lowland cattle pasture, planted hedges, provided wildlife havens, created wild flower meadows and revitalised the biodiversity of the grassy chalkland downs for which this area is famous. What is more, he has allowed us, the local people, free access to enjoy it all. It is a landscape of which many of us are very fond and very proud: we enjoy it, we treasure it, and, at the end of our farmer’s working days, the very least we can all do is say “thank you”.

 

Sweet summer bounty in a wild black berry

Wild Blackberries, Bishopsbourne. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

The wild Blackberries are fruiting early in the district this year. This familiar straggling plant has something of a love-hate relationship with most people who come across it: in late summer it provides sweet, black-bubbled berries which revitalise the parched palate of a rambler and sit well in an apple pie, but for the rest of the year it is a long stemmed unruly and viciously prickly menace which often bars our way on the footpath or forms an impenetrable cage around the wayward golf ball. Little wonder that the Ancient Britons planted it as an early form of barbed wire fencing.

Today we may see the wild Blackberry just about anywhere, from golf course to woodland, country footpath to urban waste ground. For city dwellers it is just a weed, but for those of us who love our native plants and their history, there is something very special about the wild Blackberry, otherwise known as the Bramble. The term Bramble was originally used to describe any unruly thorny plant, but the Blackberry has taken the name as its own, and appropriately so, for it is rebellious, untameable and quintessentially wild.

Blackberry flowers can be pink or white. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Throughout our history it has been common practice for local people to go out into the countryside and pick wild berries, particularly wild Blackberries, in ignorance of the wildlife which needs Nature’s summer bounty to survive through winter. In the days of yore there was perhaps a surplus in good years, and people didn’t care much for wildlife anyway: wild animals were a nuisance, a threat, or simply something to eat.

In fact an astonishingly wide range of animals rely on wild Blackberry plants for food, including caterpillars, which feed on the leaves, and butterflies and bees which take nectar from the flowers. When the berries ripen, all kinds of birds and insects, together with mammals like dormice, squirrels, hedgehogs and even badgers come to feed on them.

BridgeNature.org reiterates once more our view that in modern Britain, where wildlife is suffering massive decline through shortage of habitat and food supply, we should all buy cultivated fruits from farm shops or supermarkets and leave wild fruits and nuts out in the wild for those creatures who need them more than we do.

Picking from the wild is stealing from the wild!

 

 

Grass darts and summer holidays

A field of False Barley, Patrixbourne Road. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

And so the great school summer holiday begins. Those who venture out into the fields this month can encounter a plant which, for many older ramblers, will bring back fond memories of dallying childhood walks and endless summer holidays spent playing in the countryside. The plant is a particular form of grass which somebody (we suspect a long, long time ago) once discovered could be thrown like a dart and it would stick to clothing, particularly woolen jumpers and cardigans, which were the popular children’s fashions for those of us of a certain generation. Popular too were the outdoor adventure stories of ‘The Famous Five’ and ‘The Swallows and Amazons’: summer holiday inspiration in those days before computer games, iPhones and a general 21st century disdain for fresh air and the countryside.

False Barley: otherwise known as Dart Grass. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

The grass in question was False Barley or Wall Barley (Hordeum murinum or variant subspecies) though no one knew it at the time. To the youngsters of those days it was just ‘Dart Grass’ and it was as familiar as brambles, stinging nettles and sticking catchweed (cleavers) which would also cling to clothing. While remembered fondly, Dart Grass is generally regarded by adults as just another weed, but it has a valid place in the wild countryside and can be a significant plant in grazing pasture, although, if left to go to seed, it can be injurious to sheep and sheepdogs. Variants of this grass are often grown as forage for animals in different regions around the world, and in China a similar subspecies is cultivated for human consumption. One wonders if generations of Chinese children have also played grass darts on the walk home from school.