Bridge

The Common Oat, too base for Rome

Oats growing in the Bridge area, 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

This year several of the arable fields around Bridge, Bishopsbourne and Pett Bottom have been planted with Oats, which have grown rapidly over the last month or so and are now turning colour from green to the golden hue of the harvest.

While barley, wheat and rye can sometimes be difficult to differentiate in the field, the Oat plant has a very distinctive shape known as a ‘panicle’, it presents as an array of flower heads hanging on delicate branches coming from a single stem. The flower heads or ‘spikelets’ hanging from it may number fifty or so and are formed of a husk, shaped like an upturned V, with two or three seeds or ‘groats’ held underneath.

Oat spikelet showing the V shaped floret husk and groats within. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

The outer casings of these groats (without the V shaped husk) are known as ‘oat bran’: they are removed, ground up and used as a valued food ingredient. What remains of the groats is crushed or rolled, and referred to as ‘oatmeal’. While this is well known as the main ingredient of porridge (a dish first described by the Ancient Greeks), only about 5% of oats are grown for human consumption. Most are grown as an animal feed and feed additive, particularly for chickens, cattle and horses, and it was as animal fodder that Oats were first introduced to Britain by the conquering Romans who, apparently, regarded the plant as unfit for human consumption. This, much to the amusement of the Scots, who adopted the Oat for their porridge and, even today, like to remind us that those Roman fussy eaters never successfully invaded Scotland.

The oat panicle. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Unlike barley, which demands hot weather, Oats prefer a cooler, wetter climate. In long periods of hot sun the plants will go dormant, so early planting and milder summers with spells of rain are beneficial. This is one reason why Oats became a traditional and popular crop in Scotland and the rest of Northern Europe, but they have been less commonly grown in Africa and India, although new Oat varieties are now being developed to grow in these regions.

 

 

On Lady’s Bedstraw

Lady’s Bedstraw, The Butts, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

In the last few weeks, that bright and breezy stretch of the Kent Downs up beside the old railway known locally as ‘The Butts’ has been a colourful place, as yellow Lady’s Bedstraw lies across the hillside under a perfect blue of English summer sky.

The plant is so named because it retains a soft springiness after drying, which made it an ideal filling for mattresses, and it was used traditionally for that purpose before modern manufacturing. One might even argue that it was better suited than some of the materials that replaced it, because the pleasant honeyed scent of the flowers aids sleep and eradicates fleas.

Lady’s Bedstraw is a common plant of heathland and meadow across Europe, and it is perfect for the chalk grasslands of the Kent Downs. A wonderful plant for pollinators, it attracts bees, butterflies, caterpillars and all those who have an appreciation for the downs in their finest summer glory.

The lure of the Bee Orchid

Humble Bee Orchid, secret location, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Currently flowering in a secret location up on the downs are a few specimens of the astonishingly exotic and oddly named Humble Bee Orchid: ‘Humble’ being an alternative for ‘Bumble’, although this has now generally been dropped in favour of the more simple name Bee Orchid. Humble Bee Orchid is a more apt name though, because it gives us a clue about what this flower is, and isn’t, for all is not quite what it seems.

This is a flower which pretends to be a bee visiting another far less showy bloom. From the perspective of certain male bees, it looks like a female bee, it smells like a female bee and, if they snuggle up close, it even feels furry like a female bee; but of course it isn’t, it’s just a clever imposter flower tricking male bees into close contact so that its pollen will get attached to the visitor and passed on to other orchids of the same variety.

This is Nature and evolutionary adaptation being very clever, in fact so ingenious that it’s immensely disappointing to learn that the great deception is totally wasted in Britain because we don’t have the right kind of bees living here to make the pollination work, so British Bee Orchids have further adapted to be self-pollinating.

Nevertheless, the little wild Humble Bee Orchid is an intriguing and beautiful sight to see up on the downs, but, just like a bee, you need to get up close and personal in order to appreciate its finer details.

Humble Bee Orchid, secret location, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Summer and the Salsify

Salsify growing wild along Western Avenue. Summer 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

As the summer of 2017 arrives, residents of Western Avenue and the closes leading off may have noticed a number of tall purple flowers blooming in the communal gardens and verges right along the road. These are Purple Salsify. The flowers themselves closely resemble Goatsbeard, but its flowers are yellow: hence Salsify is sometimes referred to as Purple Goatsbeard. Here on BridgeNature.org, we prefer to use these common English or colloquial names rather than formal scientific classifications, but we can’t resist mentioning Salisfy’s distinctive Latin name, Tragopogon porrifolius, which means ‘Goat’s beard with the leaves of a leek’.

The plants along Western Avenue appear to be growing wild and may be naturalised, but Salsify is of European mainland origin and was brought here, probably in the 16th century, for its blooms, which make an attractive garden feature en masse. After flowering, the heads transform into rough fluff balls of seeds which are something like the familiar seed head of the dandelion, but less spherical and somewhat larger.

Salsify seed head, Western Avenue, June. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Historically Salsify has also been cultivated across Europe as a root vegetable. It is in the same family as the parsnip, but the Salsify root is much thinner and apparently tastes a little of oysters. Although this may sound tempting, we urge those who fancy trying to cook some not to attempt to pull them up: the roots are extremely difficult to retrieve from the ground and you will simply end up snapping the stem and spoiling the display for the rest of us. Let us all just enjoy this attractive and intriguing new feature of our avenue.

 

A journey on the Mayflower

Common Hawthorns in bloom, Bridge Meadows, May. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

The Hawthorn tree is one of our more familiar hedgerow trees, but we also see it growing locally alone in a field or on a riverbank, and when we do we can recognise it by its rugged, stunted shape and resilient attitude, its thorns, its bright red autumn berries and its white, or sometimes pink, spring blossom.

Common Hawthorn in flower, Bridge, May. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Those we see in the fields around Bridge are more generally the Common Hawthorn, but there is another less ubiquitous variety, the Midland Hawthorn, which is the true English species of this tree. I have been on a quest to find an example of it in our local area for about five years now, but, throughout that time, my search has been hampered by one small technical problem: I didn’t really know what made it discernibly different. Tree guides waffle on confusingly about leaf shape: the Midland’s leaves are less deeply cut than the Common, the Midland’s lobes are more forward pointing; but try looking at the leaves on just one Common Hawthorn and they are so variable throughout the tree that one could be looking at either species.

However, armed with a new differentiation strategy I have now identified one Midland Hawthorn(1) in a local meadow. From a distance of about three feet the tree is virtually impossible to tell apart from the Common Hawthorns in the same hedgerow, but get up close, examine a flower and the difference becomes apparent. Common Hawthorn has just one green style amidst the stamens in its flower, while Midland Hawthorn has two, or possibly three. On examination the leaf shape of this tree is as described in the tree guides, but it would be very difficult to identify the tree on that basis alone.

Midland Hawthorn flowers, Bridge Meadows, on an evening in May. Note the two green styles at the centre of the flower. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

So, to my great delight, after years searching, I have found my Midland Hawthorn, right here in a meadow behind my home. Why does it matter? Those who have to ask may never understand, but for the amateur naturalist such quests are the learning journeys which make life and the natural world that little bit more interesting. Furthermore, the Midland Hawthorn is hugely significant in our history: its flower is the Mayflower, for centuries the very emblem of May in rural England. It symbolises hope and new beginning. In the superstitious times of the 17th century, many ships were called Mayflower, but it turned out to be a wonderfully apt name for a little ship sailing out into the New World in 1620 with a group of pilgrims on their own journey of hope, personal development and new beginning.

(1) As with many trees, Midland and Common Hawthorns do hybridise, so this may not strictly be a genetically pure example of the Midland species.

 

Biodiversity on the bund

Spring 2017 and the bund along the Nailbourne has been strimmed; but is it necessary at this time of year? Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Those who regularly stroll in Bridge Meadows will have noticed that, in the last days of April, the flood prevention bund which runs along the bank of the Nailbourne between the ford on Mill Lane and Bridge Place was strimmed to bring the long grass and wild plants down to ground level. This was maintenance work done by the Environment Agency in what was set to become an annual spring cutting programme to prevent the growth on the bund becoming too high and too permanent. Access for regular inspection of the bund is important and it therefore needs to be kept in manageable condition.

However, BridgeNature.org has been in contact with the EA to see if the annual cutting of the wild plants on the bund can be rescheduled for autumn. This would preserve an important wild habitat for many riverside plants and creatures through the spring and summer, while there is minimal risk of flooding.

We are pleased to report that experts at the EA have been most open to the idea of rescheduling the maintenance to improve wildlife biodiversity through the summer. Strimming will now cease in the spring and become an annual event each September. The work will include a ‘preamble’ along the bund to inspect the area for wildlife and trigger escapes before the area is strimmed. The inspection will also provide an important pre-winter check for the bund itself.

As a further consequence of the initiative, BridgeNature.org has been invited to assist the EA by monitoring wildlife along the Nailbourne and the bund so that measures can be put in place to safeguard specific animals or rare plants should it be deemed necessary. If members of the public become aware of any particular issues of concern we would be grateful to hear about them.

 

Three Willows and a bridge

Willows near Bridge Tennis Club, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Canterbury City Council have recently granted permission for the pollarding of three Willow trees on the banks of the Nailbourne at the southern edge of Bridge Recreation Ground where it meets Patrixbourne Road.

BridgeNature.org is not generally keen on the pollarding of ‘amenity’ trees: amenity in this sense means trees which are planted to enhance the appearance of a particular public space rather than for timber producing purposes. Pollarding is an ancient procedure which strips a tree entirely of its branches, thereby leaving just the trunk standing as a stump, which, if the work has been done correctly on the right type of tree and at the right time of year, will grow new branches over the next few years. In olden times whole stretches of woodland were pollarded to provide a regular supply of young branches for fuel or fencing. Riverbank Willows were often pollarded for flexible ‘withies’ for basket making, furniture and other products.

It is sometimes argued that pollarding rejuvenates a tree by encouraging new growth, but the suggestion remains controversial. Another more certain consequence of this method, if practiced regularly, is that the subject tree is restricted in height and span so that it takes up less space. For this reason the procedure is often adopted as a method of controlling trees in urban landscapes where space is limited; but the results can look brutal and unnatural to those who love trees.

All this begs the question, why pollard Willows on the banks of the Nailbourne in Bridge in 2017? We think this may be more to do with tradition rather than anything else, but there is a technical argument in favour too. Left to their own devices Willows will grow into very large trees which cast a lot of shade. They grow thick upper limbs, but the wood is weak and liable to crack and fall, particularly on the Crack Willow, which is how that tree gets its name. This is obviously potentially dangerous and unsightly on an amenity tree. As a measure to reduce such risks, Willows are often pollarded and these trees tend to accept the procedure better than most.

Some may feel the Recreation Ground’s Willows are too big and cast too much shade. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.2017.

We have great faith in local tree surgeon Paul Davies, who will be supervising the work this year, as he did the same work to the same trees some 30 years ago. We understand the pollarding will be staggered so that all three Willows are not stripped at the same time. In his role as Parish Councilor, Paul Davies will also be overseeing shrub pruning and maintenance around Bridge Tennis Club, and he has  already stated that he is keen to ensure work does not progress while wild birds’ nests are in use in the area. We thank him for this considered and responsible approach.

In the same location, beside today’s dry Nailbourne, the old bridge to the Recreation Ground is under consideration for replacement. We don’t know what sort of bridge will be installed, but in olden times a new bridge would have been constructed from local timber or stone, and some ancient peoples created bridges out of saplings which would be trained to form a living tree across the water. Ironically the best tree for this kind of project is… Willow.

Casting light on the Bank Vole

Bank Vole, Ford Close, Bridge. April 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

It is not often that we see a Vole enjoying the garden in broad daylight, but this week a Bank Vole (pictured above) was spotted pottering around in the mid-morning on a lawn in Ford Close, Bridge. The Bank Vole is one of the most common creatures in our countryside, yet, for the most part, it is a discreet and secretive little animal.

There are three Voles native to Britain: the Bank Vole, the Field Vole and the Water Vole. As its name implies, the Water Vole is generally found in or very near water and, being substantially larger than the other two, it has often been confused with the brown rat, which has invited persecution for generations. Although Water Voles are known to the Stour Valley, they are now very rare and we have never observed them here in the Nailbourne Valley.

The Field Vole and the Bank Vole are both somewhat similar in size to a common house mouse, but with a more rounded face, squat body shape and less prominent eyes. The most obvious difference between them is that the Field Vole tends to have greyish fur while that of the Bank Vole is more brown. The names in this case are also helpful in identification: the Field Vole tends to be found in grassy fields, while the Bank Vole can be found in hedgerows, woodland banks and domestic gardens. Both Voles can be active day and night, but they tend to remain under cover in daylight, which is why they are not more frequently observed.

While sitting on the lawn in spring sunlight, the Bank Vole pictured was very vulnerable to predators including weasels, birds of prey and domestic cats. As if suddenly realising that fact, this little character soon scampered off to hide in the safety of nearby shrubbery.

In praise of olden Alder

Alder, Bridge Pond, spring 2016. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Stand for a moment in the spring sunlight at the edge of our pond off Brewery Lane in Bridge and your attention may be drawn to a beautiful golden catkin laden tree leaning slightly over the water from the garden of Little Bridge Place. This is a Common (Black) Alder tree; perhaps one of the more forgotten native trees of our western heritage. Besides the Common Alder there are about 30 other species in the family including the Grey Alder, Green Alder and Italian Alder; some of which can often be seen in woodland today.

In olden times the Alder was valued not for its beauty, but because of a unique property in its timber: it remains immensely strong and rot free if placed in water or wet mud. This made it the primary choice for building wooden jetties, bridges and river bank supports and pilings when building on marshy ground. In fact much of Venice was built on Alder posts set into the mud beneath the Venetian lagoon. We don’t build with wooden supports so much these days, but Alders are still a popular choice for riverside conservation projects. Where riverbank stabilisation is required, Alders are ideal because they flourish in damp ground; in areas of land reclamation they can help to fix nitrogen into the soil; in farm hedgerows they provide good wildlife habitat.

With catkins and the hardened remains of last year’s cone-like fruits hanging from its branches, this can only be an Alder. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Like the hazel the Alder bears male flowers on dangling yellow catkins which pollinate by the action of the wind. The two trees can appear similar, but they differ in that the female flower on the hazel is like a little flowering bud which produces a hazelnut, while the female flower on the Alder is like a tiny catkin which produces a fruit closely resembling a small fir cone.

The yellow male catkins of the Alder and the smaller pinkish female flowers which turn into a cone-like fruit. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Later in the year seeds will fall from these fruits, often into water, and spread to other areas, leaving the empty fruits drying and hardening on the tree right through until the next spring.

Some small tragedy

Common Frog, Western Avenue, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Some small tragedy on Western Avenue
Walking home one night recently, I was turning the corner on Western Avenue when I spotted a frog sitting on the pavement opposite Saxon Lodge. Having my camera with me, I took a few pictures to record the event, then wondered if I should leave the frog where it was, or try to help it to a place of safety.

On a cold winter night a Common Frog would not be venturing out onto our streets, it would be hibernating in a found burrow, or under leaves; but as spring approaches and the night-time temperature rises above five degrees or so, frogs begin to come out foraging, or wandering in search of a lake or pond in which to meet a mate for a midnight rendezvous. There are one or two ponds in the back gardens along Western Avenue, but the road was not a good place for the frog to loiter.

Having made a decision to rescue it, I went home to get a bucket in which to transport the frog to somewhere more suitable: perhaps a spot down by the Nailbourne. But on my return it was no longer visible on the pavement, so I looked around for a while with a torch, only to find, to my horror, the body of a frog, dead and grotesquely flattened onto Western Avenue.

In the daylight of the morning, some children heading for school may have studied the squashed frog in the road with ghoulish curiosity; a hungry magpie may have eyed the corpse from a perch on a garden tree. For my part I felt a certain guilt: perhaps I could have done more. Some readers may feel the same; but in truth there are few in our busy modern world who would pause to mourn the passing of a Common Frog. Every year, on warm nights in spring, thousands of such deaths occur to frogs and toads on roads all over England, yet these sad tragedies, each the extinguishing of a little striving life, are considered of no consequence in our distracted and disinterested human realm.