Monday, December 17, 2012

Ash dieback: the coastal spread

The map below shows some of the main places mentioned in this note. Chalara fraxinea now occurs in all the countries shown, often quite widely. Places in red are of particular significance in the spread of this fungal pathogen around the coast of the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel as discussed in the text below.


Chalara fraxinea and its teleomorph Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus, both stages of the fungus that causes ash dieback disease, have now been recorded from most countries in northern and western Europe, from Norway to Italy and from Ireland to Russia. It was first noticed in Poland and Lithuania in the early 1990s, although one account says it was first recorded in Latvia (Flora Locale, 2012), and has spread, and continues to spread, rapidly in all directions.

According to Kraj, W., Zarek, M. & Kowalski, T. (2012) there are several strains of C. fraxinea in Poland: “strains in lowlands were characterised by smaller number of markers, smaller number of polymorphic loci and smaller intrapopulation genetic variability.” Most of the populations considered in that paper are in hilly or mountainous southern Poland, whereas the different lowland strain occurred in areas close to the Baltic Sea to the west of the port of Gdansk.

As has been widely reported, ash dieback is now established in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Baltic Russia (Kaliningrad), Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany, as well as Poland and these are all countries with a Baltic shore. The fungus is also now widespread in southern Norway, just outside the Baltic.

In the south the disease has advanced steadily across central Europe as far as France, Italy, Romania and other countries.

By following the history of these advances it appears that there is a maritime dispersal route and an overland dispersal route for this fungus. The terrestrial route seems consistent with propagation mainly by airborne spores of the H. pseudoalbidus stage and maps produced in France illustrate this well.  In following the advance of C. fraxinea, it is important to try and discover the first reports in different areas as (a) the fungus spreads very rapidly and (b) once discovered far more people start looking for it. Also it has to be borne in mind that it may have been present for some years before being detected. Because of this and other factors, possible dispersal routes become unclear quickly.

The maritime dispersal route seems more complex than the overland and, while wind borne spores are likely to play a major part in the overland dispersal routes, there would seem to be some other vector involved such as bird migration or shipping on the maritime routes.

The disease has, for example, been a problem on several Baltic islands.  In Öland and Gotland (both Sweden) ash trees have been ‘ravaged’ by the disease, while in Finland it was first discovered in the Åland archipelago in 2007 some 170 km (100 miles) across the Baltic north from the nearest area known to be infected at a time when it had not been reported from the Finnish mainland (EPPO, 2007). Much shipping passes close to these various islands en route to places like Stockholm, Helsinki and St. Petersburg and, of course, they all have cruise liners calling  and ferry services to the mainland.

In Germany C. fraxinea was initially widespread in the north of the country (Schumacher, GALK) near the Baltic rather than in the south, while in Denmark it was first recorded in 2002 near Haderslev, a small port on the Baltic side of the Jutland peninsula. The following year it was found in Zealand and Bornholm, the latter a Danish island to the east of the main part of Denmark and well out in the Baltic Sea.  Haderslev is the home of a company called Euro-Timber that trades widely in timber products throughout the region, though this, of course, may have nothing to do with the spread of C. fraxinea. There is also a frequent ferry service from Swinoujscie in northern Poland to Bornholm island and Ystad in Skåne (Scania), southern Sweden, where ash dieback has ‘raged’.

The disease was first found in Norway in a nursery in the Østfold region in the most southerly part of the country in 2007.  There is a frequent ferry service from Hirtshals in northern Jutland, Denmark, to Kristiansand the capital of Østfold and, of course, much shipping passing through the Skagerrak from the Baltic to the North Sea.

Ash dieback was first reported from The Netherlands in 2010 (later than in many countries) in young trees in public parks in Bellingwedde in the far north east of the country close to the German border and about 15 km south of the coast at the Dollard (German: Dollart) an inlet from the Wattenmeer, part of the North Sea lying between the Frisian Islands and the coasts of The Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. The busy German port of Emden lies on the northern side of The Dollart 25 km or so north of Bellingwedde.

The first report of ash dieback in Britain was from a nursery in Buckinghamshire in 2012 on trees from The Netherlands that were said to be infected. This may be demonstrably true, but increasingly suggestions are being made that the pathogen has been present in Britain and elsewhere since well before its first report and, if this is correct, at least some nursery stock may have been infected from local woodlands after importation. The disease has spread quickly through The Netherlands and, although the Dutch phytosanitary authorities suspect that it was present before the discovery in Bellingwedde, it does seem to have made its initial entry close to the coast in the north of the country. The distance from there to East Anglia is not as great as some of the distances that C. fraxinea seems to have travelled over the Baltic Sea and this indicates that airborne spores might survive quite long and cold journeys, though if wind or birds are important as vectors it is difficult to explain why the disease seems to have jumped over intervening territory on the nearby mainland.

In Belgium the first report was from Silly in the province of Hainaut in 2010. This is some 75 km from the port of Antwerp and 91 km from the Belgian coast at Bruges thus its route into the country may have been overland from the east rather than via the North Sea fringe (the disease is established both in northern France, southern Germany and Luxembourg). The Belgians were sufficiently worried about the spread of the disease to undertake extensive testing of ash trees for C. fraxinea in 2009 in the province of Wallonia (Delhaye, Helson, & Chandelier, 2010).  No infection was found, but when the experiment was repeated in 2010, the fungus was present at several sites – a good illustration of the speed at which it can spread.

The situation in France presents some interesting data. The spread of ash dieback has been closely mapped by, among others, DRAAF (Direction Régionale de l'Alimentation, de l’Agriculture et de la Forêt).  In an information sheet published in June 2011 (DRAAF, 2011) they showed that the disease was widespread in north eastern France in 2010 but there was only one dot on the map in the Pas-de-Calais over 300 kilometres (186 miles) from the next nearest French site, though probably slightly closer to some of the Belgian sites. In the north east the disease spread south and west in 2012, while it was also detected in an increasingly large area around the Pas-de-Calais site in 2012.

However, it also turned up in 2012 as an apparently isolated occurrence 265 km (165 miles) south west of the next nearest French site on the coast of the Cotentin peninsula in the department of Manche in Normandy (Association des Communes Forestières de la Côte d’Or, 2012).  This map also shows how C. fraxinea advances relatively short distances overland and along a specific front.

The French coast on this part of the Cotentin is only some 28 kilometres (17 miles) from Jersey from where ash dieback was reported in November 2012. According to the Jersey Evening Post “The infected ash tree has been identified as one of a number imported into the Island from the UK in 2010 or 2011.”  If this is correct, it is just as likely that the fungus was brought in from the UK as having established itself by windblown spores from Normandy.  Indeed, the Normandy outbreak may have come from Jersey or Guernsey where the disease has also been found.  Again, if the trees were infected before they left for Jersey, the disease must have been in mainland Britain before February 2012, the date that is often given for its arrival.  It does no injury to logic to suggest that the outbreak in the Pas-de-Calais might have come from Britain, especially as the Forestry Commission are now suggesting that the disease has been in East Kent for some time.

While movement of plants undoubtedly exacerbates the problem of introducing pathogens to areas where they have not been previously recorded, there is a tendency to blame other countries for exporting infected stock. As one senior French forester said when asked how he thought C. fraxinea had arrived in north eastern France: “On suppose l’importation de plants contaminés.”

So far as the British Isles is concerned, virtually all the current records of Chalara from the wider environment (i.e. not from nurseries or recent plantings) are on the eastern side of the country, many close to the coast. While wind borne spores from mainland Europe may be responsible for many of these outbreaks, most are also near ports, places where there are many arrivals and departures of people and goods to and from other countries. This is particularly apparent in the area around Dover and Folkestone (Forestry Commission, 2012).

In sum, the forms of Chalara fraxinea that have travelled overland from Poland, and maybe other parts of eastern Europe, generally seem to have advanced a relatively short distance each year that is consistent with establishment by wind borne spores, whereas the near-the-coast occurrences often seem to have made long hops apparently without settling on places in between. This could mean that there is a vector for C. fraxinea and some other plant diseases apart from the wind, birds and other fauna, and imports of infected material. It seems possible that shipping, and particularly cruise ships ferry services, may be the carriers of spores even when there is no mature infected material from the host plants on board. The environment on these vessels may help spores to retain viability in some way. This could also explain why Chalara fraxinea seems to have an affinity with islands, rapidly spreading to Bornholm, Öland, Gotland and the Åland archipelago in the Baltic, as well as the British Crown Dependencies of Jersey and Guernsey all of which are dependent on ferries and welcome cruises and other shipping services. 

Also the isolated 'wider environment' outbreak in the Buckie area of Scotland shown on the Forestry Commission's map of 11 December 2012 might be due to shipping "Buckie Shipyard offers a wide ranging capability to the marine industry , including new build, conversion, refit and repair of ferries, tugs, workboats, yachts, pilot boats, MOD vessels, small cruise vessels, diving vessels, lifeboats, fishing boats and fish farm cages."

There is a growing view that Chalara fraxinea originally came from the Far East and there are, of course, shipping services, from there to the Baltic. The Fesco Baltorient Line, for example, runs cargo vessels from the Far East to St. Petersburg and other European destinations.

Another curious aspect of the disease is that the map of Britain produced by the Forestry Commission shows sites where the infection has been confirmed in recently planted sites (including ?  nurseries) scattered very widely from Cornwall to northern Scotland and in Wales and Northern Ireland.  In France, however, most of the country seems to remain untouched, though the disease is advancing southwards on a broad front with hardly any egregious records.  In other words it appears to be widespread in British newly planted sites but not in French.

Oliver Rackham (2012) also seemed to think, having considered the options, that there was something about the expansion of Chalara fraxinea that we did not quite understand: “Many reported outbreaks, in various countries, are linked to the nursery trade, both within and between countries. Ash seedlings grown in nursery conditions are evidently very susceptible to infection, and can convey it long distances or to islands that it might not otherwise reach. However, occurrences like that in Ashwellthorpe Lower Wood, not obviously linked to any nursery, show that this is not the only explanation. Ascospores blowing from the Continent are a possibility — they are small enough to get that far. However it seems unlikely that a single spore, after a wind journey of hundreds of miles, would have enough inoculum potential (as Dennis Garrett, the great plant pathologist, taught me in the 1960s) to start an infection, though maybe a mass of conidia on the foot of a bird might do so on rare occasions.”


Association des Communes Forestières de la Côte d’Or (2012),

Delhaye, N., Helson, M., Chandelier, A. (2010) La chalarose du frêne : premiers foyers en Wallonie.[chalarose].pdf

DRAAF (2011) Forte progression géographique et des dégâts de la chalarose du frêne dans le Nord de la France

EPPO (2007) Ash dieback in Europe and possible implication of Chalara fraxinea: addition to the EPPO Alert List. EPPO Global Database Num. Article: 2007/179 Year: 2007 Month 09.

Flora Locale (2012) Ash dieback, tree planting and the plant trade.

Forestry Commission (11 December 2012) Chalara fraxinea Map 2b. Confirmed infection sites$FILE/UK_outbreak_map-12-12-11_Map2b.pdf (n.d.) Editorial on ash dieback

Kraj, W., Zarek, M. & Kowalski, T. (2012) Genetic variability of Chalara fraxinea, dieback cause of European ash (Fraxinus excelsior L.). Mycological Progress, February 2012, Volume 11 (1): 37-45

Rackham, O. (2012) Ash Disease: the present state of knowledge or ignorance. 9 November 2012.

Schumacher, J. (2010) Essterfte door Chalara fraxinea.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The ash dieback debate develops

I continue to follow, albeit rather wearily, the ash dieback debate through many authors in newspapers, magazines and blogs, both here and in other countries.

There now seems to be a general consensus that infection is by wind borne spores and there is little that can be done to stop the progress of the disease.  It is thought like that up to 10% of ash trees will be resistant to the disease and that these may be an important resource in ensuring the ash's future recovery.

There has also been much debate about the pros and cons of large tree planting schemes and it is frequently pointed out that Britain has proportionately less woodland cover than almost anywhere else in Europe.

This has brought the issue of natural regeneration rather than deliberate planting to the fore.  In East Sussex where I live I know of many places, usually abandoned fields, that have regenerated to secondary woodland surprisingly quickly and, judging by the size of the saplings I have seen in some televised tree planting schemes (maybe only from seed this year), regeneration may be almost as fast, if not faster than planting.  Though it does not do much for the tree nursery trade, or other human engagement with tree planting schemes.

I think the regeneration point is well-illustrated by this  from Julian Roughton as a comment on a Guardian article: In 2005 Suffolk Wildlife Trust bought a 40 acre field alongside an ancient woodland reserve - no trees were planted to see what would naturally emerge. Now there are something like half a million young ash trees many ten feet tall as well as birch, oak, field maple, hawthorn and blackthorn. Despite no tree planting thousands of young ash saplings are now affected by ash die back. Hopefully some of those half a million young ash trees will emerge with some resistance but where they die other tree seedlings are likely to take hold.

There also seems to be a conflation of trees with woodland.  We cannot have woodland without trees, of course, but woodland is much much more than just trees.  Not only does it have important open spaces like glades and rides, it has something known as an edge ranging from almost bare ground through shorter grasses and herbs to scrub and various shrubs unlikely to survive in closed canopy conditions.  This woodland edge often contains the greatest biodiversity and is much loved by species like  nightingales, dormice and pearl-bordered fritillaries, all species often associated with woodland but preferring scrub and more open areas.  There are also many species that spend part of their life within the tree canopy and part in the sheltered sunshine of the woodland edge.

The chair of The Woodland Trust, Clive Anderson, pointed out is an Observer article yesterday that with natural regeneration "It can take a while for trees to force their way through grasses, low-growing plants and scrub, but they will get there in the end."  True maybe, though self-sown trees, as I said above, can grow very quickly.  However, grasses, low-growing plants and scrub are just as much part of the natural environment, and just as important to wildlife as woodlands.

As has often been remarked, nature is dynamic and is constantly undergoing change and alteration.  Woodland may be termed climax vegetation but trees eventually die and the space is created which is the other side of the forest coin.  I have long thought that we are failing to appreciate the diversity and complexity of wildlife if we compartmentalise the landscape too much: that is a wood, that is a heath, that is a field.  Until recently housing or commercial developments were allowed to go right up to the edge of an ancient woodland, but now a buffer of 30 metres or more is often specified.  This buffer is to provide a wonderful mixed edge of "grasses, low-growing plants and scrub" on which the life of the wood is partly dependent.

It would be silly to suggest that all tree planting schemes should stop, but it would be nice to see more natural regeneration schemes such as that by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust mentioned above being promoted, studied and discussed.  If a field were to become available for tree planting, for example, one half could be reserved for natural regeneration.

Two famous examples of this are the Geescroft and Broadbalk wildernesses at the Rothamsted Experimental Station in Hertfordshire.  Here arable fields were abandoned in the 1880s and have long been regenerated woodlands.  There is an interesting comment about this in Footprints in the Soil (2006) edited by Benno Warkentin: These two historic Rothamsted sites illustrate the very considerable potential for carbon sequestration of simply allowing the steady state vegetation to re-establish itself.  Actively afforesting arable land will obviously be effective, but the more the soil is perturbed, the longer the benefit will take to materialize."

This weekend I was watching a tree planting day in Leicestershire on TV.  The small saplings were being planted in what was obviously stubble from a recent grain crop.  I did wonder, in these days of grain shortages, about the pros and cons of turning arable fields into woods.  And I also wondered about the transactional details of the arrangement.  There was no discussion of this on the TV programme.  Via some quick research I found out that arable land in Leicestershire is on offer at around £9,000 per acre ...  I assume a farmer would not want to arrange for extensive tree planting on arable sites unless there was some sort of financial return far beyond the scope of the kinds of grants offered by the government for farm management with wildlife in mind.

One final point, while many pests and diseases have been transported from their natural homes to somewhere else, I suspect that pathogens like ash dieback are often a natural phenomenon and that many plant species have gone through the kind of reversal now afflicting ash trees.  It just underlines that our human perspectives are often little longer than the average lifetime.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Pigeons and plumes

From this time of year we always have two or three woodpigeons (Columba palumbus) eating the ivy berries on top of the hedge and in the tree behind.


Ivy berries contain toxins, but many birds seem able to cope with them.  Pigeons, however, eat the rather soft seed where the toxins are said to be concentrated, as well as the fruit pulp and can destroy over 75% of the ivy seed crop.  They start with the unripe berries at this time of year and continue to feed on them right through to spring when they are properly ripe.

A small mid-November treat today was the appearance of the beautiful plume moth (Amblyptilia acanthodactyla) on the wall by our back door.  This second generation emerges in autumn and goes into hibernation until spring, but this one quite evidently had not yet decided to settle down despite the fact that we have already had a couple of frosts.


The larvae feed on a variety of plants including hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica), of which we have a very large patch only a few metres from where I found the moth today.

The beautiful plume is one of those species that is increasing and these days is increasingly found in gardens, highlighting their value for some forms of wildlife.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Ash dieback in Poland and Japan

Two very interesting articles have been published recently on ash dieback disease (Chalara fraxinea).

One, in the Telegraph, is by Cole Moreton  who went to the forest area in Zabodny, Poland, where the disease was first noted in Europe in 1992:

It paints a very gloomy picture of the prospects for ash trees in the UK.  One of their forest managers was asked about prospects here:

“Has it been seen in the older trees?” It has. This experienced man of the forests puts his hand on his heart. “Then I am afraid it is over for you. It is too late. The game is over.”  However, the Poles pointed out that 15 to 20% of trees survive and seed from these might carry the immunity to future generations.

While this may seem to be a good thing, the warning from the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) should be heeded: "Woodland plantations and hedgerows made of cloned stock or non-native trees are going to be even more prone to failure than most food crops, as they are so long-lived."  In other words it is important to maintain genetic diversity and not take all future ash trees from one or two genetically identical, or very similar, clones."  The BSBI also say, rather more encouragingly: "Ash dieback, like other diseases of wild plants, is simply part of the ecosystem, and its main effect is likely to be to increase diversity and ultimately the stability of woods. Even if it were possible, there would be no point in trying to isolate British plants from worldwide diseases, because that would make them more vulnerable to serious plagues in future."

The whole article is here:

Their assertion though that "ash dieback is not known to kill mature trees" does not seem to be correct in the light of experience from Poland and elsewhere.

Another enlightening web site is TreeBASE (a database of phylogenetic knowledge) which almost certainly explains various reports that ash dieback came from Asia or China.  In fact the fungus seems to be present in Japan on Manchurian ash (Fraxinus mandshurica) a species found in China, Korea and south east Russia as well as Japan.  TreeBASE say: "Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus is the causal agent of ash (Fraxinus excelsior) dieback in Europe. It was recently separated from the European H. albidus based on molecular analyses, while morphologically scarcely distinguishable. Hymenoscyphus albidus was reported under the nomenclatural synonym Lambertella albida on petioles of Fraxinus mandshurica in Japan."  It then gives some rather more complicated details.

On the assumption that the fungus was present in Japan before Europe, Manchurian ash may, of course, be rather more resistant to the disease than European ash, but much more work needs to be done to establish the evolutionary pathways and possible dispersion routes of spores of both the European and Far Eastern strains of Chalara fraxinea, although such knowledge may not enable anyone to stop its advance, it could help with mitigation strategies.

Work on Chalara fraxinea seems to have been done by scientists in Japan, Poland, Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland, UK and probably many other places.  What I find rather disturbing is that they do not appear to be talking to one another and reading one another's papers.  Or maybe they are simply being ignored.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ash dieback again

Below: a healthy (for how long?) coppiced ash.


Many people in the media still seem to be behind the times on ash dieback and continue to prattle on about Denmark and how the disease is widespread in Central Europe (home of Count Dracula etc.)

Chalara fraxinea had spread to north west France by 2009 and Belgium since at least 2010. For more detail see:

The Forestry Commission map of Chalara outbreaks ignores the very significant fact that the disease is widespread in the bit of France shown bottom left just opposite the Kent outbreaks See:

Surely it is pointless to 'take action' of whatever kind here when spores will keep arriving from Europe unless the disease declines of its own accord. I continue to read of hundreds of people scouring the countryside for infected trees, but it is not quite clear what they do when they find them. Do they destroy the whole thing, roots and all, and hoover the entire woodland floor or length of hedge for any spore carrying leaves?

Are these hundreds of people volunteers, long-term employees of someone, or recent recruits? Have they stopped doing their proper job? Whenever hundreds are involved there is usually a significant cost. Is it worth it?

Another piece of data that seems to have lain undiscovered is that ash dieback was added to the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organisation's (EPPO) alert list in 2007. They said: "Because ash dieback could represent a serious threat to forest, amenity and nursery ash trees, the EPPO Secretariat decided to add C. fraxinea to the EPPO Alert List in 2007." The UK has been a member of EPPO since 1951 but seemingly ignored this warning.  See:

I think I am suffering with Roper dieback.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

More on ash die back disease

My mail box continues to be crowded with injunctions to help stop the spread of ash die back disease, Chalara fraxinea.  As someone who has done many years of study on our native trees and has the greatest possible affection for them I do not want to be seen as not caring about the ash.

However, I do think we have to be realistic.  It seems to me there is little chance of stopping a fungal disease that is spread by spores and is widespread all over Europe right up to the Channel coast from advancing into the UK (as the Forestry Commission suggest it already may have done) by perfectly natural means as well as on imported plants.

Prompted by this recent emergency I was particularly noticing ash trees on my way into Hastings this morning, a journey of about 10 miles.  There must be thousands, many the young trees that appear to be particularly susceptible, in hedgerows, on embankments as well as in the edges of the woodlands that I could see.  It would be very difficult to survey all these trees carefully for die back and, if the disease were found the prospect of the damage to the countryside that would result from unearthing them from hedges etc. is alarming.

Where the A21 enters Hastings there are steep embankments covered in young ashes on either side of a road bridge.  If the disease were to occur here, trying to deal with it (bearing in mind that it might be in the roots as well as in the top hamper) would involve major engineering works and probably significant road closure.

It occurs to me that the disease has probably been identified in plant nurseries and on Forestry Commission and Woodland Trust properties because young trees in these places get much more detailed scrutiny than elsewhere.  Many woods have  thousands of young ashes as well as older ones, often in rarely visited spots and systematic survey and destruction of the infected would involve an impossible amount of people hours and cost.  There will no doubt be extra vigilance in well-visited woods, but there are many places where ashes grow on farmland and other private property where detailed scrutiny is unlikely to take place.  Indeed, one of the characteristic habitats of the ash is on vertical limestone and other cliffs ...

While the present government does not seem to be particularly pro-wildlife, blaming them for outbreaks of ash die back in the wild as a consequence of not preventing imports of the trees sooner than they did seems like blaming the American government for hurricane Sandy.

If ash die back becomes widespread in the UK, as seems likely based on the experience in other European countries, it might be better to look for trees that do not have it rather than those that do.  As I said in yesterday's post, there seem to be some chalara-resistant strains of ash and these will need to be cherished.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Ash die back disease, Chalara fraxinea

Recently I have read and listened to many items about the fungal infection Chalara fraxinea or ash die back disease that kills the trees it attacks.  While I am sure no one would welcome any serious threat to our native ash trees, it does seem to me that much of the commentary is ill-founded and not very helpful.

The general story from the media is that nearly all the ash trees in Denmark have died, that a few cases have been found in Great Britain and that imports of ashes from nurseries abroad have been banned.

A good way of getting a more balanced understanding of the situation is by reading the Forestry Commission's fact sheet on the issue:

According to the FC the disease was first recorded in Poland in 1992 (other sources say 1990) and infected trees have been found widely across Europe, including several places from Kent to central Scotland in the UK.  Infected trees are widespread in north western France with up to 80% affected in some areas and the fungus has also been reported from Belgium where "eradication measures have sought unsuccessfully to stop the spread of the disease". 

In a recent Guardian article George Monbiot said “The only way the fungus can arrive in this country is through imports of infected saplings.”  However, as it is a fungus presumably it spreads by spores that can travel in all sorts of ways. Indeed, the FC in their fact sheet say that "It is believed to have entered Great Britain on plants for planting imported from nurseries in Continental Europe. However, now that we have found infected older trees in East Anglia with no apparent connection with nursery stock, we are also investigating the possibility that it might have entered Britain by natural means. These include being carried on the wind or on birds coming across the North Sea, or on items such as footwear, clothing or vehicles of people who had been in infected sites in Continental Europe." (I wonder how they are going to investigate these possibilities).

The banning of imports might, I suppose, slow the spread of the disease, but it looks rather like shutting the stable door after the horse has gone. If it can spread for some distance by spores from nursery stock it can, presumably, find its way across the Channel.  Most of us remember how fast the horse chestnut leaf miner moth spread: stopping imports of its host would have made little difference.

So far as containment is concerned the FC say "We are treating C. fraxinea as a ‘quarantine’ plant pathogen, which means that we may use emergency powers to contain or eradicate it when it is found. This is being done in the form of Statutory Plant Health Notices which we serve on affected owners requiring them to remove and destroy affected plants by burning or deep burial on site. Equivalent measures are being taken on land managed by the Forestry Commission. This is the only available treatment."

If the same situation prevails here as in mainland Europe landowners are going to be faced with an impossible and probably worthless task.  If infected trees were found, for example, not only the top but the roots would have to be burnt or deeply buried.  And what about trees nearby that might be infected but not yet showing symptoms.  Would the National Trust, for example, be expected to dig up and burn or bury  all the ash trees in Dovedale should Chalara strike there?

Sadly I suspect the FC and other government advisers know perfectly well that they are unable to stop spores crossing the Channel and that the current red flag waving and whistle blowing is just to try and show a public that loves its trees that something is being done.

With Dutch elm disease, the various afflictions of oak, phytophthera on sweet chestnut and other species I sometime wonder if these diseases might be the way nature operates, killing whole swathes of trees from time to time and opening up forests for other flora and fauna. Often a few individuals of the species attacked seem to survive, like post-myxomatosis rabbits, to repopulate the old habitat which, by then, may be relatively free of their pests and diseases since these have had little or nothing on which to subsist.  Indeed in a Danish study (which might have given rise to the frequently heard comment that Denmark is particularly badly affected by ash die back) it has been shown that different strains of ash have different levels of resistance.

Unless the disease mysteriously dies out naturally in nearby mainland Europe and where it has appeared in the UK, which seems unlikely, might it not be better to let things run their course?  In good natural selection style, the fittest would survive and repopulate our countryside with resistant strains.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

An abundance of red admirals

A mainly sunny day after the recent heavy rain and winds.

Halfway down our garden we have a bush of Colletia hystrix ( often listed as Colletia armata in catalogues) that produces masses of white, honey scented flowers at this time of year attractive to a wide range of insects, late butterflies being the most obvious.

20120929 (16)

Today here were literally dozens of visiting red admirals, Vanessa atalanta (above), maybe 30 or 40 of them, and I have never seen so many as this together.  There were also a few commas, Polygonia c-album, and a couple of southern hawker dragonflies trying to pick off some of the smaller insects attracted to the flowers.

20120929 (14)

Colletia hystrix, a member of the Buckthorn Family, comes from Chile where it is known as espino negro (i.e. blackthorn) or yaqui.  It is a very spiny plant and can be used, like gorse as a stock fence.  Ours is now about 4 or 5 metres tall and makes an impenetrable, but attractive, thicket.  It seems perfectly hardy in Sussex.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Woodchurch clay

Went for a walk today at on the south east side of Woodchurch between Tenterden and Ashford in Kent.  The only cross-country path suitable runs from Lower Road to the Appledore Road across the Weald Clay and partly on an area of alluvium.


However, there was a fine view back towards the village and the church (looking north north west from TQ949339).

The stubble is the remains of oil seed rape and the dark green along the footpath is made by thousands of young plants grown from fallen seed.  In winter the pigeons will love it.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

King snake in Hastings

A friend who lives in the Bohemia Road area of Hastings phoned yesterday evening to say that I might not believe this but a yellow, black spotted snake had appeared in their kitchen sink.

 20120914 Desert king snake

They had covered the sink with a board, but lifted it long enough to take the photo above which they texted to me.  After various phone calls and emails they managed to find a local vet with an interest in snakes to come and take the unexpected visitor to more congenial quarters.  He also confirmed its identity as a king snake.

I think it is a hybrid between the desert king snake, Lampropeltis getula splendida, and the speckled king snake, Lampropeltis getula holbrooki.  Various forms of these snakes are popular among reptile enthusiasts and says "They have a relatively docile temperament and can be easily tamed. They are energetic and inquisitive and make very interesting pets. They are easy and safe to handle, growing to a manageable size and make a good choice for people who are new to snake keeping."

However, I doubt whether the Hastings climate is suitable for them to make a permanent home in the town outside captivity.

Monday, August 13, 2012

How big is a hazel nut?

As the season wends its wet and weary way towards autumn, some of the berries and nuts in field and hedge are ripening.  Our rowan berries have already turned red and I noticed these hazel nuts before the grey squirrels did:

20120801 BHW hazel nuts (22)

How different they are from the tiny flowers with their crimson stamens from which they develop and, of course, from the male catkins.  How, I wonder, do the genes decide to  code for a either a catkin or a nut, or indeed a leaf, and then proceed to produce these intricate structures that each has a set form but are never, I suppose, identical.  The mysteries of morphogenesis.

Maybe Julian of Norwich in the 14th century was on to something when she wrote:

  • He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball.  I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made.  I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little.  And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.
  • In this Little Thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loveth it, the third, that God keepeth it. But what is to me verily the Maker, the Keeper, and the Lover, — I cannot tell; for till I am Substantially oned to Him, I may never have full rest nor very bliss: that is to say, till I be so fastened to Him, that there is right nought that is made betwixt my God and me.

These days she would probably be a particle physicist working at the Large Hadron Collider (but maybe she is!) .

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Effects of the rain?

Many of the wild plants in our beautifully tidy garden have grown much taller than usual, perhaps as a result of the very wet last three and a half months.


I am about 1.8 metres tall and the marsh thistles, ragwort and hogweed behind and to the left of me are as tall or taller.

Behind me, in the distance, the berries on the rowan tree are starting to turn red.  I always take this as a sign that summer is moving into autumn, but at least it is happening at the usual time this year.

The wool carder bees (Anthidium manicatum) are on the wing again and, as usual, seem particularly fond of my houseleeks.  We have provided them with plenty of woolly leaved plants for the females to ;card' and line their nests.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Hastings fennel

2012-07-17 11.38.07

Coming out of Hastings station car park today I caught sight of a fine stand of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and stopped to take a snap out of the car window.

The flowers are very attractive to a wide range of insects (grow them with one of the taller varieties of mint in a herb garden and you will have a wonderful insect party on sunny days when both are in flower).

The leaves and seeds can, of course, be used in a wide range of recipes and herbal teas.

Fennel is not a native British plant but hails from the Mediterranean.  However, it has been happily established here probably since Roman times.

I have read that it inhibits the growth of other plants, but there is clearly a large number of perfectly healthy plants growing next to it here, so I take it that it does not normally, if ever, have this quality.

It seems a fitting sort of plant to have seen on the day the Olympic torch arrives in Hastings.  A stately species originating from the Mediterranean and mixing well with other plants.  It even seems to be approaching the fence as a kind of high jump.  Apropos of the Olympics, our eight year old granddaughter on being told that the Olympic flame was transported by coach from place to place, was concerned that the vehicle might go on fire.  A blazing bus would certainly be a newsworthy story.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Hedge woundwort

Standing idly in the garden in a rare sunny moment, I noticed a bank of flowering hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) was attracting many hive and bumble bees to its flowers.

20120705 Stachys sylvatica SV

The plant is common and widespread in our area and elsewhere in Britain and has a solid reputation as a bee plant.

It also has, or had, medicinal virtues.  Nicholas Culpeper, the renowned 17th C herbalist wrote that this plant "stamped with vinegar and applied in manner of a pultis, taketh away wens and hard swellings, and inflammation of the kernels under the eares and jawes."

Thomas Green (1832) in The Universal Herbal says "Toads are thought to be fond of living under its shade" which, coupled with its attraction to bees and its curative properties, gives me a good excuse not to cut the plant down.  Even more so as the Ecological Flora of the British Isles lists 56 insect species associated with the plant, including 5 that are monophagous as well as (snap) 56 fungi, mostly rusts, moulds and the like.

If my arithmetic is right that is 112 species but this does not include visitors to the flowers.  In contrast, Anne Pratt in her book Wild Flowers (1860) writes "no animal is known to eat it, save the snail" but I take it that (apart from molluscs) she was referring to mammals.

20120705 Stachys sylvatica SV (4)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Return to Shirley Moor

Back on the Moor again today,  Bit warmer, but still not exactly 'flaming June'.

I ventured a little further down the footpath leading due east from just beyond New Bridge, past marsh mallow and waving false oat grass along the dyke side.

At the end (TQ9450132026) I found a plant of swinecress, Coronopus squamatus, growing in the corner of the field and looking like a vegetable starfish.  It is a species I have come across from time to time before, but never growing quite so flat as this.

20120614 Coronopus squamatus 2

A little further on was a rickety bridge and the path continued up the hill through a wheat field towards Appledore.  I think anyone would have been reminded of the lines from Rudyard Kipling's poem Puck's Song.

See you the dimpled track that runs
All hollow through the wheat?
O that was where they hauled the guns
That smote King Philip's fleet!

Though I hope no one had been hauling guns up the hill with the intention of smiting anyone here.

20120614 Wheat footpath, Shirley Moor

To the south another series of ditches snaked away towards the rising ground picked out the lacy white flowers of hemlock water-dropwort, Oenanthe crocata.

20120614 Oenanthe crocata, Shirley Moor

The plant is poisonous in all its parts.  Indeed, the 18th century botanical illustrator Georg Dionysius Ehret, claimed that he was nearly overcome by its fumes when he was drawing the plant in a poorly ventilated studio.  I hope the combine harvester doesn't gather it along with the wheat.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Urban grasslands

Perceptive readers will note that this post was written out of sequence. Several sections in the overall colloquy have been compiled before this one. This because I only today finished checking on the names of some of the plants I found, but more of that later.

This is about a very short walk taken from the upper car park at the Tesco superstore in Church Wood Drive to Ingleside, a road lying some 80 metres to the west beyond the houses and the woods.

‘Ingleside’ is a curious name that has been much used in Britain and America for hotels, rest homes and street and road names rather than full-blown settlements, though there is a village in Illinois called ‘Ingleside’ and also a suburb of Sydney in Australia. The word mainly seems to be a Scots term for a fireside, rather like ‘inglenook’ and ‘ingle’ is said to derive from Scottish Gaelic aingeal meaning in one of its senses fire, light or sunshine.

Although the word was often used in the past in various contexts, it was brought into greater prominence by children’s author Lucy Maud Montgomery who wrote Anne of Green Gables. Two of her later books were Rilla of Ingleside (1921) and Anne of Ingleside (1939). Ingleside was the name of the house in these novels which were set in North America and, for those familiar with the books, the word is full of the kind of romantic associations that might help to promote a new housing estate. Chapter 2 of Rilla opens:

Outside, the Ingleside lawn was full of golden pools of sunshine and plots of alluring shadows. Rilla Blythe was swinging in the hammock under the big Scotch pine, Gertrude Oliver sat at its roots beside her, and Walter was stretched at full length on the grass, lost in a romance of chivalry wherein old heroes and beauties of dead and gone centuries lived vividly again for him.

In Anne of Ingleside Montgomery wrote:

I love the name Ingleside. It's such a nice, homey name. That's what Gilbert said. We had quite a time deciding on a name. We tried out several but they didn't seem to belong.  But when we thought of Ingleside we knew it was the right one.

It is always possible, of course, that a road name refers to a person rather than a place. Ingleside does not, however, appear to be in use as a personal name in the United Kingdom though a book by E. V. Lucas called Mr Ingleside and set in England was published in 1910. Indeed, it may have been this that consciously or subconsciously inspired Lucy Maud Montgomery to use the house name in her novels. There may also, of course, have been a house in the vicinity of Tesco called ‘Ingleside’ and it further strikes me that ‘Dingleside’, ‘dingle’ meaning a small wooded valley, might have been a more appropriate name.

Having written all that I discovered that a small estate west of Tesco and accessed from Ingleside is called ‘Inglewood Gardens’ making ‘Ingleside’ a reasonable choice for the name of nearby main road. However, since the main road was there before the housing estate, it would seem that the gardens was named as an allusion to the main road, leaving us exactly as we were before. Interestingly, to me at any rate, ‘Inglewood’ as in Inglewood Forest, Cumbria, means ‘wood of the Angles (or English)’ and therefore is of a completely different linguistic origin than ‘Ingleside’.

Taxonomic considerations not quite aside, Ingleside runs through the ancient Church Wood and it is ironic that one of the roads carved out of this precious and irreplaceable habitat is called Cubitt Way, presumably as an acknowledgement of the role the housing company Cubitt & West had in the development of this estate.

My walk took me along a twitten between the back gardens of Coneyburrow and Inglewood Gardens and a short stretch of woodland before reaching the road. Despite some accumulation of rubbish, the woodland still maintained some of its earlier character with celandines, anemones, yellow archangel, wood spurge and other plants characteristic of ancient woodland under a canopy of hornbeam and ash.

On the way back to the car park, my eye was caught by a triangle of grass on the south eastern corner of the Coneyburrow Gardens estate. The quite closely mown and rather sparse sward had a remarkable variety of plant species: annual meadow-grass, bird’s-foot trefoil, buck's-horn plantain, cat's-ear, changing forget-me-not, common fleabane, common mouse-ear, common ragwort, common stork's-bill, creeping buttercup, curled dock, cut-leaved crane's-bill, daisy, dandelion, field madder, gold-of-pleasure, groundsel, hairy bitter-cress, lesser stitchwort, lesser trefoil, meadow buttercup, narrow-leaved vetch, red clover, ribwort plantain, sorrel, sweet vernal-grass, wall barley, wall speedwell, white clover, wood dock and many which I am sure I will have missed.

20120522 Sward near Tesco

One of the more interesting species is wild madder, Sherardia arvensis. Despite scouring my books and the Internet I can find nothing medicinal about it and concur with F. E. Hulme in his Familiar Wild Flowers (1906) who wrote “It is indeed a curious fact that this Sherardia is one of the very few plants that the mediaeval herbalists and simple-mongers seem to have found no healing virtue in.” (I like the idea of being a ‘simple-monger’) . However, it seems rather unlikely that it would have been given the name of ‘madder’ if it had not had some connection with dyeing and in a Manual of Weeds by Ada E. Georgia (1914) the author writes “The fleshy roots, though much inferior to the true Madder, are sometimes used for the production of a red dye.”

Other areas of sward in the vicinity were much less diverse and I am sure the soil for this triangle must have been imported from a not too far distant chalky location near the sea. From the car park there were two ways up to it, one a flight of steps, the other a long path with a hairpin bend to make access possible by wheel chair. Near the bend someone had earlier spilt a tin of sweet corn on the asphalt, decorating the path with what looked like a rash of septic pustules, or maybe a scatter of gigantic pollen grains.


On 9 June I walked round Inglewood Gardens, a strangely small and isolated modern estate. It was very quiet, I saw only one human being in the middle of a Saturday afternoon and there were few sounds of traffic or people.

Much of the estate was embellished by areas of lightly mown grass and many of these were quite similar to the species rich triangle just to the north. Ecologically interesting, but out of place in an area that used to be ancient woodland. Indeed a remnant of this woodland can be seen in the background of this picture of Inglewood Gardens below.

20120609 Inglewood Gardens, Hollington

Thursday, June 07, 2012

A little snipefly

This morning I found a little snipefly, Chrysopilus asiliformis, in our garden.  A very colourful insect which seems not uncommon in Sussex.

20120607 Chrysopilus asiliformis SV

Stubbs & Drake in British Soldierflies and their allies (2001) say "Adults may be seen sitting on leaves", certainly the case with this one as it spent some time on a leaf of one of my houseleeks.

Its life history is still, I believe, unknown, but other members of the family are largely carnivorous and occur in decaying wood and soil.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Shirley Moor, Kent.

Today I explored Shirley Moor via Moor Lane (OS grid ref: TQ9382432035). A thin post-heatwave mist dulled the early summer air on either side of the scything tarmac fringed with cow parsley, buttercups and the rising wands of false oat-grass. There were little clumps of trees dotted about: oak with an understorey of blackthorn, ivy and sallow, sheltering a myriad of noisy birds undeterred from their spring business by the coolness of the day.

20120530 Shirley Moor (9)

At one point the ground rose as the lane ascended the small hill on which Glover Farm and Shirley Farm are situated. Once this was probably an island in the marshy water world of the Moor, like Red Hill and Chapel Bank to the south. A red-legged partridge ran across the road and, from a gateway, I could see over the green barley to the rolling fleeces, darker green, of the distant Heron Woods. It was so still there was no shaking of the barley by the wind.

Yellow remnants of oil-seed rape blossomed round the edges of fields. An old blue pickup vehicle full of men appeared and bumped slowly away down an unmade, arrow-straight farm road. After it had gone I moved on to New Bridge that carries Moor Lane across the Cradlebridge Sewer (the small streams that meander across the flat lands around Romney Marsh and the lower parts of the Wealden river systems are widely named ‘sewers’ though they are no more polluted than any other English river. The word is ultimately descended, via Norman French from Vulgar Latin exaquāria meaning simply a drain for carrying water off).

20120530 Shirley Moor New Bridge (20)

The views from this spot could hardly have been more variable. To the north the lane ran straight as an arrow towards my newly discovered ‘island’. Southward a curving screen of tall white willow above a band of lacy cow parsley followed the line of the lane which was of two-tone grey asphalt, darker in the centre where wheels did not run, verged by bright green grass – a five-banded landscape.

20120530 Shirley Moor New Bridge (19)

To the west were bare, flat fields ultimately broken by a line of dead and dying trees bordering a distant dyke.

20120530 Shirley Moor New Bridge (17)

To the east, in total contrast, was a magical composition of England in early summer. A swan, a haughty swan, rested on its reflection in the black and silver water of the Cradlebridge Sewer, just in front of a thick pollarded willow and between banks whitened by billowing stands of hemlock water-dropwort with, at one place, a cluster of the flowers of yellow flag caught in the sallow and reed. The only sound was from the small birds in the bushes and the endless lark song embroidering the upper air; the only smell that of fading, falling hawthorn blossom, the small petals turning from white to pink when their work was done.

20120530 Shirley Moor Cradlebridge Sewer (15a)

I found a feather here, of a partridge I think, beautifully and strikingly patterned with at least six shades of brown, the darkest making tiger stripes along the central rachis. I wished I had had a Tyrolean hat to put it in.

Somewhere towards the Isle of Oxney a cuckoo called.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The bird on the wall

I was in Waterworks Road, Hastings and I noticed this mural phenomenon.

20120522 Cymbalaria & graffiti Hastings (44)

The plant is a rather fine example of ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) but I thought the splash of white paint was also very striking, looking rather like the head of a slavering wolf.

It was only after I got home that I noticed the black bird in the position of the wolf's eye.  Quite plainly this has been drawn here as it is not the same colour as the bricks (you can also see the 'wolf's head' on Google's Street View and the bird is not there).

I suspect it has something to do with the Hastings & Bexhill Wood Recycling Project which has a workshop a few yards up the road where they make, among other things, nest boxes and wooden seagulls.  Or maybe it is a Banksy miniature: he has, after all, worked in the Hastings area.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A circumnavigation

There is something grand and philosophical about a circumnavigation. It suggests that, via a certain trajectory to a farthest point, a wanderer can return through different ways to a place that is by definition where she started from.

There are heroic orbits around the earth, the solar system, the British Isles and modest ones around the park or the boot fair or, though not usually classified as species of circumnavigation, a passage through a selected tangle of streets on a local perambulation. I once took a circuitous route along lanes encompassing numerous Gloucestershire farms in the Forest of Dean by walking from Coleford through Millend and Clearwell and Newland and Lower Cross back to Coleford.

The conquest of a supermarket car park may be classified as a collection of one of the rarer taxa in the circumnavigation genus since, perhaps, it is not perceived as terribly interesting. Nevertheless it was my project for the day and one that could make a modest but valuable contribution to psychogeography. And one never knows what any circumambulation might reveal.

Today my field of study was Morrison’s car park adjacent to Queens Road in Hastings. I set off from the main entrance heading north and immediately my eye was caught by a baby’s dummy in colourless plastic lying on the ground. It evoked an image of an obstreperous infant propelling the article over the side of the pram like a trainee hammer thrower.

Around the corner I could see the embankment where the trains ran, their engines sending an echoing Whee–e-e in crescendo or decrescendo as they left or approached the station. Underneath the trains a red banner on the wall proclaimed “We buy direct from 5,000 British livestock farmers.” Takes a lot of farms to feed Hastings.

Semi-mature trees were growing from gravelly, brick-edged rectangles of the car park leafing in reddish or green ochre while in the corners of this area there were dense billows of clipped, evergreen laurustinus with some groundsel and annual meadow grass flowering hopefully underneath. On the other side of the main entrance road was an ancient, low sandstone wall adjacent to a small lawn with a whitebeam tree. The wall must be a survivor from a time when this area was completely different. Part of a house perhaps along the Old Roar stream now safely culverted below the modern town. Elder was growing by the wall and on the opposite side of the lawn questing trails of goosegrass pushed through dense cotoneaster bushes.

There was a large buddleia by the recycling point: huge metal boxes for glass, shoes, plastic bottles, newspapers, electrical items. Behind a curious, almost secret, concrete path led in a curve to a closed brown door. There was ivy on the ground, under the bushes, climbing the walls. The plant evidently likes it here and tries to escape the ivy police who are forever pulling it down.

In the north east corner by Queens Road a lonely birch spreads its elegant figure above a chewed up mat of shredded bark and wood, perhaps the start of a shrubbery reconstruction. There was more cotoneaster by the parking bays: undulating cushions of dark green foliage spattered with pinkish white flowers aiming to greet a spring that hadn’t really arrived.

At the garage the ground changed. Red brick paviors for the pedestrian areas, brown with white speckles in the area intended for refuelling cars. By the entry sign to this refuelling area a large gorse bush was in flower. Difficult to believe this was planted, especially as it seemed to be a one off, so it must have found its way in as a seed on a car or a bird and now tries to hide among the alien ornamentals. On the south garage corner a hybrid whitebeam, a few shoots of travellers joy and two herring gulls with a wary look that said “is he a threat or a food provider.” Beyond this were extensive low-growing beds of grey-leaved brachyglottis shrubs extending like urban chaparral through a gap between buildings to Brook Street and the Prince Albert pub, though one would have had to walk round through the car park pedestrian entrance to reach either of these two places.

By the far wall Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’ was already in flower below a brick wall and a fine complex of moss-covered roofs sloping at different angles. Above these windblown muddled clouds in infinite shades of grey sweeping eastwards. May is the season of white petals: their falling can be mistaken for snow when the weather is cold.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Squirrel in the houseleeks

It has been cold so far this May, but yesterday the sun shone for a while and the grey squirrel that skitters round our garden took a sunbathing nap on a wooden shelf where I keep some of my houseleeks.  I see squirrels every day, but this is the first time I have seen one basking.

20120514 sleeping squirrel

The Sempervivums behind are, from right to left, Black Mountain, Green Ice, Blood Tip and S. atlanticum.  The plant in the pot at the rear is a Deptford pink, Dianthus armeria, put on the shelf to stop the rabbits eating it.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Hastings steps

Hastings in East Sussex UK has many flights of steps ascending the various hills around the town.

Noonan’s Steps climbs like a waterless cascade up the flank of the West Hill.

20120508 Noonan's Steps Hastings (2)

The walls and crevices support many different plants, wet and shiny after the overnight rain. There are ivy-leaved toadflax and trailing bellflower; elder and sycamore bushes; shepherd's purse, goosegrass and clumps of moss casually thrown off neighbouring roofs by insect hunting birds.  The photo below is of some alexanders, Smyrnium olusatrum, hanging over a wall:

20120508 Alexanders Noonan's Steps (5)

At one spot there was a battered typewriter lying in a doorway next to an empty can of Red Bull. Maybe an aspiring writer had thrown it and the empty can from an upper window in frustration when the muse would not visit. Whatever the case, no novels, or poems, or letters were going to emerge from its keys again. It seemed strange though that it had survived for so long in this computer age.

20120508 Old typewriter Noonan's Steps (4)

For typewriter aficionados it is a Commodore, probably made in Canada.  Taxonomy has got me!

I walked back down Gas Works Steps and up Stonefield Road. 

20120508 Gas Works Steps hastings (9)

Here, as in lots of other place, were some good examples of a sprawling  Cerastium.  It is, I think, sea mouse-ear, C. diffusum but I will have to do a bit more work on that as it a difficult genus.

20120508 Cerastium Hastings (10)

I also found a spray of oak-leaved honeysuckle, I think just a juvenile form of our ordinary wild honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum.

20120508 Oak leaved honeysuckle Noonan's Steps (6)

Monday, May 07, 2012

By the Tesco superstore, Hollington, Hastings.

On the eastern side of Tescos superstore there is an asphalt path running uphill over mown grass to the streets and houses on the Tilekiln estate. To the west is ancient woodland, a northern extension of Church Wood still with yellow archangel peeping under the chestnut post and rail fence and with plenty of bluebells beneath the leafing hornbeams and other trees.

On the other side of the path it is mostly mown grass up to the fence round the Tesco buildings, but in the middle of this is a deep gully that was once the bed of a stream running into the lower part of Church Wood but now culverted for much of its length (Grid Ref. TQ7861311733). It is rather encouragingly full of a very varied scrub and I imagine the species count would be high if an extended ecological survey were undertaken.

20120505 (19)

There were fresh green brambles, white ball-bearing buds of hawthorn, oak and ash entwined with honeysuckle and flowering sedge while, in the distance, a woodpigeon was cooing persistently.

On the edge of the gully I found a fine plant of spotted medick (Medicago arabica) with tiny, yellow flowers.  I is native in southern Britain that is said to be expanding its range for reasons that are not entirely clear. It seems to be widespread in Sussex.

20120505 (20) 

In several other places were plants of ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) with their rough, pod-like flower heads already developed (see behind the medick above). I saw some being used in a masterchef salad on television the other day and the authors of the Walk around Britain website say “The fresh seeds of both species make a very good protein nibble, tasting rather like mushrooms.” I tried a flower head. It didn’t taste bad, but had a rough, chaff-like quality making it difficult to swallow.

Two teenage girls and a boy were wandering about clearly trying to think of something to do. They chattered loudly and talked a bit about me, a stranger, but were good humoured and cheerful when I made some irrelevant reply. They made no further remarks after they had seen me eating ribwort plantain flowers – I can’t think why.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

St George's mushrooms

Driving round our lane I noticed a couple of flashes of white in the grass verge and, upon investigation, discovered they were St George's mushrooms, Calocybe gambosa.

20120505 (13)

Interesting to see toadstools among anemone and wild strawberry leaves.

This is an edible species that regularly appears along these lane verges and named after St George because it is a spring fruiting fungus that often appears around St George's day, 23 April.

I have eaten them in the past and they are quite popular in many parts of mainland Europe, but I don't really care for them.  Maybe I'll see what flies I can breed out and whether they differ from those that burrow about in our autumn fungi.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Beware Ceanothuses crossing!

This photo of a lonely flowering Ceanothus bush escaping from Tescos in St. Leonard's-on-Sea came out of my camera today.

20120505 (18a)

Ceanothus is a North American plant belonging to the family Rhamnaceae.  The buckthorns, the only foodplants of our British brimstone butterfly larvae, also belong to this plant family.  The adult butterflies are known to visit Ceanothus flowers in this country and I wonder if anyone has looked for caterpillars on this plant, or tried to feed them on the leaves.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


I was asked recently by a friend if there was anything he could do about the rats that had turned up on the ground under his bird table.

20120217 Rat 6

Cats, terriers, traps, guns, poison, ultrasonic devices- there a plenty of options, most of them with drawbacks. And, of course, he could stop feeding the birds.

The rodents there are brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) which, despite the specific name, did not reach Britain from Norway. They arrived here and elsewhere in Europe, from their native home in the Far East, probably in the early 18th century and have spread to most of the world apart from the Arctic and Antarctic and a few islands.

In Britain some reckon there are 81 million of them, more than the human population and many, of course, live in urban areas. They have a bad reputation because they steal our food (as well as that of the birds), forage in smelly places and can transmit various diseases, especially when they live in sewers. They do, however, have a plus side. Some people think the decline of bubonic plague was due to the arrival of brown rats since, like us, they can apparently catch plague but not transmit it. Transmission was normally accomplished by fleas on the black rat and other rodents and the displacement of the black rat (Rattus rattus) by the brown rat has been equated with a decline in the plague (aka black death).

Rats have also contributed much to medicine through their role as laboratory animals and in many countries they are popular pets.

The disgust felt for these animals by many people seems to be a culturally derived habit and not one like a fear of things that can be genuinely harmful like venomous snakes. Their name has also been used as a widespread insult -"You dirty rat" etc. Maybe they are too much like us. Many people do have a sort of general fear of wild animals, even mice and spiders, but the rat is in a class of its own.

Robert Browning in the Pied Piper of Hamelin didn't do much for their image:

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks' own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men's Sunday hats

But the puppet Roland Rat, created by David Claridge, has had a spectacular career as a TV character since the 1980s and his markedly ratty personality and home in a ratcave under Kings Cross station seems to make him more rather than less popular. It is us that are peculiar creatures rather than rats. Still, we both go in for bruxing (the sound made by grinding one's teeth), a new addition to my vocabulary.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Winter sunset

For 12 days the night time temperature has fallen below freezing with over a week of unbroken snow cover. In the garden on several days it has reached -6 degrees C, and once -8, unusually cold for our area. It was snowing again this morning, but a thaw is forecast so hopefully it will feel a little warmer next week.

Yesterday evening the temperature fell very rapidly as the sun went down. There was an Irish tradition of a small ‘western room’ in the house where mementoes of members of the family that had passed on were kept so that one was reminded of them as one faced the setting sun, the direction the dead followed on their journey to the Otherworld.

The coldness and stillness of the subzero winter world echoed this mood as I watched the sun set over the churchyard across the valley from our garden. However, the dark 'sunspot' of a rook's nest silhouetted against our life giving star reminded me that spring is not far away.