Monday August 03 2020




Village Nature Diary with Mary Green


Posted on October 31 2016 at 2:15:07 0 comments

Autumn walk

Mary Green describes the wildlife of our roads, canals and footpaths.

It is shaping up to be a beautiful autumn. The early months were warm and often sunny, and there was a fine fruit crop after a relatively easy corn harvest. It was one of those years when you couldn’t give away apples.

My house reminds me of the refrain in the old apple Wassail song: “Hatfuls, capfuls, three-bushel-bagfuls, little heaps under the stairs.”

One sign of autumn is that the beautiful barnacle goose has returned to join our Canada geese on the canal. It has done this for many years and I still don’t know where from – it shouldn’t be in the Midlands!

The turning of the leaves is late – almost everything is still green as I write this in October – but they have stored up lots of lovely colour in their leaves during the warm weather. The red and yellow colours are in the leaves all the time.

During the growing season they are masked by the green of chlorophyll. In the autumn, when it has produced its seeds, the tree takes back the nutrients from the leaves and the true colours appear.

Then it lets them drop, and they rot down into the soil to produce more nutrients for next year. Leaf mould is an important part of the cycle of life. As with so many things, human beings try to thwart this by sweeping the leaves up or, even worse, blowing them, thus wasting energy as well.

I made a mistake in one of the photos in the September issue. The “hop” photograph was in fact a garden creeper in disguise – I do get taken in by garden escapes sometimes. There are hops growing in the hedges round here, but that wasn’t one of them!

I’ve spent a lot of this year walking along our local canals looking at the wildlife there, especially at the flowering and fruiting plants that provide the foundation for other wildlife. Many of these are the same flowers that grow by all waysides – along our roads and footpaths. Wayside is a lovely old word.

I wrote last month about how human activity provided good habitats for some plants. Pathways and roads are some of these. Even in areas of intensive farming, it is possible for these to provide some continuity of flowering plants.

Unfortunately this doesn’t often happen, as in these areas people are most likely to flail hedges, use weedkiller, and mow the sides of paths and roads.

Many of our local councils throw away the opportunity to keep wildlife thriving by mowing roadside verges during the flowering season, and cutting hedges at the wrong time of year.

There are several different groups of wayside plants. One group is the hedgerow shrubs and trees, and the plants that grow below them. Another group grow in the open sunlight along verges, or beside field paths and towpaths.

Some plants can survive mowing as long as it is not too frequent, and they grow close by the paths or roads. Finally, some like to have their roots in water, so they grow beside canals and rivers and in wet ditches along roads.

The hedgerow shrubs and trees provide the basis of our wildlife corridors, so long as they are not cut back till after they have flowered and fruited. There is a continuous flowering from cherry-plum in March, through blackthorn, ash and wild cherry in April, hawthorn, oak, sycamore and holly in May, to elder in June, and many others.

They also carry really important climbing plants. These can break through the canopy so can continue to flower throughout the summer. The best known are wild rose, field rose and honeysuckle, fragrant to attract insects. There is also wild clematis round here, and bryony.

The most common of course is ivy, a vital plant. It flowers in the autumn, after everything else, providing nectar for late bees and butterflies, including the holly blue. Its berries come late in winter, when the birds have stripped the hawthorn, providing late food.

The bigger trees, especially oaks, carry dozens of species of creatures in their bark, leaves and roots, and we are lucky that they have mostly been preserved along our waysides here, unlike some part of the country where they were cut down in the 1960s and 70s to make bigger fields.

Proper hedge maintenance makes such a difference. At this time of year you can see hawthorn hedges that have been cut back so hard they have no berries, while others have been carefully maintained are full of fruit.

Under the hedges in spring will be woodland plants such as bluebell, wood anemone, archangel, and wood-sorrel. You can see these on the roadsides on Scarfield Hill, footpaths like The Birches, and the canalside.

And of course everywhere in spring will be cow parsley, which seems to grow anywhere we make a road or path. Its leaves for next year have already come back.

The names of some native plants show that they love this habitat. Jack-by-the-hedge or garlic mustard produces edible leaves and little white flowers in early spring.

Hedge woundwort is one of the commonest herbs, useful for staunching wounds. Hedge parsley is like a late summer version of cow parsley, more delicate and slightly pink.

Wood avens, with its small yellow flowers, must be one of the more common hedgerow plants, and like wood-sorrel and wood anemone you can see its woodland origins in its name.

What our wayside hedges do is link up woodlands with a network of long thin mini-woods. Birds and small mammals love these as well as flowers.

Our open verge plants struggle a bit more. Often open stretches get mown right down so all there is left is grass. But in places where only a narrow strip is mown, the rest will thrive.

Dandelions and cowslips come early in spring – don’t knock the dandelion, which is a vital food plant for early butterflies and bees.

There will be all kinds of flowers right through the summer – birds foot trefoil, knapweed, bugle, moon daisies, clover, yarrow, tansy, scabious – really, any plant that likes open grassland.

In places where verges are protected, such as those opposite St Kenelm’s church in Romsley, you may find spotted orchids, bee orchids, dyers greenweed and other rarer plants which would grow along our roads if only mown once a year. These also grow along open stretches by the canal, if allowed to.

In other parts of the country you may find meadow cranesbill and bloody cranesbill with their bold-coloured flowers, fleabane, and sweet cicely. Verges differ as you travel.

Some very successful plants will grow in mown grass so long as it’s mown in moderation. These include daisies, medick, self-heal, buttercups and cat’s ear (that little dandelion-like flower).

One of the best is silverweed, which keeps coming back along the canal where the edge is mowed, and often grows along the edge of footpaths. It is known as the pilgrim’s plant because of this. Its soft silver leaves were used to soothe aching feet by lining shoes with them.

It is edible, and was a plant of last resort during famine. The clear yellow flowers were thought to cheer the pilgrims on their way.

Plants that like wet patches grow along our canals and streams, but also in roadside ditches. The most common and much-loved one is probably meadowsweet. This is a summer flower with creamy-white, frothy blossoms. It has aspirin in it, and is still used herbally as a pain killer and fever cure. It was also used to flavour beer and mead.

If you are lucky you will also find ragged-robin in ditches, but is has become rare round here. You will probably see the yellow flag iris, though, and hemlock water dropwort, both in early summer. The dropwort is like a big fleshy cow parsley, very poisonous.

Later in summer watersides have great willow herb and purple loosestrife.

Many of our paths and roads don’t have proper ditches any more, so it’s good that we get to see these plants along the canal, which is a major footpath round here as well as a boater’s way.

Waysides are not only for birds and insects to forage – humans used to do it too. We picked edible leaves from February onwards: jack-by-the-hedge, dandelion, wild garlic, nettles.

In summer we gathered herbs like meadowsweet, ground-ivy and woundwort, bedstraw and woodruff, and blossoms like elderflower, for scenting our homes, flavouring our drinks, and as medicine.

In the autumn we picked hazel nuts, crab apples, blackberries and elderberries. We also gathered edible woodland fungi like ceps and chanterelles.

I guess we stopped doing this about the time we started polluting our hedges with petrol and diesel fumes. Fortunately there are still some footpaths and towpaths where you could gather a few clean ones.

By November, when the flowers are gone and the birds quiet, it’s perhaps hard to remember how important our paths and roadsides are for wildlife.

But the berries will still be there among the autumn colours of the leaves, feeding the birds that have not migrated. Look out for the beautiful pink spindle berries. There will be some late flowers, and you may see woodland fungi.

Enjoy the waysides.

Here is a poem that I wrote for the autumnal equinox.


It is the time of balance, night and day
Season and season. But today, high blue sky
After rain, and warm sun on the skin
The ground already dry under my feet
My body doesn’t feel like autumn yet
I’m still in summer clothes, no sense of chill.
The trees are heavy in their lushest green
The arboretum man says why wouldn’t they?
The trees have had such a good time this year
That they don’t want to lose their summer yet.
Only the acrid scent of ivy flowers
Reminds me that it really should be autumn
The hawthorn berries are packed thick and red
Bryony necklaces the hedges, and a glimpse
Of red appears upon the guelder-rose
So I suppose the signs are here to see.
When does the way ahead point to the cold?
How do we know when the last swallow’s gone?
When was the moment my blond hair went white?

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