Friday February 21 2020




Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Winter walks

Posted on November 16 2010 at 2:52:17 0 comments

Rooks' nests in December

Mary Green points out the abundance of wintry wildlife in our local area.

At the end of this article I will give details of how you can get a collection of the walks I have described this year, and the poems I have put in The Village.

I love walking around here in winter. There are wild things to look out for even in the darkest times. The show of leaf colour was unexpectedly especially beautiful this year, wasn’t it? I’m writing this in the second week in November, after spending days basking in the beauty of the surrounding trees, especially the native oaks.

The leaves always include those glowing yellow colours, but the chlorophyll in them masks it and makes them green. When the tree closes down for the winter, it withdraws the nutrients, including chlorophyll, from the leaves, and the yellows and oranges are revealed.

When you read this, though, most trees will be bare and make their beautiful shapes clear. If you look at them closely, you’ll see they have their leaf-buds for next year already. You can learn to recognise the blunt black buds of ash, the long pointed brown buds of beech, and the short simple brown oak buds.

Some trees will even have flowers coming in the form of young catkins. The alders down by the canal and river do, and the hazel catkins gradually start lengthening with the new year. Silver birch looks beautiful in its stark white bark, and the catkins will soon come on them too.

It’s surprising how many plants had a new show of leaves during the autumn. I especially noticed dandelion, sorrel, bistort, garlic mustard, goosegrass and cow-parsley, all edible again after their too-tough summer growth. These are particularly good on verges which have been mowed but not too much, and may survive into December. Some flowers that are over, like teasel, hogweed and angelica, have beautiful dried flower-heads, just asking to be used in a Christmas display!

The plants that continue to flower all winter are often white. The white dead-nettle survives all but the coldest spell. Hogweed usually keeps going, often throwing up new shoots (edible) and flowers. Yarrow is a very tough plant and I saw it quite late in the year in the churchyard in Alvechurch.

But probably the best thing at this time of year is the berries. I can’t be the only person who has looked at laden holly bushes glowing over the last few weeks, knowing that by the time I want to pick them for Christmas the birds will have had most of them! The darker red hawthorn berries may last a bit longer, but are soon stripped by the hungry flocks.

Ivy is the longest lasting, black and very late ripening. We bring all of these into our houses to celebrate Christmas and the rebirth of the year, along with evergreens like pine, holly and yew. It’s a very ancient part of our closeness to the rest of nature.

You will, of course, see birds through the winter. The song birds have mostly stopped, but the very territorial robins keep singing and are the main ones you will hear. The great tit will soon start its two-tone call which gets very common through January. You will hear and see rooks nice and clearly in the bare trees. Buzzards will wheel overhead on all the surrounding small hills, mewing almost like gulls, and pheasants call from the fields raucously.

You will see and hear wood-pigeons and collared doves stripping the berries: remember the woodpigeon is the greyer one with the five-note coo and the collared dove the buff-coloured one with the three-note coo and the wheeze! Along with them you will see, but probably not hear, thrushes, redwings and possibly fieldfares taking the berries.

Magpies clear up old fruit too, and they chatter loudly and are recognised – and often unfairly disliked – by everyone. And of course the canal will throng with our friendly water-birds, especially in a cold spell – swans, mallards, Canada geese, moorhen and black-headed gulls.

Very soon after Christmas you will begin to see the first flowers of spring. The first really new ones are snowdrops – white again – which often come in January. Also very early, if the winter is mild, are coltsfoot and celandine, the first yellow ones. The mysterious dog’s mercury, a tough green plant, grows wherever there are old remnants of woodland. Soon afterwards, the first tree to blossom is the fine white cherry plum in February. 

My walks this month are again around Hopwood. The first starts there, or can be done from Alvechurch if you walk along the canal as described last issue. Join the road, or start, at Hopwood House Inn. Turn right along the road towards Alvechurch. As you pass the roundabout which leads off to the motorway, you may notice the bird-cherry trees in spring, with their sprays of white sweet-smelling flowers. You will definitely notice the traffic noise!

After the roundabout, a short way down towards Alvechurch, take the road on the left, Jay’s Crescent, which leads to Pestilence Lane and Old Birmingham Road. For a good wildlife route back to Alvechurch, turn right down Old Birmingham Road. The grass verge along the left side of this road has some interesting plants in it in the spring.

As well as wild garlic, bluebells and some naturalised daffodils, it has a more unusual form of garlic. This is the few-flowered garlic, which has narrower leaves and, as the name suggests, heads of one or two white flowers with noticeable papery cauls. It is just as edible as the common wild garlic or ramsons. The garlic/leek/onion family is the only one among the bulbs that is edible, and due to the smell it is easily recognisable!

When you have passed The Leys on your left, you will find a metal stile. The grid reference for this is SP 027737. The footpath leads past a small, pretty pool and then along the river Arrow. The pond has bulrushes (also called reedmace) and often mallards and other water birds.

Alongside it and the river Arrow is a strange spring flower called butterbur. This is a large pink multi-headed flower, which is followed by huge leaves like a kind of hairy rhubarb. The footpath becomes very muddy on this stretch except in very dry weather: I think there is a spring here. There are sometimes lovely blackberries here in August and September, depending on whether the bushes have been cut back or not.

Continue on the footpath under the motorway, which is fringed by attractive trees. Some are amelanchier, a non-native but commonly planted little tree (it’s American) with lovely starry white blossom in spring, red berries and dramatic red leaves in autumn. Just past the motorway is an excellent wilding apple tree which has lovely pink blossom in spring.

There are two ways you can go from here. If you turn right and follow the footpath near the motorway embankment, it takes you on a nice field path across to the corner of Birmingham Road and Old Rectory Road in Alvechurch. Alternatively, a path continues straight ahead along the side of the field near the river. Here in spring you will see wild garlic and wood sorrel. In summer there are some old meadow flowers such as knapweed, and of course buttercups.

At the end of the field is a path off to the right, another option to cross fields and join the first field-path. The main path enters a little bit of woodland, via a stile, still following the Arrow to a corner of Rectory Lane near Old Rectory Cottage gardens. This is a lovely lane in spring, with bluebells on your side and wild garlic on the other side of the river.

You can turn right and walk down Old Rectory Lane back to Birmingham Road and Alvechurch. Look out for blackthorn blossom here is spring and sloes in autumn. Or, you can turn left along Old Rectory Lane.  This stretch has some of the earliest cherry-plum blossom in February or early March – sparse white blossoms on slim tall trees.

When you meet a left hand bend, take the footpath to the right across fields to reach The Meadows (the Alvechurch park). The crop that has been in these fields in recent years fascinates people. It is elephant grass, usually grown for bio-fuel or bio-mass.

When you leave The Meadows by Meadow Lane into Alvechurch, notice the flowers growing along the lane. In spring there is a lot of greater celandine. This is a large plant with small pale yellow flowers, nothing like the lesser celandine, and is in the poppy family. You find it in and around old cottage gardens, where it was grown for its medicinal properties.

People try to root it out and “tidy up”, but fortunately it comes back. Like poppies, it has a milky juice, and this was thought to cure warts. It was also thought of as an eye medicine, though it would be extremely harmful to the eye, so don’t try it!

It is associated with Saint Frideswide, the patron saint of blind people, and grows especially plentifully in Oxford around where she lived and had a shrine. The name “celandine” is taken from the name for swallow, and there was a legend that swallows used it to improve their eyesight on their journeys.

Having arrived in Alvechurch, you may have finished your walk. If you started at Hopwood, I suggest returning via the canal. You can cut up a footpath almost opposite Old Rectory Lane which leads up through housing to the dead arm, or you can walk out on Birmingham Road to the first roundabout and go up Aqueduct Lane to the canal.

Another series of walks takes you near the Hopwood Service Station. (Incidentally, the service station itself is interesting. It has a wildlife area with good native shrubs, and willow and reed ponds which absorb any oil-spills and keep the environment clean.) I do this walk from Alvechurch. I follow in reverse the route given above via Old Rectory Lane to Old Birmingham Road and Pestilence Lane.

Turn right (east) along Pestilence Lane and walk to the end of the road, then continue through the stile or gate on to a green lane which is the continuation of it. Keep following this and it will bring you out to the road on the north-west corner of the motorway roundabout. Pestilence Lane, of course, is where there is thought to be a grave of plague victims. During the building of the M42, the motorway route was changed because it was feared the original route might disturb the graves.

The lane is cut in two by the motorway and its roundabout, but remains as a footpath. It is a lovely old lane which has superb blackthorn and hawthorn blossom, and off the road section has bluebells and wild garlic in places. Sometimes there are some rather lively horses on the green lane stretch!

You need to take the road round the west side of the roundabout, then on the south-west side is another stile leading you into fields back to Alvechurch. If you want a longer walk, you can walk round to the south-east side of the roundabout, where there is yet another stile. This one takes you on to a path which is the continuation of Pestilence Lane down to Radford Road.

Unfortunately this part of Pestilence Lane is not open to the public, but there is a parallel footpath through fields a short distance away. I found this path quite hard to follow. However, it is good old pasture with some interesting flowers in summer. The area around old Pestilence Lane is very horsey on this side too! This path allows you to connect via Radford Road to Rowney Green, so could form another round-trip from Rowney or Alvechurch.

However, the path straight back to Alvechurch from the south-west side of the motorway roundabout is easy to follow and pleasant. The hedges which you follow are attractive, with blackthorn and hawthorn blossom aplenty. It comes out on Old Rectory Road, which you follow briefly to the right till you meet the route off left through to The Meadows described above, which makes a nice end to the walk.

Of course, all these walks round Hopwood suffer from motorway noise, but in terms of wildlife the motorway probably doesn’t have an adverse effect. In fact, it has made some of the old roads into footpaths, and created some new wild habitats. There is a variety of types of ground on these walks: some easy paths and some muddy or tussocky, and one or two difficult stiles. Though accessible and suitable for a winter walk, both of these walks are especially beautiful in spring.

I will be collecting together all the walks I have described this year, and they will be available free as a simple document without the pictures and seasonal elements of the articles. If anyone would like a copy as a Christmas present, you can email The Village and they will forward it to me. I will email a copy back to you. Then you can take them with you on your walks without getting The Village wet! I am also putting together a collection of the poems that I have put in The Village over the last three years. You can have those too, in the same way.

I would like to thank everyone who has contacted me or stopped and talked to me this year, and the groups who have invited me to talk to them or take them on walks. It’s lovely to know so many people take an interest in wildlife. Next year I will have one or two more local walks, but also some articles on special aspects of local wildlife. Happy Christmas!

Winter Poem

We need the darkness so we can see stars
The cold, to open doors to a warm room.
The beautiful bare twigs of oaks have buds
Already, soggy leaves snuggling their roots.
My neighbour’s Tamworths are ready for slaughter
Crackling for Sunday roasts on foggy days
Sloe gin is working hard for Christmas.

It is time to look inside. Sit for longer,
Lie in bed with warm feet thinking gently
About life and death and buttered toast.
The bonfire starts it, last year’s follies gone
Sailing away in paper lanterns, fireworks
Singing, the littlest girls crying at them.
Now we move towards the rebirth, little
Leaves already poking up, Christmas roses
Under the last roses and fat rosehips.
Stop here and feel the turning earth.

But all the feasts look outward. Soul cakes
Made for the dead but given to ragged children,
Sharing soup and parkin round the bonfire,
Coming home for Thanksgiving,
Hanukkah or Christmas or Hogmanay,
Santa down the chimney with his gifts
Good old Wenceslas, still looking out
For us, as we wassail for figgy pudding,
First footing bringing food and fire,
The shepherds and the magi, offering.

We bring the winter in, holly, ivy, cones
We take our fire out to warm cold bones.

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