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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Village edge

Posted on February 29 2016 at 3:30:14 0 comments

Birches Lane

Mary Green explores the interesting wildlife of Birches Lane.

Occasional cold spells have put a hold on the early growth and flower, but it all seems to be coming back. The cherry plum has kept on flowering, and there is new dog’s mercury, along with celandines and primroses.

I saw a hawthorn hedge in leaf in January – usually a late February thing – and was amazed to find blackthorn flowering in January too.

On the towpath hedge here, which has been slashed back by the Canal and Rivers Trust, a holly bush is bravely bursting into flower. It seems to think May has arrived.

The chaffinches started their full song at the end of January. This traditionally happens on St Valentine’s Day, so they are a couple of weeks early too!

A national survey found more than 600 species flowering at the start of January – including plants like hawthorn and archangel which don’t usually flower till May.

Candlemas Day (February 2) was cold, sunny and bright, which traditionally means winter will have another go. It’s so difficult to predict what March will work out like!

A female mandarin duck has definitely been spotted here, though I haven’t managed to photograph it yet. It has the same funny shape as the drake, but predominantly brown colours. So we have a family!

Meanwhile it seems the male swan (the cob) has disappeared, leaving only the pen (female) with the remaining cygnets. I hope he comes back. 

This month I am moving on from named nature reserves and special sites to apparently ordinary areas where you might see interesting wildlife.

I am starting with Birches Lane, which rises from the hamlet of Withybed Green to meet Cooper’s Hill leading out of Alvechurch. It begins as a road, and then after the scattered houses stop it becomes a bridleway.

This part of it is called “The Birches” or sometimes “The Fordrough.” This is a name given to many lanes round here, and means a by-way through private land, from a farm or settlement, leading to a public road.

It is worth the walk at any time of year, but is particularly lovely in spring.

The first part, a very minor road, dips down to a brook and rises again towards woodland. The brook comes down through a spinney from the fields above Withybed to the left.

You can see that a lot of work has been done on the stream here, to lessen the flooding in heavy rain. This has created a pleasant pond, which has some interesting plants – wild ones such as spearwort and garden ones such as gunnera.

This mixture of wild and cultivated pervades Birches Lane and is typical of old village settlements. Some of the houses here are quite old, and have interesting gardens.

Right from the start you notice fruit trees in the hedges, damson and plum, typical of this hamlet. The plums are a very particular kind of yellow egg plum, not quite the same as the more common Pershore plum.

Damsons are abundant here but unfortunately we seem to lose some every year. In March there will be blossom from both.

The hedge, being an old one, also has interesting flowers. It has a good crop in spring of edible plants: garlic mustard, ground elder, nettle, golden saxifrage, dandelion and cow parsley.

Near the stream is a big plant of comfrey, a herb which was used for medicinal purposes including treating bruises, aches and pains. It is also a good fertiliser for other plants, and often used to make a liquid manure.

The chemicals in the plant are so powerful that it has to be used with care, but it was a key component of herb gardens in the past.

Past the stream, the road has a steep bank on the right, which has lovely barren-strawberry flowers among primroses in spring, followed by yellow archangel and bluebells. Later in the year this bank had greater bellflowers, a lovely tall spike of blue.

This is native, but not round here, so must be a garden escape. On the left there is a wonderful Green Man carved out of a tree stump, and you can see across to beautiful old oaks on both sides of the path. On the right the fields usually have traditional species of cattle, longhorns and Herefords.

When you pass through the gate at the end of the tarmac road, you enter an ancient track which has preserved a piece of old woodland.

The trees are very varied, including the birches which give its name but also, in a short space, ash, oak, field maple, sycamore, beech, wild service, cherry, crab-apple, blackthorn, cherry-plum, hawthorn, horse chestnut and some non-native pine trees.

This diversity is a good sign of old undisturbed woodland hedging, and of a healthy environment.

One of these trees, the wild service, is becoming rare in England, though there are several round here.

It has lovely creamy-white blossom in spring and small brown fruits, becoming edible once they have softened in the autumn. Country children used to eat them as sweets, called “chequers.”

The left side of the path has a very old metal fence: in some places the trees have grown round and absorbed it.

Among the flowers you can see at the side of the path are primroses (flowering in January this year!), violets, and bluebells. Many of the trees have blossom, of course, making it such a spring glory.

You can also find two less common woodland flowers. There are several patches of wood anemones – and I’m glad to say they seem to be spreading each year – and one patch of the lovely sweet woodruff.

This is one of the scented plants that used to be used as a “strewing herb.” Plants were dried and strewn on the floor to scent the room and to help keep it clean. Woodruff is especially suitable as it smells stronger when dried than when fresh.

Near the beginning of the track are two patches of wild garlic. This is another typical old woodland plant.

The leaves come through from February or March and it flowers in April or May. The leaves are delicious and the flowers are edible too – lovely to decorate a salad.

There are also very good ferns, including the elegant hart’s tongue fern, which in a mild winter are green all year round.

However, because it is so close to gardens, the lane also has some plants which might be garden escapes, and some which definitely are. At the bottom are a fine stinking hellebore, flowering in January, and a spurge laurel: both of these are unlikely to be native here but are quite happy.

There is a bed of epimedium, with striking heart-shaped leaves and yellow spring flowers, which is definitely an introduction, but the sort of thing that grows almost wild on country estates.

And, I’m afraid, there is lots of the variegated-leaved yellow deadnettle which is very invasive in woodland near gardens. It looks a bit like the native yellow archangel, but bigger and bolder with silver-striped leaves.

It is actually a very attractive plant, but a nuisance because it tends to take over.

Later in the year the lane continues to flower, with masses of campion and cowparsley, hogweed and forget-me-nots, and some huge burdocks. The bridleway part of the lane is well-managed, the vegetation being cut once a year after flowering.

Towards the top of the lane are some more wild and almost-wild plants. There is a beautiful everlasting pea, a fuschia, some tall teasels, and lots of purple toadflax.

In spring there are purple honesty flowers, with their lovely silver pods in autumn. Periwinkle creeps over the hedge, together with some coloured primroses.

All of this is to me the essence of village-edge growth; mostly wild but shot through with some other plants that feel at home and spread among the natives.

As you walk up the track, you will see that there is a wood on your right. You can peek into it at the beginning but it isn’t open to the public.

This is Withybed Wood, planted about 25 years ago by local residents. It has grown up while I’ve been living here, and is now a proper wood in its own right.

It’s especially good to know that many of the native trees were taken from suckers or seedlings from local spinneys, so it has several wild service trees and some golden plums as well as the expected ash, oak, birch and cherry.

There are some less common things, like a walnut and a holm oak and a Monterey pine, among the English natives too.

If you look to the left towards the top of the bridleway you will see marks of ancient farming on the old pasture land, the “ridge and furrow” patterns which show that the field hasn’t been over-cultivated in the years since.

There are also some good old and new ponds, host to wildlife like newts.

As you would expect, all the plant diversity leads to The Birches being a good home for animal life.

The birdsong is strong here, from the great-tits in January through chaffinches in February, chiff-chaffs in March and all the blackbirds, thrushes and greenfinches from then on. I have seen pheasants here too.

There are squirrels in the trees, and as I described last year, deer walk through the lane often. Withybed Wood has badgers, which again walk through here, and hedgehogs have been found in gardens.

The blossom and wildflowers mean that there are plenty of insects: bees, hoverflies, and butterflies among others, as this is an excellent pollination corridor.

About nine years ago some new birch trees were planted both in the field to the left and in the lane itself. It was a dry spring and not all of them survived, especially with the deer around.

But some are still alive and may replace the birch trees that used to be here. There are still a few older birches, but they aren’t a very long-lived tree and many have gone.

One of the things I like about Birches Lane in the spring is that you come out at the top on to Cooper’s Hill. Opposite you is another good old hedge, which has ash and oak growing very close together.

You can see easily whether the oak or the ash will have their leaves first. Last year they were pretty well together. If it stays mild, the oak will come first this year.

Each month this year I am including a new poem, but of course it will be from the previous month or two!

This one I wrote when the Alvechurch Community Choir were performing at a concert in aid of Syrian refugees.

Moving

The frost tightens its grip, white all day
And the canal frozen except for a stripe
A boat has cut through. Raucous gulls
Slide and call on the ice, and the ducks
Tread comically in their bright colours.
A fat robin poses on the whitened hedge.
Even the dunnock looks bright
Pecking for grains among the towpath stones.
Every bit of sky is blue, and the sun dazzles
Making me want to walk and walk, to breathe
The lovely air, to see and feel and smell.
Overhead the geese skein, a perfect V
Driven to migrate, by something in their blood
But going only to the next field.
It’s hard to think about unhappiness
To bring to mind the stench of fear and loss
The rain seeping into the bones, the bones
Bleached on the beaches, the foolish boats
The cold blue sky that promises nothing.
What drives us on is everywhere the same
Moving for love and life and possibility
Wanting to reach the shore where everything
Will be different, and we can start again.
None of us can stay, we leave our prints
But frost and rain and snow will wipe them out.
We see the winter moon, shining on all
And look together for the red sunrise.


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