Nature 2005 October

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

What is it about the month of August? Far from being the height of summer it seems to be the month when rain also falls freely. Last year August was rain-soaked month, the wettest for the whole year, when over 6 inches fell. This time it provided a more modest but still surprising 2.5 inches of rain. September started with balmy days and warm nights but by mid-month the mood changed with heavy bursts of rain fall. Despite this we still managed enough dry and sunny days in both months to ensure victory over the Aussies and so for reasons not entirely unconnected to the weather it will go done in our memories as a glorious summer! Looking ahead to October and November we can expect more unsettled weather than usual for the time of year, with bursts of heavy rain and strong winds at times. Despite this temperatures will be upon averages for this time of year. Our well finally ran dry in September indicating the water table has fallen below 120ft. As I mentioned last time this confirms with the wind we expect this month and next some casualties can be expected amongst the trees in the area which are already under some stress. Better check that your insurance cover is up to date!

I think its fair to say that on balance most people don’t have a particular affection for our native invertebrate animals such as insects, spiders, centipedes, woodlice, worms, slugs and the like. The term ‘creepy-crawlies’ which I grew up reinforces this general distaste. Not that I am in favour of the modern equivalent of ‘mini-beast’ which does nothing to reassure the squeamish. So borrowing from the film world, I suggest ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ which might at least generate a cult following. For me as a youngster discovering a hitherto unknown (to me) bug or the like had the effect of stimulating insatiable curiosity whilst at the same time it drove my mother up the wall when my latest prize find escaped from the jar or matchbox to be discovered exploring the living room ceiling or carpet or settee! It’s not surprising why for most of us humans the reaction on sighting one of these creatures is only marginally less disturbing than finding yourself in close proximity to a politician or perhaps renegade from Big Brother. Unfortunately for the creepy crawly their appearance more often can be remedied by the rolled-up newspaper or purposely placed shoe. (Shame I hear you say that my other examples cannot be dispatched in similar fashion).

Whilst television documentaries by David Attenborough have helped improve the appreciation and wonder of the life and times of such wildlife its fair to say that but for one or two exceptions, few have broken through to achieve celebrity status. I suspect even for insects welcomed into our gardens under the heading of ‘beneficial’ such as ladybirds and butterflies their larva which are a slimy looking maggot or ravenous caterpillar respectively are more than often mistaken for just another pest and receive summary execution. So starting with this Autumn report I will be including a reference to an invertebrate which I think should be viewed in a different light. Its my attempt at a Max Clifford style image makeover and hopefully a few of the younger and not so younger generation reading HTN might develop an interest in this mistakenly denigrated and underrated group of animals. Clint Eastwood may have been ‘The Good’ but he was also to me at least always ‘The Ugly’.

My choice deserving a second look is the Harvestman which can still be found this time of the year in hedgerows. Its more likely thought that you have found one in your kitchen or bathroom or lurking under the windowsill. They’re long-living with a lifespan of up to 9 months. One of their alternative names, ‘bunspider’ most accurately describes their appearance as although they are related to spiders they have a distinctive sphere-shaped body suspended on long spindly legs which could have provided the inspiration for the Martian invaders in HG Well’s ‘War of the Worlds’. Their lifestyle is very different from spiders too. I guess you would say that they like to ‘live on the edge’ compared to the cautious spider, with a eclectic diet to match, including a particular craving for bird droppings (yummy!). When attacked, they think nothing of shedding a leg or two to escape. Even when detached from the body the leg continues to jump and flick about. This distracts the predator while the harvestman makes its escape. They are able to shed up to four legs in this way, (presumably evenly distributed) and they need to retain at least one of their sensory legs to survive, presumably so they can sniff out their next meal casually left by a generous bird!

Talking of birds, October and early November will provide the last chance for birds to stock up on their fatty food reserves for the long hard winter. As hedgerows and trees shed their leaves they once again appear more abundant, having hidden during the summer whilst they complete the moult and development of winter plumage. Look out for mixed flocks of small birds feasting on the fruits and berries. Compared to last year when there was a bountiful supply of such food the hedgerows are not so heavily laden which means birds such as goldfinches, blackbirds as well as winter visitors such as redwings will chance a foray into our gardens. Providing a varied mixture of seeds ( including those left after shrubs and plants have flowered), nuts and fruit such as overripe apples, will ensure you encourage a bit of autumn colour into the ‘backyard’. A chance conversation with two other local birdwatchers the other week confirmed I may not have been mistaken in seeing some waxwings last winter. These are infrequent visitors from the sub-artic region on Finland and in some years, known as ‘waxwing winters’, can arrive in large numbers. They have a penchant for rowan and hawthorn berries, both common around here so look out for their fawn/rust coloured plumage with a crest, red wing tips and tail tipped with bright yellow like a paint brush. NB not to be mistaken for Jays common all year round residents, which are similar in size but have pink and blue plumage.

Bracken tends not to get to good press these days -in cowboy film shorthand, aka ‘The Bad’. Although appreciated for adding to Autumn colour which is at its best in November, turning yellow and then brown after the first frosts have got to it. As I said it has a bad reputation and I hear frequently about the ongoing battle by those who look after the Commons to contain the spread of bracken which if left to its own devices would stifle and drive out less dominant heathland flora which is a rarity in the Chilterns. These days it is viewed more as villain than hero. But deserves it place as part of the local ecology of the Commons given the economic importance it once had for local people. Until the early part of the 20th century it was a highly valuable commodity in these parts and would have been protected by those with commoners who held rights enabling it to be cut and sold on. Why? Well because it was the bubble-rap of its time. Essential as a packaging material in ensuring fruit, which in these parts would have included apples and cherries, could be transported to market undamaged. Used as a manure, bedding for animals, covering potato beds or stuffed up the chimney and set alight to clear it of soot! We may have to resort to this ourselves given the difficulty in getting the chimney sweep to do our chimney this year!

As the Christmas cards will be in Woolworth’s this month I think it appropriate to mention a couple of ideas for children’s books. First for younger children, ‘Where Does The Rubbish Go’ published by Usborne Books and for older children, ‘Changing Climate’ published by Earthwatch. A couple of books for the slightly more grown up in December.