Nature 2009 October

A thousand shades of ochre, silver, emerald, smoky brass

Sometimes, when I get stuck for a few words to start these Notes I turn to one of the various emails and articles that come my way, to gain some inspiration, or see what is topical at that moment. So this being one of those times, my attention was grabbed by one email, in particular, which seemed to be a good place to start this month. Spiders! Now the first thing the article said was that when spiders are mentioned you lose half your readers. So, to the 50% of you who are still reading, thanks for staying at least this far. Apparently, one thing you may have in common with fellow readers at this stage is a preference for reading less about ‘the fluffy or cute members of the animal kingdom, bunnies and dolphins’, preferring ‘nature in the raw’.

Anyway, back to the spiders, and in particular the house occupying ones which will have started to make their presence known scurrying along the skirting or emerging cautiously from the fireplace. About now, and like clockwork, London Zoo starts getting calls each year from troubled house-owners who are desperate for advice to rid themselves of extremely hairy, long-legged arachnids which, thanks to David Attenborough or the late Steve Irwin documentaries, they readily, but mistakenly, identify as the deadly tunnel spider: no doubt imported on some exotic Australasian fruit.

It’s not just the hairiness which is exaggerated, the going rate for size is around four inches long! It may feel like some kind of invasion, but this generation of house spiders will have been unseen, uninvited houseguests since they hatched out at the start of the year. They remain discretely out of sight until their last moult is done and, now they are ready to find a mate, are at their most active. Such is their delight in living alongside you, if you manage to corral them into a tumbler and drop them out through the window they have a strong homing instinct and will find their way back in very quickly. On the upside, house spiders are efficient pest controllers ravenously devouring flies, mites and other small insects, equally though they can survive a famine for several months between meals.

As I write this, swallows are tumbling high above frantically feeding on the wing, making the most of the bloom of energy-rich invertebrates and storing up the food reserves for the journey to southern Africa. The aerobatic spectacle is the result of the annual explosion of flying insects and those microscopic cousins of the aforementioned spiders who, despite not having wings, spin silk strands on which they ride the air currents. Periodically, and in ever more increasing numbers, the birds rest up in ordered lines along any convenient wires, conversing loudly. Before electricity and telegraphs what did they use instead? On past years’ evidence, by October they will be on their way. However, more and more sightings of these birds have been reported in southern England during November and even December suggesting a small, but increasing number do not make the marathon 6000 mile journey. This change in habit results from a milder autumn period, which in turn is extending the period during which a larger than previous supply of winged insects is available. It is doubtful though that those which remain behind survive through the winter, but in time we may find our swallows become winter companions.

On the path leading to St Laurence’s Church I came across a newly established patch of liverworts where the holly had been cut back. In the wild they must be one of the most overlooked groups of plants, while in our gardens they are frequently the subject of complete annihilation. In past times these very primitive organisms would have been collected, dried and used, as their name suggests, as a cure for a range of diseases attributed to the liver. This is because the simple, flat emerald green ‘thallus’, which comprises the whole plant, is liver-shaped. The Chilterns may not be one of their prime habitats but they are still prolific and enjoy any damp, dappled shaded woodland edge or perhaps a newly created clearing where a tree may have fallen. Their success lies in being able to invade quickly virgin territory, creating an overlapping, scaly green carpet across the unoccupied bark, which then develops its own moist microclimate: the perfect habitat for centipedes, beetles and mites. I know greenkeepers and nurserymen consider them a nuisance and will eradicate them, but in your garden they will provide an important part of your local ecosystem, a source of invertebrates for small mammals and birds, like wrens, goldcrests and treecreepers.

I always enjoy exploring the interconnections between natural and local history. Once such example links our autumn hedgerows with the Second World War, which started sixty years ago last September. At the outbreak of war, there were food shortages. The impact of rationing on diets and the Nation’s health resulted in cases of rickets and scurvy. A campaign initiated right here in Buckland Common by Claire Loewenfeld, a nutritionist, to promote the collection and processing of hedgerow fruits into syrups and preserves to supplement the diets of children with Vitamin C was enthusiastically taken up by the Government of the day, who distributed instructions and recipes to hospitals and schools. Top of the list of beneficial fruit were rosehips, which had the highest concentration of Vitamin C. I am sure many can recall, both during and after the War, children being given the bright red sweet rosehip syrup on rice pudding or semolina. Claire also encouraged the use of other hedgerow fruit including blackberries, elderberries and crab apples. While our diets may not need supplementing in such a vital way we can still enjoy the tastes of the hedges, as well as their autumn colours. Others waiting to enjoy the low hanging fruit will be badgers and this year’s new foxes set free from the security of the vixen, while redwings and thrushes, incoming from the north, will gorge on haws and sloes.

I conclude with a few words from a poem written some 170 years ago, which could describe our autumn scene.

“Leaves of all textures that a leaf
could be: palm, fluff, prickle, matte and plume;
bobbled; shaggy plush. A thousand shades
of ochre, silver, emerald, smoky brass…”

They appear in a new book, “Darwin: A Life in Poems”, written by the naturalist, both aboard the Beagle and later. This new book coincides with the 150 anniversary, in November this year, of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, and might make a worthy Christmas present for someone interested in natural history and poetry.