the Editor - February 2008
Formidable challenge ahead
Shaun Spiers writes eloquently about preserving and
enhancing the beauty of the countryside (December). Who could disagree?
Quoting from his article: ‘wildflowers, birds, insects and animals
...will have returned ...’ and farmland will still dominate the
countryside’. Are these two statements compatible?
For many years (I am over eighty) I have walked,
at times, in beautiful countryside passing sanitised fields and trimmed
hedgerows (if they have not been dug up) and seen very little of the
wildlife which was there once. In contrast, I have walked through some
of what I suppose the writer means by ‘inhospitable prairie’ and ‘trodden
on by hardly anyone. Inhospitable to whom? Birds, insects, animals?
Or just man? Why may they be there? Because their territories have
been ‘trodden on by hardly anyone’ and there is no sanitised
Walking in Sussex and many visits to the Lakes, Pennines
and Scotland’s Highlands and Islands have convinced me that more
people means less wildlife. I have watched and been watched by much
more wildlife on a hill in Glen Garry, well away from the beaten track,
than I have seen on popular hills like Ben Nevis and Ben Lomond.
Wildlife does not see countryside as we do. I have
walked in ‘empty countryside’, wasteland with buddleia
crowded with butterflies, bramble used by birds particularly in spring.
I have paused by a pool flanked partly by a rubbish tip as a kingfisher
perched on a rusty trolley dived and caught a fish. He or she was not
bothered by the unsightly tip.
The challenge is formidable: how to reconcile beautiful
farmland public access with a mutable environment for wildlife.
Michael Barnard, Lewes, Sussex
For the last thirty-six years the badger has been
blamed for being the main cause of bovine TB breakdowns in cattle herds.
But two events have by serendipity demonstrated that this is simply
wrong. The idea that badgers are the main reservoir of TB has come
about rather oddly because supposedly cattle were NOT the infectious
source of TB for other cattle or badgers. But that idea has arisen
precisely because annual cattle testing has been removing cases before
they reach the active spreader stage, and also, so early that in two
out of every three herds it was not possible to confirm TB (no visible
TB lesions in lungs, and too few bacilli in tissue samples).
The 2001 Foot and Mouth disaster meant no cattle
testing so was a unique one-off ‘experiment’ which allowed
cattle to reach the infectious stage (with confirmed lesions) and hence
new herds doubled and cases rose three- or four-fold. The current cattle
TB crisis is hence via cattle spread. And incidentally, with a doubling
in TB levels in badgers by spillover FROM cows. Badgers are victim
Finally, the June report on the seven-year Krebs
badger culling trial found that out of 11,000 badgers culled, only
1,515 had TB, and nearly half the 51 proactive culls had fifteen or
fewer TB badgers per 100 sq km. So they cannot remotely be seen as
a major cause of anything. Alas, farmers and vets, and indeed also
badger scientists, are still insisting badgers are the problem. A case
of not seeing the wood for the trees, or being blinded by pseudo-science.
Martin Hancox, Stroud, Glos
Wonderful Mother Nature
The letter (December) in which Mr Harris says that
foxgloves grew on felled woodland reminded me of something which has
puzzled me for many years. In 1941 near our farm in Warwickshire an
area of mature oak trees was felled. It was about three and a half
acres, and on sloping ground. Teams of horses pulled the trees to a
central point. Next spring every groove made by the logs was thick
with red poppies and charlock, the flowers only growing on the land
disturbed by the dragged logs. The oak trees must have been there for
hundreds of years. As a young boy I was curious and asked everyone
how the seeds had got there. The only answer I got was ‘they’ve
always been there ...waiting’.
In 1958 I began farming in Shropshire and adjoining
my land was a seventy-acre wood which had been felled in the First
World War and was untouched since. The scrub was all cleared by hand,
ready for replanting. The next year twenty acres was covered with wild
strawberries which had not been there before. They were so thick that
from several hundred yards away they appeared as a red glow as the
Do any readers know how long seeds can remain viable.
Nature has always fascinated me and I find it wonderful what she can
do – given half a chance.
Barry Jasper, Ludlow
My perfumed garden
I have a specimen of the Balsam Poplar, a close relative
of the black poplar (December), in my garden. In spring when its buds
are opening, they are coated with a sticky balsam which exudes a strong
sweet scent. For perhaps two weeks my garden smells like a perfume
factory. My neighbour remarks on it every year. The tree owes its existence
to pure chance. I’m nearly ninety-two but have always been a
horseman. Riding out on a fine spring morning half-a-century ago I
was struck by a lovely scent and traced it to a nearby tree. I broke
off a twig and planted it. Now I have a fine tree thirty to forty feet
Jim Randall, Chesham, Bucks
Editor’s note: Henry Harris,
of Totnes, has drawn our attention to Arbor Day in the village of Aston
on Clun, near Craven Arms in Shropshire. Each June villagers celebrate
the wedding in 1786 of the local squire with a day of pageantry and
fun and by dressing a black poplar tree in flags.
Encounter with odd bod
Elise Dickenson’s remarks on albinism (November)
reminds me of a remarkable example of the contrary melanism that I
encountered more than sixty years ago on the beach promenade at Ayr,
Scotland. A woman was feeding the gulls and one of them was as black
as a crow. Several people suggested it was a crow until it was pointed
out that the crow’s beak and wing structure are totally different
to those of the gulls, and this bird showed its physique was clearly
that of the gulls. I returned to the prom for several days but did
not again see this ‘odd bod’.
Graham Kirkpatrick, Tavistock, Devon
Wherefore art thou...partridge?
I’ve never read such analytical twaddle (December)
regarding the ‘Partridge in a pear-tree’. The song is from
the Elizabethan period and Franco Zefferelli’s superbly-produced
film Romeo and Juliet opens with a scene showing Romeo, holding a sprig
of juniper, going to meet Juliet. In those days it was custom to present
your beloved with juniper.
That long-forgotten custom is clearly explained in
the last line of the song ... ‘and a part of a juniper tree’.
Incidentally, four colley birds should be calling birds.
Graham Walker, Leominster, Hereford
Vitamins at vital time of year
I was rather disappointed by the small number – twenty – of
replies to my ‘Bread and Cheese’ survey, but one very interesting
letter came from Gill Coles in south Wales, who says: “My husband
can remember the men at work (a brickworks) putting in hawthorn buds
and leaves with their bread and cheese when they were having lunch,
probably in the 1950s and 60s.” Her husband adds that his grandfather,
who worked in a granary, also did this, as did some farmworkers.
This backs up my own guess that ‘bread and
cheese’ added vitamins to the early spring diet which must have
been lacking in fresh greens. Some people just ate the buds; others
the fully opened leaves. In south Wales they were sometimes known as ‘bread,
cheese and beer’. A letter from Worcestershire mentioned that
old people used to chew a new shoot of hawthorn to cure toothache.
It’s difficult to draw conclusions but the main areas seemed
to be south Wales and the Midlands.
As for my other query ... ‘Jacks’ was
played in Somerset, Surrey, Yorkshire, Essex and Northamptonshire; ‘Dibs’ in
Hampshire; ‘Five stones’ in Lancashire; and ‘Snobs’ in
Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire.
Pat Jenkins, Alton, Hants
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