A celebration of autumn: part 4 – conclusion

Three years previously I started to write a series of nature posts using the wonderful Ladybird ‘What to look for’ books as inspiration. Other work took over and the project stalled, as things often do. This post marked a temporary return to the series and the last of the Autumn pictures.


My original intent was to reflect on changes in the countryside, to face the losses in the unbearably short time since the books were made. Even since I started writing the circumstances of our lives have worsened. We live in times devoid of leadership, allowing ourselves to be controlled by corporate power and toxic media. In our passivity and delusion, we seem happy to accept the spread of mediocrity and loss of agency. I believe it behoves us all to take back whatever small powers we can, to spread the warning messages far and wide, to say again and again that our blind addiction to wanton consumption is not just unsustainable, but insane.

If you would like to read the earlier Autumn posts, you can find them here:

‘Harvest’: part 1 – naming autumn, a ploughed field, wild harvest, hop pickers, flight of the swallow

‘Fruit’: part 2 – a hayrick, wild berries, hazel coppice, Sydenham Hill Wood

‘Inedible’: part 3 – foxes, fungi, weasels, wild ducks

A digression on shooting pheasants

As I write this in late November, the autumn colours of the English landscape (at their best a week earlier) are disappearing in cold winds. The dynamic mixture of colours reminded me of the dioramas of childhood, where dyed reindeer lichen stood in for trees and shrubs. Now yellow leaves blow along like manic butterflies, the ironic counterpoint of Spring. Frost and ice begin to slow things down – except in city worlds, which know no seasons and barely pause for sleep.

Hearts of Oak

Acorns, wood pigeons, fairy rings
What to look for in Autumn – acorns, wood pigeons, fairy rings

Reflecting on the ridiculous English vs. Spanish bluebell war, Richard Mabey wrote that the Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur) and the Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea) have been regularly hybridising for millennia, yet there is no sign of either original species dying out. There may be specific reasons for this resilience, but the comment serves to highlight the rigidity in some nature conservation.

Importing disaster

Native trees and shrubs support a multitude of species and none more so than the Oak (I wrote a separate piece on the extraordinary ancient oak ‘Majesty’ here). Unfortunately, the dance between host, predator and parasite has been rudely interrupted by ignorant human behaviour. Pollution, agricultural nitrates and the traffic in live plants have created massive problems for trees. The virulent form of Dutch Elm Disease that completely altered the English landscape came from imported Canadian logs (the Elm itself is non-native). The fungus that causes Ash dieback also came from imported trees, probably from Asia. Even oaks are now at risk from Acute Oak Decline and Sudden Oak Death.

Number of insects and lichen supported by various trees
Number of insects and lichen supported by various trees

Opinions vary, but oaks support around 300 insect species and a similar number of lichens. Compare this to the sterility of imported species in the table above. Our towns and cities have been largely populated with alien species. In the country, massive conifer plantations, inimical to local wildlife, have effectively depopulated whole tracts of land. All this change has taken place very quickly in the context of historical deforestation.

Consider first the population of the UK. Very slow historical population growth suddenly leapt after the enclosures and clearances, and the spasm of the Industrial Revolution.

UK population in the last 2,000 years
UK population in the last 2,000 years Source: http://chartsbin.com/view/28k

But afforestation in the UK has been low for centuries. Successive needs, starting with fuel and building, and the expense of imported timber meant that forests in the UK suffered more than those in mainland Europe.

UK deforestation in the last 2,000 years
UK deforestation Source: https://www.forestry.gov.uk/

Overlaying the population chart with a line for the percentage of UK afforestation shows (as far as one can tell without accurate records) that tree cover reached its nadir in the early nineteenth century and has improved considerably since. However, the improvement includes conifer plantations and many other non-native trees planted for economic and aesthetic reasons. Look again at the table to see that the trees originally native to the UK are also the most important for other wildlife. One-third of the rest of Europe is under forest, so the UK is still lagging behind.

Survival of the Commons

I expected to find that the practice of feeding pigs on acorns would have died out in the UK. To my surprise, I discovered that it is alive in the New Forest with the custom known as the Common of Mast. The New Forest Commons are of Pasture, Fuelwood, Mast and – historically – Marl (lime-rich clay) and Turbary (peat turves for fuel). Sustainable Commons, both physical and figurative, will become more important once again, as the economy begun by the Industrial Revolution convulses.

The ‘Fairy Ring’ of myth and folklore can be caused by a number of species, but probably the most usual is Marasmius oreades, the Fairy Ring Champignon.

Marasmius oreades
Marasmius oreades by StrobilomycesOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Grey Death

With the Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), which has effectively displaced the native Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) from the UK, we once more encounter the prejudicial word ‘invasive’, a word always used against species introduced by humans that have gone on to prosper. There are few more hypocritical terms than this one.

If our woods were as diverse as once they were, Pine Martens (Martes martes) would quickly bring the Grey population down, to the benefit of the Reds. But Pine Martens are only present in England in tiny numbers, so the spread of the Grey Squirrel goes unchecked. The smaller size of the Red Squirrel apparently gives it the edge over Greys when it comes to avoiding martens. Evidence of this also comes from the reintroduction of the Pine Marten into the Irish Midlands.

What to look for in Autumn - red squirrel, jay, death cap. beech mast
What to look for in Autumn – red squirrel, jay, death cap. beech mast

The Grey Squirrel also carries parapoxvirus, lethal to Reds. According to the Independent newspaper, parapoxvirus from Greys has all but destroyed a Red population in the Lake District. Grey Squirrels, unlike Reds, strip bark from trees, rendering them vulnerable to fungal attack. Human arrogance is responsible for the spread of the Grey Squirrel, a spread so damaging that the animal is regarded by some as a biological weapon (presumably homo sapiens is the most effective such weapon). The answer lies not with expensive and inefficient culling (or in novelty beer bottle holders) but in increasing diversity. Unfortunately, we are very bad at it. Our monolithic culture pays lip service to diversity while failing to engage with it except in the form of tokenism, or in the conservation of relict populations.

Toxic slip

Tunnicliffe’s illustration of the False Death Cap (Amanita citrina) looks a little stylised. Although this mushroom is edible in small quantities, its similarity to other (highly poisonous) Amanita species renders it unappealing. The excellent nature site http://www.first-nature.com, describing the true Deathcap, writes of “the repulsive smell that, to anyone with a nose, should betray the evil within a mature Deathcap”. Such an interesting slip to describe poison as ‘evil’: it could be put to evil use, but in itself is not.

False Death Cap
False Death Cap by The High Fin Sperm WhaleSelf-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Eels and greed

Of the species mentioned in the next image, only the Long-tailed Tit exists in decent numbers. Water companies have substantially reduced the very habitat depicted. Agricultural run-off has poisoned most of the rest. The Kingfisher is on the decline and is on the UK Amber List for birds. Luckily for the Kingfisher, eels are unlikely to be a part of its diet. The European eel (Anguilla anguilla), once a staple food, is now critically endangered. Eels are victims of not only ‘environmental factors’ (code for human habitat destruction), but a roaring trade in eels smuggled to Asia.

The consequence of this shocking greed is that the number of eels in the UK has dropped by a staggering 95% since the 1970s. Eels, as this article makes very clear, have become the ivory of Europe. The image of the stream full of eels was accurate. Rivers, particularly those emptying into the Atlantic, would turn silver with the numbers of migrating eels. This is a sight that is almost certainly lost forever.

Long-tailed tits, kingfisher, eels
What to look for in Autumn – long-tailed tits, kingfisher, eels

The Sargasso Sea, to which mature silver eels travel to spawn and die, has a high concentration of plastic waste. The huge North Atlantic Garbage Patch is there. As we know now, plastic absorbs pollutants, making it poisonous to anything that eats it.

Bonfire of the vanities

The Tawny Owl is also on the Amber list after declines in population and breeding range. The illustration is prescient. The owl sits aloof, as if in judgment, high above the spectacle of the bonfire. It is a suitable image for our hot ferocious destruction of the world about us.

Tawny owl
What to look for in Autumn – tawny owl

It is also notable that Tunnicliffe has shown the Scots Pine, the only conifer (other than Yew and Juniper) native to the UK.

Meeting Majesty – an encounter with the Fredville Oak

An account of a meeting with an extraordinary ancient tree, the oak called ‘Majesty’.

The day of the Queen’s Speech and the State Opening of Parliament was trenchantly described by Rufus Hound thus:

If ever evidence was needed that ours is an arcane system in servitude to privilege. Ghastly.”


Observing this spectacle of fancy dress and ritual, in which any significance has long been lost, I thought that perhaps I might consider more authentic meanings of the word ‘majesty’, in this case, a remarkable tree near the village of Nonington in Kent that I had visited the previous weekend.

Meeting Majesty - the massive fallen limbs and the empty socket
Meeting Majesty – the massive fallen limbs and the empty socket

Majesty is listed on the monumental trees website as possibly the oldest maiden oak in the country (maiden oaks are trees that have not been pollarded, that is had timber removed for aesthetic or commercial purposes). So for hundreds of years, this extraordinary organism has grown on this spot with no interference to speak of from humankind. Local wisdom has it that Majesty is a thousand years old (though expert analysis has halved that age, as expert analysis is wont to do). There is evidence that the tree, also known as the King Fredville Oak, was already ancient in 1554.

Whatever the truth, Majesty is the oldest tree in an area of other remarkable ancient trees. It grows (I struggle to define gender because Majesty is beyond such a concept, though ‘it’ remains unhappily impersonal) in a hidden grove on private land, but adjacent to Fredville Park, which also boasts a partly derelict avenue of old horse chestnut and beech.

The wooded country

The curious name Fredville is equally ancient and derives either from Old French freide ville (meaning cold manor or village) or a fusion with the Old English frith or frythe. The informative Nonington website claims that in Kentish/Jute dialect frith would have been pronounced “freed”, as the TH ending would have been turned into a D sound, which means wood or wooded country. Scattered across the Fredville landscape (now grazing for sheep and cattle), are these wonderful blasted relics, amongst which are three other aged oaks, ‘Beauty’ (also called Ancient Bear), ‘Stately’ and ‘Staghorn’. These are elders: they have survived droughts, floods, insect infestations and, of course, human agency.

The lost estate

I searched for Majesty with a friend. We walked through the fields admiring the ancient trees but were unable to find Majesty itself. Asking in the local pub we discovered that Majesty was on private land but that the owner would be happy to show us the tree. Retracing our footsteps we walked down a drive marked private. It opened up into stables, with a ruined clock tower. Before long we were joined by a barking Jack Russell terrier.

As a child on holiday, I remembered having to fetch milk from the nearby farm. The farmer’s Jack Russell would harry me all the way up the lane. It would bark, growl and nip painfully at my ankles, and it was only the greater fear of returning without the milk that kept me to my task. Because of this, I was apprehensive, and it stopped me from asking questions of the elderly man who next appeared. Research suggests that this gentleman was John Plumtree, the descendant of a line of local landowners called Plumtree, or Plumptre. They were also all called John and they owned the villa that was demolished after a fire in 1945, leaving the stables, the clock tower and other buildings as the present home.

The surviving clock tower of the Fredville Estate
The surviving clock tower of the Fredville Estate

Archie Miles’ book The British Oak has this record from a party visiting in 1793:

Called on John Plumtree, Esq. of Fredville, who very politely shews us his famous oak, called Majesty – measured this tree; 4 feet from the ground the circumference is 31 feet; it is supposed to contain 36 to 42 tons of timber. Two branches separated from this tree about four years ago, in a calm day, which contained three tons of timber.

222 years after this visit from the correspondents of the Annals of Agriculture and Other Useful Arts we were also met by John Plumtree Esq. who showed us the tree with equal politeness, despite having to do so, he told us, many times every day. He continued to lead us down a path; the Jack Russell had stopped barking and was first leaping at my leg excitedly and then trotting beside us calmly, reassured of our intent. We passed a Giant Sequoia wreathed in ivy, but Mr Plumtree stopped before we entered the glade, told us that the tree was just ahead, and turned back the way he came.

Meeting Majesty

Walking into the sunlight revealed Majesty in all its broken glory.

Our first view of Majesty
Our first view of Majesty

All the primary limbs have now fallen, revealing themselves (and the tree itself) to be completely hollow, but the secondary limbs were still vigorous and covered in the fresh young growth of May. Little can prepare one for the feeling that accompanies such a visit. Although we took photos, examined the branches, trunk and bark, and generally behaved as people do when visiting a tree, my felt sense was of great calm. At one point I posed for a photo sitting on part of the lower trunk but I sat down with a sense of discomfort that only now I recognise as connected to a slight violation of the sacred.

There was grandeur here, but not grandiosity. Growth and decay carried together, rather than split off as they are in our culture. ‘Majesty’ is a psychological quality, unsurprisingly, of balanced Earth: a way of being that many aspire to but few can ever hope to attain with any consistency: yet we all possess it, if only we were ready to find it. Trees such as this are exemplary: they show us the way into our own majesty.

After spending time with this venerable tree I thought some more about the symbolic qualities of the encounter, about the nature of the introduction and the qualities of the oak. First, there was the search for the tree, walking up and down and almost giving up. Then the correction and the move into private property, the sense of transgression.

The old man and the dog

The first meeting is with an animal, a dog. The dog/human bond is one of our very earliest connections, and in mythologies across the world the dog is a guide between the worlds of life and death. It can be the ‘black dog’ of depression, it can hunt and devour us, or be our loving lifelong friend and companion. This particular dog pulled me back to an uncomfortable past, it first threatened, then welcomed, then ignored me completely. Dogs are sometimes used in psychotherapy (Marie-Louise von Franz had an analytic dog) to dig in, whine, greet, and sniff out the unspoken shit. In my meeting with the Jack Russell, I was forced to dig up old bones from the past. The dog, as James Hillman put it, carries its ancestors.

Accompanying the dog was the old man, the senex, slow in movement and speech. He is an archetypal figure, a guardian both literally and figuratively of the oak glade. While in one sense he turned and left before we saw the oak because he was perhaps tired and in pain, in another, he allowed us the privilege of our own introduction with Majesty.

Oaks and myth

Then we come to the oak itself. Oaks once covered most of Europe: Julius Caesar came across Germanic tribes that had never got to the end of their hardwood forests. In England, oaks were cut down at an alarming rate to build its wooden navy. Any tree of great size was living profit. The oak embodies mysticism: its seeds, the acorns, were once our staple food before agriculture.

John Williamson tells us that the druids (from the Celtic daur meaning oak) burned oak logs at midsummer to mark the death of the Oak King of spring and the birth of the autumnal Holly King. The Norse gods made the first woman, Embla, from oak wood. The ‘philosophical tree’ of the alchemists was often a hollow oak, echoing the other common use of a hollow oak as a coffin. This was a tree sacred to the thunder god Thor/Donar. In the fairy tale recorded by the Grimms, a dark mercurial spirit of transformation is found hidden in the roots of an oak. Here is part of the story:

The Spirit in the Glass Bottle

…the son went into the woods, ate his bread, was very cheerful, and looked into the green branches to see if he could find a bird’s nest. He walked to and fro until at last he came to an enormous oak that was certainly many hundred years old, and that five men would not have been able to span. He stood there looking at it, and thought, “Many a bird must have built its nest in that tree.”
Then suddenly he thought that he heard a voice. Listening, he became aware of someone calling out with a muffled voice, “Let me out. Let me out.”
He looked around but could not see anything. Then he thought that the voice was coming out of the ground, so he shouted, “Where are you?”
The voice answered, “I am stuck down here among the oak roots. Let me out. Let me out.”
The student began to scrape about beneath the tree, searching among the roots, until at last he found a glass bottle in a little opening. Lifting it up, he held it against the light, and then saw something shaped like a frog jumping up and down inside.
“Let me out. Let me out,” it cried again, and the student, thinking no evil, pulled the cork from the bottle. Immediately a spirit ascended from it and began to grow. It grew so fast that within a few moments a horrible fellow, half as big as the tree, was standing there before the student.
“Do you know,” he cried in a terrifying voice, “what your reward is for having let me out?”
“No,” replied the student fearlessly. “How should I know that?”
“Then I will tell you,” shouted the spirit. “I must break your neck for it.”
“You should have said so sooner,” answered the student, “for then I would have left you shut up inside. However, my head is going to stay where it is until more people have been consulted.”
“More people here, more people there,” shouted the spirit. “You shall have the reward you have earned. Do you think that I was shut up there for such a long time as a favour? No, it was a punishment. I am the mighty Mercurius. I must break the neck of whomsoever releases me.”
“Calm down,” answered the student. “Not so fast. First I must know that you really were shut up in that little bottle, and that you are the right spirit. If you can indeed get inside again, then I will believe it, and you may do with me whatsoever you want.”
The spirit said arrogantly, “that is an easy trick,” pulling himself in and making himself as thin and short as he had been before. He then crept back into the opening and through the neck of the bottle. He was scarcely inside when the student pushed the cork back into the bottle, and threw it back where it had been among the oak roots. And thus the spirit was deceived.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Spirit in the Glass Bottle. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm099.html

Apparently Carl Jung made much of this story of the treasure-containing oak. John Williamson writes:

Mirroring the oak’s solidity, the self is the perduring centre that can withstand fiery outbursts of affect and psychic flooding. “Oak” transports and humbles – so perfectly is imperial nature embodied in its form.

John Williamson, ‘The Oak King, the Holly King and the Unicorn’, 1986
Looking up at Majesty
Looking up at Majesty


Of particular fascination is the texture and grain of the wood once the bark has vanished. These sweeping plains, mammary outcrops and dry seas resemble photos taken from space of the desolate regions of the earth, or satellite images of planets.

There is inevitably a correlation between things if we search for it. In the image below I am tempted to assign human characteristics to Majesty – a bulbous nose, staring eye, grumpy expression and arms raised in warning or greeting. Such anthropomorphism has long connected us to trees, from early depictions such as the image of Isis as a sycamore suckling Pharaoh Thutmose III to the Ents and Huorns of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Majesty - easy to anthropomorphise
Majesty – easy to anthropomorphise
The goddess Isis, as a sycamore, suckles Pharaoh
The goddess Isis, as a sycamore, suckles Pharaoh

True majesty

As rich as the symbolism gets, it interferes with the felt appreciation of the tree itself. Throughout its great age this wonderful entity has supported millions of other creatures (link is a PDF). 284 insects, 423 if mites are included, and 324 lichens are supported by the oak. There will be fungi and birds, of course, nesting in its branches and mammals living inside the trunk.

Majesty’s hollow innards, open gaping wounds and dead limbs speak of death and decrepitude, but the translucent green of the leaves in the sun offers something of resilience and purpose, a refusal to give up while life remains, while the deep roots yet live. The bark, fissured and damaged, surely mirrors our own wrinkling skins, dried and scarified by the elements. And this resolute living, this deep importance to the existence of other species, inspires both humility and tenderness. It is Majesty indeed.

Majesty, wounded and hollow, still living
Majesty, wounded and hollow, still living
Oaks at Fredville. Stone lithograph by J.G. Strutt, 1830
Oaks at Fredville. Stone lithograph by J.G. Strutt, 1830

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Autumn: a digression on shooting pheasants

As much as the media wishes us to believe that it is Christmas (and therefore winter), it is autumn here until the solstice on December 21st. So I have time for a few further pieces in which I draw further inspiration from the Ladybird book ‘What to look for in Autumn’, written by E. L. Grant Watson and with illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe (copyright acknowledged). This post looks particularly at the plight of the millions of pheasants reared every year to be shot.

My explicit aim is to explore changes in the British countryside over the last fifty years. Implicitly though, I sense a political and psychological purpose unfolding, which I hope will become more transparent as I write.  You can find the first piece, loosely arranged around the harvest, here. The second piece looks at autumn fruit. The third examines some less edible fruits.

I originally intended this post to hold six more spreads from the book, but I have only included two. When I arrived at the painting of pheasants a more important need arose, as I hope will be clear further down.

The decline of the common starling

Starling, magpie, puffball
What to look for in Autumn – starling, magpie, puffball

Seen close to the starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is a very beautiful bird . Its feathers are iridescent, shimmering. Perhaps it is no surprise that incredible wheeling flocks of starlings, murmurations, should attract such interest. But the population of this long-lived characterful bird has crashed by around 70% over the last fifty years. Their food is principally worms and leatherjackets crane fly larvae). These have both declined as a consequence of the chemicals used on farms, and dry summers attributable to climate change. A proportion of starlings migrate to the UK in the autumn/winter and it’s wonderful to witness their excitement upon arrival, their hungry pecking at the soil and eager whistling.

Some people think badly of the acquisitive ‘robber’ magpie (Pica pica) because it takes the eggs of songbirds. But according to research carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology, there is no impact on the songbird population in areas with a high penetration of magpies. This is born out logically since the songbird population is in sharp decline, but the magpie population is stable.

I can find no further information on what a hat made from a Common Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum) might have looked like. II wonder if the expression, “… I’ll eat my hat” might be related to this forgotten practice, for this is another edible fungus, despite the sense of alarm in the text.

Pheasant, spindle
What to look for in Autumn – pheasant, spindle

Spindles for spinning wool were actually made from the wood of the Spindle tree (Euonymus europaeus). These days it is used for making charcoal for artists. In the past, the poisonous fruit was ground to treat head lice and mange in cattle. The Spindle may not be in much demand for its economic uses now, and it is mostly planted for ornament, but it supports a wide variety of insects, many moths and aphids, and birds who prey on the insects. I can’t identify the fungus.

The beauty of the pheasant

The very sight of the Common Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) conjures any number of rural associations. Our images of the countryside include both the distinctive whirr of the wings of a startled bird, and its ‘kok, kok’ call. Here is Alexander Pope’s famous verse:

See! from the brake the whirring pheasant springs,
And mounts exulting on triumphant wings:
Short is his joy; he feels the fiery wound,
Flutters in blood, and panting beats the ground.
Ah! what avail his glossy, varying dyes,
His purple crest, and scarlet-circled eyes,
The vivid green his shining plumes unfold,
His painted wings, and breast that flames with gold?

Alexander Pope, Windsor Forest, 1713
The Pheasant, by J. T. Barker

There is a sense in both poems of the exotic beauty of the pheasant. I wonder to what extent the attraction we feel to it has led to it becoming a game bird. Pheasants are battery raised in dreadful conditions to be shot out of the sky in the hundreds and thousands. King George V once personally shot a thousand pheasants out of a total of 3,937 during a shoot in 1913, remarking later, “Perhaps we overdid it today.” This unrestrained blood-lust was eerily prescient of the millions of humans (and the untold millions of the other than human) slaughtered during the following four years.

Lies, damned lies…

A huge industry revolves around the shooting of game. According to the British Association of Shooting and Conservation is worth £2 billion. The BASC claims that the management of land for the purpose of shooting has benefits for all wildlife. This, the BASC claims, is because hedgerows, coverts and other features of rural Britain are kept intact, rather than being grubbed up for large scale farming.

According to the BASC, ‘shooters have access to two-thirds of the rural land area of the UK, much of it effectively inaccessible to wildlife agencies.’ The BASC provides a system for landowners to make records of ‘quarry species’ and ‘other species… among the Government’s farmland bird indicator species which are used for gauging the health of the countryside’. Landowners are encouraged to submit data because ‘every piece of land entered and wildlife species recorded creates more information that BASC can use to protect and promote the sport.’

It soon becomes clear that the BASC’s idea of conservation is about protecting the entertainment of its members and defending itself against those who would see shooting banned or curtailed. Indeed, the BASC represents a powerful lobby of wealthy landowners responsible for ‘two-thirds of the rural land of the UK’. Here is the journalist and author George Monbiot:

According to Kevin Cahill, the author of Who Owns Britain, 69 per cent of the land here is owned by 0.6 per cent of the population. It is profoundly wrong, I believe, that people struggling to support their families should be forced to extend alms to dukes, sheikhs and sharks: the absentee landlords, speculators, and assorted millionaires who own much of the farmland of Britain and other parts of Europe.”

George Monbiot, Feral, Allen Lane 2013

This is what we do with beauty

Pheasants, and other game birds, are kept at unnaturally high densities. A detailed report, prepared by consultant ornithologist Peter Robinson, suggests that the annual release figure of 20 million pheasants is wildly conservative, indeed Animal Aid says that it is now a staggering 42 million. The report goes on to say that the pheasant as a truly wild bird is becoming extinct, as captive-reared birds fail to breed successfully and are more prone to attack by predators. The increase in predation of these weak birds leads in turn to attacks on the predators themselves by estate managers, and the true extent of this remains hidden.

I recommend reading Peter Robinson’s report in its entirety. The report carefully examines the effects of stress on the birds, including the consequences of de-beaking and the fitting of anti-peck bits, the extent of predator control, crippling of birds through shooting, lead-shot deposition and lead poisoning as well as the economics of the shoot. This Animal Aid video, shot this year, is highly distressing:

The consequences of Enclosure

Though these days my diet is mostly vegetarian, I acknowledge that I have eaten many pheasants in my life. I am not against the licensed and controlled shooting of wild game birds for human consumption. What I contest, with mounting anger, is the ‘industry’ of shooting huge numbers of birds in the name of ‘sport’. That landowners use ‘conservation’ as a weapon to preserve this anachronistic behaviour is risible. It is high time that the land was restored to the people who once enjoyed it in common ownership. Oh, but surely the Acts of Enclosure put an end to the poverty of subsistence farming? That is the myth. Monbiot again:

These changes in the ownership of land lie at the heart of our environmental crisis. Traditional rural communities use their commons to supply most of their needs: food, fuel, fabrics, medicine and housing. To keep themselves alive they have to maintain a diversity of habitats: woods, grazing lands, fields, ponds, marshes and scrub. Within these habitats, they need to protect a wide range of species: different types of grazing, a mixture of crops, trees for fruit, fibres, medicine or building.

The land is all they possess, so they have to look after it well. But when the commons are privatized, they pass into the hands of people whose priority is to make money. The most efficient means of making it is to select the most profitable product and concentrate on producing that.”

George Monbiot, http://www.monbiot.com/1994/01/01/the-tragedy-of-enclosure/

It is apparent that the dispossessed are growing in numbers, not just those dispossessed of a home, of a garden to grow a few vegetables, but also of a connection to the land and a sense of community, and in another piece I will suggest that much of our modern behavioural problems are consequent upon this dispossession.

A celebration of autumn: part 3 – inedible

You can see my first two posts on Autumn here and here. As before I have added spreads from the Ladybird book ‘What to look for in Autumn’, written by E. L. Grant Watson and with illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe (copyright acknowledged). The focus here is on the inedible (by humans) that comprises the bulk of the harvest.

Previously I said that the work has its own narrative because the posts explore change in the British landscape over the last fifty years. We see some successful species, ones that have managed to withstand the difficulties caused by population and agribusiness. There are many others that have been less fortunate. I hope that the skein of life, the web that connects us as humans and the other than human, becomes apparent as the series continues.

The pursuit of the uneatable

The hunt, blackthorn, parasols
What to look for in Autumn – hunt, blackthorn, parasols

Fox hunting may seem to have had its day but it is still legal in Ireland. A powerful lobby exists to bring it back. The lobby is led by the members of the House of Lords (who refused to pass the legislature) and the Countryside Alliance. But hunters no longer have an affinity with the land. The majority of foxes still killed are the victims of illegal hunts and poachers.

I cannot see that a pack of dogs, followed by a body of people on horseback, who in their turn are followed by still more people on foot and in cars, is anything other than a gross travesty of hunting in any form. It is neither ritual (because it has no spiritual significance) nor is it a sport. The prey is uneatable, as Oscar Wilde so memorably pointed out. So the hunt continues, sans fox, as a relic of privilege. The hunt itself is a dominant hierarchical symbol that is a mirror to the worst excesses of capitalism. It serves to illustrate the contempt that those who are elevated (whether on horseback or in power) have towards those without status.

.Quietly framing the anachronism of the hunt are the wild plums we call blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). The acrid fruits are called sloes. They are also inedible but a fine flavouring, particularly for gin. There is a fine crop of Parasols, probably Macrolepiota procera. The author doubts that they are edible. In fact, Parasols are delicious, though they need to be positive identification before eating, and may not be picked from nature reserves.

Fungus the Bogeyman

Autumn crocus, shaggy inkcap
What to look for in Autumn – autumn crocus, shaggy inkcap

The distrust of fungi in these islands so prevalent fifty years ago makes itself known again on the very next page. The author correctly asserts the toxicity of the Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale) but goes on to claim that ‘no living things’ except maggots and insects, would touch the ink-cap toadstool. In fact, the Shaggy Inkcap (Coprinus comatus) is also delicious when young.

Inedible yams

Potatoes, black bryony
What to look for in Autumn – potatoes, black bryony

We have to be careful about looking at the past romantically. Some loss is welcome, and one such practice was the back-breaking work of picking potatoes by hand. E.L. Grant Wilson wonders if the tubers of Black Bryony (Dioscorea or Tamus communis) might be edible. Don’t be tempted, they are not. This is another plant that has suffered from the grubbing up of hedgerows. I used to regularly walk a path that had Black Bryony growing on one side and White Bryony on the other. The two plants are not related. Black Bryony is our one representative of the Yam family, whereas White Bryony belongs to the cucumber family. The fruits of both are inedible.

Weasel, horse chestnut, wood blewit
What to look for in Autumn – weasel, horse chestnut, wood blewit

The Wood Blewit (Lepista nuda) is not perhaps a species to seek out for the table as it seems to disagree with some people. The naturally drying fallen Horse-chestnut leaves shown here are now only seen rarely because of the Horse-chestnut Leaf Miner (Cameraria ohridella). The predations of this leaf-mining moth prematurely dry and shrivel the leaves. Imported plants have enabled the moth to spread from its home in Macedonia. Since the late 1970s, it has moved inexorably northward. The tree is left unharmed, it seems, but this new moth species is also seen as a consequence of the reduction in diversity caused by over-planting. The tree is only distantly related to the Sweet Chestnut. The seeds are inedible, even to horses!

Misplaced morality

The Weasel – here the Least Weasel (Mustela nivalis) is shown – has a good population and is not of concern. It also has a fascinating mythology, presumably owing to its shrill calls and its fierce demeanour. The evidence for a weasel killing ‘for the sake of killing’ seems to come from owners of livestock, chickens, rabbits. The oncentration of animals in a small space creates confusion. I can’t see that one can apply a moral judgement to a weasel, and I wonder if this comes from the Puritan notion that weasels were the familiars of witches. The name itself has a base meaning of ‘stinking animal’, from its musky scent, and the connotation of ‘weasel’ as something underhand (‘weasel words’) is related to the weasel’s ability to suck out the contents of an egg without destroying the shell.

One in six

Teal, shovelers, goldeneye, black-headed gull, heron, lapwing
What to look for in Autumn – teal, shovelers, goldeneye, black-headed gull, heron, lapwing

Teal, Shovelers and Goldeneye all share RSPB amber status as, alarmingly, does the black-headed gull. The lapwing has red status, with a very much reduced population. It was wonderful to see them at the London Wetlands Centre, of all places. Of all these lakeside birds then, only the Heron enjoys a stable population, but it is a comfort to know that they are still all with us, decorating the still waters of late Autumn and Winter.

A celebration of autumn: part 2 – fruit

You can see my first post on autumn here. In this post, I have added more spreads from the delightful Ladybird book ‘What to look for in Autumn’, written by E. L. Grant Watson and with illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe (copyright acknowledged) as well as a few pictures I took at Sydenham Hill Wood. This post talks a bit more about autumn fruit. These posts have another purpose (if there has to be one). We are exploring both actual and perceptual changes in the British countryside over a fifty-year period. The work already has its own narrative.

The hayrick

Barn owl, Wayfarer Tree, Traveller's Joy
What to look for in Autumn – barn owl, Wayfarer Tree, Traveller’s Joy

Hayricks might be a thing of the past but luckily but there is still plenty of Traveller’s Joy, also known as Old Man’s Beard or the rather more prosaic Clematis vitalba. It’s a great food source for many moth species but its invasive habit makes it a problem outside the UK, particularly in New Zealand. In France it has the name herbe aux gueux, meaning beggar’s herb, because (according to this article) beggars used the juice of the plant to deliberately inflict ulcers, so arousing the pity of passers-by.

The wayfarer

The Wayfarer tree (known in the past as hoarwithy, an entirely pleasing name) is also relatively common but often goes unremarked. E.L. Grant Watson wonders how it got its romantic name of Wayfarer tree, speculating that it was so called by passing pilgrims. There is a poem, reproduced below, that suggests a similar origin:

Wayfaring Tree
What ancient claim
Hast thou to that right pleasant name?
Was it that some faint pilgrim came
Unhopedly to thee,
In the brown desert’s weary way,
Midst thirst and toil’s consuming sway,
And there, as `neath thy shade he lay,
Blessed the Wayfaring Tree?

Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894

A nice idea, but this description applies to the Guelder Rose, Viburnum opulus, not the Wayfarer tree, which is Viburnum lantana: besides, the fruit is toxic to humans. One uncredited source suggests that the name was invented by the Elizabethan botanist John Gerard. Confusingly, the name ‘Wayfarer tree’ is also applied to the European rowan (Sorbus aucuparia). The idea that the shrub is a natural signpost has some credibility, and so perhaps the name ‘Wayfarer’ was applied to any shrub or tree with vivid red berries.

Extraordinary that Grant Watson seems to consider that any reader might have had a pet barn owl. At the time the book was written DDT would have been in use in the UK, one of the causes of significant population decline in barn owls.

Wild berries

Bullfinch, Elder, Maple, Ash
What to look for in Autumn – Bullfinch, Elder, Maple, Ash

And here is one of the other ‘Wayfarer’ trees, the Rowan or Mountain Ash (Sorbus aucuparia), a tree with a history of usage going back to prehistoric times. I’m thinking of making some Rowan jelly if I can find some fruit, it’s been a long time since I tasted any (here’s a good recipe).

At the time of writing, it is too late for elderberries (Sambuca nigra). Like much wild fruit, elderberries are slightly toxic until cooked, but you can make wonderful things from them without too much effort. Cordial, wine and syrup can be made from the flowers and the berries, but the leaves, and all the other parts of the plant, contain cyanogenic glycosides – hence the use against flies.

Bullfinches (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) were until recently very common but suffered a dramatic decline in numbers. Happily numbers are rising again. If you can’t see bullfinches, you might be able to hear them: their particularly mournful call can be easily identified.

The Hazel coppice

Nuthatch, Hazel, Rose
What to look for in Autumn – Nuthatch, Hazel, Rose

This illustration is a personal favourite (I love the rust on the hazel leaves). Hazel (Corylus avellana) was once very widespread, and much used in hedgerows and coppicing. It supports over thirty moth species and it follows that the reduction of hazel coppice has had a negative effect on biodiversity. Moreover, the eradication of temperate rainforest through the intensive hill farming of sheep has had an untold consequence. This detailed look at Atlantic hazel in Scotland reveals the beauty and mystery of a particular type of hazel forest and the extraordinary life that it supports.

The jewelled rose-hips of the dog-rose (Rosa canina) are a particularly wonderful sight in Autumn. I often feel like picking one of these juicy gems and eating it, but unfortunately, the seeds are covered with irritant hairs (used once for itching powder) and need to be removed carefully before consumption. If you can persevere with the de-seeding task, you’ll be rewarded with fruit high in antioxidants and vitamin C. They also taste good – and can be made into tea, wine and syrup. I almost used to look forward to having a cold as a child because it meant a dose of rose-hip syrup! It’s good that Tunnicliffe painted Robin’s Pin-cushion galls, a chemical response caused by the gall wasp (Diplolepis rosae). Birds and other insects predate the galls. What intricate relationships exist around the hazel and dog-rose alone!

The Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) is also common, with an increasing population. If you see a bird running headfirst down a tree trunk, you are not seeing things, it’s a nuthatch. Here’s a link to its call.

Sydenham Hill Wood

Camille Pissarro - Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich (1871)
Camille Pissarro – Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich (1871)

I visited Sydenham Hill Wood quite frequently once – it is an interesting mixture of old and newer woodland. A railway used to run through it and there was a station, Lordship Lane. The line was closed in 1954 (so the infamous Baron Beeching was not responsible) but the closure meant that new woodland could emerge alongside the old. Astonishingly, the impressionist painter Camille Pissarro painted a scene of the track.

This is an old photo of the footbridge itself:

Cox's Walk footbridge, Sydenham
Cox’s Walk footbridge, Sydenham

And a contemporary view from the footbridge looking down the old track:

View of the trackbed from the footbridge. Sydenham Hill Wood
View of the trackbed from the footbridge. Sydenham Hill Wood

You can walk across the footbridge Pissarro used and compare the painting to the current view of trees – this must be one of the few reversals from open land to woodland in London. It is managed by the London Wildlife Trust and it’s a wonderful place for many important and rare species, as well as a good spot for a short walk amongst glorious trees. Right now the forest floor is rich with fallen leaves and fungi. There’s a blog here about Sydenham Hill Wood with a wealth of information about its history and wildlife, but sadly not updated for a couple of years.

Hairy Curtain Crust

The wood has many species of fungi, including these fantastic bracket fungi (rejoicing in the name of Hairy curtain crust, identification courtesy of @wildlondon_SHW) growing from an old tree:

Hairy Curtain Crust, Stereum hirsutum
Hairy Curtain Crust, Stereum hirsutum
Hairy Curtain Crust, Stereum hirsutum
Hairy Curtain Crust, Stereum hirsutum

So far we have looked at the red berries of the Wayfarer tree, Rowan and Rose. To conclude this post here are another fruit, Holly berries dripping with rain, looking as pristine as one could hope.

Holly berries
Holly berries

A celebration of autumn: part 1 – harvest

Autumn – autumpne in the 16th Century, from the Old French autumpne, automne (13c.), via the Latin autumnus (or possibly auctumnus, perhaps from auctus meaning ‘increase’).

Before the 16th century, the season we call Autumn was called Harvest – though that word has now come to mean the action of harvesting, rather than the entire season. Some believe the lost root suggests a ‘drying out’ and point to the old English word for August: sere-month. If we could go back in time I wonder how many of the harvest scenes below we would recognise. How many of them belong to the imagination? Even sixty years ago, well before the advent of Big Ag, people were looking back wistfully at a time before world wars and motorways.

The wonderful painting by the 16th-century Milanese artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, shown above, depicts Autumn wittily personified. In this New York Times article, the author asks if Arcimboldo was insane. A meaningless question, since the tastes of the 16th-century aristocrat who commissioned Arcimboldo were of their time and place in history, which is not ours. Moreover, collectors and artists alike have often evinced a taste for the bizarre and theatrical. It is entirely fitting that the Paladin 1977 edition of Thomas Szasz’s seminal work ‘The Myth of Mental Illness’ bore Arcimboldo’s painting ‘Water’ on the cover. Here it is:

Thomas Szasz: ‘The Myth of Mental Illness’
Cover of the Paladin 1977 edition of Thomas Szasz’s seminal work ‘The Myth of Mental Illness’ features ‘Water’ by Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

I’ll write of the Four Elements in a later piece, but as part of my celebration of Autumn, I’m posting the illustrations and text from the Ladybird publication ‘What to look for in Autumn’, with words by E. L. Grant Watson, and illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe. The illustrations in particular are deeply evocative of a lost time and place.


The book I own was published in 1960 (it is not my own, which I lost over the years). Leafing through the pages I am transported back in time. Once again I experience the fascination with nature that these books inspired. The books even have a slightly musty smell of old damp, redolent of Autumn itself, just as my lost books did. Back then, without central heating, everything was slightly damp.

While it is clear that the books are out of print, the copyright belongs to Ladybird books. I acknowledge this and hope that my scans will be allowed to stay online (I emailed Ladybird to ask for permission but received no reply).

Here are the first four spreads of the book:

The Harvest

Pigeons, stoats, oats, mushrooms, harvest.
What to look for in Autumn – pigeons, stoats, oats, mushrooms, harvest.

There is a sad innocence in the writing. Nowadays venturing onto a ploughed field is to invite prosecution for trespass, and quite possibly illness from the residue of spraying.

A note too about identifying mushrooms: please go on a course or find someone who has expert knowledge. There are many species that look superficially similar but differ considerably in toxicity. For identification that is not aimed at consumption, here’s a good site: http://www.first-nature.com/fungi/index.php

The Wild Harvest

Starling, blackberries, greenfinch
What to look for in Autumn – starling, blackberries, greenfinch

We’re past the blackberries now, though I still have an untouched bottle of cordial that I hope is still drinkable. Nothing evokes late summer/early autumn quite as much as the scent and dark wine-like flavour of blackberries. To harvest blackberries is truly a labour of love. You are torn and bloody by the time you emerge, sticky and purple with blood and juice. A shot glass of warm blackberry cordial served neat, is a truly delicious nightcap that will instantly conjure hot country lanes and the sound of drowsy insects.

The Hop Pickers

Hop picking
What to look for in Autumn – hop picking

As far as I know, this is an activity that has just disappeared. No one goes on hop-picking holidays now, though they used to be an institution. Here’s a rather bucolic account and here’s another more socially aware treatment from none other than George Orwell.

The Flight of the Swallow

Swallow, house martin
What to look for in Autumn – swallow, house martin

I love Tunnicliffe’s lichen-covered roof (it looks so hot and dry) and the carefully observed stances of the birds. You can read a celebration of autumn: part 2 – fruit here.

Angel wing: how to kill wild birds with kindness

A short piece about the dangers of feeding wild birds. Angel wing and rats are just two of them.

Why do we feed birds if they have sufficient natural food available? Perhaps it is not entirely far-fetched to wonder if feeding birds might sometimes be connected to a dislike and fear of the wild. If we want to feed our leftovers, food we don’t want to eat ourselves or food that is, in any case, unsuitable, what does this say? What thoughtlessness (at best) or contempt (at worst) does it betray?

Or perhaps feeding represents some propitiation of the wild, a throwback to a forgotten ritual in which future bounty is secured by offering part of the harvest to the spirits, the daimones that take the form of birds, lest they strip the crops in retaliation. Later comes the Victorian sentimentality that depicts the starving robin pecking at the frosty window, our hearts finally moved by need.

Since one of the intentions of these pages is to celebrate the natural world, a piece about the dangers of feeding wild birds would seem contrary. It is not. The entreaty is simple: please do not feed white bread or other processed food to birds. White bread is highly denatured food. It is full of additives and optical enhancers. It is not good for us, much less for birds. In any case, birds have different digestive systems to humans. I’ll be honest, I do like toasted white bread from time to time.

Leg o'Mutton reservoir April 2008
Leg o’Mutton reservoir April 2008

Waste disposal

Here’s an example of the lack of reflection that I am addressing. I was walking around Leg o’Mutton reservoir, now a nature reserve in Barnes, London. There was a woman walking her two dogs, both of which were off the leash. Already we have a threat to wildlife. She was throwing white bread left and right on to the ground (you would have to throw a long way to hit the water).

The woman guessed my disapproval I think because she had a sour and pugnacious look on her face already prepared for me. I suggested her bread would be food for rats not birds. She very reasonably pointed out that rats were wildlife too. I explained that throwing bread would help the rats breed and the consequence would be a reduction in birds since the rats would eat the eggs (among the aquatic species to be found here you will regularly see Swans, Tufted duck, Mallard, Pochard, Shoveler, Moorhen and Coot). Her reply was, “Everyone does it.”

I was too angry at this blanket defence to engage further, and I stalked off seething. It was a mistake: good humour and openness might have won her over. As I walked away I heard her shout after me, “It’s for the robins and the owls… ” but there was something about the angry way she threw the bread that suggested she was throwing away the unacceptable part of herself, and that by having the birds eat it she would feel better. We can see associated behaviour in young children who pitch whole bread rolls into the water like depth charges.

Crippled angels

Birds, like all the animals and plants on the planet, are at risk. Unsustainable agriculture, deforestation, fisheries bycatch, the spread of ‘alien’ species, pollution, exploitation and climate breakdown (all consequences of human action/inaction) are reducing biodiversity alarmingly. According to this link, up to one in four bird species will be functionally extinct by 2100: so surely it falls to us change our habitual ways. I know that some people might call me self-righteous. I agree – it’s easy to project our failings on to others. But I try to take what responsibility I can. “Everyone does it…” is not an excuse.

Muscovy ducks with angel wing
Muscovy ducks with angel wing

Let’s look at the likely consequence of feeding white bread to birds – even assuming they eat it. First, the bread is dry: it will swell upon contact with water leaving birds vulnerable to attack by predators. Remember the woman’s dogs were off the leash? Dogs frequently attack birds, just a few years ago the goslings of a pair of Egyptian geese were allegedly killed by a dog in this very place. Second, although not entirely proven, it seems likely that a high protein and carbohydrate diet is the cause of ‘angel wing’ in (mostly) aquatic birds. It is a condition in which the last joint of the wing becomes twisted and the wing feathers stick out. Spend any amount of time at your local pond or reservoir and you’ll see it.

So feeding white bread to ducks and geese may be physiologically harmful and will, in any case, increase the rat population – but there’s no need to stop feeding birds, just take some care about what you feed them with.

If you found this piece interesting, you might want to read my article about pheasant breeding.