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).
Previously I said that the work has its own narrative – to expand on that, the articles explore change in the British landscape over the last fifty years. We can see some successful species, ones that have managed to withstand the difficulties caused by population and agribusiness, but there are others that have been less fortunate. I also 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
Fox hunting may seem to have had its day in England, Scotland and Wales but is still legal in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as well as some other countries. A powerful lobby exists to bring it back, notably led by the members of the House of Lords who refused to pass the legislature, and the Countryside Alliance. There is a view that hunting is now a practice of the past since the hunters no longer have an affinity with the land and supporters claim that 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 nor sport and the prey is uneatable, as Oscar Wilde so memorably pointed out. So the hunt continues, sans fox, as a relic, a passport to status for some, an activity without purpose unless that purpose is a ride in the countryside or nostalgia. The hunt itself is a hierarchical dominant symbol that is a mirror to the worst excesses of capitalism and only serves to illustrate the contempt 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 plum we call blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) bearing its acrid fruit, the sloes, and a fine crop of Parasols, probably Macrolepiota procera. The author doubts that they are edible – but in fact they they are delicious, though they need to be identified positively before consumption, and may not be picked from nature reserves.
Fungus the Bogeyman
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.
Some loss is welcome, and the back-breaking work of picking potatoes by hand is now a thing of the past unless you have an allotment or you are a smallholder. 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.
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 something rarely seen since the predations of the Horse-chestnut Leaf Miner (Cameraria ohridella), the leaf mining moth that prematurely dries and shrivels the leaves and which has spread from Macedonia since the late Seventies and is now moving inexorably northward. The tree is left unharmed, it seems, but this new moth species is seen as direct consequence of a reduction in diversity caused by over-planting.
The Weasel – here the Least Weasel (Mustela nivalis) is shown – has a good population and is not of concern. It 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 concentration of which presumably creates a 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 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 earlier this month at the London Wetlands Centre. Of all these lakeside birds then, only the Heron enjoys a stable population, but it is a comfort to know that they are all with us, decorating the still waters of late Autumn and Winter.