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A celebration of Autumn – part 4

What to look for in Autumn

Three years ago 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 marks both the return of the series and the end of the Autumn pictures. With Winter, although I’ll still use the illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe and the words of E. L. Grant Watson (copyright acknowledged), I’ll also be trying out something different.

My intent was originally to reflect on changes in the countryside, to reflect on what has been lost in the unbearably short time since the books were made. But, as Cassandra discovered, to wail about impending doom is a fruitless endeavour, so (if possible) I will try to offer another way. 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:

Part 1: naming Autumn, a ploughed field, wild harvest, hop pickers, flight of the swallow

Part 2: a hayrick, wild berries, hazel coppice, Sydenham Hill Wood

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 ago) are disappearing in cold winds. The dynamic mixture of colours reminded me of the dioramas of childhood, when 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).

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

Hearts of Oak

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.

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

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 (millions)

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

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 folk lore 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

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 in 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.

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, 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. The very habitat depicted has been substantially reduced by water companies, and where it has not been reduced, it has been poisoned with agricultural run-off. 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, the victim of not only ‘environmental factors’ (code for human habitat destruction) but a roaring trade in eels smuggled to Asia. The consequence 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 – a sight that is almost certainly lost forever.

The Sargasso Sea, to which mature silver eels travel to spawn and die, has a high concentration of plastic waste that includes the huge North Atlantic Garbage Patch, and (as we now know), 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, a suitable image for our hot ferocious destruction of the world about us.

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

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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, which conveniently gives me 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).

My explicit aim is to explore changes in 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 other articles in this series in the archive. This particular post was originally intended 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

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

The starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is such a beautiful bird seen close to, the feathers irridescent, shimmering, so it’s perhaps 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, and these in turn have declined as a consequence of the chemicals used on farms and hot, 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.

The acquisitive ‘robber’ magpie (Pica pica) is often thought of as a problem because it takes the eggs of songbirds, so I was interested to read that according to research carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology, there is no impact on songbird population in areas with a high penetration of magpies. This is born out logically, since 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, but I 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.

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

The wood of the Spindle tree (Euonymus europaeus) was actually used to make spindles for spinning wool and now for producing artists’ charcoal; the poisonous fruit were ground to treat head lice and also 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 Common Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus): the very sight of this bird conjures any number of rural associations, and the sounds, the distinctive whirr of the wings of a startled bird, its ‘kok, kok‘ call (isn’t that recording just sublime?). Here are Alexander Pope’s famous verses:

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

And a Victorian poet:

pheasant - barker

There is a sense in both poems of the exotic beauty of the pheasant, and I wonder to what extent the attraction we feel to it has led to it becoming a game bird, 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.” Perhaps this unrestrained blood-lust was prescient, and the King’s understated regret an ironic commentary on the millions of humans (and the untold millions of the other than human) slaughtered during the following four years.

This is what we do with beauty

A huge industry revolves around the shooting of pheasants (including other game birds and deer) that according to the British Association of Shooting and Conservation is worth £2 billion. The BASC invests much time and money in conservation and 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, and that it 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 percent 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

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 say that is 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: it carefully examines (at least, as carefully as possible given the difficulty in collecting data) 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 what we are told. George 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,

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.