Mary Green surveys the natural wonders we have turned against . . .
I hope people have kept up the closer link with the natural world that many said they felt during lockdown. To me, the real benefit comes when you try to observe and understand the way plants and trees all grow together, and how the different insects, birds and other creatures live among them. That way you begin to make sense of the world and see how it is all connected. It’s not enough just to be “in nature” as a sort of background.
I was delighted recently to see our two swans which nested near Bittell appear with four cygnets. They lost their first brood, probably because of hugely increased footfall around their nest (mentioned by others in the last Village), but they had another go, and now they and their young are happily in an inaccessible place. I’ve seen a tiny moorhen chick too, another second chance.
I want to write this month about some of our wildlife that is not generally loved and encouraged but is a vital part of our lives. First of all, a habitat no one seems to want. It’s usually called “scrub”, a sort of insult, and described as “overgrown”, the plants in it being called “invasive”. I would call it naturally regenerated open woodland. In a natural wildlife environment, nothing is overgrown and nothing is invasive (unless introduced by gardeners).
We would do much better encouraging this habitat to form naturally than planting lots of trees that don’t necessarily fit into the local ecology. But even conservation groups often see the need to remove natural woodland as it develops.
Among the herbal growth – grasses and flowers – you will first get brambles and quick growing common small trees like rose, elder and hawthorn, or alder and willow near water. Ash and birch colonise quickly, too, and bigger trees like oak come along more slowly. The bigger trees grow in the protection of the small ones and longer herbal growth. They don’t naturally grow in cleared ground. You can see a splendid example of this in the piece between the dead arm and main canal near Alvechurch.
This kind of habitat has far more species of insects, mammals and birds than farmland, as well as a complex of plants and trees. It even hosts rare species of butterflies and increasingly uncommon birds like turtle doves and nightingales. Willow warblers especially like birch saplings, which grow readily in scrub, and I’ve heard them in the dead arm wood and in Robins’ Wood when it was young.
In truly wild conditions natural woodland would be kept open by grazing animals – our ancient forest was always more open than people think. Nowadays this would have to be done by introducing domesticated grazing animals, or by a careful vegetation management regimen.
One of the individual plants that people dislike is hogweed, a great contributor to our wildlife. I think it’s partly through confusion with giant hogweed, an alien garden escape from the 19th century onwards, which can cause skin damage, but that’s a recognisably different plant and not common round here.
It may also be its unappealing name, though that just means it was good food for pigs. And it is actually good food for us too, as well as for all manner of insects and birds.
The young shoots are edible stir-fried and a good early vegetable. The seeds can be dried and ground to make a nice pungent spice – or left for the birds. In between, the huge flowers are really heads of lots of tiny flowers, each carrying nectar, so they will be buzzing and crawling with bees, butterflies and other insects.
They have a long flowering season, even sometimes coming out in winter, although their main season is June-July. You will see their beautiful sculptured heads of seeds in September.
It grows in hedges, fields and by rivers and canals – often there when nothing else is flowering, keeping life going. The stalks are thick and hollow when dried, and we used to use them as pea-shooters as kids – apparently you can make water-pistols out of them, too.
Hogweed is often above my head-height but giant hogweed can be 12-15 feet high. Its presence overshadows our native hogweed so much that in the key book about wild plants, Flora Britannica, there are nearly three pages on giant hogweed and only half a page on hogweed. Our native hogweed is welcome and shouldn’t be cut down, as it so often is.
Among the insects buzzing around flowers like this will be wasps. No one loves wasps: everyone loves bees. But wasps are a far bigger contributor to our biodiversity. Somehow bees and butterflies have escaped our general dislike of insects – “creepy-crawlies” or “bugs”, as we call them – but wasps haven’t.
There are thousands of different kinds of wasps but our common wasp is mostly known for stinging us. However, wasps are crucial pollinators, and plants owe their survival to pollination by wasps and other maligned insects just as much as to bees.
Their nests are a beautiful structure – I have had them in my attic and decided to leave them there. They didn’t really cause me problems. Only a few wasps survive the winter in them to start again the next year.
Common wasps are social animals, like bees. The young eat other insects or spiders, which the adults catch and feed them on. The main contribution wasps make to our ecosystem is to keep the populations of other insects and spiders under control – if we didn’t have wasps, we would be over-run by other insects and nature would be out of balance.
The adults feed on sugar, from nectar, honeydew or fruit – or your wine-glass or ice-cream! They don’t live long as adults and have to consume as much sugar as possible. Wasps succeed in adapting to our less-than-perfect world much better than bees. Being a top-level predator in the insect world, wasps are a good indicator of how healthy our environment is. If wasps start to disappear, beware – it means we are running short of all insects and will soon have no pollinated crops.
Even other insects get a bad press for looking like wasps. Last year there was a “plague” of hoverflies while I was on holiday in North Yorkshire. They are quite harmless but people were panicking as they settled around us at a seaside pub. Hoverflies benefit from wasps: by mimicking their bold black-and-yellow strip they scare off predators who expect them to carry a sting.
All insects are vital to our survival. Many of them sting to defend themselves from harm, but we can’t do without them, so had better learn to live with them.
Going back to plants, the other much hated common plant, still flowering in September, is ragwort. (By the way, the “wort” in plant names is pronounced “wert” not “wart”. It simply means a herb. Just think how uncomfortable the common flower, nipplewort, would be if mispronounced!)
Ragwort is poisonous to animals, but as with all herbs, poisonous just means that it contains a drug. All our medicinal drugs were originally extracted from plants: in excess any drug is a poison. Ragwort is now being investigated as a possible cancer treatment. It is harmless if left to grow naturally as animals will avoid it like most poisonous plants. It only becomes dangerous when cut and dried, when it loses its signals and animals will eat it with possibly fatal results.
A late flowering, common composite plant like this is vital for insects and then for birds. Like hogweed, it is usually crawling with insects of all kinds. One particular moth, the striking red-and black cinnabar moth, has it as its food plant. You may see the striped yellow and black caterpillars on it.
Unsurprisingly, it loves growing in scrubland. When Isabella Tree carried out her huge rewilding programme (described in her great book Wilding) the thing the neighbouring landowners complained about most was not the strange animals grazing it but the fact that she had let ragwort grow all over her land!
I haven’t even got round to brambles, another key species of scrubland, perhaps the best butterfly host we have and a food and drink source for humans. The key thing is the mix of plants which grow naturally in harmony with each other until we interfere with them. A micro-landscape like a small piece of scrub will change imperceptibly year on year as the plants grow around each other. Watching it is one of the pleasures of life.