On our all too brief brief annual pilgrimage to the limestone last week, we found berries everywhere -spiky hawthorn branches groaning with fruit, surrounded by a veritable smorgasbord of sloe, juniper, holly, guelder rose, and yew berries – awaiting the arrival of autumn migrants. My other half found a tiny stash of spindle berries packed into the folds of a horizontal tree trunk, probably by a vole or coal tit. We were suprised not to find any rowan trees -one of the most obvious sources of berries where we live- but it seems they’re not keen on calcareous soils.
Strangest of all were the glossy scarlet necklaces of bittersweet or woody nightshade, dangling over hawthorn bushes. Like Plato’s pharmakon, solanum dulcamara is both remedy and poison. Although the plant has been widely used by traditional herbalists, its bitter berries can cause vomiting and convulsions in humans and there are several historical records of children dying. We wondered why a plant would grow conspicuous berries that were unpalatable and potentially dangerous -and ‘sneakily’ use the branches of another species to display them. But, of course, “its not all about us”. It turns out that Blackbirds, thrushes, and other birds, seek out these juicy fruits for their high moisture content during dry spells.
Phragmites at Leighton Moss, late October 2014.
We’re unashamed recidivists at Leighton Moss, an R.S.P.B. reserve with the largest expanse of reed beds in North West England, but when we planned this trip a while ago we hadn’t counted on the B.B.C. being there as well! As it turned out, Autumn Watch was being broadcast live from the reserve, so the place was humming -and thronging with school parties, scout groups, and families doing a bit of half-term holiday celeb spotting. Even so, we managed to get away from the pandemonium, and even had one of the saltmarsh hides to ourselves for a while.
Yes, it was nice to bump into Iolo Williams. His contribution to Autumn Watch was a heart rending report from Grassholm Island, off the coast of Pembrokeshire, where a colony of some 40,000 gannets build their nesting mounds largely from plastic detritus -polythene, fishing nets, parcel ties- garnered from the sea. As a result significant numbers of young gannets get trapped, mutilated, or killed. Iolo joined an R.S.P.B. rescue mission. Viewers were urged to take part in beach clean-ups, but unless ‘we’ stop manufacturing, promoting, using, and discarding the stuff …
Another report that stood out from the series highlighted the work of Dr Kathryn Arnold, an ecologist who’s found that prozac, in concentrations equivalent to those being discharged into our sewerage system -we apparently excrete most of the content of these pills- caused captive starlings to loose their appetite for both food and mating (over a six month period). The U.K. has seen a five fold increase in anti-depressant use since 1991, so this could be one of the factors behind the dramatic decrease in starling numbers (down by 50 million since the 1960’s). Kathryn Arnold is now looking at whether starlings have chemical residue in their bodies.
I don’t get to the sea very often, so it was good to spend an afternoon beside Morecambe Bay. This wonderful place, with its dangerous quicksands and huge intertidal mudflats, supports a quarter of a million waders, ducks, and geese, for much of the year. Arriving at low tide we could only hear the sea, somewhere in the shimmering distance. I sat down and time began to melt.
Somewhere out there lies the Isle of Man -home of the eponymous Mannanan Mac Lir- sea god and psychopomp- with his protective cloak of mist, who would sometimes turn into a bird.
Suddenly a low flying heron cursed, and all the other birds joined in. Looking up, I soon saw what all the fuss was about. A peregrine falcon powered overhead, ignoring the commotion below.
In keeping with the season, I stumbled upon a (distinctly non-biodegradeable) shrine, decorated with golden tinfoil and wind chimes (!) where someone’s ashes had, no doubt, been deposited. I was in beach trance mode, though, so walked past and stayed with the beauty of the moment.
Postscript: Fortunately I was unaware that, on that very day, Morecambe’s Tory M.P. was proposing that a fifteen mile long tunnel be constructed under the bay to provide a faster link between Heysham nuclear power station to the south, and Sellafield, B.A.E Systems, and the National Nuclear Laboratory, up in Cumbria. Let’s hope that sense prevails, and that this vital ecological area – protected by U.K. and European Union law- remains undisturbed.