DISTINCTIVE HIGHLAND BREED HAS DEVELOPED INTO A TOUGH, SELF-SUFFICIENT ANIMAL
Few sights are as evocative of the Scottish winter landscape as a herd of majestic Highland cattle, their shaggy, brick red coats standing proud against the white of the snow.
With their long, thick coat of hair and curved horns, Highland cattle are instantly recognisable. It is these attributes that have earned them the epithet ‘all hair and horn’. Strong, bulky animals, they have evolved to survive on the poorest of soils.
Written records for the breed go back as far as the 18th century. The official pedigree dates from 1885, when the Highland Cattle Herd Book was first published. This makes it the oldest registered cattle breed. It is this heritage that has earned them the name, The Old Breed.
Its origins in the west of Scotland means it has developed as a tough and self-sufficient animal. Here, the weather conditions are unpredictable and severe. There is high rainfall, strong to gale-force winds and long, cold winters. After centuries adapting to these conditions, Highland cattle thrive in areas where other cattle would struggle. They graze on plants such as the tough moorland grasses avoided by other cattle.
Today, herds, known as folds, of these substantial and dramatic animals can be found throughout Britain. They are equally at home on the flower-rich machair of the Western Isles or the chalk grasslands of the South Downs.
There were originally two types, West Highland and Mainland Highland. The West Highland were found mainly on the west Scottish islands of the Inner Hebrides. They were smaller and mainly black coated. The Mainland cattle were larger, with brown or yellow coats. After centuries of interbreeding, the distinction has disappeared.
Black, brown and yellow remain accepted coat colours for the breed, together with dun, cream or yellowish. The majority today have coats that are shades of red. It has a downy undercoat and a long outer coat that reaches up to 13in (33cm) in length. Well oiled to shed rain and snow, it shields the animal from the worst of the weather. The characteristic dossan (fringe) covers the eyes, providing protection from the sun and flies.
The breed standard laid down more than a century ago in the first Highland Cattle Herd Book states that the coat should be “long and gracefully waved, very much as in what dog-breeders denote wavy-coated retrievers. To have a curl is to possess a decided fault”.
With their hairy coats providing so much insulation, these hardy animals do not need a layer of subcutaneous fat beneath their skin. As a result, the meat they produce contains lower levels of fat and cholesterol than in other cattle. It also has a high protein and iron content. Because they have evolved to cope with a sparse diet, Highland cows thrive on grass grown without the aid of chemical fertilisers.
In the past, they were of utmost importance for crofters. They provided milk and meat to sell or barter and supplemented their meagre diet. This made the difference between survival or not for those eking out a living on the windswept islands of the Hebrides or the bleak moors of the Scottish mainland.
Their ability to make the most of poor forage, calving outside and seldom, if ever, housed, the breed remains crucial to the rural farming economy of the Scottish Highlands.
Solidly built, Highland bulls weigh between 1700 and 2000lb (770 to 990kg), while the smaller cows weigh between 1100 and 1300lb (450 to 590kg).
Today’s pedigree animals still show the characteristics set out in 1885 when the Highland Cattle Society of Scotland was formed. This defined the distinctive features of the true Highland animal. The magnificent head must be in proportion to the body, broad between the eyes and short from the eyes to the point of the muzzle. The eyes are bright and full, the forelock long and bushy. The muzzle should be short, though very broad in front, and with the nostrils fully distended.
That most distinctive feature, the horns, give the animal “a stamp of nobility”. They are the animal’s defence against predators. The standard requires the bull to have broad horns, coming level out of the side of the head. They incline slightly forwards, and rise towards the points. The cow’s horns are thinner and more delicate than the bull’s, rising sooner and slightly longer.
These long pointed horns give the cattle a fierce appearance, but their temperament is quiet and calm.
The breed is well known for its longevity, typically continuing to breed to the age of 18. During this time a female may give birth to as many as 15 calves.
Mating takes place throughout the year, and pregnancy lasts approximately 285 days. The females calve easily and have a highly developed mothering instinct. Abandoned calves are a rarity. The mother’s milk is rich in butterfat, which helps their offspring develop well. The calves are weaned after six to eight months.
It is for these qualities as much as its meat that the Highland breed is prized. The ability to calf easily and rear healthy offspring are particularly important when the female is crossed with another breed of bull. Referred to as the ‘Hybrid Vigour’, it is traced through the female line.
Highland cattle are popular as a show animal, bred to win prizes at agricultural and country fairs. They are often groomed with oils, which give their coat a fluffy appearance.
They are also used in conservation programmes. A fold on the Isle of Wight clears and controls vegetation on chalk grassland. Scottish Natural Heritage used 15 heifers to transform an important wildlife site at St Cyrus, on the Aberdeenshire coast. Here, by grazing the long grasses and undergrowth, they cleared the ground for dormant wildflower seeds to grow. The result was to turn rank grassland into a flourishing wildflower, insect-rich meadow.
The Old Breed is an impressive, hardy animal that encapsulates the beauty and nature of the land it comes from. Self-sufficient and dignified, it is an aristocrat among cattle.
Words: Stephen Moss Photography: Alamy
ARTIST CAPTURES THE ESSENCE OF LIVING CREATURES IN METAL AGAINST A LUSH BACKDROP
A small herd of skeletal deer graze a lush green pasture in the lee of a hill. The male stands erect, surveying the land, alert for signs of danger. Two does graze by his side, two hinds stand proud. It is a moment in nature, frozen in time and steel.
These magnificent creatures are the work of artist Andy Kay. For 10 years, he has been conjuring up what have been described as charcoal sketches in steel. His inspiration comes from the living creatures encountered on walks in the Cumbrian countryside.
Inside his workshop in Kirkby Lonsdale parts of incomplete sculptures hang from the ceiling. The spine of a young doe and the yoke that links the front or back legs of a stag both await completion by their creator. Altogether, more than 80 steel components will eventually be joined together to form the outline of a life-sized animal.
Andy’s creations include hares, pheasants, stallions, badgers and sheep. Every piece is crafted by hand. All are the result of his quiet observation of the nature surrounding his workshop. In contrast, the act of making them is full of noise, heat and light as he bends and welds steel rods together.
Simplicity of design
Born 40 miles away in Penrith, Andy studied for a BA in Design at what was then Leeds Polytechnic. “Art and design were the only things I was ever any good at. I was always whittling sticks and I remember carving a lion out of a bar of soap when I was seven years old. I did it with a little penknife and gave it to my mum,” he says.
Travelling abroad after his course finished, he developed a love of simple design. “I like the pureness. It is minimal, functional and unadorned,” he says. “This is what appeals to me. The style suits steel as you can make simple structures quickly.”
Settling back in his native Cumbria in 1993, he set up his workshop. He started creating a variety of different sculptures, and then two things happened. He was commissioned to make a steel and glass spire for a Manchester textile magnate. The money this brought in gave him time to concentrate on his interest in animals.
At that time he was seeking to develop his own style. Then a friend’s parents asked for a steel deer that looked like a charcoal sketch. While making this, he realised he had discovered his niche, incorporating his love of nature with sculpture. “That’s where it all started,” he says. “We advertised and the commissions came rolling in. It was a total surprise.”
Creating a template
With views over to the Lakeland fells, Andy’s 19 x 23ft (12 x 7m) workshop is light and airy. One side is open to the elements. Another wall is full of tools, a pile of steel and a large saw to cut it. Two large hydraulic presses sit in either corner and there are two hydraulic trolleys used as welding tables.
Here, work starts with the making of a master copy of an animal. This will be used as a template for future sculptures. These master copies form a metal zoo outside the workshop, until needed.
The process is slow and exacting. The first step is to paint a life-sized freehand sketch of the animal with a spray can onto a board. For the red deer stag, Andy finds skeletal images, as it is the skeleton he wants to depict. Before getting to work, he uses photographs to decide on the pose. It is essential that his model captures the majesty and movement of the stag.
It can take as little as 15 minutes to get the sketch right, wiping it with his sleeve if it is not quite correct. Occasionally he draws a grid to ensure the dimensions are just right, but mainly he goes by eye. “The important thing is to get the musculature right,” he says. “I do the sketch, then walk away and look and look again. It’s very easy to get it wrong. I want to capture the moment that gives it life. I’m passionate about animals and it’s important for me to get it just right. I get real pleasure from that. It can’t be just anatomically correct but has to have a sense of life as well. I love to see the real animals and I am making a different representation of them. That’s what motivates me.”
Once he is happy with the drawing, he measures each line and curve. These measurements form the blueprint for the steel pieces of the master copy. Welded carefully together, these create a stag just under 9ft (2.7m) high to the antlers, by 6½ft (2m) long.
The measurements are also copied into in his design book. Here every length is carefully numbered to correspond with the original. When a commission arrives for a stag, this master sculpture is brought into the workshop where it is used as a three-dimensional template, in conjunction with the design book.
Every month 100 20ft (6m) lengths of 16mm sq steel are delivered to the workshop from a company in Carlisle. A stag is made up of 83 lengths of steel in total. The head and antlers are formed from 34 pieces with another six to seven large pieces sweeping to form the neck. Each is worked individually, with it taking up to two weeks to make the complete sculpture.
Every piece is cut and numbered with a white chalk pencil to match the master copy. Then they are slowly bent on a press to get exactly the right curve as the original sculpture. Andy constantly checks the curve against the original and will only accept a 5mm difference. “A subtle touch works best, particularly with long pieces needing a shallow curve,” he says.
“Some pieces, such as the front yoke of the stag, can be tricky. All the pieces have to be bent by the presses and it’s all done by hand. This means that each piece is ever so slightly different, particularly when it comes to the welding as the shape can change slightly.”
He works on most of the animals himself but also has a team of six part-time staff. These include his wife Anneley. Two years ago, she gave up her job as a lawyer to learn the craft and join him in the workshop.
The team use two electric six-horsepower hydraulic presses to keep up with demand. One is a Horace Green & Co Ltd pre-war press from Keighley, West Yorkshire. “It’s a slower speed and has more force than my other press,” says Andy. “I got it from a company that used to make mining equipment for the pits. They said, ‘It’s £100 and the packet of cigarettes you’ve got in your pocket.’ Deal done! The other press cost more than £3,000, which was the right value.”
As the stag takes shape, he continues to refer to the master version, checking every bend, twist and curve is just right. “You are turning it through 90 degrees and then another 90 degrees. You have to constantly think about the animal’s anatomy and hold it up to the master,” he says. He works until he is happy the pieces are in the right place, and the right nuance has been captured.
“It’s all about giving the animal life, capturing that moment, the pride of the stag,” he says. Next he tack hinges the pieces together. Also known as stitch welding, this still allows him to move all the pieces by hand. If he feels a leg or an antler needs to be moved by a few millimetres to ensure it is as close to the master copy as possible, he can do this.
All the measurements are then checked again before welding starts. “Errors compound so it’s essential all the basics are right at this stage,” says Andy. “You have to keep walking away and look at the structure and keep looking at it afresh. Sometimes it’s just a matter of moving part of the leg a couple of millimetres one way or the other. If that’s wrong then the next piece will be wrong too. You can’t rush it, but you have to do this before welding because then it can’t be undone. It can’t be hurried, particularly the first time you create an animal.”
He starts on the back left leg of the stag, then moves on to the right. Next he attaches the yoke to link them to form a solid structure for the rest of the sculpture. Then the body is built up, the head and antlers being attached last. Often it is the small things that take the most time. Andy has to get the bottom of the stag’s jaw bone just right. “It’s that which gives the animal its proud and alert look. If it’s too low, it gives the stag a hangdog expression.”
The welding is a hazardous occupation. “I’m always burning my skin,” he says, despite wearing a welding visor and protective gauntlets. “You weld at 1000°C. It gets extremely hot, particularly in summer. You can end up wearing a cotton T-shirt and burning your arms!”
The final process is to rub off the chalked numbers on each piece of steel. He then attaches a small bronze plaque with his signature and website address to the sculpture. It is now ready for despatching to its new owner.
Often there will be up to four people in the workshop, all working on one animal. At other times they work on individual projects, depending on the workload. Andy is always devising new designs to add to his menagerie. The latest is a Swaledale sheep. The animal’s lack of obvious musculature meant it took a long time to get right. The effort was worth it, however. “My neighbour, a farmer, came by and said, ‘You’ve really got the horns right’. He wanted to buy one, that was real praise!”
Usually the sculptures are life-sized. Once he was commissioned to make two hares, however, and he decided to play around with the size. The finished creatures were 6ft (1.8m) high. “I don’t think the client had looked at the dimensions,” he says. “She rang to say she was surprised, and also delighted.”
Despite a decade of creating the animals, Andy still has his disasters. His sculpture of his black Labrador, Duke, looked more like a bull mastiff, he says. He also goes back to his book from time to time to improve his designs. One example of this is a new pheasant sculpture. This, he says, is much better than the original, as it is more simplistic with fewer pieces. The one animal he has yet to make to his satisfaction is a pig. Again this is down to poorly defined musculature. “Wild boar are fine, though, as their bodies have more of a structure,” he says.
Labour of love
His passion for Cumbria and its animals is deep in him, and is something he enjoys sharing. “The evening is when this place comes alive,” he says. “There’s a copse where a herd of red deer comes down from Barbon Fell as well as other wildlife, including hares, badgers and rabbits. It’s something really special, I see the herons and hear the curlews and I realise how lucky I am.
“I think the sculptures speak for themselves. They are original and I get real satisfaction from that. If you see a herd of them on top of a hillside with a nice brooding sky behind, they make a real visual impact.”
Words: Susan Riley Photography: Clive Doyle and Andy Kay
Jean Williams hand ties beautiful flies designed to catch trout on the River Usk
Scarcely a stone's throw from the river in Usk, Monmouthshire, sits a tiny fishing tackle shop. Inside antique and modern rods sit side by side, while well-used display cases are filled with colourful fishing flies.
In a room behind the shop. Jean Williams creates her beautiful concoctions, prized by generations of fishermen. Jean has owned Sweet's Fishing Tackle shop since 1978, although she has worked there since the 1960s. She is a traditional fly-dresser, an expert in hand tying delicate, often tiny, flamboyant artificial fishing flies. These are used to catch Salmo trutta, the brown trout, on the River Usk.
"I enjoy making flies. It's very tactile and I love working with so many beautiful things," she says. "There is such an array of colours and textures, and different sorts of materials. There are soft feathers and furs, pieces of silk, hair and wood. There are the beautiful colours of the finished flies."
Photographs: Clive Doyle
Formby's constantly changing shoreline
On the windswept coast of north-west England two great rivers, the Mersey and the Ribble, release their waters into the Irish Sea. Between them runs a 20-mile chain of golden sandhills, separating coastal towns and salt-tinged farmland from the sea. These are the dunes of the Sefton Coast, the largest open system of sand dunes in England. Here delicate orchids, rare lizards and prehistoric footprints might be glimpsed alongside expansive beaches and glittering pools.
Covering 5,000 acres (2,024 hectares), the Sefton dunes sweep in an arc starting at Crosby in the south. They pass the built-up areas of Hightown, Formby, Ainsdale and Birkdale, ending on the fringes of Southport in the north. The highest point is at Formby, where they rise to 65ft (20m) above sea level, and are at their widest around Ainsdale and Birkdale, where blown sand reaches 2½ miles (4km) inland.
The dunes form a natural barrier between sea and land, preventing flooding and protecting important areas of development and agriculture. But they are not a static barrier, they are a dynamic and harsh landscape, constantly changing and home to highly specialised plants such as marram and sand couch, and animals including Britain's rarest and most protected reptile, the sand lizard.
HOW PLUMAGE PROVIDES PROTECTION AND CAMOUFLAGE AS WELL AS ENABLING BIRDS TO FLY
Carried on a sprightly breeze, a bird soars high over the British countryside. Its flight is powered by one of nature’s lightest and most delicate creations, feathers. These provide birds with camouflage, let them perform courtship displays and, perhaps most wonderful of all, leave the earth to fly fast, silently or even under water.
A bird’s feathers are known in their entirety as its plumage. The number of feathers within this plumage varies significantly depending on the size of the particular species. It ranges from approximately 1,500 on a small passerine or perching bird such as a robin, to 25,000 on one of Britain’s largest birds, the swan.
Soft downy plumage, close to a bird’s body, traps warm air against the skin, helping keep the bird warm in winter. In summer, the feathers can be fluffed up in a breeze, allowing circulating air to reach the skin, keeping it cool.
At the other extreme are the stiffer primary and secondary flight feathers that create an aerofoil shape on the wings. These are there to create speed and lift, letting the bird attain flight.
Types and purposes
Feathers are made of keratin, a fibrous protein found in the hair and nails of humans and animals. Each feather has a follicle, which is a socket-like pit in the bird’s skin. In each follicle is a group of cells. These produce feathers, normally once a year, throughout the lifespan of a bird. New feathers form completely within just a few days.
While they are growing a bird is said to be in pin. This term comes from the newly growing feathers being housed in a keratin sheath. This serves as protection for the feather as it matures. At this stage the developing feathers look like stiff stalks and are consequently called pin feathers.
Each feather has a rachis, the shaft that runs through the middle of the feather. On either side are barbs, individual flexible branches. These extend to varying lengths from the rachis and connect together to form a web.
There are numerous feather types, all serving different purposes. On adult and immature birds, it is the contour feathers that are visible. These include the body plumage, primary and secondary flight feathers, tail feathers and coverts. The latter cover other feathers, creating a smooth outline. It is the outermost parts of the contour feathers that give the bird its individual colours.
On the body plumage, the outer barbs are linked together to form a flat surface, known as the vane. Heavily overlapping, these contour feathers protect the body from exposure to the elements. They also offer protection from injuries including bites and stings. At the base of a contour feather, closest to the bird’s body, the barbs are downy and separated. It is this part of the feather which traps the warm air. Chicks are entirely covered in soft down to keep them warm in the nest.
Flight feathers have flat barbs, which join together via hooks on the side of one barb. These secure themselves into a trough on the side of the adjacent barb. The barbs on the outer webs of flight feathers project from the rachis at a forwards angle towards the tip. The more acute the angle, the stiffer and so stronger the feather’s web will be. Consequently, the outermost primaries of all birds’ wings have a narrow and hard outer web, with the acutest angled barbs. When a bird flaps its wings in flight, these feathers move further and faster than those on the inner wing. This provides power through the air, while the broader inner feathers create lift.
Each wing usually has 10 primary feathers. A common feature on birds that soar, such as eagles, buzzards and kites, is for the distal, or furthest, portions of one or both webs (inner and outer) to be reduced. These are said to be emarginated. When wings with this feature are spread, these feathers form notches, their distal ends resembling fingers. The reduced width of the outer part of the emarginated primary is extremely stiff and of an aerofoil section in profile. In flight this feature allows air to pass through the slots, minimizing turbulence and improving stability in the air.
Secondary feathers have more rounded tips than the primaries, are broader and more curved. The exception to this are the three or four tertial feathers, positioned closest to the wing joint with the body. Tertial feathers lay over one another and are more symmetrically shaped. In many cases the tertial feathers are uniformly coloured or patterned on both sides and quite elongated. When the wings are closed, they provide a top cover to the inner flight feathers.
Each wing usually has between nine and 11 secondaries. Some species, however, such as seabirds that have extremely long wings, can have up to 20.
The majority of species have 12 tail feathers, matched in six equal pairs. Scientifically called rectrices, they are used for control. Tails create lift and control drag during slower flights and help birds steer during turns. They are furled, or folded, to reduce drag during faster flights.
As a rule, the central pair of tail feathers are reasonably straight and symmetrical, with a convex vane. As the tail feathers progress outwards, the outer webs become narrower with broader tips and flatter vanes. When closed together, the outer tail feathers lie beneath the convex vanes of the central pair to become a compact unit. Once fanned out, the broadened tips of the outer feathers form a widespread structure.
The bodily part of each wing is covered in different types of covert feathers which are quite stiff. They cover the skin and bone of that part of the body. There are also uppertail and undertail coverts, which are heavily convex in form. These smooth the bird’s body shape into the tail feathers.
Some birds have evolved feathers dedicated to helping with their different lifestyles and feeding habits.
Woodpeckers, for example, climb up vertical tree trunks to feed on grubs in the bark and to drill out holes for their nest. Their tail feathers have very strong rachis that are pressed firmly against the trunk to provide support. The central pair, in particular, have far thicker and stronger rachis than would normally be found on a feather of this size. The tips of this central pair are often broken off. The inverted V-shaped tip that is left demonstrates the pressure exerted.
Gannets, which dive into water to catch fish, have very strong, stiff feathers. These have a thick rachis and tapered webs, which form a pointed vane. The gannet also has fine, short body contour feathers, creating a streamlined shape. These characteristics combine to allow the gannet to dive into water without its feathers becoming waterlogged and so heavy it would have trouble surfacing. Softer, wider flight feathers and fluffy body plumage would absorb a lot of water.
As night hunters, owls need to move through the air without sound, to avoid alerting their prey to the danger above. To enable this, they have a velvety down on the upper surfaces of very soft webs. Their outer primaries are edged with a comb of fine extensions which cuts through the air before the main web reaches it. This mechanism creates soundless flight.
Colours and strength
White feathers are produced as a result of the feather containing pure keratin only. Colouring agents are thought to givefeathers more strength. With no colour-producing substances in them, pure white ones are usually more worn thancoloured examples generally are.
Black and shades of brown on feathers are the result of the introduction of melanin. This is a common dark pigment found in the hair, skin and eyes of humans and animals. The actual colour produced on the feather depends on the density of melanin, and varies from a light buffish brown to darkest black.
Blue feathers are produced by a colourless, translucent layer of keratin over a black pigment. Similarly, green feathers are a result of carotenoid, a colourful organic pigment, in the translucent layer over the black pigment. Red and yellow feathers are also the result of the presence of carotenoid. This pigment is found in many plants and forms of algae, so its presence in feathers may be as a result of a bird’s diet.
Fit for purpose
Whether it is to help a bird support itself on a vertical tree trunk, to fly silently, dive into the sea or even to provide camouflage on the ground, there is a feather that has evolved for that purpose. They come in all shapes and sizes and a whole array of colours and patterns. Birds’ feathers are as fascinating in their diversity as the birds themselves.
Words: Jarrod Cotter Photographs: Alamy
The feature on feathers appeared in the Mar / Apr 2016 issue of LandScape.
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ANCIENT PLANTINGS THRIVE TO DELIGHT VISITORS WITH A WINTER CASCADE OF WHITE BLOOMS
In the heart of Exmoor lies a hidden valley that comes to life at one of the darkest times of the year, as it fills with a shimmering cascade of diminutive white flowers. For just four weeks in February, this special place opens to visitors who flock to see its carpet of beautiful snowdrops. The flowers tumble down the valley sides and cover the ground on either side of the River Avill.
The valley lies less than a mile north of the hamlet of Wheddon Cross, near Cutcombe in Somerset. It provides the perfect conditions for snowdrops. They thrive in the partial shade and nutrient-rich soil of deciduous woodland. The water that runs through it keeps the soil preferably moist. The River Avill rises on the eastern slopes of Dunkery Beacon, the highest point of Exmoor, two miles away to the north-west. The small, fast-flowing river tumbles into the valley where its clear waters once powered a sawmill that processed larch and oak from the woods. Today, buzzards and ravens cruise above the woodland, while smaller birds such as great tits haunt the canopy.
The trees that flank the valley slopes are part of ancient woodland that has an unbroken link back to primary forest. Those along the river are more recent, probably having developed naturally over the past 100 years. The trees are mixed deciduous species, much of it oak.
No one knows precisely how many flowers will appear each season, with climate and weather affecting numbers. In a good year, they spread as far as the eye can see.
“We are completely reliant on the weather which governs how the snowdrops perform,” says Eric Clarbull. He is the chairman of the Cutcombe Parish Council sub-committee that oversees the valley’s annual opening. “If it’s mild in winter, the snowdrops appear too early for the opening. If there’s frost in December or January, it holds them back, helping give a good show throughout February.”
The valley’s snowdrops are Galanthus nivalis. The Latin name translates as snowy milk flower, because they are said to have the appearance of three drops of milk, hanging from a stem. All snowdrops grow from small, round bulbs and are perennial. G. nivalis reaches 6in (15cm) or more in height. The plant has narrow basal leaves from which the stem rises to support a single pendant, honey-scented flower approximately 3/4in (2cm) long. This comprises an outer and inner layer with three segments. These are known as tepals, a term used when it is difficult to differentiate between petals and sepals, the outer part of the flower that protects the petals while in bud. At the base is an ovary, which produces seed when the flower has been fertilised.
When the flowers are in bud, they stand bolt upright. A slender stem, known as a pedicel, emerges from the top of the flower stem. When fully open, the flower dangles elegantly from the pedicel. When the flowerhead is gently lifted, it reveals its face which has delicate green markings inside. These are nectar guides and have more fragrance than the rest of the flower to help draw in pollinating insects.
Once pollinated, the seeds start to form. As the ovary capsule ripens and swells, the weight bends the stalk down until it rests on the ground. Snowdrop seed has an appendage known as an elaiosome. This is a small body rich in fatty acids attractive to ants. They visit the ripening pods, carrying off the elaiosomes, discarding the unwanted seed on the way. Plants grown from seed can take three years to flower.
The other way snowdrops proliferate is by the bulbs splitting, producing bulblets. Over the years the clumps become large. Some may be distributed by foraging mammals such as squirrels.
For centuries, the snowdrop valley remained a hidden gem, known only to locals. Twenty years ago, the outside world started to hear of its beauty and visitors started to arrive in great numbers. In an effort to control traffic, a park and ride scheme has run for the last 20 years, with the valley road closed to anyone except residents.
A short, circular stroll of about half a mile meanders through the valley floor on both sides of the river, weaving through the snowdrops. The woodland area has no precise boundary, but covers approximately five acres.
Planning for the opening starts in August each year. A local coordinator is appointed to oversee and organise the volunteers who help run the event, organise the road closure and the bus company contract. At the same time the woodland has to be managed.
“Sometimes bad weather brings down trees across the paths,” says Eric. “These need clearing to ensure safe access to the snowdrops, although the snowdrops’ growing area is left undisturbed. We also need to prevent brambles and other vegetation from overtaking the ground and blocking out the light. The flooding of recent years washed out many bulbs, sending snowdrops downstream where they continue to flourish in the river banks.”
Within living memory, snowdrops from the valley were picked and sold in Minehead, eight miles to the north on the Somerset coast. Today they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, and picking or uprooting the snowdrops in the valley is illegal.
The valley’s 10,000 visitors a year can enjoy a walk here as an invigorating antidote to the grey days of winter. This confection of tiny constellations is a reminder that spring is not far away.
Words: Simone Stanbrook-Bryne Photography: Alamy
REMOTE MARSHES STEEPED IN SMUGGLING LORE on the coast of kent and sussex
As the winter sun burns away the morning mists and melts the surface water of dykes and ditches, a landscape full of life and history is revealed. This remote, flat countryside, criss-crossed with waterways, long beaches and tidal creeks, is Romney Marsh.
To the east, the English Channel falls off the horizon, to the south the 10-mile coastline gently curves from the village of Dymchurch round to the 135ft (41m) High Light Tower at Dungeness. Inland, to the north and west, is low-lying wetland veined with watercourses. This is the largest coastal wetland on the south coast. It relies for its existence on the constant upkeep of its drainage system and massive earthen defence walls. These, together with natural shingle barriers, protect it from incursions of the sea as it tries to reclaim the land it once covered.
It is water which has given Romney Marsh its dramatic history of smuggling, its abundant wildlife and its rich and fertile land. Nature and man have worked in unison to create this landscape. On the seashore, waves crash on the shingle, as the winter wind whistles across the land. Inland, large flocks of resident and migrating waterfowl congregate noisily on the ground. Marsh harriers slowly circle in the great expanse of sky above the flocks of sheep whose forebears were responsible for the area’s past wealth.
Marsh lamb and lookers
Sheep have been grazed on Romney Marsh for centuries. The marsh, however, has a bad reputation for health, with malaria, known as ague or marsh fever, a significant problem well into the 1800s. The sheep’s owners stayed away from the area, preferring to employ shepherds, called lookers, to tend the flocks.
Lookers lived a hard, lonely life in small huts scattered across the marsh. Built from brick and measuring approximately 10ft (3m) square, the huts contained a straw bed as well as tools including a scythe, fork and broom. Today a reconstructed hut exists at the Romney Marsh Visitor Centre in New Romney, run by the Kent Wildlife Trust. “The marsh in winter takes your breath away,” says Liz Grant, the trust’s development officer. “There’s a cold wind, and then there is the mist and fog. Sometimes it lies on the ground and you can’t see your shoes or the sheep, and sometimes it lingers above your waist. I’ve never seen mist with a life of its own. It often collects over the water so you can see how smuggling took off.”
The last lookers disappeared after the Second World War when much of the land was ploughed. Only around a third of the pastureland remains, but sheep are still vital to the local economy. Known as Romneys, these sheep are famed for their long wool and hardiness. The Romney Salt Marsh lamb is also highly prized for its rich, sweet meat.
“It’s a different world on the marsh,” says Liz. “It is just an incredible place to live. I always say it’s a difficult place to find and an even harder place to leave. The people are very friendly. Everyone knows everyone – there’s a cohesiveness to the communities here.”
Smuggling and justice
For centuries, wool was subject to heavy taxation, which encouraged smuggling. From the 13th century, wool was taken out of the country illegally. By the 17th century, the problem was so bad that the death penalty was introduced for the offence. It was a two-way trade. The boats used to smuggle out the wool came back laden with brandy, tea, and tobacco, all of which avoided duty. The smugglers were known as Owlers, from the noises they made to communicate.
Their illicit ways became an inspiration for several authors. One of the best known was Russell Thorndike who wrote a series of adventure novels. These were tales of derring-do about the fictional Doctor Syn, a local vicar who doubled as the leader of a smuggling band in the late 1700s.
The headquarters for law and order on the Marsh was Dymchurch, four miles north of New Romney. Its name comes from deme, a medieval word meaning judge. Justice was meted out by the Lords of the Levels, the Marsh’s governors at the 16th century New Hall and Gaol in the High Street. The head magistrate was known as the Leveller of the Marsh Scotts, a scot in this context being a payment. As well as dealing with smugglers, one of the magistrates’ jobs was to enforce a scot tax to maintain the sea walls, but those just outside the parish boundaries didn’t have to pay. Instead they got off ‘scot free’.
The sea wall
Situated on the eastern coastline of the Marsh, Dymchurch owes its existence to the gradual draining of the marshes. In a natural action known as longshore drift, sediments such as clay, silt, sand and shingle were carried along the coast at an angle to the shoreline. At Dymchurch this built into a large shingle and sand bank, behind which the marshes gradually became dry land.
By the time the Romans invaded in the first century AD, Dymchurch was a shingle spit, protecting their harbour at Portus Lemanis, five miles to the north. The Romans produced salt from works at Dymchurch, where today discoveries of coins and a cremation site bear testament to their presence.
There has been a sea wall here since the 15th century, protecting the marsh from flooding. It was reconstructed between 1840-47, heightened again in 1971 and was rebuilt in 2011. Today the stepped concrete structure leading to an arching wall provides a pleasant promenade alongside the sandy beaches, but its protective role is still essential.
The village, with its population of around 4,000, stretches parallel to the beach and the wall. A mixture of old cottages sit among more modern buildings. It is a settlement that has long attracted writers and artists. The squat, whitewashed 15th century Dormer Cottages in the High Street have been home to Noël Coward and Edith Nesbit, the author of The Railway Children. Another resident was the artist Paul Nash, whose Modernist seascapes painted in the first half of the 20th century often featured Dymchurch wall.
The sea wall was not the only construction in the town built to protect the land. This time it was not the sea that was the enemy, but instead the threat of French invasion during the Napoleonic Wars. Three round 40ft (12m) high Martello towers stand guard set slightly back from the wall. They are part of a total of 103 Martellos originally built at regular intervals along the south coast from Sussex to Suffolk. Number 25, at the southern end of the village, is empty, but number 24 in the centre of Dymchurch between the High Street and the beach, has been fully restored. It is owned by English Heritage and free to enter, by appointment. The third, number 23, is just north of Dymchurch and is a private residence. The invasion never materialised. Instead the towers were taken over by the coastguard in a bid to combat the area’s endemic smuggling.
Taking the train
Today, Dymchurch is one of the stops on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. This 15in gauge railway runs 90-year-old one third size steam trains the 131/2miles from Hythe along the coast to Dungeness. The occasional hoot can be heard before the train puffs into sight at the small station in Dymchurch.
The line opened on 16 July 1927, as a public railway. Today, its passengers are mainly visitors who enjoy the hour-long trip from Hythe to Dungeness. There are six main stations, of which New Romney is the fourth along the line from Hythe. This is home to the visitor centre and café. Inside, there is a detailed history, a model railway exhibition and photos of visiting dignitaries including the Queen, and Laurel and Hardy. Outside, there is a bustle of trains, visitors taking pictures and people, some volunteers, in overalls polishing its fleet of 10 locomotives.
“Romney Marsh is flat and the scenery pleasant but not dramatic, until the seascape of Dungeness is reached,” says Danny Martin, the railway’s general manager. “The hour’s journey on the train displays its changing nature from rich farmland to shingle banks.”
Travelling at approximately 25mph, the train runs south through the coastal villages of Greatstone-on-Sea and Lydd-on-Sea. It then crosses open shingle to the two Dungeness lighthouses and the power stations. Fishing boats and huts are scattered across the wide shingle beaches. Homes, many built from discarded railway coaches, have seemingly washed ashore at random intervals. Many are holiday homes, but a number are lived in all year.
Monuments made by man
The most recent of the two lighthouses was built in 1961, but the one that attracts attention is the 1904 Old Lighthouse. The ascent of the 169 steps to the Lantern Room is rewarded with the sight of its two-ton circular lens that used to float on a mercury base. In the 1960s, the Dungeness nuclear power station was built. This blocked much of the Old Lighthouse’s light, prompting the construction of the new lighthouse. The power station dominates the view from Dungeness village. On clear days, these vast concrete structures can be seen from as far away as Eastbourne, 40 miles west along the coast.
Four miles north of Dungeness, along Coast Drive and The Parade, is Greatstone and its strange sound mirrors. These massive concrete structures were built between 1928 and 1930 as listening ears for enemy aircraft. They were designed to concentrate the sound of incoming aircraft. But as planes became faster their effectiveness declined. The introduction of radar rendered them fully obsolete in the late 1930s. They still stand and can be visited on a guided walk run by the Romney Marsh Countryside Project.
A half-a-mile walk east from the Dungeness railway station leads past one of the most influential gardens of the 20th century. This shingle plot, incorporating natural materials, native plants and sculpture made from rusting metal objects, was a total contrast to the pruned and preened gardens of the time. It surrounds a dark timber cottage with yellow trim, once home to film director Derek Jarman. He created the garden using what he found around him. There is flotsam washed up on the beaches, shells and native plants that grow well in salty shingle areas, such as sea kale and cornflowers. It is not open to the public, but can be seen from the road.
Leaving the solitude of the marshes behind, and crossing the East Sussex border, the traveller arrives at Rye. This medieval town is one of the best preserved in the country and breathes history. Along its cobbled streets, ramshackle Tudor timber-framed buildings sit next to Georgian mansions. Little, dark alleyways connect the streets that today are filled with antique shops and delicatessens, art galleries and tea rooms.
“There are 4,000 year-round residents, but a million visitors come every year,” says Andy McConnell. A specialist in glass, he runs antique shop Glass Etc on Rope Walk at the north-east of the town. “There’s nothing else quite like Rye. We’ve got everything we need here. There’s a library, 15 restaurants, 25 pubs, good hotels and even a cinema. My wife, Helen, and I opened the shop 10 years ago. We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It seems as though you’ve got the world on your doorstep.”
Walking from Glass Etc, on Rope Walk, a left turn on Tower Street leads to Landgate. Built in 1329, this is the only gateway to the town still standing. During the 14th century, at the time of the Hundred Years War, Rye was attacked several times by the French. Its wall defences cut off the town to the north and west, while the cliffs on the east and south side provided a natural barrier. Part of the wall can be seen from the car park along Cinque Ports Street.
South along Hilder’s Cliff directly above Landgate, is Rye Castle Museum, full of stories from the town. It contains a range of locally made Hopware, pottery inspired by Kent’s hop industry. Depicting hop vines and cones, it was popular between the 1870s and 1930.
At the top of the cobbled Pump Street is Ypres Tower, the oldest building in Rye open to the public. It was built as a fort in 1249 and has since been a court, a private residence, and from 1494 to 1891 a rather grim prison. Today, displays include a smuggler’s lantern, a model of the moving coastline of Romney Marsh and a well-maintained herb garden.
The smugglers’ inn
Past St Mary’s Church, is another picturesque cobbled road, Mermaid Street. This is lined with a cornucopia of architectural styles, some dating back to the 1400s. The best known building is The Mermaid Inn that has stood here since 1420. In the mid-1700s a feared group of smugglers, known as the Hawkhurst Gang, met here to plan their skullduggery.
Down Mermaid Street towards the bustling quay, still replete with fishing vessels, is Rye Pottery on Wish Ward. Dating back to 1793, it was celebrated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries for producing fine ceramics by hand using a 17th century technique known as Faience or Delft. After the Second World War, the Cole brothers took it on, creating a reputation for cutting-edge designs. Today, it is run by their descendants, siblings Tabby and Josh Cole.
“Rye has been known for pottery since medieval times,” says Tabby. “The locals are incredibly proud of this heritage. Since 1947, we have been training local people in the process. One paintress joined around that time at 15 and now she’s trained generations of decorators.
“We paint onto unfired glaze which is like painting a watercolour onto cake icing. As soon as your brush hits the surface it soaks in. You need to be delicate yet decisive.”
For 200 years, the pottery has been making Sussex Pigs. These were originally celebratory drinking vessels, with the pig’s head used as a cup while the body held the beer. “They are only made here and they are now in museums around the world,” says Tabby.
From the busy cobbled streets of Rye, full of history and character, to the otherworldliness and solitude of Romney Marsh, this is an area that offers sharp contrasts. Winter provides the perfect opportunity to explore this area of open skies, wide horizons and historic settlements at its most atmospheric.
Words: Daniel Neilson Photographs: Alamy
LEAF-STREWN PATHWAYS LEAD VISITORS THROUGH A GOLDEN FOREST AT BURNHAM BEECHES IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE
As late autumn slips into the chilly months of winter, a Buckinghamshire wood glows light gold, as the low sun shines through the tree tops. Crisp, brown fallen leaves crunch underfoot as visitors to Burnham Beeches, near Beaconsfield, walk along its paths.
A tracery of walks meanders through the 540 acres of this ancient woodland, past trees that have stood here for more than four centuries. Few beech trees achieve such a venerable span, but at Burnham approximately 350 craggy pollards survive among younger trees in this woodland oasis.
By November, the beeches have shed most of the foliage from their dense canopies, leaving drifts of brown and gold leaves on the ground beneath. A distinctive, mellow aroma of leaf decay fills the air. Above, other leaves may be dead, but they will hang on to the branches until spring. Around each silvery bole, among the rippling roots that radiate across the mossy woodland floor, lie countless thousands of spiky brown husks, crackling underfoot. These are the fallen beech fruits, now emptied of their triangular brown seeds, often by squirrels.
Thanks to its grace and beauty, the beech, Fagus sylvatica, is sometimes known as The Mother of the Forests or The Madonna of the Wood. It has a striking presence. Fast-growing, it reaches maturity within 30 to 40 years. At this time it can be up to 115ft (35m) in height, although, exceptionally, it may grow to 150ft (46m). Beeches normally live for up to 250 years, making Burnham’s pollards the exceptions.
The trees with the greatest girths are usually old ones which have been pollarded, that is have had their upper branches removed. Up to 30ft (9m) has been recorded. The last to grow this big at Burnham was in 1878. Today the largest tree here measures slightly more than 16ft (5m) in girth.
Extremely shade tolerant, beech thrives on most types of soil, although it is particularly successful on the free-draining chalk and limestone of southern England. It is equally at home on acidic or sandy soils. The tree’s extensive root systems are comparatively shallow compared to many other broadleaved trees, which causes problems in the face of high winds. Many British beeches were lost in the gales of 1987 and 1990.
It is considered to be a native species in the southern half of England, or below a line stretching from The Wash to the Severn Estuary and into south-east Wales. North of this, it is classed as naturalised. This means the trees regenerate freely, but originated from planted stock, hundreds if not thousands of years ago. The exact date of the beech’s arrival after the last Ice Age has been the subject of considerable debate. One theory is that it arrived 8,000 years ago, a second 5,000 years ago, while a final theory is that it was intentionally introduced during the pre-Roman era by early farmers who fattened their livestock on its nuts.
The winter tree
In the final months of the year, the colourful foliage displays a wide range of yellows, golds and oranges. These get lighter in hue as the year comes to a close.
The spiky four-lobed husks of the fruits slowly peel back to release the ripened nuts inside in early autumn. These are known as mast, from the old English word maest, which referred to nuts that were used for fattening animals, such as pigs, in woodland. Every five to 10 years, there will be a mast year, when a bumper crop of the brown, pointed, triangular nuts is formed. It is not known why mast years occur, although the weather is believed to play a part.
By December, the graceful, silvery form of the tree, with its smooth grey bark, becomes visible. Dense crowns of fine twigs bear slender, sharply pointed buds, tightly enclosed in waxy orange-brown scale leaves that provide protection for the frosty months ahead.
The tree’s profile tends to be slender and conical. With age, however, the heavy lateral boughs may droop downwards, eventually touching the ground. When this happens they can layer, putting down new roots and creating the potential for new trees.
For many centuries, beech wood was the mainstay of fuel for towns and cities, but with the advent of coal, and later oil, this demand dwindled. It was also used to make legs and spindles for Windsor chairs in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Retaining dead leaves
Some beech trees retain their dead leaves throughout the winter months. This phenomenon, known as marcescence, is usually observed in younger, smaller, low-lying beech trees, and frequently in well-trimmed hedges. This is one of the main reasons that beech has long been favoured for this use. It continues to provide both shelter and colour when much else is bare.
The reason why this happens remains unknown, although one theory is that it helps protect the new buds from frosting. Another suggests that the dead leaves, which present no obvious nutrition for browsing animals, help to protect the new buds from predation.
It has also been suggested that leaves at the lower levels get an end-of-season burst of sunlight. These have been shaded until all the leaves above have blown off. It means that the trees are able to photosynthesise later into the autumn. This enables the production of nutrients to strengthen the tree over winter.
Whatever the reason, at Burnham Beeches the result allows the low winter light to gleam through the last pale golden leaves. It creates a wonderful place for brisk walks under the dappled canopy.
Words: Archie Miles Photographs: Alamy
The feature on Burnham Beeches appeared in the Nov / Dec 2015 issue of LandScape.
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CHANGING COLOURS OF TREE SYMBOLIC OF BRITAIN'S COUNTRYSIDE
As autumn approaches, the mighty oak takes on its new seasonal colours. As the sap subsides, these iconic trees put on a fine show. The exhausted summer greens turn to buttery yellows, burnished with gold. Finally, only the brown, crisped memories of the past year’s leaves still cling to the mother tree.
From its acorns nestled in their cross-hatched cups, to the distinctive lobed leaves and the bold, billowing form of its mighty frame, the oak is one of the most recognisable of British trees. It is the commonest large broadleaf tree, Britain’s dominant woodland species. There are estimated to be more than 200 million mature trees growing around the country.
As useful as it is beautiful, oaks have been planted and nurtured for hundreds of years. Its acorns fed pigs, tannin from its bark was used to produce leather and its excellent quality timber went into buildings, ships and furniture.
There are 600 species of oak in the genus Quercus. Only two are native to Britain, the common, English or pedunculate oak, Quercus robur, and the sessile oak, Quercus petrel. The terms pedunculate and sessile refer to whether the acorns have stalks – peduncles – or not. Sessile is from the Latin sessilis, meaning fit for sitting on. The sessile oak’s acorns sit on the stems, with no stalks.
The native oak is often regarded as a single generic tree, but there are several ways to disseminate the two species. From a distance they can often look remarkably similar. However, in general, the English oak tends to be a more rugged, spreading tree with a zigzag pattern to its branches. These were once keenly sought by shipbuilders for the L-shaped wooden brackets known as knees and crooks.
In profile the sessile oak tends to have much straighter, more upswept boughs.
Both species may still adopt forms that confuse. Differentiation can be further complicated by the fact that there are a plethora of intermediate forms and hybrids. This is inevitable with both species sharing the same territory.
Moving in a little closer is useful to discover which species is which. Acorns that clearly have short stems (peduncles) an inch or two long on to the twig and leaves with little or no stem are definitely English oak. Acorns with no stems that sit snugly on the twig, usually in little clusters, and leaves with short stems will be sessile oak. Even so, it is common to find oaks with both very short-stemmed acorns as well as leaves.
Every three or four years oaks produce a huge crop of acorns in autumn, up to 50,000. This is called a ‘mast year’. With so many acorns on the ground, it is likely that more will survive predation.
Both male and female flowers are found on the same tree. Male flowers are long, green pendulous catkins (up to 1¾in/4cm). The tiny female flowers comprise a cluster of bracts surrounding a bud-like structure with three styles. Both appear with the leaves in spring. They are pollinated by the wind.
Growth and extreme age
Oaks flourish in all manner of soils and aspects, but English oak is essentially the lowland species. It excels in the deep loams and boulder clays of the south and east. The sessile oak is most commonly associated with lighter sandy soils and gravels, usually more acidic in character. Its dominant range is the west coast, northwest England and Scotland. However, extensive species overlap for thousands of years has lead to a blurring of these natural ranges.
British oaks have the capacity to grow to approximately 130ft (40m) in height, although that is exceptional. In 2012 a 200-year-old sessile oak was discovered in woodland on the National Trust’s Stourhead Estate in Wiltshire. It had forged upwards seeking sunlight from the dense woodland. It finally reached a height verified by the Tree Register at 132½ ft (40.4m) and has now been recognised as the tallest oak in Britain.
Oak trees can attain extreme old age, up to 900 years and beyond. This particularly applies to oaks that have been pollarded. This is done by trimming boughs at around 8ft to 10ft (2.4-3m) above ground on a regular rotation. It ‘fools’ the tree into believing that it has yet to fully mature, so it keeps producing new growth. A pollarded tree frequently thrives for 1,000 years. Some of the most ancient oaks have survived to 1,200 or 1,300 years. However, the oaks that have reached these mighty spans are invariably hollow. This makes an annual ring count impossible to do. Dendrochronolgy, or tree-ring dating, is the scientific method of ageing trees. It dates the time at which a tree’s annual growth rings were formed, often to the exact calendar year. The lack of rings on the ancient hollow trees means their age can only be gauged by extrapolating outwards from younger trees of known ages. If a sequence of oaks are found to be 300, 500, or 700 years old, then their measurements can be used to estimate the age of a much larger tree.
For a maiden oak – a tree that has not been pollarded – reaching 900 years would be remarkable. There are a handful of trees, such as “Majesty” at Fredville in Kent, that might easily surpass this span. Most maiden oaks in perfect situations should certainly make at least 600 years.
The most ancient oaks are recognisable by their stupendous girths and enchanting, knobbly, burry, contorted forms. Anything much over 38ft (11.5m) around at chest height can claim to be 1,000 years old. The record breakers at 42ft (12.8m) could be more than 1,300 years old.
A long legacy of coppicing oak trees in woodland has created many impressive coppice stools. At first glance, these appear to be massive stumps with relatively small oak trunks emerging from them, their size depending on how recently they have been harvested. The truth is that these stools can be cropped and allowed to regenerate indefinitely. Some of them may be many hundreds, perhaps even 1,000 years old. It is impossible to tell.
Native British oaks have enormous benefits for wildlife. The English oak supports a greater variety of species than any other tree in the British Isles, making it an important habitat in its own right. The oaks provide a habitat for many hundreds of species from moth larvae which rely on them for food, to owls that nest in cavities. Many birds, such as blue tits and chaffinches, are attracted to the insects that live on the leaves, buds and bark, and even inside the acorns. The acorns provide food for jays, wood pigeons and squirrels.
The decaying wood of veteran oaks supports wood-boring insects such as stag and long horn beetles.
Place in the landscape
The stature and longevity of oaks and their place in the landscape never cease to inspire awe. To this is added their contribution to British culture, history and economy, plus their immense value as wildlife habitat. It is no wonder the oak is a most treasured tree.
Words: Archie Miles Photography: Alamy
The feature about the oak originally appeared in the Sept / Oct 2014 issue of LandScape.
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