In late summer, the kingfisher, Alcedo atthis, is busy finding food not just for itself, but for a brood of chicks. Tilting its head from side to side, it assesses the movements of a small shoal of sticklebacks in the water below…Read More
Increasingly rare, the genial and resilient Tamworth is a link back to Britain’s forest pigs and wild boars
Tails swishing from side to side, ears pricked in anticipation, five piglets trot across a spring meadow, scrambling over each other’s backs as they jostle for position. Just a few weeks old, this is the furthest they have ventured from their mother, but she is content to let them roam. Squealing with excitement, they root through the soil, sniffing and biting at sticks and pebbles, rising on their toes to investigate the bark of trees. Their red coats gleam bright against the green grass as they explore their new world.
Tamworth pigs like these were once a familiar sight in the British countryside, especially in their native Staffordshire and neighbouring counties. In the days when almost every rural cottager, and many working-class urban homes, kept a pig, they were a favourite provider of pork and bacon. But today they are much less common. “It’s a shame they’re not as popular now, because they’re so well suited to the smallholder,” says Sarah Dodds, who breeds Tamworths on her farm in the foothills of the Cheviots. “They’re so bright and inquisitive, they’re a joy to keep, and their friendly nature makes them really easy to deal with.”
Sarah was drawn to Tamworths the first time she saw them. “I was on a farm placement before starting agricultural college,” she says. “I knew straight away I would have some in the future.” Twenty years later, she still has her herd of Tamworths. They live outside all year round, only coming in from the Northumbrian weather to farrow and rear their piglets.
This resilience is one of the traits of the breed. “They’re forgiving animals that do well on rough terrain, and can be kept on anything from fresh pastureland to poor, rocky soil,” says Sarah. “They’re very hardy, and their thick, coarse coat withstands our climate well. However, you must always make sure there is shelter when they need it.”
It is this coat that makes the Tamworth the most recognisable of pigs. Its colour ranges from pale, gingery blond to deep red-brown, the latter giving rise to their old country name of the mahogany pig. Living 10-15 years, Tamworths only reach their full size at approximately five. They are long pigs, usually measuring 39-56in (100-140cm) from ear to base of tail. Reaching a height of approximately 26in (66cm), they have a relatively flat back that slopes gently from the shoulder. Their fringed ears are large and upright, rather than folded, as in lop-eared pigs. The eyes are brown, or more rarely blue, and the tail, which they wave when happy or excited, reaches 12in (30cm) uncurled. Compared with other breeds, the Tamworth has long legs and snout, and a shallow, only slightly dished face with a tight jowl.
It is these last features that give a clue to the Tamworth’s long heritage. Genetically distinct from other native UK breeds, it is the closest living relative of the Old English forest pig, itself a descendant of the wild boar.
In the 18th century, there was a push to improve native pigs by crossing them with breeds from south-east Asia, particularly China. These pigs were faster-growing, fatter animals with shorter legs and snouts. The resulting offspring provided more meat for an expanding population. But the Tamworth was never part of this drive. Relatively rare outside the Midlands and slow to mature, it was not considered a worthy investment. It remains one of the least inter-bred of pigs, although some development took place in the early 19th century. No official records exist, but many believe it may have been crossed with Irish grazer pigs by Sir Robert Peel. He had imported grazers to his estate at Drayton Manor, near Tamworth.
Its long snout means the Tamworth, like its ancestors, is a particularly good forager. It uses its sharp sense of smell to find roots, tubers, berries and fungi in undergrowth and soil. A pig’s snout ends in a disc of cartilage, which makes it firm but flexible enough to push, dig and lift.
As it forages, not only does it eat unwanted plants, but it also breaks up the soil and destroys larvae that would otherwise damage vegetation. Before crops could be planted, medieval swineherds used pigs to clear areas of forest, a practice that continues to this day. “Over the years, I’ve hired out many a pig to country estates and stately homes, where they’ve wanted to bring a kitchen garden back to its original state, or just to clear ground,” says Sarah. “The Forestry Commission uses them to clear bracken and the like in an environmentally friendly way. Pigs are actually very methodical in their digging and will do a section at a time, working from a specific spot.”
On the farm
With a Tamworth boar reaching as much as 40st (254kg) and sows up to 25st (159kg), a bad-tempered animal could cause real problems. But handling Tamworths has never given Sarah any cause for concern.
“They love interaction with humans,” she says. “They are highly sociable animals and very intelligent. They’re not as docile as lop-eared pigs, but Tamworths will become quite tame. They’ve been shown to respond to approximately 1,000 words and commands, the same as a Labrador. And they truly are all individual characters.”
Apart from a few glands in the snout, they do not sweat. Instead, they enjoy wallowing in mud which helps them regulate their body temperature and rids them of insects. They also rub against trees to keep their skin in good condition. Although in summer Tamworths moult some of their thick coat, it still affords them protection from the sun. They are less likely to burn or suffer the heat stress to which ‘pink’ pigs are prone. They are sensitive to draughts, however, and will do everything they can to avoid them. It may have been this that gave rise to the folk belief that pigs can see the wind.
Pigs become very stressed if isolated. Feral pigs always spend a lot of time with each other. They rest together after dusk, sleep in the same nest and often huddle together for warmth. Clean animals, they always create separate areas for use as a toilet, and for eating and sleeping.
Sarah carries out health checks on her pigs when she feeds them, which is done twice a day. “A poorly pig is poorly very quickly, so you would know straight away if there’s a problem,” she says. “But Tamworths are very resilient and shouldn’t be sick often. I don’t vaccinate as I operate a closed herd, breeding my own replacement pigs whose health I’m certain of. I keep pigs of the same bloodline together so I can maintain the pedigree.”
Until the 1930s, a pig was a valued member of many British households. Often treated almost as a pet, they would convert leftover food and peelings into manure for the vegetable patch. They were also a source of cheap food. Everything was used ‘except the squeal’. As well as the main cuts of ham and bacon, pickled or fried cheeks, known as chaps, roast chines or backbones, sausages, faggots, black pudding, boiled trotters and brawn were all popular. Glue was made from the bones, paint brushes from the bristles, and the fat concocted into medicines and soap. They were so important to the family budget that pig clubs flourished across the country. Members paid into the fund, receiving a payout should their animal become ill or die.
After the Second World War, fewer people kept pigs. This was coupled with a change in farming practice, when it was decided that just three fast-growing breeds should form the basis of the modern British pig industry. These were the large white, landrace and Welsh. The Tamworth and other native pigs fell into decline, with some, such as the Lincolnshire curly coat, becoming completely extinct.
Today, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust classes the Tamworth as ‘vulnerable’, meaning there are just 200-300 registered breeding sows. “I’m afraid it’s a case of use it or lose it,” says Sarah. “And you should use the Tamworth. The meat is fantastic, being well marbled and full of flavour. These rare breeds haven’t been tampered with and the pigs reach a good age. You need age to develop the flavour.”
To maintain interest in the breed, she runs courses to help potential new Tamworth owners get started. “I show them my system for keeping pigs and they find it really helpful to visualise what’s involved,” she says. “We do some hands-on jobs with the pigs, and I take them through all the paperwork you need. Often the books they have read make it seem a lot more complicated than it really is.
“Unless people keep them and breed them, and people eat the meat, there’s no point in having the animal, and they will disappear. Anyone who has a hankering to keep Tamworths should really think about giving it a go. I absolutely love my pigs. They are real characters and enjoy human contact, and are a great hobby or small business for anyone.”
Breeding and piglets
When a sow comes into season her behaviour changes. She will become lethargic and have less appetite. The courtship ritual is short, with a boar emitting a series of grunts around the female, who then initiates mating. She will be pregnant for approximately 113 days, the ‘three months, three weeks and three days’ as farming tradition states.
About 12 hours before sows are ready to farrow, they form a nest in their straw. “They may become restless, getting up and down frequently,” says Sarah. “The older sows know the routine and are more likely to lie down and get on with it.”
Sows usually have two litters of eight to 10 piglets a year. This is a smaller litter than most commercial breeds, but Tamworths are good mothers, even-tempered and producing a lot of milk. All sows of every breed have a divided uterus, allowing them to have litters rather than single or double piglets. Tamworths are born in two ‘batches’, those on one side of the mother’s uterus being born before the other.
Tamworth piglets radiate charm. Lively and spirited, they are on their feet within minutes of birth, usually weighing 1-2lb (0.5-1kg). “The condition of the sow makes a big difference to the size of the piglets, and nowadays there is rarely a runt of the litter,” says Sarah.
Grunts from the sow encourage her piglets to suckle. There is an initial scramble as each picks a teat, which they will then use for the entire suckling period. They are fully weaned at eight weeks, although some may take some food from as early as four weeks.
The biggest danger in the early days is being crushed under the weight of their mother. A sow will usually root through the nest to make sure no piglets are hidden before she lies down, but accidents mean losing a couple of piglets is common. Sarah puts a heat lamp in the corner of the pen of a winter litter. “Piglets love the heat, but as well as keeping them warm,
it keeps them away from the danger of being squashed.”
Pigs are born with low supplies of iron, but in the wild would get all they need from rooting through the soil. Pigs kept indoors or in an area of iron-poor soil need an iron injection at birth. Most of Sarah’s pigs are sold as weaners at six to 12 weeks to farmers in northern England and Scotland for them to fatten. Others she sells as breeding stock.
Words: Diane Wardle
Words: Diane Wardle
A Highland chocolate maker imbues her handmade confections with ingredients foraged from the Perthshire countryside
The sun shines down on a Scottish hillside where mint grows wild in the fields, alongside young nettles and lady’s smock. This is a perfect place for chocolate maker Charlotte Flower to forage for the fresh ingredients she uses to flavour her handmade delicacies.
Her home is a short walk away, in an old stone schoolhouse, tucked away along a single track road to the south of Loch Tay. Inside, she creates rich chocolates imbued with the taste of the countryside.
Outside, her flower- and herb-filled garden provides part of her store cupboard. More flavours are found within walking distance. Just a cycle ride away, higher exposed hills are covered with pine trees and heather.
Charlotte has been a chocolatier for 10 years. She was initially inspired by a chocolate maker who was said to travel the world in search of spices for flavour.
“I wondered why people travel, rather than using flavours from their own doorstep,” she says. With a degree in ecology and forestry, she has always been a keen forager. Her work at the time was in forestry and community development, but this was coming to an end. She needed a new direction. “I started talking to friends about my ideas and someone pointed out a two-day chocolate-making course in Inverness,” she says.
Attending the course confirmed her newfound passion. “It was extraordinary,” she says. “I realised just how amazing chocolate is. On one level it’s very simple, but on another very complex. I got a glimpse of what it is like to work with chocolate and I was hooked.”
Once she had bought her first chocolate moulds, Charlotte Flower Chocolates was born. For the first two years, she ran the business part-time while she continued to work in community development. In 2008, she could finally afford to make chocolate-making her full-time job. Now she transforms around 1 tonne of chocolate each year into filled chocolates, bars and thins. She has won Great Taste Awards and two Excellence Awards in the Scottish Food and Drink Excellence category. In 2015 her Smoked Hebridean Sea Salt and Java milk chocolate earned a gold award from the International Chocolate Awards.
“Winning these awards gives me confidence,” she says. “In the Scotland Food and Drink Excellence Awards 2015, our Meadowsweet thins were judged top of the food and drink category. It’s great to have my product recognised in that way.”
The area around her home is rich with plant life. In early summer, she only has to walk for 10 minutes to get fresh supplies of ingredients such as wild garlic, lady’s smock, wood sorrel and young nettles. Fresh Scots pine is an hour’s walk away up a steep hill towards the Sma’ Glen. The closer to home she can find her ingredients, the fresher they are when she uses them.
“I use the ingredients as soon as I can,” she says. “Wild mint grows in fields down the road. It is picked, and 10 minutes later I’m infusing it with cream.”
Charlotte is very careful about what she picks, how much she picks and where she takes it from. She only takes a few shoots from each tree, and they have to be away from roads, paths and agricultural land. This helps ensure the picked shoots are clean and have not been contaminated in any way.
She goes foraging at least once a week. Often what is needed is available in her garden, but other ingredients are further out on the hillside. Depending on what she’s looking for, it can take a quick 10-minute walk or require a four-mile trek of three
hours or longer.
She has favourite spots to forage. Much of Scotland’s countryside is accessible, under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Picking only a few leaves or shoots from each plant, Charlotte can wander freely without asking permission.
“It’s lovely out there, enjoying the magnificent views while being at work. It’s a real treat,” she says. There are regular encounters with wildlife, from red squirrels and pheasants to roe deer. The hills above Acharn are home to many red grouse. In late spring and early summer, Charlotte has to take particular care to watch where she walks. “I have disturbed a nesting red grouse before,” she admits. They hide in the heather and are very difficult to spot. However, all she has to do is walk away quietly and the grouse goes back to her nest.
To get the best from the plants, the foraging has to happen at the right time. Charlotte keeps a close eye on the weather. Flowers require several hours of direct sunshine for their aromas to develop fully. Some plants need to be picked at particular times of day. “I have an old rambling rose variety in my garden. It has the best flavour, but only when picked late in the afternoon.
“The weather can be frustrating. If it rains, I cannot pick anything as nothing has had any direct sunshine.” The foraged plants are not usually stored, but used as soon as possible so they are fresh.
The ingredients are used in two ways. The first is to flavour chocolate directly, making bars and thins. The second is to flavour cream ganaches, which in turn fill rectangular chocolates. For her bars and thins, Charlotte flavours cocoa butter, derived from cocoa beans. These consist of half solids and half fat, and the fat is the cocoa butter. “Chocolate can’t be chocolate unless the fat in it is cocoa butter,” she says.
She needs a large quantity of foraged ingredients for this, to make a lot in one go. “For example, I get a maximum of 10 kilos of young Scots pine shoots,” she says. “However, that will last me for a whole year.”
It takes her up to three two-hour trips to collect the pine shoots, going from tree to tree, taking just a few shoots from each. She flavours the butter straight after the shoots have been collected. This is then stored in tubs at room temperature and will last for a year.
She makes four different-flavoured chocolates at any one time, with nine or 18 in a box. “I decide on the flavours by looking at what’s in season and what goes well together,” she says. “I make a high-quality product. I want people to gasp
when they see them.”
Creating chocolate works of art
The scent of the foraged ingredients fills Charlotte’s kitchen, underscored by the creamy fragrance of chocolate. The room is dominated by a large stainless steel workspace in the middle. All the work surfaces are kept spotlessly clean so they do not contaminate
It takes three days to make a batch of filled chocolates. This includes one day to make the shells, another to fill them and the last to seal them. The trays in which they are made are first polished to perfection with a clean cloth. Any marks would be visible on the final chocolates. Clad in a white shirt and apron and indoor shoes, Charlotte prepares 20 trays at a time, with 24 moulds each. “That’s 480 to polish – it takes up to 30 minutes,” she says.
The trays are filled with melted, tempered chocolate. This is specially prepared to ensure a smooth and glossy finish, and she buys it ready made. As soon as the trays are filled, the chocolate is tipped out again. Only a thin layer is left inside the tray, to make a fine casing for the filling. The chocolate that has been poured out goes to make brownies, which are sold in a nearby café.
Using chocolate that is sourced ethically, Charlotte always makes four different flavours. These depend on the season and what she can forage. A box contains three of each flavour, so she makes sure they look distinct. Some are decorated with white chocolate squiggles, others milk chocolate squiggles. Another set may have gold or silver leaves added while the fourth set is left plain. The squiggles are piped into the shell moulds before the thin chocolate layer is added.
The real gold and silver leaves are added afterwards. These precious metals come in thin sheets. “I like to keep it simple, but I also want my chocolates to look exquisite,” she says.
Piping the ganache
Covered with clean paper, the trays are left overnight on the worktop. They will be filled the next day with the ganache. Before making the ganache, Charlotte heads outside to forage for ingredients. This ensures their freshness. Because of this need for fresh flavours, she only makes one flavour at a time.
The leaves or flowers are washed then cut up to release the flavours. Then they are immersed in the double cream that makes up the ganache. The mixture is heated to the sterilising temperature of approximately 90°C, just below boiling point. It is then left for two hours to cool.
In the meantime, she weighs out chocolate into a bowl. The cream is warmed again slightly to enable it to melt with the chocolate. It is then poured through a sieve into the bowl over the chocolate.
“I make sure all the chocolate is covered and then leave it for a minute or two,” she says. The contents of the bowl are then stirred. Slowly the cream starts to mix as the chocolate starts to melt. Charlotte loves this stage. “You get a gorgeous, glossy silky ganache.”
At this point, she checks the temperature again. At 30°C the mixture is ready to be piped into the prepared moulds. It is then covered with clean paper and left overnight to fully set. The next day Charlotte pours chocolate over the top of the filling to seal them. This cannot be done too early, as the filling can shrink as it sets and this cracks the outside shell.
Once the seals have hardened, the chocolates are removed from their moulds. Using white gloves, Charlotte simply gives the moulds a tap and the chocolates fall into her hand. They are then boxed up.
Charlotte admits that chocolate making takes hard work, but it is something she loves. “It’s gorgeous stuff and delicious to taste. I get a lot of satisfaction making the chocolates.”
One of the hardest parts is deciding which is her favourite flavour. “It changes with the season and my mood, but if I had to pick one it would be Scots pine ganache,” she says.
Packaging the chocolates is the final task before they can be sold. “I love boxing them up. They are made with such care and attention. I sell a lot at markets and it’s lovely when you give someone some chocolate and their face melts with pleasure. That’s amazing. It brightens up my day.”
Word and photography: Marieke McBean
From the remnants of Edzell Castle with its formal pleasure garden through woodland by the side of a river gorge to the Rocks of Solitude, this is a walk filled with contrasts
Surrounded by gently undulating farmland, the red sandstone remains of a ruined Scottish castle stand proudly in a green landscape of rich parkland and lush woodland. By their side sits a formal, walled Renaissance garden, dating from the early 17th century.
This is Edzell Castle in Angus. A mile to the east sits the 19th century sandstone town of Edzell, flanked by a wooded wilderness. Here the River North Esk runs through moss-clad boulders to reach the evocatively named Rocks of Solitude.
From formal garden to thundering rock-lined river, this walk covers approximately 7-8 miles. Along the route, it offers an intriguing mix of 17th century and Victorian history, combined with wild nature at its most sublime and atmospheric.
A 17th century garden
There has been a castle at Edzell since the 12th century. The original timber structure was erected to guard the mouth of Glenesk, a strategic pass to the Highlands. The present ruins are the remains of a later, 16th century building, erected by the Lindsay family, who acquired the estate in 1358. Work on a new castle began in the 1520s with the erection of the Tower House and a rectangular courtyard in a more sheltered site. A second phase of work in the mid 16th century, added the West Range. This comprised an entrance gateway, impressive state rooms and a kitchen. The final building work was overseen by Sir David Lindsay, the grandest but also the most spendthrift member of the family. It was he who created the Walled Garden in 1604. Also known as The Pleasance, its vibrant colours, intricate hedgerows and wall carvings attract thousands of visitors every year.
Approaching the castle from the car park and its beech hedges, the path leads through a well-kept lawn, past common beech trees, copper beech and a solitary pear tree. It ends at the Summer House, built at the same time as the garden. With its large banqueting space, this was a sumptuous retreat from the main house for dining and outdoor entertainment.
The Summer House leads directly to the pleasure garden, where nature and art are designed to combine. Sir David wished to stimulate both the mind and the senses. The north wall is part of the castle courtyard, but a 12ft (3.5m) high, intricately decorated wall surrounds the other three sides. On these three walls are carved panels, depicting the liberal arts, the planetary deities and the cardinal virtues.
On the south wall are the seven liberal arts of Grammatica, Rhetorica, Dialetica, Arithmetica, Musica, Geometria and Astronomia. They represent the curriculum of European universities at the time. Today, Astronomia is missing, but the rest remain.
The east wall is home to the seven planetary deities. Luna, Mercury, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn adorn this wall. This tapped into the medieval belief that the Earth was at the centre of the universe, surrounded by the heavens. Today, the original planetary carvings are housed in the Summer House to prevent weathering. Replicas are on display in the garden to show how they would have appeared to 17th century guests.
On the west wall are the original carvings of the seven cardinal virtues. The carvings of Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice are considered the weakest of all the garden’s work. It has been suggested that Sir David was running short of money by the time they were carved. He died in great debt in 1610.
To an educated 17th century visitor, this work would have been highly symbolic. For example, on the garden walls, the armorial device of the Lindsays is depicted with three rows of recesses, featuring blue and white lobelia. These flowers not only fragrance the air, but also represent the Lindsay colours of azure and argent.
No plan survives of the original planting of the rectangular garden. What is seen today was recreated in the 1930s by Historic Scotland, when it took ownership. Box hedges are clipped into letters spelling out the two Lindsay mottos, Dum Spiro Spero, meaning While I Breathe I Hope, and Endure Forte, or Endure with Strength. In each corner of The Pleasance, a box hedge displays a symbolic image. A one-headed thistle represents Highland Scotland, the fleur-de-lis recognises Scotland’s long alliance to France, a three-headed thistle pays homage to Lowland Scotland, while the rose is stands for England.
Bird life was encouraged in the original garden. Seven-rayed stars were carved into the walls, the centre of each star providing a place for a bird’s nest. Today, these are blocked for preservation reasons.
From Edzell Castle, it is a brisk 1½ mile walk along winding country roads to the eponymous town. Alternatively, the route from the castle to the town is an easy drive down Lethnot Road to the B966, which leads south into Edzell.
Originally called Slateford, it was renamed after an earlier abandoned settlement, based round the walls of the castle. Of the first Edzell, or Edale as it was called in 13th century documents, only a graveyard, grassy mounds and the ruins of a burial aisle remain. By the early 19th century, Lord Dalhousie, Earl of Panmure, had built a church at Slateford to replace the one at Edzell Castle. He decreed that the hamlet would be called Edzell after an original settlement next to the castle. Slateford disappeared forever.
Today, life in this quietly bustling town, with a population of less than 1,000, centres around the straight main street. Built on a grid pattern, many of Edzell’s smart, sandstone, two-storey tenement homes sit flush with the pavement.
From the castle, the route enters the northern end of the town. It continues down the straight High Street to the Dalhousie Arch, before returning north.
This arch is an imposing structure built by local tenants in 1887. It commemorates the unexpected and shocking deaths of the highly-esteemed local landowners, the 13th Earl of Dalhousie and his 30-year-old Countess. The couple died within 24 hours of each other while returning from a visit to America. She succumbed to peritonitis, and the 40-year-old earl died in his sleep.
On the right, up the road from the arch, is the Inglis Memorial Hall, with its outstanding stained glass windows. This was built by the son of a local reverend,
Lt Col Robert Inglis, who wished to give something back to his community. In 1898, he gifted the sandstone building and approximately 5,000 books. The hall is still the local library and is regarded as one of the best examples of a late 19th century public library in the UK.
By the riverside
Returning up the main street, the route comes to a lane where a small sign points the way down to the North Esk Water. Walkers quickly reach the Shakin’ Brig, or Shaking Bridge, suspension bridge. Built circa 1900, the footbridge straddles the border between the counties of Angus and Kincardineshire. The walk does not cross the bridge, but instead stays on the left bank of the river. This area is slightly overgrown and fenced in, but soon opens up into a riverside walk among beech trees, with occasional oak and sycamore.
As the walk progresses, there are sheer drops down to the fast-flowing river which builds powerfully in depth and sound volume. The rocks of the riverbank become more dramatic and exposed. Covered in moss and overhung by beech trees, they form a gully through which the North Esk makes its passage.
The Highland Fault Line, which splits Highland and Lowland Scotland geologically, runs through the river. Multiple rock types can be spotted along the route, including sandstone, pudding stone, volcanic rock and granite. The Highland rocks on the northern side of the fault line are older, hard metamorphic rocks of the Dalradian period, approximately 540 million years ago.
The younger, sedimentary Lowland
rocks are from the Devonian period, 400 million years ago.
Over the bridge
After an hour of walking through the forest, hugging the river, the 18th century sandstone Gannochy Bridge is reached. Crossing diagonally over this road bridge, the route goes through a small blue door set in a stone wall. Opening it reveals a path through the forestry. From this point on, the sandstone rock formation builds
in stature, dwarfing walkers as the river roars past.
The path continues on the right-hand side of the river above a 20ft (6m) drop. Signs indicating salmon fishing beats, such as the Burn Beat Cave Pool or the Darlingford Pool, pepper the landscape. The woodland is becoming slightly wilder, with lustrous ferns and an occasional holly tree standing proudly.
A further 30 minutes walk on, a derelict suspension bridge is reached. Here, the water surges past with raw power. A salmon ladder has been created to the right of the bridge, where in autumn it is possible to watch the fish leap heroically upstream. Human visitors are mere specks in the landscape here, as the rock formation swells underfoot.
After reaching this climactic point, the river quietens. Gentle waterfalls trickle down the rockside. A tree stump has been sympathetically created into a bench and viewing point.
As the path curves under the cliffs towards the Rocks of Solitude, there is a noticeable stillness. The river is almost soundless as the rocks come together into
a gully. The origins of this area’s name are a mystery, but accurately describe such a wild and silent place.
From here, the route simply retraces the original path hugging the riverbank back to the blue door. Turning right, the main road passes fields back into the town, approximately 1 mile away. From the solitude of the forest, the sounds of the 21st century start to ebb back.
From an atmospheric ruined castle, past a bustling, elegant town to a wild untamed river, this walk combines both history and nature. It is a journey through a small area of Scotland filled with beauty, both natural and manmade.
By the standards of much of Scotland’s turbulent past, Edzell Castle had a relatively peaceful history. Its most famous guests were Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1562, and her son, James, in both 1580 and 1589. During the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell stationed his troops there for a month in 1651.
By 1715, mounting debts forced the last Lord Edzell to sell the estate to the Earl of Panmure. He forfeited his lands and estates for taking part in the failed 1715-16 Jacobite rebellion. Edzell became the property of the Crown and years of decline followed.
In the late 18th century, it was bought by the nephew of Lord Panmure and eventually passed to his nephew, the 8th Earl of Dalhousie.
Today, the castle and garden are cared for by Historic Environment Scotland and are open from 1 April to 30 September.
Words: Janice Hopper
Under the cover of darkened skies, the spectral silhouette of a barn owl glides low over the fields, soundlessly seeking its prey.
Slowly, silently, as the light fades on a spring evening, a ghostly form floats over a grassy field. Stealthily, its curved wings making no sound and head moving constantly to and fro, a barn owl hunts.
Seemingly gliding just above the ground, it is seeking out mice and voles below. At this time of year, this owl will be a male, looking for food not just for himself, but also for his mate. She is back in the nest, sitting on a clutch of eggs.
Barn owls hunt at dawn or dusk, when light is rising or fading, or at night, when it may be almost completely dark. It is rare to see them in full daylight. They are, however, supremely well adapted for their nocturnal life.
Their large, forward-facing eyes provide binocular vision, allowing them to see an object with both eyes. These are in fact elongated tubes, rather than balls, held in place by bony structures called sclerotic rings. Because of this, they cannot move their eyes, which always look straight ahead. Instead, the owls have a long, flexible neck that gives them the ability to turn their head through 270 degrees.
Their hearing is excellent, enabling the hunter to pick up the slightest rustle from a small rodent hidden in the long grass below. The heart-shaped face acts as a parabolic reflector or radar dish, concentrating and focusing the sound towards its ears. These are behind the eyes at the side of the head and are covered by the feathers of the facial disc. The ears are asymmetrical, with the left one slightly higher. This enables the bird to judge the exact distance between itself and its potential prey.
When the owl hears a noise, there is a minute difference in the time in which the sound is heard in each ear. If the sound is to the left, the left ear will hear it before the right. A sound from below the owl will be received in the right ear first.
The owl’s brain is capable of working out from these minute differences exactly where its prey is. Once it has located the vole or mouse, the bird flies towards it, its head in line with the last sound. If the prey moves, the bird makes mid-flight recalculations. Finally, once within striking distance, approximately 2ft (60cm), the owl brings its feet forward. Its sharp, curved talons are spread, ready to grasp their prey.
Designed to hunt
The owl is able to get close enough to catch its prey because of its silent flight. Its rounded wings have extremely soft feathers, which means the air makes almost no sound as it passes through. This has two benefits. The owl is able to detect even tiny, momentary sounds from its intended prey. The victim, on the other hand, is unable to hear the owl approach until it is too late to escape. The owl’s lightweight body is supported by very large wings. This allows them to fly very slowly, without stalling, as they hunt.
Despite their skills, the majority of hunting attempts end in failure. A barn owl needs to catch up to half a dozen small mammals every night just to survive. That represents approximately one third of its body weight. It sometimes takes other prey, such as small birds, seized from night-time roosts, frogs and bats.
There is a downside to those soft, silent feathers. In heavy rain, or even a sudden shower, they can easily get waterlogged, so barn owls rarely hunt when it is raining. This means that during prolonged periods of wet weather they, and in spring or summer their chicks, can starve to death.
Hard winters also cause problems, as small mammals are able to hide beneath the snow. Those owls that survive are able to take advantage of a bonanza of voles the following spring. These tiny animals will have bred beneath the protective layer of snow where their young are safe.
Barn owls hunt in open country, with large, uninterrupted areas of rough grassland the best areas. However, intensive farming means that in many parts of Britain these are in short supply. They also suffer from the use of rodenticides, which kill any owl that
eats a poisoned rodent.
Pushed to the edge
As a result, barn owls are often found on the fringes. They hunt along roadside verges, railway cuttings, wetlands, coastal marshes and any areas of farmland where the grass is allowed to grow long and left unsprayed. They can be found in rural areas across much of lowland England, Wales and southern and eastern Scotland, though often in very low densities. They are scarce in Northern Ireland and absent from the offshore islands of the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland. Their main stronghold is East Anglia, especially the wilder parts of coastal Norfolk, Suffolk and the Brecks.
The species has been declining since the middle of the 19th century, largely because of changing agricultural practices. Numbers fell substantially between the 1960s and late 1980s, but have since risen slightly in the following decades. There are now approximately 4,000 breeding pairs in the UK. This number fluctuates dramatically with the rises and falls in the population of voles, their favourite food.
Barn owls, as their name suggests, have long lived alongside human beings. They still often nest in barns and other farm buildings, though they will also use natural sites such as a crevice in a cliff or a hole in a tree. They readily take to artificial nest boxes. Schemes up and down the country have been successful at increasing owl populations in specific areas.
Outside the breeding season, barn owls are generally solitary. In winter, their home range can cover 12,300 acres.
From the start of the year they form pairs, usually staying with last year’s mate, if they have both survived the winter.
To cement the pair bond, the male pursues the female in flight. He takes a position just above and behind her as they twist and turn through the air, screeching constantly at one another. Their wide repertoire of sounds includes hisses, wheezes and screeches. These, along with their pale appearance and silent flight, may be responsible for many stories of ghosts in church towers and abandoned castles.
Once a nest site is chosen, the male establishes his home range around it, a smaller area than the winter territory, at just 86 acres. He may ‘call’, making a series of loud screeches, and display, to fend off possible rivals.
A clutch of between four and six white, slightly rounded eggs, is laid from April or May onwards. The female sits tight on the eggs for approximately a month, while the male does all the hunting for both birds.
Survival of fittest
Barn owls incubate as soon as the first egg is laid, which means the young hatch asynchronously, often several days apart. There may be as much as a two-week gap between the oldest and youngest chick.
This has evolved as a method of ensuring the survival of at least one chick. In good vole years, when fine weather allows the owls to hunt frequently and bring back lots of food, all the chicks may survive. In poor years, or during bad weather, only the eldest may do so. Larger chicks have been known to eat their younger siblings when food is scarce.
Once hatched, owlets grow rapidly, though they remain covered in down for several weeks. They stay in the nest for up to 55 days, constantly calling to their parents and begging to be fed when the adult returns. The larger siblings tend to get the lion’s share of the food. This results in the younger ones dying sometimes, even when there is plenty to go round. Prey is eaten whole, the indigestible skin and bones regurgitated in the form of pellets.
By the time the young barn owls leave the nest, they are fully feathered and able to fly. They remain dependent on their parents for food for another three to five weeks. If the conditions stay favourable, the adults may then have a second clutch, and raise a new brood later in the summer.
By then, the youngsters are on their own. This is a period of real danger, when many birds are lost. Some starve, others are struck by vehicles as they fly low over roads. Once these critical weeks are survived, barn owls usually live to three or four years old. The oldest recorded wild bird, however, lived for 17 years.
Few venture far from where they were born, rarely travelling more than 30 miles. Once settled, they, too, will glide effortlessly across the countryside, scaring and delighting anyone lucky enough to spot one of these beautiful white ghosts gleaming in the twilight.
Words: Stephen Moss Photography: Alamy
From her garden studio, willow weaver Angela Morley creates natural baskets combining form and function.
Set back from a narrow lane, with views of the Mendip Hills peaking over the tops of hedgerows and apple orchards, is a beautiful garden. Here, in Pylle, Somerset, artist Angela Morley is hard at work, ensconced in her studio. She uses a palette of fiery oranges, yellowy greens, silvery blues and coppery browns. These are not carefully mixed paints, however. Instead, her colours come from graceful, balletic strands of willow, budded tree branches and papery dried leaves. From these materials she creates baskets that are both functional and beautiful.
“I take natural materials and give them a new lease of life,” she says. Many of them have been gathered from her garden, surrounding hedgerows and even her own compost heap. Weeds and offcuts end up there, and when she sees them she is inspired to use them. “I find inspiration everywhere. I can’t throw anything away. Each material requires its own unique treatment, so it’s important to get to know it first, handling it, and feeling the texture and how pliable it is. Willow bends more than a tree branch, for example, and grasses are much softer on the fingers.”
Weaving willow is the culmination of Angela’s passion for horticulture, sculpture and sustainable living. It is also the final piece in a personal journey that began as a child and progressed through her work as a garden designer. “I spent every weekend exploring the countryside where we lived. I fell in love with the natural world around me and its flora. That’s what formed me,” she says. “My parents were artists, but I didn’t have confidence in my own creative abilities. It wasn’t until I discovered willow in my 30s that I realised I had a hidden talent.”
She attended her first course on weaving willow in 2002 at West Dean College in West Sussex. “I’d always fancied making my own basket. I like learning basic, self-sufficiency skills,” she says. “I came home fired up to just have a go. I realised it didn’t matter whether what I made worked out or not, I could put it in my wood burner or on the compost heap. Weaving is very environmentally friendly.” Other courses followed, and today Angela runs her own workshops. As well as the baskets, she makes sculptural items such as willow balls, birds and nests.
Preparing the willow
Before work can start on creating a basket, Angela checks she has everything she needs on a table next to her. The key tools include a pointed bodkin for separating woven strands and a knife for sharpening willow tips to ease threading. She also uses side cutters for trimming any loose ends. Fastened bundles of willow from 4ft to 6ft (1-2m) long are grouped by colour and secured with twine. They lie on the floor with other materials waiting to be used. “It’s important to have everything you need in easy reach before you begin,” she says. Then she switches on Radio 4, the final touch to her creative routine.
From the 200 types of willow growing the UK, Angela has three favourites, ‘Black Maul’, ‘Flanders Red’ and ‘Dicky Meadows’. ‘Black Maul’ is a common chocolate-brown variety. “‘Flanders Red’ has a fantastic orange colour that dries even brighter,” she says. “‘Dicky Meadows’ sounds like a cider variety. I love the blueness and bendiness of this willow. I buy most of my willow in February from Musgrove Willows, near Bridgwater. I do grow some myself, but I forgot to label the varieties as I planted, so it’s a little haphazard.”
The willow she is using was harvested back in November, when the plant was dormant. The strands are graded, which involves grouping them in terms of their length. Then each stem is left to air-dry for five months under the porch of her studio.
“You can use willow fresh,” says Angela. “But it has a tendency to shrink as the water within it evaporates. So you could make a fantastic basket one day, then come back to it two weeks later to find it loose and rattly.” For this reason, she prefers to use dry willow, which has already shrunk. To make it supple, she simply soaks it before use in old tin baths and cattle troughs outside. This takes a day per foot of willow. There may be a little extra shrinkage, but not so much that it affects the end product.
As Angela works, she refers to her basic sketches, done in pencil on paper to map out her ideas. Inspiration comes in part from pictures, but also the materials she has to hand, although the end results don’t always match. “It’s much easier to draw a basket than make one, because the willow won’t always do what you want it to do. But that’s part of the fun,” she says.
Weaving the base
Sitting down, she picks up a dark 6ft (2m) strand of reliable ‘Black Maul’. “This is a good all-rounder,” she says. “It’s pliable to use and has a lovely green colour that works well in most designs.” The strand is cut into six equal sections. These are used to create the structured round base for her basket.
She makes a cut through the middle of three of her willow pieces using her knife. The others are threaded through the holes to form a cross, called a slath. This is secured with a pairing weave. Very thin, flexible willow tips, 4in (10cm) in length, are first wrapped round the four-spoke slath and then each individual spoke, forcing them to fan out. From here, additional strands of the same willow are woven under and over each spoke in turn, until the chosen diameter is reached.
“You have to be the boss of willow when you make traditional baskets like this one,” she says. “Everything needs to be straight and equal.”
Angela sharpens willow rods by scraping off the end with the knife. These are inserted into the base and gently bent upwards to form the sides of the basket. She guides and supports each stake with her fingers to ensure it does not kink or snap. To create decoration and introduce texture, she now weaves in eight-strand bundles of green sedge in front and behind the rods.
Other baskets will have different coloured willow or materials from the garden, such as dogwood, old man’s beard, plaited dahlia, daffodil and iris leaves, woven through. “I hate to see plants decay. Weaving gives them a new purpose. It never ceases to amaze me how I can take one floppy stem and, by weaving other pieces over and under it, I can create this incredible strength. The willow forms a simple frame on which to showcase more delicate materials that make pretty finishing touches.”
Developing her work
From round-based baskets, Angela has moved onto freer alternatives, including frame- and leaf-shaped baskets. These are made around a central, fork-shaped branch, such as silver birch or coppiced alder. Willow is woven to and fro between the prongs.
“This is a much more organic way to weave willow,” she says. “It bends a bit, I bend a bit and we meet somewhere in the middle. Until you get your hands on the material and see how it’s reacting, you never really know how the end result will turn out. It’s a celebration of the material’s unique character.”
One element of her work that brings immense satisfaction is teaching others. “I began teaching people how to make basic shapes such as hearts and dragonflies. Seeing how empowered they felt when they’d finished was a real motivator for me.”
She also takes on bigger projects. A recent commission was to make a willow dragon for a nature trail. Work such as this can take up to a week. “Private commissions are great because they push me out of my comfort zone and are even more of an achievement.”
In natural harmony
As she works, a thrush appears at the doorway of her studio. This is one of the many wild residents to make themselves at home in her garden and her displays. A willow flower attached to the outside wall of her shed has been inhabited by a wren’s nest for the past four years. “It’s so rewarding to see my work in use by nature,” she says.
Once the basket is the right height, she trims off the loose ends of willow and then adds a rim. “I use willow bark to make rims for my baskets, sewing it in place,” she says.
It can take a day to make one basket. Once it is finished, the offcuts are gathered up and taken to her willow beds. Here, Angela sticks them into the soil. “Willow is incredibly easy to root,” she reveals. “And it can grow 10ft (3m) in a year.”
Most of the willow she uses has been harvested after a year. However, she leaves some of her own longer, gathering it in leaf. At that time, the sap is high in the plant and she can peel off the bark in one strip.
It is easy to overlook the effort that has gone into the creation of these beautiful baskets but, for Angela, it never feels like work. “Weaving is my meditation. It’s repetitive, relaxing and connects me to nature. I’m at my happiest when I can truly lose myself to the process.”
Words: Emma Pritchard Photography: Heather Edwards
With its loyal nature and gentle manners, the Labrador Retriever has created its own place in British homes.
Ears flapping, tail wagging, a large, handsome yellow dog bounds across a field. Legs stretched, his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth, he lopes up to his owner.
This is a Labrador, a dog that in the last 100 years has developed from an animal trained to retrieve shot birds, to a welcome family pet. Their soft mouths, gentle manners and willingness to learn made them perfect gun dogs. Today, these attributes have made them the most popular dog in Britain.
Full of energy, with a powerful tail that moves in enthusiastic sweeps, the Labrador is ideally suited to life in the countryside. This is an animal that loves nothing better than a long and energetic walk through fields and woodland. Their keen noses rarely leave the ground as they run head down, sniffing the scent trails of wild animals and birds. With more than 220 million olfactory receptors, compared to a human’s five million, their sense of smell is highly developed. Once they pick up a scent, they will try to follow it until they get to the origin. It is this acute sense of smell that has seen them used in drug and mine detection, as well as search and rescue.
A tireless swimmer, the Labrador is perfectly at home in water. Its short, thick coat and water-resistant undercoat protect it from cold and wet. The powerful tail acts as a rudder, often slapping the water as the dog changes direction.
This love of water reflects the dog’s ancestry. It is believed to have originated in the Canadian territories of Newfoundland and Labrador as the St John’s water dog. Fishermen there used these similar-looking animals to retrieve fish and other items dropped overboard. In the 19th century, they were brought to England to be crossed with the working gun dogs of the time. It was hoped this would improve their nose for scent as well as their retrieving skills.
In 1903 the breed was recognised by the Kennel Club as a result of efforts by the Earl of Malmesbury. Their retrieving ability and skill in water impressed him so much that he devoted himself to developing and stabilising the breed. The dog grew quickly in popularity. In 1912, there were 281 registered with the Kennel Club. Ten years later that number had risen to 916. The breed club was formed in 1916, and the Yellow Labrador Club in 1925. In 2014, more than 34,700 Labradors were registered with the Kennel Club. This is more than the second and third placed breeds combined.
Happy in work or home
The modern dog has become a multi-purpose animal. A highly social creature, its confident, outgoing, trustworthy disposition makes it an excellent family pet. At the same time, it is still used as a gundog, excelling at formal shoots, rough shoots and in field trials. Their gentle nature makes them especially popular in the role of assistance dogs. They are frequently trained as guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf, or to assist owners with disabilities. Labradors also make excellent therapy dogs for visiting hospitals, nursing homes and hospices.
“As a breed, Labradors have such a gentle nature,” says owner Catherine Gray. “Labradors have been a part of my family since I was a girl. My parents still keep them and now I have my own, a three-year-old dog called Archie. They are extremely loyal. The bond I have with Archie means he loves to be with me all the time. He never wanders off or out of sight.”
A range of colours
These are large and strongly built dogs, with males measuring up to 22in (56cm) at the withers, females slightly smaller. Only black, yellow and chocolate coats are recognised by the Kennel Club. The yellow, rather than golden, Labrador can range in colour, from a light blonde shade through to fox red. The chocolate Labrador was a late arrival, only becoming established in the 1930s. Before then, they were often culled from a litter.
The skull is broad, with pendant-like ears set back and hanging down close to the head. The nose is wide and varies in colour depending on the shade of the coat. Yellow and chocolate Labradors tend towards a lighter-coloured nose than the black-coated, black-nosed dogs. The muzzle is wide and the bite should meet in a scissor precision. This means the upper teeth closely overlap the lower teeth, and are set square to the jaws. It is this that results in what is termed a ‘soft mouth’, enabling the dog to hold game firmly but gently when working in the field.
The eyes are medium in size and brown or hazel in colour. They express both the breed’s intelligence and gentle nature. The neck is powerful and the chest wide and deep. The body has well-sprung barrel ribs with no sloping in the hindquarters towards the tail.
The short coat has no feathering and is easy to care for. This is a breed that sheds its coat easily. A once-a-week thorough groom helps keep it in good condition and removes loose hair.
Dogs intended for the show ring tend to be heavier, with shorter legs than those bred for the field. The latter are longer-legged with a more lithe and athletic build. The heads may be slightly narrower.
How colour is determined
The colour of a chocolate or black Labrador’s coat is determined by “bee” genes, one of which is inherited from each parent. There are two types, B and b. The B gene is dominant, producing the black coat. The recessive b gene causes the brown or chocolate coat. A dog with a pair of B genes, or one B and one b gene will be black. This is because the dominant gene overrides the recessive gene. A dog with two b genes will have a chocolate coat. Other genes are responsible for the yellow colour.
Labradors are easy dogs to feed, rarely fussy over food. It is often claimed they will eat anything, including apparently non-edible items. This hearty appetite, though, can lead to problems with weight gain if the dog is overfed, offered too many table scraps and under-exercised.
Labradors are long-lived, reaching 12-14 years of age. Carrying excess weight, however, puts joints under unnecessary stress, resulting in problems such as arthritis. It also adds pressure on the heart and creates an increased likelihood of developing diabetes. All this may result in an unhealthy dog with a shortened lifespan.
An active life
This tendency to weight gain means they need an active owner. With its background as a working dog, the Labrador needs its energy channelled with proper training and attention. If they are allowed to become bored, they can be destructive. This is a breed that particularly benefits from a strong pack leader. Its devotion to its leader and eagerness to please is what makes the dog easy to train.
The Labrador’s perfect day would include up to two hours of exercise. Their retrieving instinct means they will happily chase a ball, returning to have it thrown again and again. The owner will tire of this long before the fit and healthy dog. The day would end with the dog curled up in front of a blazing fire, surrounded by his human family.
Today, whether working in the field or being a loyal member of a family, the Labrador continues to make its presence felt. Its gentle nature and ever-wagging tail means it has a well-deserved and much-loved place in many homes. It has become the archetypal dog of the British countryside.
Breeding and health
The best age for a bitch to have a litter of puppies is between two and four years of age. By this stage she will be fully mature, both physically and mentally, while still retaining her youth. She must be fully fit and in the very best of health. This will help her cope with the extra demands placed on her by pregnancy and birth and the subsequent nurturing of the puppies.
A female has her first season any time from six months of age onwards. The average is between nine and 12 months, although it can be 18 to 24 months for some larger animals.
On average, they give birth to six to eight puppies, after approximately 63 days gestation. Born blind and deaf, the puppies may be anything from 7–14oz (200-400g) in weight, depending on the size of the litter. Those in large litters are much smaller.
The eyes open at 10-14 days and the ears start to function when the puppy is 13-17 days old. Weaning starts after the puppies are three-and-a-half weeks to four weeks old. It is usually complete by the time the puppies are six weeks of age.
Generally healthy, they can, however, be prone to eye problems such as cataracts. They may also develop Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA), which gradually causes a deterioration of the retina. This leads to night blindness and eventually a complete loss of vision. Because of their strong sense of smell, they can manage extremely well, even if blind.
Other inherited problems include hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia, caused by a malformation of the joints. In hip dysplasia, the femur, or leg bone, fits poorly in the socket. This leads to pain and lameness when the dog moves. Elbow dysplasia is an umbrella term for several problems, but in most cases an abnormality in the joint leads to minute stress fractures. Both conditions lead to premature arthritis and in some cases the affected dog may become severely disabled. The Kennel Club and the British Veterinary Association offer screening for both hip and elbow dysplasia. This allows breeders to identify dogs that are free of the condition.
Words: Karen Youngs Photography: Richard Faulks
Making the most of their instinct to retrieve, Rob Hardy trains Labradors to work as gun dogs.
A well-trained gun dog is an essential companion in the field. Able, and willing, to retrieve game undamaged, they play an invaluable role. With their soft mouths, gentle manners and keenness to learn, Labradors have proved themselves ideal
for this job.
Rob Hardy has been training gundogs for himself and friends for more than 20 years. “I get great satisfaction from seeing these dogs progress through each stage,” he says.
Today, as well as being used for retrieving game, gun dogs take part in Field Trials that test their abilities and obedience. Some dogs only ever compete in these events, and never go out with the guns. Rob, however, believes that there is no happier dog than a gun dog on a shoot.
“They are doing what they have been bred for,” he says. “I get so much pleasure from the dog’s enthusiasm. No one should go shooting without a dog in case the game isn’t dead. It may fall somewhere a human cannot access. If someone does not have the means to retrieve the game
they shoot, then they should not be out shooting in the first place.”
Before retrieval training can start, the dog must have mastered the basic obedience rules. It must be able to walk to heel, both on and off the lead. It is essential a gun dog can sit quietly, without reacting to any activity going on around it. Finally the dog must return to the owner when called. As well as voice commands, Rob trains his dogs to respond to a whistle command that means stop. The dog gets to associate the sound with ‘sit’ through Rob blowing the whistle and then saying the command. Eventually the verbal command is dropped and the dog sits on a single whistle blast. “We use the whistle in the field because it carries much further than a voice and is less disturbing to game,” he says.
Training to retrieve
Teaching basic obedience constitutes four-fifths of the dog’s training. Only when that is completed can work start on the final fifth, the retrieval training.
Rob demonstrates the training he goes through with his own dog, Dee. He starts by getting her to retrieve a ball or a dummy. “Tennis balls are good to begin with, especially for puppies, as they can pick them up easily,” he says. “They also roll, leave a bit of a scent trail from your hands and you can use them in short grass so the dog needs to hunt for it a bit more.”
Traditional retrieving dummies are usually made from a canvas-type material. They weigh approximately 1-1.5lb (453-680g), about half the weight of a cock pheasant. “Dummies are very useful as they train the dog to pick up something that is floppy and to get it balanced properly in their mouth,” he says. “This helps prevent them picking the bird up by the wing later on. I would use a small puppy dummy or old stuffed sock from around six months of age. Then, as the dog grows and gets stronger, I move up to a bigger dummy. I still use a ball as well.”
He places himself between Dee and where he is going to throw the ball. This allows him to cut her off if she moves towards it before he gives permission. The dog is asked to sit, then the ball is thrown a short distance. Backing towards it, Rob gives
the hand signal that tells Dee not to move. He picks up the ball, still facing her. He then returns to praise her while she remains sitting.
From this initial move, he progresses to throwing the ball around her, and retrieving it himself while she remains sitting. As long as Dee obeys, he returns to praise her. If she moves, he gently but firmly places her back on the spot he told her to sit at and repeats the command. He will continue to do this as necessary until she remains steady.
“The biggest problem with retrieving is that people try to do too much for too long and the dog becomes bored. They spit the ball or dummy out and run off. To avoid this, I keep training sessions short, to between 10 and 15 minutes.”
Controlling the dog
Once satisfied the dog has mastered sitting while the ball is thrown, Rob moves on. He throws the ball, then uses his hand to point the dog in the right direction. At the same time, he moves his leg forward to channel her towards the dummy.
“I start with short distances, 10-15 yards,” he advises. “It is easier to control a dog at a shorter distance so all lessons start close. The distance increases slowly only when the dog is working perfectly at the shorter distance.”
When Dee picks the dummy up, he puts a hand on her and guides her in to him. He praises her and strokes her under the chin. She lifts her head, and he gently takes the dummy.
Whistle at the ready
Rob always has his whistle in his mouth before he sends a dog off. Because his dogs are trained to know that the whistle means stop, he can quickly regain control if things go wrong. “To begin with I always make the dog sit and then walk out to it. As she gains experience, I allow her to stop and look at me, before giving the next command. This is because in the advanced training, I teach a dog to follow my hand signal to go left, right or back. That way I can handle her to retrieve at distance and over obstacles.
“I have a second whistle command that I use when the dog is returning from a retrieve,” he says. “As soon as Dee picks up the dummy, I give lots of quick pips on the whistle. This attracts her attention, so she is less likely to run off with the dummy.
“The dog might not always go straight to the dummy. The wind can play a part
in this, or perhaps she might go too far
out in one direction. It is important not to assume the dog has made a mistake. There is a ‘hi lost’ command used to tell the dog it is hunting in the right area. This verbal command says, ‘you’re in the right area, keep looking’. The dog eventually learns that when you give the command it is in the correct area to find the retrieve. It then hunts there more carefully.”
The next stage involves tying a few feathers or pheasant wings to the dummy. This gets the dog accustomed to their texture. From there, they move to what is known as cold game. This is a bird that has been shot beforehand and allowed to go cold so that it is stiffer.
Finally, if the dog is to work in the field, it is time to move onto warm game. This can take up to two years for a Labrador. “It sounds a long time but a healthy gun dog can work for 10 years,
so it is a small investment in the scheme
of things,” says Rob. “Correctly trained, your dog and you will have many years of pleasure as a working partnership.”
“My first ever gun dog was a Lab, so I have always had a soft spot for the breed. They are easy to train, compared to other breeds, have a fantastic nature and a will to please. They have the ability to switch on and off, which makes them the ideal gun dog. One moment they are active,
the next happy to sit patiently by you.
This makes them the perfect choice for anyone who wants a family pet they can also work occasionally.”
Types of shoot
Field Trial: This is a competitive event where gun dogs compete against one another in conditions resembling a day’s shooting in the field. They can involve one or more challenges to reflect the experience of the dogs taking part.
Driven shooting: Event where shooters and dogs stand in a line at a peg. Pheasants are driven towards them by beaters.
Rough shooting: Shooters walk along a hedgerow and the birds are shot as
they fly away.
Getting used to noise
Another essential part of the training is to accustom the dog to the sound of a shotgun. This is done gradually, to prevent the dog from becoming gun shy. “I start to get my dogs used to noise at an early age,” says Rob. “When they are puppies, I might clap my hands or bang a bowl while they are eating or otherwise distracted. This makes the sound more of a background noise than anything more direct.
“Then I move on to clapping my hands while standing some distance away. From there I advance to a blank-firing pistol. I start with the small, short type that make a little popping noise. Then I gradually work up to those that produce more of a crack. This gets progressively closer, with a louder blank when the dog is totally comfortable with the sound. The timescale totally depends on the dog. Some can get used to it within a couple of weeks, others can take months.”
Picking a puppy
“When picking a puppy to train as a gun dog, ideally one is chosen that comes from working stock,” says Rob Hardy. “Such dogs will have come from generations that are responsive and easy to train. A good breeder or trainer will always try to improve on this, so the
dogs continue to get even better further on down the line.”
Rob’s current gun dog is Dee, a six-year-old black Labrador. She is from working stock. Her father was the 2010 retriever champion.
“All the usual socialisation rules apply with puppies. This includes meeting people, other dogs, getting used to the car, traffic and so on,” he says. “Living with the family is fine. It is, however, important to always remember that this is a gun dog and certain games are to be avoided. There should be no tugging games, which can make them hard-mouthed. This is the term used when a dog grips an object too hard. In the case of game for the table, it could damage it.
“The only retrieving should be done in a controlled situation, so that also means no ball throwing by the children.
“The dog should not be allowed to run wild outside in a field or wood. He does not know the difference from a weekend walk in the woods and a day in the woods shooting. If the dog is to run free, it should be at a location totally different from a shooting situation, on
a beach for instance. This way it holds no connection to the dog’s ‘work place’.”
Labradors tend to mature quite quickly compared to other gun dog breeds. By six
to nine months, they can be ready for their formal training, but it depends on the individual dog.
It is possible to have a Labrador trained as a gun dog by about 18 months of age.
Words: Karen Young Photography: Richard Faulks
GIANTS OF THE FOREST STRETCH FOR 8 ACRES AT SCONE PALACE
Pale rays from the low winter sun glisten through the needle-coated branches of a plantation of towering conifers. In places, huge trunks almost blot out the sky. These giants of the forest stand proudly, a spectacle of height, colour and texture.
This is no commercial conifer forest, but the 168-year-old Pinetum at Scone Palace in Perthshire. On a bright, crisp day when the light is crystal clear and the air fresh and cool, the colours are both rich and vivid. The chill winter setting provides the perfect backdrop for the warm russet hues of the giant redwood’s massive trunk, the dark green needles of the grand fir and the bright green feathery foliage of the Western hemlock.
The eight-acre Pinetum is home to approximately 230 trees covering 71 different species. Today, it is split into two parts, an original 19th century planting and a newer late 20th century set of trees. Not surprisingly, the older and bigger trees dominate the more recently planted younger and smaller trees nearby.
There are two distinct avenues of noble fir and Western hemlock, but today’s visitors are free to wander at will among the trees. The ground underfoot is a close-cropped grassy carpet with a sprinkling of cones and fallen twigs.
Most, but not all, are evergreens, never shedding their foliage even when temperatures drop to their lowest. They vary enormously in height, colour, girth, bark and foliage. Some are instantly recognisable, such as the monkey puzzle, Araucaria araucana. These resemble huge cacti, with short, thick branches, dark brown bark and overlapping, glossy, dark green, triangular leaves. Others, like the East Himalayan fir, Abies spectabilis, are less well-known. Their spread-out branches, dark grey, deeply grooved bark and upright dark purple cones mean they are, however, equally eye-catching.
Fashion for trees
Pinetums were first created in Britain in the mid 1800s when they were regarded as a status symbol. The one at Scone was started in 1848 by the 3rd Earl of Mansfield, whose descendants still own the estate.
“People with big enough estates and gardens would vie to have certain trees and plants in their collections back then,” says Brian Cunningham. He has been head gardener at Scone since 2011. “They all wanted to be first to have a brand new variety that had only just been discovered.”
These species, unknown in Britain at the time, were brought back by a series of intrepid Victorian plant hunters.
“We still have 10 of the trees originally planted, so that makes them around 175 years old,” says Brian. These include Sitka spruce, noble fir, giant redwood and Western hemlock.
A second section, just over an acre in size, has been planted in phases to the north of the original, beginning in the 1970s. For the most part, trees in this section are considerably shorter and slimmer than the venerable giants behind them.
A walk along the eastern side takes in a 36ft (11m) high Jack pine, Pinus banksiana, with reddish bark, long, light-green needles and smooth cones curling round the branch. Of similar height are neighbouring Chinese white pines, Pinus armandii. In their native country they are regarded as emblems of longevity and immortality, and are often used as bonsai.
One of the most eye-catching species in the junior Pinetum is the Japanese red cedar, Cryptomeria japonica. Its bark is reddish-brown and in winter its soft feathery foliage turns to a deep burgundy-purple.
Both sections of the Pinetum are now full. New trees are only planted to replace those lost to old age, disease or to winter storms.
All shapes and sizes
Winter does not diminish the sheer splendour of the Pinetum. The variety and magnificence of the collection swiftly dispels any notion that conifers all look much the same. Each species bears a highly individual stamp.
On the outskirts of the original planting stands a Japanese umbrella pine, Sciadopitys verticillata. Despite being dwarfed by a nearby giant redwood, it is impossible to overlook this tree. In the winter the foliage takes on a bronze hue. Its reddish-brown bark is hidden by thickly-packed branches that run all the way to the foot of the tree. The shiny needles grow in the shape of an upturned umbrella, with 4in (10cm) long cones at the centre.
The formidable presence of Scone’s giant redwoods, Sequoiadendron giganteum, inspire awe. The first was planted at Scone in the 1870s and is the oldest in the UK. Standing more than 145ft (44m) high, it has a girth of more than 36ft (11m). These trees are great survivors, capable of living for several thousand years. This is partly because the distinctive textured bark with its many tones of auburn and green is both spongy and thick, giving great protection in times of fire in its native American forest.
Beyond the giant reds, the familiar Christmas tree shape of the noble fir, Abies procera, is easy to pick out. Its bark is furrowed and reddish-brown and the uniform blue-green needles lie in rows at a diagonal to the twig. The purplish-green cones can reach 10in (25.4cm) in length.
An avenue of Western hemlock, Tsuga heterophylla, runs through the heart of the plantation. Less familiar than the noble fir, they have an elegant triangular shape and drooping growth at the top of the tree. Delicate, feathery needles deepen in colour with age from bright green to a lustrous dark shade. The bark of this tree is deeply grooved and reddish brown. Woody, oval-shaped cones growing in abundance from the ends of the branches are among the smallest in the pine family, measuring less than 1in (2.5cm).
Nearby stands one of the younger trees, protected from hungry deer by a fenced enclosure. This is the Lijiang spruce, Picea likiangensis, and stands just 3ft (1m) high at present. One of the fastest growing spruce, it is expected to reach 100ft (30m).
Just outside the avenue stands an imposing Western red cedar, Thuja plicata. Its long, straight trunk was perfect for carving into canoes, resulting in it being highly prized by Native Americans. The Scone example stands 115ft (35m) high. Its most recognisable feature is the reddish or sometimes grey fibrous bark which strips off in long strands. Light green leaves look like flattened plaits and the small, elongated cones are the colour of cinnamon. This tree propagates itself by layering, meaning that branches can form their own roots when they touch the earth. Left alone, the trees grow naturally to create close family groups.
A few steps further on is a Serbian spruce, Picea omorika. This was discovered on the country’s Tara Mountain in 1875 by Serbian botanist Josif Pancic. Slender and elegant, it is not too fussy about soil type and does not require much pruning as it grows. Its foliage is dark green with short, rigid needles and the cones are egg-shaped with leathery, fine-toothed scales.
Home for wildlife
The Pinetum is an inviting place for a variety of wildlife in winter. It provides shelter and food for red squirrels. The occasional roe deer and woodpeckers can often be heard as well as seen. However, the winter visitor that causes most excitement is the hawfinch. Britain’s biggest finch is very shy and hard to spot. Numbers have been in serious decline in recent years. A study carried out over the course of five winters at Scone by local enthusiasts concluded that more than 100 hawfinches regularly overwinter in the Pinetum. Some migrate there from Europe, but others make it their permanent home. This may be because the habitat has been largely undisturbed for decades.
There can be few places more peaceful but inspiring for a winter walk than this lovely Pinetum. It may have started life as a landowner’s proof of his wealth and standing, but today, it has an environmental importance. Visitors enjoy the rare, unusual and magnificent trees. And their presence in the Pinetum means they will continue to thrive into the future.
Words: Gilly Fraser Photographs: Mark Mainz
The feature on Scone Palace Pinetum appeared in the Jan / Feb 2017 issue of LandScape.
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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
PHENOMENON CREATES A GHOSTLY VEIL OVER THE COUNTRYSIDE IN AUTUMN
Ghost-like, a delicate drapery lies over an early morning landscape in late autumn. Mighty oaks, the silent sentinels of the fields, seem to float above its vapours, their trunks disappearing into a low-lying sea of cloud. It shrouds and swirls among the hill tops. It laps against a sweeping seashore.
This is fog, a phenomenon caused by water droplets suspended in the air, cutting visibility to less than six-tenths of a mile, or 1km. When visibility is greater, fog becomes mist. Dense fog is deemed to occur when visibility is less than 165ft (50m).
Fog readily forms in the later months of the year when there are quiet conditions under the influence of an area of high pressure. On a clear night, with little or no wind, air close to the ground rapidly loses heat to the atmosphere by radiation and steadily cools. At a certain point, known as the dew point, the air cannot hold all the moisture as vapour. Instead, minute droplets of water become visible. This is radiation fog. Sometimes called ground fog, it is a feature of low-lying meadows, filling hollows and valley bottoms.
Radiation fog is often quite localised and patchy. This is due to the diversity of landscape, with some places producing more water vapour. A slight wind can shift the fog from one place to another, quickly transforming a clear horizon into a wall of fog.
If there is little wind, radiation fog is confined to within a few feet of the ground. However, a slight increase in movement means moisture lost through condensation onto the ground’s surface is quickly replaced by moisture from above. This means the fog could thicken. If the wind turns stronger though, the fog quickly evaporates as the cold, damp surface layer is broken down.
The low winter sun can struggle to burn off radiation fog, so it may remain all day. In the extremely cold December of 1890, a complete absence of sunshine was recorded for the entire month in the Home Counties. In 1936, a fog shroud lasted nine days in the North West and Midlands.
Movement over the ground
Fog is not always restricted to quiet weather. It can result when moist, mild air is moved horizontally across a cold surface. This is advection fog, from a scientific term describing the movement of fluid. In the atmosphere, the fluid is the wind. It may occur if there has been a prolonged cold spell with a snowy or frosted landscape and then milder air comes in from the Atlantic. This mild air is very quickly chilled to its dew point and water droplets become visible. A thick mist or fog forms, even though there may be a noticeable breeze. When this type of fog is formed by a change of air mass, it is known as frontal fog.
On hills and moor
The air does not need to be completely cooled to the dew point to form upslope fogs. Instead, it condenses into fog when forced to rise by even a modest hill.
A moist airstream will often have a layer of low cloud, called stratus, that cloaks hills and mountains. This is known as hill fog. Dartmoor in Devon is a treacherous, uncompromising granite plateau when it is enveloped in one of its frequent hill fogs. The Great Dun Fell weather station in the northern Pennines, at an altitude of 2,857ft (871m), has an average of 231 foggy days a year. In Scotland, the term Scotch mist is used when low cloud gives mist or fog accompanied by a light, wetting drizzle. In many other parts of the country this is known as mizzle.
Although the term freezing fog is often used, it is misleading. When the temperature falls below freezing and fog forms, the droplets are so small, at around one to 10 microns, they do not actually freeze. The fog is made up of water droplets in a supercooled state. It is when these make contact with cold surfaces, such as fences, twigs or grass blades, that they immediately freeze.
In winter, the temperature of the air on the higher slopes of Britain’s mountains and hills is often below freezing. At the same time, they are often covered in cloud made up of supercooled water droplets. As they freeze on to surfaces, this can result in some beautiful frost accretions of ice, often on just the windward side of the object. Feathery formations of granular white crystals then accumulate that can sometimes extend many inches in length. These can create dangerous conditions. In March 1969, the 1,270ft (387m) tall Emley Moor television mast in West Yorkshire was brought crashing down by the sheer weight of this fog-created ice.
Rising and falling
When a sudden shower gives way to sunshine, whirls and wraiths of mist can be seen rising from road surfaces, roofs or pavements. Sometimes a lake or sea surface can appear to steam or smoke. This occurs when very cold air blows over a much warmer surface. The air close to the warm surface has a greater vapour pressure, leading to evaporation into the colder air above. In turn, this condenses into visible water droplets. This is sea smoke, or steam fog.
Fog that contains a high concentration of water droplets can produce what is known as fog drip when intercepted by vegetation such as tree leaves. Then, water falls rain-like under the tree and wets the ground. Gilbert White, the 18th century Hampshire naturalist, wrote: “In Newton-Lane, in October 1775, on a misty day, a particular oak in leaf dripped so fast that the cart-way stood in puddles and the ruts ran with water, though the ground in general was dusty.”
Effect on sound
A fog-cloaked landscape seems quieter, with sound muffled. This is because the air gaps between the water droplets cause higher pitched sounds to disperse their energy by bouncing between them or having to change course due to refraction. Deeper bass sounds, with a longer wave length, can penetrate a thick fog. This is why fog horns have a low timbre.
However, conditions that form radiation fog can produce what is called an inversion. In this, the temperature actually increases with height up to approximately 3,000ft (914m). The cold foggy conditions are overlain by drier warmer air. This has the effect of reflecting sounds back to the surface and extending their range horizontally.
Mist can enhance a landscape, making it surreal and dreamlike. A dense fog, however, can disorientate. It is often difficult to judge distances when the normal horizon is missing or distorted. In September 1749, it led the preacher John Wesley to offer up a prayer for deliverance from its shroud. During a visit to Cumbria, he wrote: “I kept on as I could till I came to the brow of Hartside. So thick a fog then fell, that I was quickly out of all road, but knew not which way to turn. But I knew where help could be found in either great difficulties or small. The fog vanished in a moment and I saw Gamblesby at a distance.”
Fog can be very transient, slipping away like a ghost, or last for days, shrouding the world in a coating of grey. It can soften a harsh landscape, or it can change the appearance of a much-loved one until it is almost unrecognisable. A natural phenomenon, it can roll over the countryside like a blanket. Then, as it thins, its true beauty is captured as the late autumn sun gleams through it.
Words: Ian Currie Photographs: Alamy
The feature on mist and fog appeared in the Nov / Dec 2016 issue of LandScape.
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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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