Growing feathers is hungry work – helping birds through their moult

A robin (Erithacus rubecula) has been visiting us for three years now. It started as a youngster, coming into the garage and seeming content to perch and watch the activity in there. Seed was put down for it and it returned every day, sometimes several times. After a while, we started supplying live mealworms, which proved extremely popular, and a routine became firmly established.

13-02-2015-robin-2The robin when it first started visiting

Robins don’t live long in the wild, with only about a quarter reaching their first birthday, but I believe this is the same robin. We did have an interloping robin for a season, but that bird behaved differently to this one and the first robin was recognisable when it returned in autumn. The routine established with the first robin three years ago has been repeated pretty much every day since then. This is how it goes: one of us will go to the garage and the door handle will screech as it’s turned. The robin hears this and comes to sit in the wood shed next to the garage. Whoever is there will turn to it and say ‘Hello robin’, which is the signal for it to fly in through the door and stand in a particular spot on a work bench. The mealworms are then produced and the robin will eat several, occasionally stopping to give a sharp glance at its feet.

looking-at-feetThe robin looks at its feet

Being replete, it will then do one of two things – take a mealworm and fly off with it over one of our left shoulders, often ruffling the hair, or fly to a bag hanging from some shelves and perch there. Here, it will polish its beak on the same spot of the bag’s rim and then rest for a while. There we have it; unless we go away, which is not often, this is the sequence we repeat every day. This year, a male and female blackbird have joined in the mealworm bounty, though they prefer to stay outside the garage.

robin-bagResting on its favourite bag

Watching the robin every day, we notice that it has moods. Sometimes it is full of confidence, chest puffed up, and at other times it seems flat-feathered and timid; we wonder if it’s had a near miss with a cat, or if something else has frightened it, but the routine remains the same.

0821-robinDuring the moult and looking pretty scruffy

During the second half of August, the robin started eating more mealworms than usual, up to 16 a visit compared to the current average of six. The increase in appetite was soon followed by it starting to look increasingly bedraggled, feathers loose and sticking out all over. What was happening? It was moulting, as all birds do, shedding old feathers and growing new ones. During this time, birds can’t fly as well as they usually do and tend to go quiet so they don’t alert predators to their dishevelled state. The blackbirds moulted shortly before the robin, with the male losing all his tail feathers. All three birds are now looking considerably smarter, with smooth new feathers and brighter colours. Will they stay with us throughout the winter? Will this be the robin’s last moult? Only time will tell, but the birds’ ‘cafe’ will remain open.

Edit: After reading more, I’ve discovered that if a robin gets through its first year or so, it can live quite a bit longer than 1.1 years. The two oldest ringed robins were 19 years, 4 months, in the Czech Republic and 17 years and 3 months, in Poland. ‘Our’ robin may be around for a while yet!

robin-aug-2I’ll just sit here, thanks

I found a crayfish in a really weird place

Over the years that I’ve spent in gardens, I’ve come across all sorts of curious things – chocolate eggs, lost toys, hundreds of clay pipe stems, old bottles, fossils and oyster shells – but on a day in 2010 I made the oddest find to date. I was happily pruning a rambling rose that was trained against a lovely old Cotswold stone wall, when a flash of blue appeared amongst the foliage. The first thing that came to mind was a faded Hydrangea flower head, but there weren’t any Hydrangeas. Looking closer, I was astonished to find, hanging in the branches about 2m from the ground, a long-dead crayfish.

I admit that I’m not especially familiar with crayfish, wildlife on dry land has always been more my area of interest. I’ve watched them scurrying about the bottom of a shallow stream in the Lake District and I’ve been served them once, though I would rather not repeat that experience. A more fiddly and unrewarding meal I have seldom eaten. Crayfish haven’t been part of my life, so to come across one dangling in a rambling rose was a considerable surprise.

crayfish-1

Back indoors, I set out upon the agreeable pursuit of looking things up and discovered that there is only one native crayfish in the UK, the freshwater white-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes), which is increasingly threatened by an invasive American type, the signal crayfish, Pacifastacus leniusculus. The signal crayfish eats everything in its path and damages river banks by digging deep burrows which cause the river banks to collapse. Crayfish need lively-flowing streams and rivers to live in and it happens that there is a lively-flowing river running through this town, the river Windrush. I then discovered that signal crayfish have been found in the Windrush and realised that many of the  holes I’d seen in the banks are likely to have been dug by them. Comparing the shape, colour and markings of the claw of the crayfish I found to the one shown here, I concluded that it is a signal crayfish.

crayfish-2

So how on earth did this crayfish get itself from the river, some 500m away at the closest, and into a rambling rose in a town garden? The only answer I could come up with is that it was caught in the river by a heron and then dropped as the bird flew over the garden. Did the heron simply lose its grip on the bony shell or was the crayfish putting up its last fight and struggling to break free from the heron’s beak, snapping its claws at the bird’s face? Or maybe another heron was trying to steal the first heron’s catch and the crayfish was dropped as they argued. I’ll never find out how it got into that rose, but it reminds me that the world is vast, that there are countless questions I’ll never even ask, let alone be able to answer. There’s no looking this one up, it will always be a puzzle, but a bit of mystery is a good thing.

crayfish-3

Unexpected visitors

Sunday was meant to be a gentle day – we’d bake some bread, potter outside and cook something delicious. That didn’t happen for, as Robert Burns said in his poem, ‘To a Mouse‘, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley”. In other words, you can plan all you want to, but don’t expect any of it to happen.

I was enjoying the ‘potter outside’ section of this plan, cutting back spent perennials, and was thus engrossed when I heard buzzing. It grew louder and I looked up to see bees overhead. How wonderful, a swarm of honey bees setting forth to build a new colony. I expected them to fly over in a column, as usual, and disappear beyond the rooftops, but they didn’t. Instead I found myself at the centre of a swirling mass of swarming bees. At first it was alarming, then I recalled all those times working in flower filled beds, with bees almost buzzing in my hair, and realised that they probably hadn’t even noticed me and were interested in their own business of finding a safe place for their queen. Still, probably better to close a couple of windows, just in case, and find the number of a local swarm collector on the British Beekeepers Association site.

bee-swarmThe swarm clustered in the Magnolia tree

I spoke to a swarm collector, Steph Green, from a nearby village, who said she’d be there within the hour. Outside the bees were still active but gradually settling high up in the big old Magnolia tree outside the kitchen window, the worker bees – Steph calls them ‘the girls’ – clustering protectively around the queen. Every so often, I’d go and check that they were still there and hadn’t moved on. Here they are in the clip below.

In due course, Steph arrived with her bee collecting gear – two bee keeper’s suits, boots, gloves, a sheet for any falling bees to land on so they would be seen and not squashed, and a special polystyrene box called a ‘nuc box’, or nucleus collecting box, which was set out under the tree.

IMG_20160703_171805Karl in the tree

The work of bringing the swarm down to the ground began. Our longest ladders weren’t quite long enough for Steph to reach the swarm and the upper branches were congested so would need trimming. Karl was the tallest and had the longest arms so he volunteered to go up. He cut out some wood, a job which needed doing anyway, got into the tree, removed the branch with the swarm and very carefully lowered it down. Steph took it from him, held it over the box, gave a sharp downward shake and most of the bees dropped straight in. The others continued to swirl around us, their buzzing surprisingly loud.

bee-branchGetting ready to shake the bees into the box

in-the-boxLooking for the queen

Steph had told me on the phone that the bees would have filled their stomachs prior to swarming and would be fairly docile. She said their stomachs would be so full they’d find it hard to get into position to sting and anyway they were intent on the queen, not stinging. It made sense. I had long sleeves, was wearing gloves and my trousers were tucked into boots, so I kept what seemed a sensible distance, tidied up the cut branches, took pictures and listened to Steph talking about what the bees were doing.

suits-bootsKarl and Steph

Some remained in the tree top, where they could still smell the queen, whilst others were standing in rows on the edge of the box with their rear ends pointing skyward and their wings flapping. They were giving off the Nasonov pheromone, which smells of geraniums and is used to signal stragglers to the colony’s whereabouts. Beware of eating bananas before dealing with bees, as the alarm pheromone reputably smells much like them.

hive-530pm

The bees fan their pheromone scent to encourage the stragglers to join them

Gradually, the bees were coaxed into the box, the lid put on and a hole left open for latecomers to get in. Steph was extremely gentle in her work, taking care that none of the bees were inadvertently harmed. Inside their box, the bees ‘fanned’ to alert the rest of the colony, sounding very much like an electric fan, while a small group of female workers stood by the round doorway, bottoms pointing up, giving off their geranium scent.

brush-lidSteph gently moves bees out of harm’s way

By 7pm, most had gone inside and only three workers remained at the doorway, so we went in and had dinner. As dusk fell, the bees went to bed and Steph took them to their new home amongst other bees, in a field.

hive-7pmBy 7pm, only three bees were still signalling

What a day. Karl said later how surreal it felt to find himself not doing the odd jobs he’d intended to, but in a tree and holding a branch with a swarm of bees clustering on it. Not the plan, but a very good day indeed.

IMG_20160509_075712Their new home

A walk on the wild side

A friend is selling up her acre plot and moving into town and, for this last year, she’s decided to give herself a break and let part of the garden go wild. It’s a good idea, in my opinion – she is well into creaking joints territory and has over 30 year’s worth of belongings to sort out, and caring for an acre is no small undertaking at the best of times. It will also be good to see what wildlife is attracted. The area of garden allowed to go wild has had some four months of vigorous growth, fueled by warm days and plentiful rain, so I am curious to see what’s going on there.

nettles-grassSome of the nettles

The first thing I notice is an abundance of nettles (Urtica dioica) – there are thickets of them almost as tall as I am, some festooned with cleavers (Gallium aparine). According to the aesthetics of appearance that most are familiar with, this sight is no thing of beauty, but the nettles are humming with life. Where growing most thickly, the leaves and stems are smothered with aphids and it’s interesting to note that a large number of the aphids appear to have been parasitised by wasps. I’ve never seen so many parasitised aphids before and wonder if they have been parasitised by one of the tiny wasps of the sub order Aphidiinae. There are none to see, so my guess remains just that. A healthy population of parasitic wasps means the rest of the garden may stand a chance against other insect pests.

fliesFlies and a parasitised aphid

Amongst the aphids countless small flies buzz around or walk to and fro over the nettle leaves and I wonder if they are after the sugary excrement of the aphids, who have been busy siphoning off the sap of the nettles. From a distance, I feel a natural revulsion to so many flies – to a part of my brain they imply putrefaction – but there is no foul smell of decay and, close up, the flies reveal bodies of iridescent green and gold and are really quite beautiful.

I walk around the stands of nettles, careful to avoid touching their stinging hairs. Some nettles have a harsher sting than others and I’ve found that those growing elsewhere in this garden pack quite a punch. Leaning in, a flash of blue catches my eye. It is a male common blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) resting on a leaf and my attentions disturb it, so it flies to another part of the thicket.

damselfly

I wander, bending and straightening, peering along stems and under leaves. Here is a ladybird larva busily foraging for aphids and over there is the fat caterpillar of a red admiral butterfly moving slowly amongst the leaves. Soon it will pupate, attach itself to a leaf and ready itself to become a butterfly.

red-admiral-caterpillarA red admiral butterfly caterpillar

Over there, several clusters of Peacock butterfly caterpillars. Another good reason to leave this patch alone. Nearby a harvestman spider, not a true spider but an arachnoid, stands very still on a leaf and I wonder if it is waiting for prey or just resting.

peacock-caterpillarsPeacock butterfly caterpillars

Tall grasses waft around the edges of the wild area and comfrey finds a space for itself where it can and light up the greenness with purple flowers. Bumblebees travel slowly from one pendulous flower to another. If I were to stay here for many hours, and perhaps over night, I’m sure there would be birds, amphibians and small mammals coming to take advantage of the shelter and sustenance of this wild area. There is plenty here for all.

bumblebee-comfreyBumblebee on comfrey 

Garden finds – Jurassic fossils? Yes, lots of them

A common find in some gardens are fossils, mostly of shelled sea creatures. Courtesy, I assume, of the worms, they turn up on the soil surface. Many are conglomerations, a fused mass of differing species which are hard to tell apart but others are quite clean and can be identified.

bivalve-2Most of the fossils I find are pretty crusty looking, like these

Finding fossils at a height of approximately 225m above sea level seems odd when you first think about it, especially when the area is about as far from the sea as you can get on this island.

cotswoldsThe fossils were found about where the pointer is

How did they get there? Here I turned to geology for answers. At the time these fossils were living, some 170 million years ago, the layout of the continents was very different, much of Europe was under a warm and shallow sea and Britain was farther south than it is now. It was only when the single great continent that was once Pangaea split apart that we begin to see anything recognisable as the planet we live on today.

MiddleJurassicMap

The fossils I’m looking at today lived, I think, during the middle Jurassic era called the Mesozoic. They are a sea urchin (echinoid) and clams (bivalves or brachiopods). The bivalves interest me – they attached themselves to a surface under water by a stem called a pedicle and thereafter lived their lives in that one place.

two-bivalvesMid-Jurassic bivalves found on the soil surface

bivalve pedicle

Showing how they attached themselves to a surface

Which leads me to the next thing – a curious thing about bivalves from this era is how unsymmetrical and plain lop-sided they can be compared to many we see today. The ‘why’ and ‘how’ of it prompts me to ask a question that the class was asked often when I was studying horticulture – ‘What is the advantage of this adaptation?’. It’s a good question and one to be asked often. In this case, my guess is that these ancient shelled creatures evolved to take advantage of the water current and the food it carried, their shells formed so as to move to and fro smoothly as the water flowed past them.

unsymmetrical-2Try to imagine the water currents this bivalve evolved to live in

unsymmetrical-1Or this one

Alongside them lived sea urchins (echinoids), which differ from the bivalves in that they can move around to hunt their food. The piece of echinoid I found was lying on the soil surface and I believe it is called Clypeus ploti.

clypeus-plotiA fragment of Clypeus ploti

I found a little about it in a pdf about the geology of the Cotswolds:

‘This particular species of echinoid lends its name to the uppermost beds of the Inferior Oolite Group (the Clypeus Grit) and has been known locally by various names such as “Chedworth Buns”, “Poundstones” or “Fairy Loaves”. Superstition said that keeping one in your house meant that you would never run out of bread and were protected from witchcraft. They were described by Sir Thomas Plot in the 17th century and in reality are fossilised sea-urchins from the Middle Jurassic and would have lived in the warm, shallow tropical seas at that time’.

I suppose having part of a Chedworth Bun means we may always have a crust to chew on and, given the nature of the soil in this area – pinkish-brown clay full of rubble – we shall need it. Being protected from witchcraft would also be handy.

clypeus-ploti-2A whole one looked like this

You could easily keep drilling down through all this material and study it for the rest of your life. I often wish I had the time necessary in order to find out about all the things that interest me, but there are just too many of them, and finding out one thing so often leads to half a dozen other intriguing subjects. With the time I do have, I skim the surface to try and gain a rough awareness, to be added to the ever-growing net of events and species that make up the natural history of this remarkable planet. All this started by looking at the ground beneath my feet.

The book I turned to in attempting to identify these fossils, as well as others, is one of a series on British fossils by the Natural History Museum called ‘British Fossils – Mesozoic‘. They are very useful books with beautifully clear illustrations and it’s worth having them all on the shelf. The Mesozoic is described by the Wiki page as ‘an interval of geological time from about 252 to 66 million years ago. It is also called the Age of Reptiles. The era is subdivided into three major periods: the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous, which are further subdivided into a number of epochs and stages’.

mesozoic book

Garden finds – a shard of Staffordshire combed slipware

The best garden finds take you on a journey. Sometimes on a journey back in time and at others on a journey into the wild places of today. Many are fascinating and almost all are in some way illuminating. So it was with this find.

staffs-slipwareCould that be the remains of a scalloped edge on the left?

It was a pottery shard lying on the surface of the soil. 4.5cm by 3.5cm along its longest edges; the background was honey-coloured and there was a pattern of dark brown lines which looked as if they’d been painted on thickly and then combed. I remembered finding a piece like this a couple of years previously, also on the surface of garden soil, but had thought it modern and left it. Later, seeing a similar piece on a Thames mudlarking blog I realised that it wasn’t modern but probably from the mid-1700s or earlier. This type of pottery is known as Staffordshire combed slipware and it first appears as fairly rough designs on dishes and plates from the mid-1600s before the patterns become neater and more complex on cups and pots, including dots and naturalistic patterns.


1751-1800Staffordshire slipware pot, 1751-1800. From the Museum of London

My piece was fairly flat and it was glazed only on one side, leading me to suspect that it might have been a plate or shallow dish. Maybe it once had scalloped edges like the one below. It has no scorch marks so was likely used for serving rather than cooking.

century-staffordshire-combed-slipware-1740How the original might have looked

The garden where it was found was once a farm and some of the original building still stands and dates to the early 18th century. Built of Cotswold stone and surrounded by fields, the scene probably doesn’t look that much different to when the original building was new. The bed it was found in is some 200m from the house and other fragments in the soil make me wonder if this spot was once a midden, a place to dump or bury broken or discarded household items.

How did this piece of old pottery come to be on the surface of the soil? This is something I had wondered about for a long time, actually. No matter how one tends the soil, leaving it dark and loamy, in a short time stones appear on the surface. How do they get there? The ever inquisitive Charles Darwin had the answer, though no doubt others knew before him – they get there by the soil-turning actions of earthworms. Darwin studied and experimented with worms and published a book about his findings in 1881, ‘The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms‘.

Archaeologists have also found that the activities of worms are capable of homogenising considerable volumes of soil, mixing the layers together as they pull in plant matter and push obstacles like pottery shards out of the way of their subterranean burrows and up to the surface. These shards are then picked up and puzzled over by people like me, who naturally wonder how they got there.

The worms haven’t finished there, though. Once they’ve pushed unwanted objects out of their way, they will then use them to protect their burrow entrances from being trampled. It sounds absurd, but there is evidence.

worm-stones-1The stones protecting a worm’s burrow

Go outside and find a piece of ground with little growing on it and the chances are that you’ll see, at regular intervals,  round piles of stones, up to 15cm in diameter. Carefully remove some of those in the middle and you should find a hole, the entrance to a worm’s burrow. Sometimes there will be a plug of plant matter that the worm is gradually pulling down to add to its pantry.

worm-stones-2The entrance is revealed

If you don’t have a piece of ground to look at here is a video of a worm in action.

Knowing that worms move objects in this way is pleasing, because it means that many more finds will simply be on the soil surface and I can just pick them up without having to dig for them. Try it, see what you find and if anything stands out, always turn it over. You might be surprised, it could be a piece of Staffordshire combed slipware.

leaf_1_500Guess who did that

Garden finds – an old slate pencil

I thought I’d amuse myself by doing a series on some of the discarded or lost objects I find in garden soil. It may be that searching for weed seedlings has simply made me used to spotting inconsistencies in the soil, but over the years there have been a surprising number of them. Many of them spark my curiosity and I feel driven to find out what they are, so much so that on some occasions I become quite vexed at not knowing.

The ‘find’ here isn’t a new one, I picked it up some time ago, long enough that I can’t remember where or when. I hadn’t come across its like before and it intrigued me for a long time. At first I thought it resembled a Belemnite, a fossilised and long-extinct order of Cephalopod from the Mesozoic Era some 252 to 66 million years ago, but it didn’t have the characteristic gut channel running through it, nor the tapered ends. Then I thought it could just be a randomly shaped piece of stone which had somehow not broken but been worn. I kept it anyway, in case an opportunity arose to find out what it was.

800px-BelemnitesJurassicWyomingBelemnites

One day, browsing the London Mudlark community on Facebook, I saw a picture of something pretty much identical to my mystery object, with a request for identification. Most commenters reckoned it was a slate pencil – dating back to when there wasn’t as much paper available and pieces of smooth slate were used instead, with the writing instrument also being a piece of slate. They were widely used in schools, factories, on farms and in homes. It wasn’t something I had ever thought about, but I now had an intense urge to write on slate with it and see what the writing looked like and how it felt to use it.

mudlark-pencil-2These from London Mudlark are just like the one I found

old-pencil

So, scouting about for the nearest piece of slate…oh, there wasn’t any. I tried to think of anywhere I might have seen some lying about, but couldn’t. It was very annoying and I steeled myself to be patient until some turned up. Then I did an online search on ‘writing slate’ and found that you can still get them, sold as novelty items, and that they come with a new slate pencil. Great, I could compare them.

writing-slate

The slate and pencil arrived within days and my craving was satisfied. I wrote with both old and new pencils and was pleased to see that the marks they produced were the same. If you pressed hard, they made a nasty screeching sound like chalk scraping on a blackboard, but used softly there is just a quiet rasping of stone on stone. I rubbed across my scribble with a finger and the scrawls disappeared. I liked the impermanence of it.

slate-writing

A few days later, I wanted to write out a list of ingredients and was looking for a scrap of paper but my eyes fell on the slate and I used that instead. Propped up in the kitchen, it looked rather fine. Might this become a new thing, perhaps? Is it too Hipster? We’ll see, but I rather like it.

dad-doodleDad’s doodle

There’s a lot of tree bark stripping this year

The winter of 2015-2016 was mild compared to some of those from earlier in the decade and you’d think that the wild mammals would have found enough to eat in the fields and hedgerows, but this spring I’ve seen some of the worst damage to tree bark I’ve ever come across. In rural gardens I expect to find the juicy foliage of bulbs and shrubs nibbled at the end of winter, but this year has seen an increase in tree bark stripping that I haven’t previously observed.

deer-bulb-foliageChewed bluebell foliage

At Ruth’s out-of-town garden, about half of her orchard trees have been ring-barked, the bark gnawed off all around the trunks, some up to 40cm. What a mournful sight it was to see her fine apple trees so ravaged, protected too late with chicken wire that will at least prevent further damage. I thought of others I know who have fruit trees and felt a strong urge to check on them. The tale continued – oaks planted to celebrate the Millennium, which had been thought mature enough to no longer need protection, had been stripped. Some creature had made a good meal from a gnarled and leaning old apple tree, with the branches growing along the ground now free of bark. In nearby woodland, the evidence was again clear and tree trunks had been nibbled and gnawed as far as could be reached.

apple-tree-damage-3Doesn’t look so good, does it

Which species ate the bark? Looking into the issue, my guess is that it was a variety of them. A surprising number of UK mammals eat bark and I suspect that the culprits in the gardens were mainly voles and rabbits. Both gardens regularly see the garden plants browsed and bulbs dug out and eaten and both have resident rabbits and voles, as evidenced by droppings and the large number of tunnel entrances – I imagine one particularly holey and uneven area of grass must have a vole citadel beneath it.

deerBambi, was it you?

It is alarming to come across such damage to beloved trees but once it has happened, there isn’t much to be done and one can only think of ways to prevent further depredations. The first thing I did was protect the tree trunks with an ever-useful material, the galvanised wire mesh we know as chicken wire. Over the years, I have found countless uses for the combination of chicken wire and bamboo canes. Here they came in handy once again as the wire mesh was fashioned into cages around the trees and fixed in position with the canes. Not all the trees will survive, of course, and those completely ring-barked will no doubt die, but others may yet live.

Why has this happened now, I ask myself? I can only think that the mild winter has resulted in an increased survival rate of the wildlife concerned, all of them needing to eat and finding the clusters of trees and succulent young foliage of nearby plants to be most advantageous to them. Speaking to another gardener, I hear that a local herd of deer has increased from around six to 20 in the last couple of years and they are regularly found dining in the village gardens.

rabbit-damageThis Campanula clearly tastes good

I am somewhat torn in my feelings about the matter. I feel very sorry for the garden owners having their gardens damaged and will do all that I can to protect them but another part of me, the part with a fervent interest in ecology and who is a keen fan of the ecologist Aldo Leopold, can’t help but be glad that the rabbits, voles and deer are there in the first place and obviously finding something to eat. In my secret heart, I cheer these wild creatures who are finding a way to live within the ever-increasing sprawl of humanity, for we are encroaching on their territory quite as much as they encroach on what we believe to be ours.

Recognising types of mammal damage

Whispering Knights Collective gearing up for Oxfordshire Art Weeks

From Saturday May 21st until Monday May 30th 2016,  the woodland project we’ve been working on since November 2014 will be open to the public for Oxfordshire Artweeks.

0427-triskelion

The Whispering Knights Collective is busily readying Neolithic Echoes for those who wish to enjoy these ephemeral structures and wildlife habitats.

ash-tail-1

There are some ten acres of woodland to enhance and encourage wildlife and plant diversity, all busy with the activities of birds, mammals and beneficial insects.

crescent

You can find us here – come and see what we’ve been doing!

ash-tail-2

 

We also have a selection of video clips from the woods, showing the changing seasons.

‘A beautiful young sapling leapt up’

In 2012 the magnificent old cherry tree in the garden, consumed by rot, blossomed for the last time, started dropping branches and died in the autumn. It was the biggest and most gnarled cherry tree I’ve ever seen, splendid and beautiful.

old cherry tree

It was so sad to see it go, like losing a friend, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in missing it – small birds sheltered in the canopy, woodpeckers nested in a hole pecked out of the spongy wood and beetles and wasps bored holes in which to lay eggs. For me, I missed the ancient knobbly trunk, sunlight shining through the dark red foliage and seeing the falling petals drift down like confetti.

fallen_branch

As luck would have it, in 2011 I had found two almost identical seedlings nearby and potted them up. I never found any others and attempts to propagate from seed were not successful, so these two little descendants were all that was left.

felled_cherry_treeGoodbye cherry tree

Winter passed and by the summer of 2013 the remains of the old stump were rotting away. The seedlings had come on nicely and were both some 30cm tall. What if we dug out the rotting wood and planted one of them in the hole? I didn’t see why not, so on the 2nd of July, 2013 we set to and dug it out. The hole was filled with new soil and the tree was planted, watered in and given some support.

tree_planted

Then we watched to see what would happen and the new cherry surpassed our expectations, easily doubling in height during the first year.

new cherry 2013 0702It was so small!

We carried out careful pruning and diligent watering and the tree continued to thrive and grow. By the end of 2015 it was a good deal taller than either of us. In 2016, it flowered for the first time. Not many flowers, perhaps a dozen, but they shone in the sun and I was glad to see them. Now that it’s leafing out, the morning light once again shines through the red leaves and we often admire it through the kitchen window.

cherry flowerFirst flowers

The other sapling I planted out in a farm garden and it has fared very differently. It looks healthy enough, but it’s still under 1m tall rather than the 2m plus of its sibling. Why is there this striking difference in growth? I’ve thought about it a lot and have come up with a few ideas. It may simply be that this was the sturdier specimen, though both seemed very much the same. Perhaps it has better soil or is more protected than the other tree.

cherry tree 2016 0313Spring 2016

The explanation that pleases me the most, whether it’s the best one or not, is that between the time of the old tree coming down and the new one going in – some nine months – the old roots started to soften and break down. The roots of the new tree have found the underground ways of those roots and are following them, making use of the established network and the beneficial work of mycorrhizal fungi which is undoubtedly present below the unfed lawn where the old roots run. Whatever the truth of the matter, the tree is clearly thriving. I am reminded of a line from Tolkien’s ‘The Return of the King‘ about the Mallorn tree which Sam Gamgee plants when he returns to The Shire: ‘A beautiful young sapling leapt up‘. As I look at the beautiful young sapling here, that line goes through my mind often and I wonder how it will look in the years to come and whether it will ever be as resplendent as its ancestor became, giving shelter and sustenance to so many small creatures. I shall never know, but I hope that it does.

cherry-2016-2Coming into leaf