DALS WILDLIFE SITE { WILDLIFE OF NORTHERN ENGLAND}

WILDLIFE OF NORTHERN ENGLAND

Children nature walk June -1

The story is taken from the book 'Country Walks of a Naturalist { with his children} by the Rev.W.Houghton { Not in copyright}, and courtesy of the Gutenberg Project. The Rev. Houghton was based in Shropshire {England}. The book was published in the 1800's, and only updates of species names and other relevant information is added by me. This story is taken from the chapter June walk V1.

Our story begins----

" We had many pleasant rambles last autumn", said Willy," How I wish the time would come when we could hunt for fungi again. Think of the woods at the bottom of the Wrekin,and those delightful plantations near Tibberton,besides you know some kinds are so good broiled for breakfast. I often think of fungus hunting. When shall we be able to go out hunting again?"

September and October are the best months, but we shall meet with fungi earlier.However I will promise you some long ramble or two hunting for fungi when the time comes. In the mean time let us keep our eyes open, and I dare say that we shall,even now in the month of June,meet with a few interesting species.We will go into the meadows near to home today and I am much mistaken if we shall not be able to find some St.Goerge's  mushroom. It is a very delicious fungus and perfectly wholesome. I gathered a few specimens the other day, and now that the weather is warm.I doubt not we shall fins a good number;so,besides,collecting bottles, we will take a basket and Jack will be the carrier. 

Now Separate yourselves and search this pasture well. " Here are a lot of fungi  growing in a ring" exclaimed May.Let me look.You have found what we wanted. This fungus is the Agaricus gambosa { Now called Calocybe gambosa}, or St.George's mushroom. See hoe closely the gills are set together;They are yellowish white in colour,the top is thick and fleshy,the stem too,is very thick. Few fungi ,comparatively speaking ,grow so early in the year,and you could not mistake gambosus for any other kind.What! you think the smell is rather strong. Well I confess this fungus has a strong and not very pleasant odour. Put what you have collected into the basket;you will find that the taste is pleasanter than the smell. Here are some specimens with the tops split and cracked,these are a little older, but they are very good we will put them with the rest.

St George's mushroom Calocybe gambosa. [ Images taken in France}

Courtesy of Strobilomyces Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 unported license.

" Oh,Papa," exclaimed Jack " I was looking at the ash tree in the hedge,and I thought I saw a mouse run up the trunk" I suspect it was not a mouse, but a bird,called from its habit of running up trees -the tree creeper. Let us get a little nearer. I see I am right.There the little bird is running rapidly up the tree;now he stops;as if examining the bark;now he is off again. How very like a mouse,to be sure! it is one of our smallest British birds,and, though common enough,it is not often seen,except by those who,caring for such things,use their eyes well.

Now he has gone to the opposite side of the tree;off he goes again to the trunk of another tree ;by means of its long curved claws and its stiff fork-tailed feathers this prettily marked bird is enabled to climb with great rapidity. It remains in this country all the year,and is more abundant in plantations and parks where there are plenty trees. It makes its nest in a hollow tree or on the inner side of the bark of a decayed one. The little bird lays many eggs,from six to nine;in the month of April;they are nearly white,with a few pinkish spots,generally at the larger end of the egg. It utters a few but feeble notes. The young ones are,as you may suppose,tiny little things. You should notice the curved pointed beak of this bird,and the stiff tail feathers it presses against the tree as a fulcrum in order to aid its ascent.

Tree creeper and young.

We will go into this adjoining field,which will soon be ready to mow. we will keep by the side of the hedge- for it would not be right to trample down the tall grass-and gather a few grasses.few people know about grass than that it is good pasturage for cattle and sheep.Let us gather a lot,and take care,as far as we can,to gather one kind each. How graceful they are,and what difference there is between them,some have a stiff spike-like head of flowers;others have pretty drooping heads;some are harsh and rough to touch;others soft as satin. Some again, are of great value as pasturage and for making hay;others are positively noxious weeds. You know the twitch or couch grass, that gives the farmer so much trouble;it is most rapid in its growth and difficult to kill;its underground creeping stems spread in all directions, and, if left to itself;would soon take possession of the whole soil.

So the farmers are very careful to rake together all they can;then they collect it in heaps and burn it. here is the rough " Cock'sfoot grass"  with its head  or 'panicle' as it is called,upright and tufted.Look at its large yellow stamens;it is a very productive species and enters largely into all hay-grasses. Here is the common quaking grass with its slender,smooth,spreading branches.See how the numerous little heads tremble with the slightest motion; we do not see much of it in these meadows.It is an exceedingly pretty grass,and often seen on the chimney pieces of cottagers.;but it is by no means a valuable agricultural grass; on the contrary;it is a sign;when abundant of poor land.

Panicle of grass

Here we have the smooth,stalked meadow grass;and here is the hedge wood-melic grass with its slightly drooping panicle and spikelets on long,slender footstalks. here is the soft meadow grass;feel how smooth its panicle is;this,the oat-like grass. " What is this very tall grass" asked Willy " That often grows near the water? It is much taller than you are and which has a rich brown drooping head"  you mean the common reed grass no doubt; it is not yet in flower; but you will see it in August and September. It is a magnificent grass,though not much use to the farmer. The little birds find shelter amongst its stems;and the reed warbler often chooses them as pillars where on to support its nest.

Then you must not forget another tall and handsome grass,often found on the banks of rivers and lakes,called the reed-canary grass;it flowers about the middle of July. you know the ribbon -like grass, in the garden,with its leaves striped with green and white ,varying immensely in the width of its bands,so that you never find two leaves exactly alike. " Yes,indeed papa",said May," I know it well;we always put some with the flowers we gather for the drawing-room table"

Well this only a cultivated variety of the reed-canary grass;and I have sometimes let a cluster of the ribbon-grass run wild as it were, and then the leaves turn to a uniform green . The reed meadow grass is another tall and handsome kind;this cattle are very fond;if it is sweet to taste and grows in damp situations. " You sometimes see" said May, " a very beautiful and curious grass with long,yellow feathery tails,amongst the ornaments in the room". That is the feather grass, it is a very rare grass,and has seldom found wild in this country. The long yellow tails are the awns,which resemble delicate feathers.Here is the sweet scented vernal grass;taste and see how pleasant it is.It is the grass more than any other,gives the charming odour to hay fields.

" There is a clear pond in yonder corner of the field,let us go and see what we can find" said Willy. All right it is a pond that will likely hold some interesting creatures; but first let us look at the plants that grow around or in it. There are a few sedges here and there-a pretty order of plants;at present you must be content with making yourselves acquainted with their general form. Take care how you gather them for the leaves and stems of some kinds are rough and if you draw them quickly through your hand they are likely to cut it rather sorely.

" Oh! do come here, papa, said May  " Here is a quite a new flower to me,is it not a beauty?" Indeed, it is a lovely plant.It is the Buckbean or marsh trefoil, and generally grows in some boggy spot, such as this. Look at the three green leaflets,like those of the common bean- hence one of the names of the plant. Look again at the cluster of blossoms;some are not fully out and of a lovely rose colour. Others are quite out and are covered with a white silken fringe. Bite a bit , and see how bitter it is;people often gather the leaves and use them for a medicinal tonic. I think in some countries,as in Norway and in Germany, the leaves have been used in the place of hops for brewing beer; about a couple of ounces being equal to a couple of pounds of hops.

The late Sir William Hooker, found the buckbean very plentiful in Iceland and says that where it occurs it is of great use to travellers over the morasses, for they are aware that the thickly entangled roots make a safe bed under the soft morass for them to pass over. Here is hairy mint;nearly a foot high;do you dislike the smell? I think it pleasant myself; it is not yet in flower but it will be so in about six weeks time. { I think Mr Haughton was referring to the Water mint.}

Holloa ! Jack, Whats the matter? " I have only only tumbled down, papa, amongst these nasty nettles, and got stung rather sharply" That is interesting. Do you know how it is that nettles sting? " Oh papa" said Jack, pitifully, " you are like the man in the fable who was giving a lecture to the drowning boy; the boy asked him first of all to get him out of the water, and to give him the lecture afterwards. Now you should first tell me how to cure these nettle stings and I would be more inclined to listen about how nettles sting."

 Drawing of the stinging nettle

 

The pain will soon pass off, ,and I do not know that there is any remedy. When at school, I was told to rub the stung part over with a dock leaf. But I do not think this ever did any good. [ The remedy from the dock leaf to ease the pain of the sting,is produced by crushing the dock leaf until juice is extracted. It is the juice that eases the pain-Dal}.

Now, I want you to pay particular attention; you know what they call the "Dead nettle"-I mean what plant I allude to; there is the red,white and yellow so-called dead-nettles;you remember  the shape of the flowers of these three kinds.. Look at the shape of flowers of the real stinging nettles,are they not extremely  unlike? You see the small green flowers in long branched clusters;how different from the lipped shaped flowers of the dead nettles.

Dead Nettle.

There is some general resemblance, however, between the real nettles and the so called dead-nettles. For instance the leaves of the white dead nettle are very similar to those of the stinger. The dead nettles,however, are not at all related to the true nettle,and belong to quite a different family called the Labiate tribe,from the Latin word labium,meaning lip,in allusion to the form of the corolla. 

Is the pain better, now, Jacko ? " Yes, its getting less severe,look what large white lumps have arisen on the back of my hand". The sting of the nettle is a very curious and interesting object under the microscope. It consists of a hollow tube with a glandular organ at the bottom of it,in which is contained an acrid fluid very irritating to the skin. The fine point of the sting or hair pierces the skin and the pressure forces up the fluid from the bottom of the hair,which is then conveyed into the wound by a point at the top of the sting.

Labiate flower

a= Stamens

b=corolla. c= calyx 

Sting of the stinging nettle much magnified

The nettles of foreign countries have much greater poisonous properties. The effects of incautiously handling some East Indian species is terrible. The first pain is compared with the pain inflicted by a red hot iron; this increases and continues for several days. A French botanist was once stung by one of these nettles in the Botanical Gardens of Calcutta; he said that the pain so affected the lower part of his face that he feared lock-jaw. He did not get rid of the pain until nine days had expired.

Dr. Hooker saw gigantic nettles in Nepal;one was a shrubby species growing fifteen feet high,called by the natives mealum-ma. They had so great a dread of it that Dr. Hooker could hardly persuade them to help in cut it down. he gathered several specimens without letting any part touch his skin, but,the 'scentless effluvium' was so powerful as to cause unpleasant effects for the rest of the day. " The sting produces violent inflammations,and to punish a child with mealum-ma is the severest Lepcha threat" Then there is the nettle of Timor,or Devil's leaf, the sting of which sometimes causes fatal effects. Tree nettles in Australia are occasionally found as much as twenty five feet in circumference. There are three species of stinging nettle in this country-the great nettle,the small nettle and the Roman nettle; the first two are very common the last very rare indeed.

There is a curious story told of the introduction of this last species into this country. You may believe as much as you please. It is said that the Romans under Julius Caesar, thought it would be prudent to come to England-of the coldness of which they had heard a great deal-they procured some seeds of the Roman nettle,intending to sow them when they landed in this country;so when they landed at Romney, in Kent,they sowed the seeds." And what use ,papa,"said Willy " Would nettles be to them during the cold weather in England?" Well they meant to nettle themselves,and so chafe themselves,so as to be able to stand the cold better. And tough skins they must have had for the poison of the Roman nettle is much more severe than that of  the two common species. {  As far as I am aware there are only tow species of nettle the common and the small stinging nettle. The story of the Romans, stinging themselves with nettles, in many books relates to the Common nettle. It was also thought that they introduced nettles to this country,however, seeds of nettles have been found at the burial sites of Bronze age man}

Camden,I believe tells the story; as I said you may believe it or not. Do you see the Tortoiseshell butterfly, hovering near the nettles? Its larvae is greenish black caterpillar with yellow stripes,and it lived, when in that state,entirely on the leaves of nettle;the larvae of other butterflies  also feed on the leaves of nettle,such as the Peacock and Admiral beauty butterflies. I have eaten the young shoots of the common nettles in the spring of the year;they do not make a bad substitute for spinach.

Larvae,chrysalis and insect of the small tortoiseshell butterfly

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