Monday, 21 September 2009

A Sunday Drive

One of the great pleasures of living in Redesdale is that, within a very short drive of my home, whether it be to the north, west or east, I am sure to find myself in the midst of some of the best upland country in Northumberland.

I have one particularly favourite drive, a circular journey of little more than twenty-five miles, which encompasses Trevelyan's wide horizons, remote settlements such Craig and Yardhope comprising a shepherds cottage, some simple outbuildings and little else, and remoter locations still, such as the pedlars stone, where in days past I fancy that shepherds wives would congregate to meet an itinerant tradesmen and exchange their eggs and rabbits for flour and other household essentials. At the half-way point is the hamlet of Holystone and, as the circle closes near to home again, I always stop to take in my favourite view, looking down the Grasslees Burn and over Billsmoor where the stone wall of the deer park encloses a herd of gentle fallow deer.

A view across the woodland surrounding The Raw to the wooded Beacon Hill with Simonside in the far distance on the right

Craig, left of centre, nestling amongst the trees. The Pedlar's Stone is just beyond the walled wood on the hill and the long flat back of The Cheviot can be seen in the far distance. The land to the left of the road includes the MOD's Otterburn Training Area.

After taking the picture above, I just missed standing on this solitary Shaggy Ink Cap (Comprinus comatus)

Standing amongst outcrops of fell sandstone at Black Hill looking towards the ford which crosses the Holystone Burn at Yardhope, the woodland at Cats Law and Lanternside Edge beyond.

The heather (Calluna vulgaris) in Northumberland was probably at its best during all of the August rain; some clumps are still in flower but there was none of the heady, warm-day honey smell on Sunday.

The delightful, and tiny, church at Holystone, dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin. Nearby, at Holystone Grange, I saw two Curlew in a road-side field, probably the last of the summer.

My favourite view of all, looking down the Grasslees Burn with the deer park at Billsmoor filling the open land and hillside to the right of the farmhouse.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Rowan Tree (2)

In the second of this two-part piece about the Rowan Tree I describe making Rowanberry Jelly.

I have an old recipe book, first published by the Agricultural Press Ltd in 1935, comprising the favourite recipes of country housewives living in every corner of Britain; the recipes were collected over many years by Farmers Weekly magazine. It includes the following simple recipe:

"Take 3lbs of ripe rowan berries; pick the berries over, wash them, place in a preserving pan with just enough water to prevent them burning. Cook slowly until the berries are reduced to a pulp. Strain through a jelly bag.

Next take 3lbs of crab apples, wash and quarter. Barely cover with water, then boil gently until soft and pulpy. Strain. Mix both juices, weigh, and to every pound of juice add 1lb of sugar. Boil rapidly for 20 to 30 minutes or until the jelly 'sets' on a cool plate.

This is a firm, bright pink jelly, with a delightful piquant flavour. To those who think that equal quantities of fruits produce too acid a preserve, this jelly may be made with 2lbs of rowans and 4lbs of apples

Top left & right: The collected berries cleaned, washed and ready to cook; The juice from the strained berries after cooking; Bottom left & right: The apples ready to cook; The apple pulp straining

The Redesdale Rowans are covered in berries at present, but I knew of only one crab apple tree locally, one I had seen in fruit last year; unfortunately, when I went to look for it again I couldn't find it. As result I used cooking apples in the suggested alternative ratio of 2lbs of berries to 4lbs of apples.

Some of the 15 small jars of jelly I made; I bottled the jelly purposely in small jars so that it would be used more quickly once opened. The picture shows how clear the jelly is; I was particularly careful during the cooking process to do nothing that would leave the finished jelly looking cloudy.

According to Good Old-fashioned Jams, Preserves and Chutneys by Sara Paston-Williams (published in a revised edition by the National Trust in 1999) "the orange-red jelly ... is a traditional and best accompaniment for venison, grouse and hare". The writer adds: "I also like to serve it with mutton, lamb and goose". As a vegetarian, you would not expect me to discuss these uses with meat (a neighbour also tells me it is good with pork), but as a simple semi-sweet jelly, it is truly scrumptious spread on fruit scones for afternoon tea.

What's next? The Rowanberry Jelly is sharing a store shelf with my homemade lime marmalade and my made-from-a-tin orange and lemon marmalades. I found some bushes laden with rose-hips last week so I hope to gather some of these and make rose-hip & apple jelly. And if I find suitable elder berries this autumn, they too will find that I've arranged an appointment for them with the preserving pan.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

The Rowan Tree (1)

The Rowan, or Mountain Ash as it is also known (even though it is a member of the Rose and not the Ash family), is a deciduous tree with a slender crown, ascending branches and smooth greyish bark. It can grow as tall as twenty metres, flowering between May and June and bearing clutches of small red fruits between July and September. The picture shows that its leaves are pinnate, with oblong leaflets all of the same size and shape and in five to seven pairs. The leaflets have toothed edges and are dark green above and bluish-green below.

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

The Rowan is found in a wide range of habitats including open woodland, scrub-land, rocky mountain outcrops, river banks and on acid soils. Because its seeds are often bird-sown, rowans are also common around the ruins of ancient settlements and stone circles. And in the event that such droppings land in a fork or hole on a larger tree, such as an oak, where old leaves have accumulated, they may result in a rowan growing as an epiphyte on the larger tree. Such a rowan is called a flying rowan and was thought to be especially potent against witches and their magic.

Such beliefs may give rise to the tree's many names in mythology and folklore, including quickbane, roan, rune tree, sorb apple, Thor's helper, whispering tree and witchbane, and to uses including being carried on vessels to avoid storms or kept in houses to guard against lightning or even being planted on graves to keep the deceased from haunting. While the density of its wood makes it suitable for walking sticks, druid staffs have traditionally been made from rowan wood and its branches have been used as dowsing rods.

And probably because the Rowan, in its different phases during the year, evokes memories of country days and gentler times, it has found a place in literature, poetry and traditional music such as here in the words of this old Scottish song:

Thy leaves were aye the first o' spring, thy flowr's the simmer's pride
There was nae sic a bonnie tree, in all the country side ...
How fair wert thou in simmer time, wi' all thy clusters white.
Now rich and gay thy autumn dress, wi' berries red and bright.

The Rowan has both medicinal and edible uses: infusions can be made from either its flowers or its fruit and taken for a number of ailments including rheumatic pain and as an aid in the treatment of kidney disorders; contrary to common belief the fruits are not poisonous. They are however rather bitter but this does not prevent them being used to make wine, syrups, soup and jam.

It is this latter use that has engaged me this week and in the next part of this two-part piece, I will describe the process of creating Rowanberry Jelly ... from tree to plate.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Fifty Posts

When I started writing these regular pieces I had two aims: the first was to focus afresh on a life-long interest in natural history; the second was to broaden my interests, or at least resurrect old interests beyond ornithology. To achieve both aims I certainly needed to get out more, not because I had been house-bound but because I had become destination-bound; I needed to find new places to visit, new habitats and most of all, new wildlife.

It got off to a good start at Kirkwhelpington in May when, for the first time in a long time, I looked seriously again at wild flowers. That in turn led me to the hay meadows at Barrowburn; seeing the Chimney Sweeper moths there fed a renewed interest in butterflies (and moths) and later, an entirely new one in dragon and damselflies. And all along, I have remained alert to the birds and animals around me.

New field guides joined those filling my already sagging book shelves. Three in particular, the Butterflies of Great Britain & Ireland and the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain & Ireland, both published by the excellent British Wildlife Publishing, and Marjorie Blamey's Wild Flowers by Colour have been at my side on every recent trip. My new-found enthusiasm certainly outstripped my ability when I bought Francis Rose's Wild Flower Key but the arrival at the end of July, in the form of a generous birthday present, of Collins Flower Guide and a hand lens has started to restore my confidence that the mystery of wild flower identification, but probably not all 1,600 of them in Great Britain and Ireland, is something I will master in time.

And it's funny how one thing leads to another when you walk around with your eyes open. Butterflies and dragon and damselflies are, I've decided, rather like buses: you wait for one and two or three, or more, arrive at the same time. I have frequently been surprised by one species when looking for another. Check lists are filling: at Sidwood, Ringlets became Meadow Browns and then Small Skippers; at Sidwood again, then at Falstone Moss and more recently at Bank's Pond, it has been dragon and damselflies that are filling the list. What's next? Well, there's a nice mixed wood just up the road that should be bursting with fungi very soon, while finding and photographing moths is also high on the list of things to do.

Thanks to all of you who have read this and the preceding 49 pieces and join me, vicariously at least, on my wildlife wanderings around Northumberland. Thanks too for the helpful commentary and advice, all of which is much appreciated.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Exmoor Ponies in Redesdale

The ancestors of all our native pony breeds came overland from Alaska approximately 130,000 years ago and became widely distributed throughout what is now the British Isles. Dramatic changes in our climate some ten thousand years ago restricted the amount of open grazing available to mainly the mountain and moorland areas of Britain. The herds became isolated in these upland areas and the British hill pony developed as a result.

First domesticated by the Celts, these herds of ponies can trace their history largely through their first contact with man. Although there is little early written evidence of the Exmoor pony, records from the sixteenth century onwards show that there have been as many as a thousand as few as fifty living on the moor at different times. In the early part of the last century, for example, due almost entirely to the popularity of the Moorland Mousie children’s stories of Muriel Wallace, the breed enjoyed something of a revival. Their numbers then declined for several reasons, not least because of changes in farming practice and the choice of other, more fashionable breeds, for pleasure riding. More recently, thanks to the dedication of a number of hill farmers, their number has again grown steadily and the worldwide population is now more than a thousand. Put into context, this still makes the Exmoor pony rarer than the Giant Panda and the breed is classified as critically endangered by the WWF-UK.

Exmoor ponies are stocky and strong, with deep chests and large girths. They are bay, brown or dun in colour, with black points and no white markings; this allows them to blend in well with their native background of heather, grass and bracken. The large capacity of the digestive system is important in winter as they consume large quantities of rough material which provides them with internal warmth. And because their teeth are well adapted to a coarse diet, the ponies do not damage plants as readily as other breeds. Instead they graze neatly around them, allowing the plants to flourish and increase in number. Because of this, small groups of Exmoor ponies are being pressed into ecological service all around the country, grazing open spaces and helping maintain the natural balance of the indigenous flora.

There are a number of sites in Northumberland where Exmoor ponies are helping in this conservation work. The ponies shown here, living on the moor below Padon Hill, a little more than three miles west of my Redesdale home, are mostly yearlings and are expected to spend the next three years grazing this site. They will be gelded in the autumn and will return to spend the winter on the moor. These attractive ponies would previously have had a very uncertain future; now with the help of the Moorland Mousie Trust they will go on to make lovely family ponies in time.