Friday, 17 December 2010

Life in a Cow-Pat

It was bitterly cold today so I thought, for this short piece, I would transport myself back to a sunny day in late July when ...

... returning home from another rewarding afternoon at Sidwood, crossing the high moor below Padon Hill, I paused to take-in this view north, to the remote steading of Dargues Hope, standing in splendid isolation at the foot of Blakehope Fell, and beyond, across the Rede valley towards the Cheviot hills and the border with Scotland.

As I turned away from the view to continue homewards, I glimpsed a number of fungi growing on cow-pats in a field to my right. The fungi were Egghead Mottlegills (Panaeolus semiovatus). This Mottlegill has distinctively shaped, cream-coloured caps and a short-lived, white-fading-to-yellow ring on the stipe.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Deep and Crisp and Even

Redesdale enjoyed something of a thaw last Saturday but the days since have seen the winter's grip on the valley re-tightened. Thankfully, there's been no more snow but today, having to travel five miles outside the village to the nearest Post Office, I thought the roads quite unpleasant to drive along. I was glad just to buy stamps for my Christmas cards and, once back in the village, some vegetables and a woolly Peruvian-style hat at the mill shop before returning home for my lunch-time soup and a sandwich and an afternoon with Patrick Barkham's enchanting The Butterfly Isles, which I am very much enjoying and can thoroughly recommend.

When leaving the mill, this view of sheep feeding in an adjacent field caught my eye ...

And in the garden, the birds return again and again to the food I put out for them at their temporary feeding station on top of the wall at my front door. Here's another of the Brambling pictures I took from my living room window last week ...

Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla)

And a Christmas-card Robin ...

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Bramblings in the Snow

The snow in my garden on Thursday morning was three feet deep and the most convenient way for me to feed the birds was to place small portions of their favourite foods along the top of the wall at my front door.

From my living room window I watched three male Bramblings, a large mixed flock of Chaffinch, four Greenfinch, a female House Sparrow, three male and two female Blackbirds, individual Blue, Coal and Great Tits and a Robin visit the food. As might be imagined, I was particularly pleased to see the Bramblings. I think this is a first winter male ...

Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla)

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Hard Times

Since the weekend, the winter weather, which was at least picturesque in my last my last piece, has continued to tighten it's grip on Redesdale. The accumulation now is certainly as deep as last winter and clearing it has meant a lot of hard work for me and my new plastic snow shovel. The car-wide track down to the road, created on Saturday when I dug out the six inches of snow lying on my drive, has filled and been cleared twice again; on Monday the snow was twelve inches deep and there was another six inches yesterday. And if I felt up to the task this morning, five inches more has fallen overnight. It's still snowing heavily as I write so I've voted for a lazy day. Sadly, the garden birds will not be able to relax.

Sunday, 28 November 2010


We've had quite a lot of snow in Redesdale this week. Not as much, perhaps, as other parts of Northumberland, and certainly not as much, yet, as we had in the last week of the old year and the first two weeks of 2010 when I was snowed-in for three weeks. But worryingly, the large scar, marking a car-wide track down to the road that I dug out of the six inches of snow lying on my drive yesterday, was almost entirely filled by the overnight snow.

For all of this, the countryside around me is looking picturesque as I discovered this afternoon on a short walk up onto the village trail.

A view west across Redesdale to Padon Hill

On the village trail looking north

Looking east from the village trail to Fawdon Hill

Monday, 22 November 2010

Longhorn Beetle at Sidwood

In July, on the same day that I found the Scorpionfly at Sidwood, I came across another interesting insect, a Longhorn Beetle (Pachytodes cerambyciformis) feeding on what I thought was Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium) but I am grateful to Stewart Sexton who tells me is Sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica), described below.

The best habitats for finding longhorn beetles are flowery woodland rides or edges, flower-rich meadows or roadsides near woodland, such as here at Sidwood, or marshy areas. Only a few species are common in very built up areas, gardens, coastal habitats and heath land.

Regarding Sneezewort, its leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. They are cardiac, diaphoretic, digestive, emmenagogue, odontalgic, sternutatory and styptic. The leaf is chewed to relieve toothache and can be used as an insect repellent. The dried, powdered leaves are used as a sneezing powder. The plant yields an essential oil that is used medicinally.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Indoor Wildlife

You can imagine my surprise recently, when I discovered a small Common Frog (Rana temporaria) swimming in my toilet pan. I have thought very hard about how it could have got there and have concluded that it must have come through the open window and then found its way into the pan through a gap at the back of the seat. It seemed unable to scale the inside of the pan and make its escape. It was not a fully grown adult, being about 60mm long. I didn't take its picture while it was swimming about in the pan but this picture was taken after I released it in my garden ...

Common Frog (Rana temporaria)

This is the second time I have found an unexpected creature inside my house. In August, 2007, I found this male Common Lizard (Zootoca vivapara) in my porch. Again, I have little idea how it arrived there as I don't often use my front door. It had lost its tail but this had regrown shorter and darker, which I understand is not uncommon. I placed in the sun on the wall at my front door and took the following picture before it made its escape ...

Common Lizard (Zootoca vivapara)

It would be interesting to hear from others who might have had similar experiences.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Holystone North Wood

Holystone North Wood, a semi-natural, acid sessile oakwood, more typical perhaps of the Lake District, is a little way to the north of the Holystone Burn. It is thought to have survived since at least 1700. Many of the trees have multiple stems suggestive of copicing in the past, although records show that the wood was last worked in this manner over sixty years ago.

The Forestry Commission plans to increase the oak woodland in Holystone to over one hundred hectares. Many of the surrounding conifer plantations are now being felled and will be replaced with oaks grown from local seed.

The wood is approached by an up-hill walk through, and then along the edge of one of the conifer plantations. The first view of the wood, across a small pasture when leaving the conifers, is most inviting ...

Some of the wood is fenced off to allow natural regeneration, but there is still plenty to see from the public paths ...

During my visit this week, I had good views of small groups of feeding Redpolls and Long-tailed Tits. Jays and a Red Squirrel were also active. I also found this Bonnet Mycena (Mycena galericulata) growing on a decaying deciduous tree ...

The return walk to the car park offered good views south towards the Holystone Burn, in the valley beyond the pasture, and Holystone Common ...

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Hill Born

On Remembrance Day, I thought it would be appropriate to share another of the poems by the Hexham-born poet, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, this time entitled Hill Born.

The poem is from Gibson's First World War collection Battle. Due to his ill health, the army would not accept him for service abroad and he spent some months as an Army clerk in England. His poems in Battle are written from a soldier's point of view, portraying the horrors of war and the terrible effects on the young men who went to fight in the trenches.

In Hill Born, the thoughts of a Northumberland man fighting in France turn to happier times spent in the Cheviot Hills ...

I sometimes wonder if it’s really true
I ever new
Another life
Than this unending strife
With unseen enemies in lowland mud,
And wonder if my blood
Thrilled ever to the tune
Of clean winds blowing through an April noon
Mile after sunny mile
In the green ridges of Windy Gile

Today, our thoughts turn to those who went to war and had no homecoming to the green ridges of their native hills.

Windy Gyle, on the Cheviot Ridge, from Shillhope Law

Friday, 5 November 2010

Holystone Burn

The area surrounding the Holystone Burn is one I return to regularly, not least because the panoramas across the upland moorland are beautiful at almost any time of year, and certainly enhance my drive to the shops in Rothbury. Here we see the view towards Simonside in July, looking across the semi-natural woodland alongside the burn ...

And here in late August, when the air is thick with the smell of honey from the fine sweep of heather, left ungrazed for many years ...

And finally here, during my visit last week, when the autumn colour in both the trees and the decaying bracken was at its best and the distant Simonside was obscured by driving rain ...

The land, which is owned by Forest Enterprises, is managed jointly with the Northumberland Wildlife Trust as a reserve and I hoped to find some interesting fungi in the woods. Sadly, there were not as many to be found as I might have liked ...

Brown Birch Bolete (Leccinum scabrum)

Jelly Rot (Plebia tremellosa)

Stag's Horn or Candle-snuff Fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon)

The Pixie Cup Lichen (Cladonia pyxidata)

And during the walk, the Holystone Burn, glimpsed here through the trees, ripples along in the background ...

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Colours of Autumn

Is it just me, or has this been a particularly colourful autumn? In Redesdale, and in the surrounding countryside too, a palette of yellow, red, gold and bronze fills the woods as autumn gives way to winter.

At Sidwood this week, the autumn colour has been at its very best, such as here, alongside the lane which runs through the woodland ...

In places, the woodland floor is carpeted in cones and leaves ...

Nearer to home, at High Green, larch and some deciduous trees add colour to what could otherwise be a dull conifer plantation.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Sidwood Fungi

The first of the fungi found at Sidwood on a recent visit, the Horsehair Parachute (Marasmius androsaceus), is common and widespread but was easily overlooked amongst the debris on the woodland floor where, before a little 'gardening', only the caps were visible ...

Collins Complete Guide to British Mushrooms and Toadstools describes the Horsehair Parachute as "small but conspicuous parachute with a very long, horsehair-like black stipe. The cap is up to 1cm across, convex, becoming flatter and usually with a depressed centre; strongly radially grooved, furrowed and wrinkled; pinkish-brown but sometimes paler towards the margin. The gills are concolorous with the cap. The stipe is up to 5cm long, cylindrical, thin, tough and wiry and black. Its habitat is usually on plant debris, often heather and conifers, and is less often associated with deciduous trees". The examples in my picture were 20mm tall.

I think that this is The Deceiver (Laccaria laccata) ...

And this is Root Rot (Heterobasidian annosum), seen here growing on the roots of a connifer ...

... and its underside ...

Monday, 25 October 2010

Butterflies and Buddleia

Winter in Redesdale last year started earlier, lasted longer and was more severe than most in recent memory. So when spring eventually stirred, I couldn't help but feel just a little relief.

Happily, the four buddleia bushes in my garden had survived the winter and were starting to produce new shoots. They were little more than rooted twigs, throw-aways from a neighbour's garden, when I had planted them five years before. But as time passed they matured, flowered beautifully in purple or white and, just as well-behaved buddleias should, attracted lots of butterflies (as described here in one of two pieces published in August, 2009)

Then one night, when the new growth was coming along nicely, the temperature plummeted to -12 and shrivelled it all. At first I thought the frost had killed the bushes entirely, but as spring moved on, they recovered and new growth returned, mainly from the base of each bush.

This said, they certainly flowered later than in previous years, and as a result were still attracting butterflies during the few mild days we enjoyed at the start of October. Here are two of those late visitors ...

Red Admiral (Vanessa atlanta)

Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Making Autumn Chutney

Having bought more Bramley apples than I needed for my recent blackberry and apple jam making, I thought it would be a good idea to use the left-overs in a chutney. In Good Old-Fashioned Jams, Preserves and Chutneys by Sara Paston-Williams, published by the National Trust, there's a very simple recipe for Autumn Chutney; if you have any windfall apples or pears, this a great way to use them up.

The ingredients are ...

2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped
1lb of cooking pears, peeled, cored and diced
1lb of cooking apples, peeled, cored and diced
Grated rind and juice on one lemon
Half a pint of malt vinegar
Half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon
Large pinch of ground ginger
Large pinch of ground cloves
8oz of soft brown sugar

... and the method is: Cook the onions in boiling water for five minutes to soften them, then drain. Put the pears, apples, onions, lemon rind, vinegar and spices into a large pan, then cook them over a low heat for about twenty minutes.

Stir in the sugar and lemon juice and continue to cook over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved, stirring frequently, then bring to the boil and simmer uncovered for about an hour until the mixture thickens. To tell when the chutney is cooked, make a channel right across the surface with a wooden spoon; if this does not fill with vinegar, then it is ready.

Spoon into warm, sterilized jars, filling them up to the rim, and seal. Store for at least one month to mature before using.

Top left & right: The left-over Bramley apples; The apples diced; Bottom left & right: The pears peeled and ready to dice; The finished chutney waiting to be spooned into jars.

The finished chutney filled five, 7oz, jars ...

I've not yet opened a jar of the chutney but I can say that it tasted fine before it was put into its jars.

I find making jams, jellies, marmalades, and now chutney, particularly satisfying and it's a great diversion on a miserable autumn day. My friends also seem happy to receive and enjoy the gift of a jar of something homemade and some of my production this autumn will be used as stocking fillers at Christmas.

I recycle a lot of jars, and friends and neighbours keep me going with jar donations, but I do buy new tops and other jars from the Jam Jar Shop. The friendly and helpful people there have a great selection of glass ware, equipment, accessories and even ingredients; I particularly like their 7oz jars, used here for the Autumn Chutney. It's easy to order on line and orders are fulfilled and delivered quickly and in tact.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Scorpionfly at Sidwood

I happened upon an insect I’d not seen before while walking at Sidwood in July. I thought it was rather unusual so I took some pictures to help identify it when I returned home. The insect turned out to be a female Scorpionfly, an insect with a long and interesting family history.

Scorpionflies are the only UK representatives of the insect order Mecoptera, derived from the Greek mekos, long, and pteron, wing, and referring to the shape of both the front and hind wings in most species.

In evolutionary terms, the Mecoptera is an old group; fossil specimens have been found from the Permian period, 300-250million years ago. However, the group was far more diverse in prehistory, when there were nine families, than now when only three remain. The Mecoptera are also one of oldest known homometabolous groups, having complete metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa and adult stages), and as such may be the forerunner of other insects that have complete metamorphosis such as butterflies, moths and caddis flies. To see pictures of fossil Scorpionflies click here

The three present-day families of Scorpionflies are Common (Panorpidae), Snow (Boreidae) and Hanging (Bittacidae). There are some three-hundred species of Mecoptera world-wide of which thirty species can be found in Europe. The Common Scorpionflies, the Panorpidae, are the largest family but only three Panorpa are found in the UK. These are Panorpa germanica, Panorpa communis and Panorpa cognate; they are all so similar that it is impossible to tell them apart without examining their genitalia under a microscope. To read more about Snow and Hanging Scorpionflies click here

It is only the Common Scorpionflies that have the upturned scorpion-like genitalia or 'tail' that gives the order its name. They are brownish yellow and black insects with mottled wings and are found amongst shaded vegetation, such as the one I found at Sidwood, and in hedgerows. To see pictures of other Scorpionflies, including males, click here

The adult Scorpionfly is about 15mm long. Its head is shaped like a beak, as in my picture above; it is this feature that is useful in distinguishing them from other insects and which first attracted my attention. And while the adults look a little scary, they are in fact quite harmless. They feed on dead or dying insects, including any they might spot in a spider's web, and on pollen and flowers. They are also partial to ripe fruit and, when it's available, to human sweat.

Panorpid males attract females by vibrating their wings. When it's time to mate, the males find a good source of food and attract females with pheromones from their enlarged genital segment. When the female approaches, the male exudes a mass of brown saliva, which serves as a nuptial gift. The female chooses a male based on this gift and in response to this, the males have evolved saliva glands so large that they take up most of their body cavity.

After mating the eggs are laid in soil, expanding greatly just before hatching. The larva are caterpillar-like with conical legs. They have compound eyes, which is unlike the larva of most of the other homometabolous insects (for example, caterpillars and beetle larva do not have compound eyes). They can pupate quickly, sometimes in a week and hatch as adults. An illustration of a Common Scorpionfly larva can be found here

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Fungi at Rupert's Wood

Rupert's Wood, a mixed woodland including some ancient trees, is little more than four miles to the north of my home in Redesdale. The wood is owned by Lord Redesdale and occupies some thirty-one hectares enclosed by a dry-stone wall.

A view of Rupert's Wood, taken on an earlier visit

The wood is home to a stone-lined pond dating from the mid-nineteenth century, reputedly used in the past for swimming. Its best use today is as a mirror, providing some wonderful autumn reflections and reminding me of Escher's Three Worlds lithograph ...

Rupert's Wood is an excellent site for fungi and several pictured during an earlier visit can be found here. During my visit this week I found others, including two new to me comprising this Stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus) ...

... and this cluster of Sheathed Woodtuft (Kuehneromyces mutabilis), growing on the decaying wood of a deciduous tree ...

Despite it being a sunny autumn day, there was not enough light to take pictures amongst the undergrowth in the deeper parts of the wood, at least not without using my camera's flash ...

Yellow Staghorn (Calocera viscosa)

The Sickener (Russula emetica)

Coral Spot (Nectria cinnabarina) : The soft cushion-like pustules of the conidial (pre sexual) stage

I also found this Birch Polypore or Razorstrop Fungus (Piptoporus betulinus), a more mature example than that found at Sutton Hoo and shown in my previous piece ...

Finally, this view showing upland Northumberland at its best, looking north from Rupert's Wood, across Upper Redesdale towards the hills of the Scottish border ...