Sunday, 12 December 2010

Signs of the Times: Autumn #1

Apologies for the recent absence of posts here - the extremely bad winter weather and closed offices has meant that our PC was tied up with home working and there's also been lots of work to do at home in preparation for the festive season - but I'M BACK!

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower."
Albert Camus

Well, when I started out on these blog posts based on the four Ladybird books in the "What to look for in..." Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter series, I didn't expect to be starting the Autumn book when it was nearly the end of November and there was snow lying thick on the ground outside. But hey ho, sometimes the business of life intrudes. I did start the Spring book a little late and I've never quite managed to catch up but I'm happy to carry on and try to finish Autumn and Winter books before the end of March!

Here's the cover of the Autumn book, a lovely image that we'll revisit in due course:

Copyright: Ladybird Books

The Autumn book in the series was first published in 1960. To set the scene for the posts to follow on the 24 pictures making up the book, here are the inner cover notes that provide an overview of the book's contents:

"There are many, many things to look for in autumn, just as there are at any other time of the year. You will, of course, soon find such things as blackberries and hazel nuts, but if you know where to look, you might also find the nests of the wood wasp hanging from twigs, or a bumble bee's nest in the bank - in which you might even discover a field-mouse curled up. You can look for the large flocks of various kinds of birds, some in their young plumage, others fully adult, and some still half-and-half; and sometimes you will find all the males together in one flock, and all the females together in another. This book will tell you many other interesting things that you can see."

So, let's go and have a look at Autumn, shall we?

Copyright: Ladybird Books

Autumn Picture 1

This first autumn picture from 1960 is a classic view of a traditional post-harvest scene. In the foreground, a stoat is running past from field mushrooms. Wood pigeons are feeding on grains from a harvest of oats (according to the picture's accompanying text) has been stacked to dry in bound bundles known as "stooks", waiting to be threshed in the field or gathered up for stacking. Once dry, these stooks would need to be threshed to separate the grain from the stalks.

Traditionally (historically), this threshing would have been a manual operation, perhaps on the ground using flails, subsequently replaced during the mechanisation of agriculture by a separate threshing machine. By 1960, when the Autumn book was published, the era of the separate thresher was coming to an end as new-fangled “combined harvesters”, or what we now call combine harvesters, were being introduced, mechanising the whole harvesting and threshing (but not baling) processes into a single piece of agricultural machinery.

Interestingly (and thanks to Christine H for pointing this out when I discussed this subject with her recently), on many small crofts in Shetland, harvested grain crops are still formed into stooks, and I found an interesting blog,, which describes this in words and a picture. My Dad, born in the 1930s, well remembers seeing the appearance of stooks at harvest time when he was growing up in Ayrshire, and their subsequent formation into haystacks (were they calle dhaystacks even when they were for straw?). He remembers that there was a real knack to building them up, such that the upper bundles that formed the pitched “roof” of the stooks both kept the valuable grains dry and also managed to shed any rain in a way that kept the rest of the stack dry.

The wood pigeons in the picture are presented as engaged in the activity that raises such enmity from farmers, eating the bounty of harvest! My old AA Book of British Birds says of the wood pigeon (Latin name: Columba palumbus): “No bird is a greater enemy of the British farmer than the gentle-looking wood pigeon, largest of our pigeons and doves. Practically all year round, it ravages crops...” Consequently, the wood pigeon is also one of the most persecuted wild birds in Britain. Despite the high level of shooting to control their numbers, however, the population of wood pigeons has increased more or less steadily and steeply since the mid 1960s, as shown by the British Trust for Ornithology:

Of this increase, the BTO says: “The spread of intensive arable cultivation, especially of oilseed rape, which has been shown to promote overwinter survival, may explain the rise in numbers.” For the UK as a whole, the wood pigeon population has increased 160% since 1967. You can read more of the story here.

The stoat running across the stubble field, distinguished from the closely related weasel by its greater size and the black tip to its tail, is probably hunting for field mice which have been left bereft of shelter. The Mustelid family to which it belongs is a really successful part of the Order Carnivora. As well as stoats, the Mustelidae, a mammal family found world-wide, includes weasels, polecats, otters, badgers, martens and skunks. Like all the members of the Mustelid family in Britain, the stoat (Mustela erminea) is an extremely agile and capable predator, feeding mostly on small rodents, rabbits (and hares?) and birds. My Collins Field Guide, “The Mammals of Britain and Europe” (by David Macdonald and Priscilla Barrett) describes the killing technique of the stoat as a: “precision bite to [the] back of [the] neck”. No messing about there...

The Great British Public sees stoats regularly on television, or at least their pelts or fur. The stoat, as many of you will know, has fur that turns partly, or in northern regions wholly, white in winter, triggered by a combination of falling temperatures and genetic inheritance. That white pelt, with its little black-tipped tail, made stoat fur important for the fur trade as “ermine”. And that is what traditionally provided the white fur trim to the red robes worn by the Peers in the House of Lords. Not the nicest role for a stoat to play, admittedly, but a very high profile one, nevertheless.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s Review of British Mammals provided an assessment of the conservation status of stoats. Sadly, the principal reason we have an estimate of the British population of stoats (around 462,000 in Britain, of which 180,000 in Scotland), as with a number of other species, is the National Game Bag Census, in other words, the reports by gamekeepers of the numbers of stoats they have killed. It seems that humans are generally pathologically incapable of sharing their environment with any wild carnivorous mammals. Pre-historic Britain had large predators with sharp teeth (wolves, bears), which humans eradicated, both as perceived predators of people (although there is little evidence that wolves systematically hunt people) and also competition at the top of the food chain, including preying on domesticated animals.

Systematic hunting and killing, and habitat destruction (principally deforestation) made their eventual extinction in Britain inevitable. That left the “middle-ranking” smaller predators, such as otters, the red fox, stoats, weasels, wild cats and pine marten, polecat and, to some extent, the badger (it has a much more varied diet than solely carnivorous). None of those species posed any direct threat as predators of humans but they have all been persecuted to greater or lesser extents, particularly over the last couple of hundred years and, it seems to me, particularly from Victorian times onwards, as predators of game species (grouse, salmon, pheasants, etc) favoured by the wealthy and powerful.

The JNCC review reported that, at the start of the 20th Century, stoats were “still abundant despite relentless persecution”. Then, however, populations were then “severely reduced for 15 to 20 years following the outbreak of myxomatosis” (which severely reduced the rabbit populations which form an important part of the stoat’s diet). From 1960 to 1976, “the number of stoats killed, as recorded in the National Game Bag Census, doubled, but the number killed in northern areas declined again after 1965”. However, since the mid 1970s, the number of stoats killed by gamekeepers throughout Britain has declined again. Reasons for this decline are unclear. Since the number of rabbits killed nationally has continued to increase, a further rise in the stoat population might be anticipated. However, “any rise in fox numbers may be a contributory factor to the failure of the stoat population to increase in response to rising rabbit numbers, since increasing fox numbers can lead to a decline, or even local extinction, of stoat populations”. Ecological relationships are complicated, aren’t they? But then, I never claimed this was going to be easy.

I’ve nothing much to say about the rather vaguely drawn field mushrooms in the picture – there are much better fungi examples and stories in the pictures to follow!

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