Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Signs of the times: Autumn #15

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.

"Hogs, in eating acorns, chew them very small, & reject all the husks.  The plenty of acorns this year avails the hogs of poor men & brings them forward without corn."

Rev. Gilbert White "The Natural History of Selborne", entry from  November 3 1781 (230 years ago the day after tomorrow! Which is pretty cool!)

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 15
Back to my series of blog posts about the wonderful art of Charles Tunnicliffe and the story his paintings told about the state of Britain's wildlife and countryside some 50 years ago when the Ladybird "What to look for in... Spring/Summer/Autumn and Winter" books were first published.

Another romantic painting of a lovely Autumnal rural idyll. A herd of pigs and a flock of wood pigeons are rooting about under an old oak tree, feeding on its fallen acorns. In the background, a traditional-looking wooden barn is backed by poplar trees and some nearby silver birches are turning yellow and gold. In the foreground there is a fairy-ring of little toadstools. The aging oak tree has bracket fungi growing from a cleft in the trunk, showing that, as the book’s text says, “there is rotten wood inside”. Indeed!

Pigs were traditionally a useful domestic animal for turning the bounty of acorns into a useful source of meat, something that cattle cannot do as, apparently, the “sharp little spikes at the crown [of the acorn] accumulate in a cow’s stomach, sometimes with fatal results”. As pigeons can also digest acorns, using their strong-muscled gizzard, they could also be regarded as another traditional mechanism for transforming acorns into something more palatable for people to eat!  I discussed the trajectory of the wood pigeon population of the UK in the first post from the Ladybird Autumn book, here, so I won’t add more now on that story.

We also saw a large female pig, with her piglets, in a picture from the Ladybird Summer book, here, but I didn’t look at pigs in any detail then. Pigs had a traditional role in woodland management in Britain or, looked at differently, pigs were an excellent means of producing edible protein from inedible acorns (well, acorns that are inedible to humans at any rate), a traditional form of foraging/ feeding known as ‘pannage’. In his book ‘People and Woods in Scotland. A History’, eminent Scottish environmental historian Professor Chris Smout notes that a visitor to Scottish woodlands in the past would be impressed by how populated they were by, amongst others, swineherds in the Middle Ages running their pigs among the acorns.

The form of extremely extensive pig meat production shown in the picture couldn’t be further from the means of production by which the bulk of pig meats have been produced in Scotland over the last 50 years, in indoor rearing units. It looks more like the mode of life of wild pigs.  The wild pigs native to Europe, and once native here, were forest-dwellers, as are many of the other wild pig species in the world. It seems that, as a result of escapes from farms and collections and, possibly, as a result of illegal deliberate releases, wild pigs, the wild boars of the media’s vivid reporting (here’s a great example)  are once again living wild in Scotland and elsewhere in Britain. In fact, BBC Radio4 (all hail – we’re not worthy) broadcast a documentary a couple of weeks ago about the very subject, which claimed that there are now records of wild boar living free in nearly every county in the country (although whether that was England or Britain, it wasn’t clear). There’s a lot more interesting information about Britain’s wild boars on this site here.

The fairy ring of toadstools and the bracket fungi could be any of many possible species (it's impossible to tell which from the painting) and I’ve written previously about how little we know about the long-term trends in most of our native fungi species. So, I’m yet again sorry that I can’t comment properly on how well these species are doing compared to 50 years ago!

Nice to be back on the Ladybird seasonal trail again!