School bully of the bird world?

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Timeson 11th May, & the Gazette & Herald on 9th May 2018).

As I write this column (about 2 weeks before you will read it) I’m disappointed to have to report that I am yet to hear the uplifting sound of a cuckoo’s call. It is one of those quintessentially British sounds of the countryside that heralds the firm arrival of warmer weather and brings to mind things like afternoon tea, country fairs and cricket on the village green.

But, as my dad says in his column from 13th May 1978, it is a bit of a mystery a to why we associate this bird so firmly with our shores, as it is not a native, but merely an annual visitor who chooses to come here for the summer to breed when its own home in Africa proves too hot to bear.

The cuckoo is a bit like the school bully of the avian world. They pick on small defenceless little birds, like the dunnock or meadow pipit, and when they are not looking, hoick an egg out of the unwitting little birds’ nests and lay their own in its place. After about 12 days, the young cuckoo hatches, and immediately displays its bullying nature by chucking all the other chicks out so that it can have all the food to itself.

When all is said and done, the dunnocks and pipits must be a bit dim not to notice that their cute little fledglings have vanished and been replaced by a ravenous monster that looks nothing like them. But no, they keep on feeding the imposter until they are dwarfed by it, at which point it flies off without a backward glance or even a thank you. Unbelievable.

Cuckoos have always been notoriously difficult to spot, and even more so today, as they sadly find themselves on the RSPB’s Birds of Conservation Concern Red List, along with 66 other species. They have halved in number over the past 20 years, with an estimate of 15,000 breeding pairs due here this year.

One in four UK birds are of conservation concern and need some form of action to halt and turn around their decline. In 2015, there were a startling 20 new species added to the red list, which sees many familiar names under threat, such as the herring gull, kittiwake, nightingale, hawfinch, yellowhammer, house sparrow, tree sparrow, starling and song thrush to name just a few. Even more worrying is that some, such as the puffin, turtle dove, pochard and Slavonian grebe, are facing global extinction.

Like I mentioned last week when talking about butterflies, there are things you can do to help, such as to support the RSPB’s and other bird charities’ fundraising and conservation efforts, which are already seeing some successes. Bitterns were considered extinct by the 1870s, and yet now, their population is at the highest it has been for 200 years. Similarly the avocet disappeared from the UK in the 19th century, only to make a tentative return in the 1940s, and now, in a large part thanks to the RSPB and other conservation efforts restoring and preserving their natural habitats, their numbers are healthy again.

While I was writing this piece, I began to wonder about the word ‘cuckold’ and it’s relationship to the bird, and sure enough, they are connected. We are all probably aware that a cuckold is a man whose wife has been unfaithful, but the cuckoo connection stems from where another man’s baby is raised in the home and at the expense of the cuckold. He is a human dunnock.

The first written use of the term is recorded in a 12th or 13th century satirical poem called The Owl and the Nightingale (author unknown), and then it was used again by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Miller’s Tale in the late 14th century. Shakespeare was also very fond of it, and a good number of his characters were either unwitting cuckolds, or (rightly or wrongly) suspected their wives to have cuckolded them.

These days it also has the unfortunate fame of being a term in common usage in certain fields of pornography, a fact I only discovered by accident when researching this column. I won’t enlighten you on what eyebrow-raising websites I stumbled upon (albeit only on a Google search results list!), but needless to say, I swiftly changed my search criteria!

Out on a limb for leeches

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Dad loved his garden pond. Here he is feeding the fish a couple of years ago.

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 2nd February 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 31st January 2018.

I went through the ‘frogs and snails and puppy dogs tales’ phase with each one of my three boys when they were at primary school. They were fascinated by ‘minibeasts’, which was a new word to me, but referred to what we would have called creepy crawlies. They had no squeamishness about picking up spiders, worms, slugs, snails and wood lice and presenting them to me with great glee.

Even more excitement was to be had whenever we came across a pond, as there were more fascinating minibeasts to found in and around it. When my oldest was a toddler, we lived in house with a pond in the garden and I can’t forget the noise the frogs used to make, and the undulating surface of the water, during mating season. The females are attracted to the males with the loudest croak, hence the cacophony! They also lay up to 2000 eggs, so soon our pond would be teeming with tadpoles, although not all would make it to adulthood, and those that did risked a messy confrontation with the lawnmower if they ventured far from the water.

My brother was also fascinated with such creatures in his youth, and in his February 4th 1978 column, Dad recalls the occasion when he built his own pond. Finding that a hole in the ground lined with polythene was no good, my brother resorted to using an old, Belfast sink, sunk into the rockery outside Dad’s study window. He filled it with with plants and pond life gathered from a local disused swimming pool and nearby lakes. He was very proud that soon his family of great crested newts had started breeding. He wouldn’t have known that 40 years later, if he disturbed the habitat of a great crested newt, he’d face up to six months in prison and an unlimited fine!

Alongside newts, frogs, sticklebacks and minnows, he also unwittingly rehomed a number of freshwater leeches, thankfully a small variety which were harmless to humans.

In medieval times, doctors were called ‘leeches’ due to their custom of treating all manner of ailment by bleeding their patients with the sluglike bloodsuckers. For many centuries, it has been one of the most effective treatments for a number of reasons, and this medical practice continues to this day. There is a farm in Wales which breeds medicinal leeches for this purpose, which is known as hirudotherapy (from the Latin name for these leeches, hirudo medicinalis). As well as supplying the NHS, the company sends them all over the world for use in surgery. The leech, which is about three and half inches long, is particularly effective in treating areas of poor circulation, especially in parts of the body with delicate soft tissue, for example when surgeons are trying to repair or reattach a severely injured limb. They clean up the wound by removing the clotted blood that is inhibiting blood flow, and then encourage circulation to restart.

It is the mechanics of mouth of the leech, a curious biological triumph, which makes it so effective for medical treatment. It has a circular, overlapping lip, and then three jaws, shaped a bit like the Mercedes-Benz logo, each with a row of 100 tiny teeth, perfect for making clean incisions into the skin at exactly the right depth. As they bite, they secrete a local anaesthetic, making the bite painless, alongside another substance, known as a vasodilator, which stimulates blood flow. Once the leech has filled its boots with blood, it then simply drops off to digest it. However, it leaves behind two important chemicals called hirudin and calin, which prevent further clotting and continue to stimulate blood flow for up to 48 hours after the leech has dropped off, which is so important when when it comes to success in treating these kinds of injuries. Although it all sounds a bit gruesome, it is one of nature’s amazing accomplishments, far more effective than many other medicinal treatments, and in fact the leeches only consume a relatively small amount of blood before they become full, around 15ml.

Incidentally, trials have shown that the anti-inflammatory and anaesthetic properties of leech saliva have been shown to be effective in treating pain and tenderness in the joints of people suffering conditions such as osteoarthritis. Vets are also finding them useful during surgical procedures on animals.

Now my question is, how would you feel with a leech let loose on your injured limb?
(Sources: biopharm-leeches.com, guysandstthomas.nhs.uk).

The Mystery of the Disappearing Chestnuts

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Marmalade the cat

 

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Sweet chestnuts

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 19th January 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 17th January 2018. 

You may remember that in my column from the Gazette & Herald on 6th September 2017 (‘Dad’s swift actions stop a catastrophe’) and the D&S Times from 8th September 2017 (‘Saved from catastrophe by Dad’s swift action’) that I talked about the various family cats, both tame and feral, that lived in and around my childhood home.

Dad recounts a lovely story about our longest-surviving cat, Marmalade, in his January 21st 1978 column. She had wandered into our garden as a very young stray and never left, becoming a much-loved part of the family. She had come from a nearby farm, but the farmer had no interest in the cats that frequented his hay barn and was more than happy when they took up residence elsewhere.

Mum and Dad had been stumped by the mystery of the disappearing chestnuts from the windowsill. What was a full bowl a few days earlier, was now no more than half full, and no-one confessed to having eaten any.

Then one day, Dad saw the cat jump on to the ledge and scoop out a chestnut with her paw, which then fell to the ground. She leapt after it in an uncharacteristically energetic way, and chased it across the floor, flicking it up into the air and batting it from paw to paw, as she would had she caught a mouse. Once the chestnut had disappeared under the furniture, she went back again for another one. What was it about the chestnut that ignited this new obsession? Dad had no idea, and my own searches have shed no light on it.

It brings to mind the effect of catnip, often used to scent pet toys. Catnip is a plant from the nepeta, or catmint, genus in the Lamiaceae family, and there are many varieties. In an article by the appropriately-named Kat Arney on the Royal Society of Chemistry website (www.chemistryworld.com), she explains that catnip contains a chemical called nepetalactone, which in cats induces behaviour similar to a person having taken drugs. They act with languid abandon, brushing their bodies against the leaves or rolling around among the stems. If they chew or eat it, they soon become what one might call ‘out of it’. For us humans, the plant can be infused to make herbal tea, and in times gone by small doses were used as a mild sedative. It is not recommended to be taken in large quantities, even though hopeful hippies gave it a go in search of a cheap high. All they ended up with was a painful headache and an upset stomach.

Catmint is a lovely garden plant, but to avoid delirious kitties flattening your borders, it is recommended that you place a small crop of nepeta cataria, the most potent catnip, in a place where you don’t mind them being mauled by frolicking felines, and then they will ignore the other milder varieties you have planted in pride of place. I have no idea if this distraction tactic works, and would be delighted if any readers can tell me!

After Marmalade arrived, she was soon followed by her sister Eric (my brother chose this name. He was outnumbered by females of both the human and feline variety, which might explain why!).

Eric remained feral, and we could never get close enough to tame her. After she had been with us for about a year, she produced a litter of kittens. We’d known she was pregnant and, due to her sudden change in appearance, that she had given birth, but we couldn’t find her litter anywhere. Then, on Christmas Eve 1977, she produced her own feline nativity scene in a very prominent position near our back door. Of course when we found the kittens, we instantly fell in love, and they were named (again courtesy of my brother) Alfred, Rodney (both girls) and Jackson (a boy).

But Eric would never be able to live indoors, and so Dad found the little family a cosy place in our disused henhouse, ensuring they had plenty of straw to keep them warm. We carried the kittens up to the henhouse ourselves, and lured Eric with some cat food on a spoon. She stayed there for about a week, before bringing her kittens back down to the back door on New Year’s Eve. So we repeated the process again, and this time she stayed. The young kittens thrived, and although they never became household pets, they became very much a part of our family history.

A mass farewell to 2017

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Dad’s column from this week in 1976 was dated Christmas Day itself

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My Dad pulling a cracker with his grandson Joseph in 2006

 

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 29th December 2017, & the Gazette & Herald on 27th December 2017.

I can’t quite believe that here we are already at my last column of 2017. Writing it every week has been an absolute pleasure, giving me an excuse to spend some time alone with my thoughts, and some time alone with my Dad’s thoughts from long ago.

I was surprised to find that the column I planned to work from this week is actually dated Christmas Day itself, and as that day was a Saturday in 1976, I wondered when the day of issue for the Darlington and Stockton Times changed to a Friday. I’m sure someone somewhere knows and will tell me! In it, Dad talks about our family tradition of attending Midnight Mass at the local catholic church. At first, I was too little to go, and would get frustrated at being the only child left behind in bed while my three siblings would totter off with my dad at the excitingly late hour of 11.30. There is an oft-repeated family story that one year, one of us fell asleep on the kitchen table while waiting to go, but to this day we debate which one of us it was. My mum says it was me!

Eventually, I was old enough for my parents to have confidence that I wouldn’t nod off half way through, or fidget and whine noisily. Poor misguided fools! I lost count of the amount of times I was ‘shushed’ due to my habit of sighing very loudly. And as long as I maintained contact between bottom and pew, then I classed that as sitting still. Arm folding and unfolding, feet tapping and swinging, or bum shuffling and shifting were all perfectly acceptable to me. Otherwise, how does a five-year-old get through an hour-long Catholic mass led by an elderly priest? It’s a lifetime, especially when all you really care about is the moment when you emerge excitedly from church, knowing it is finally officially Christmas Day, look up into the night sky and try and spot Santa on the way to your house with all the presents. You also hoped that by some miracle, while you were in there, the snow fairy would have paid a visit and sprinkled a little bit of her Christmas magic around for your walk home (sometimes she even did!).

Our family tradition continued for many years, and there were countless moments of light relief, including the time when our friend’s little boy, dressed as a shepherd near the altar, proudly held up his hand and shouted, “My tooth’s come out!” And another time, when a little boy was sitting next to his friend and both of them had taken their hands out of their jumper sleeves. One bumped the other and they both toppled over like weebles (they wobbled and they did fall down).

When we were young adults, Midnight Mass was where we ended up after the evening in the pub. Some of us were guilty of being slightly north of sober, which we thought we hid very well, until one of us (not me) became very unwell in a pew. It must have been so annoying for everyone else (sorry!) and drunkenness was cited as one of the reasons why the service ended up being moved to 8.30pm in recent years (which must have come as a relief for many parents of young children!).

But enough of Christmas, that’s all over – it is nearly the New Year now! Dad’s last column of 1976 was published on New Year’s Eve, and in it he pays tribute to his predecessor, Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough, who died almost exactly one year before. As those who’ve been reading my columns since I began in June will know, Major JFB wrote the Countryman’s Diary for 54 years, and my dad took it over in 1976 until his own death in April this year.

JFB was a very special influence in Dad’s life, and I hope that it would fill him with pride to know that 41 years later, the words of his tribute to the Major could very easily be applied to him.

‘His individual contribution to the understanding of country life and lore will never be forgotten. He was a man of immense knowledge, industry and faith.

‘The Grand Old Man now lies buried at Lealholm but his work will live on forever in the libraries of the world.’

I want to thank you all for being so understanding and supportive in reading my columns thus far, for all the wonderful letters and feedback, and for putting me right when I go wrong!

I wish you all the very best for 2018.