A fledgling emergency

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The little chubby chick perched at the side of the footpath
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The fledgling calls for his mum
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The little fledgling by the path

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 15th June, & the Gazette & Herald on 13th June 2018).

I was on a dog walk this morning when I came across a scruffy, chubby little chick perched by the side of the path. Every now and then, he’d give a few cheeps and look about himself in bewilderment, as if saying, “How on earth did I get here? And now what am I supposed to do?”

I had visions of him bravely leaping out of his nest into the unknown, and landing in unfamiliar territory without any notion of how to take off again. He didn’t look very happy, and I wondered if I ought to help him in any way. I couldn’t spot his parents anywhere.

In years gone by, I would have stood there agonising about what to do, fearing he’d be a tasty meal for the next passing cat. But one of the benefits of the modern age is that we have technology at our fingertips. So I took out my phone and Googled ‘What to do if I find a baby bird’. Those clever people at the RSPB came to my rescue, having dedicated a whole page on their website to just such a emergency.

For those you who don’t know, they say: “It’s common in spring and summer to find young birds sitting on the ground or hopping about without any sign of their parents…interfering with a young bird like this will do more harm than good.” It goes on to say they will not have been abandoned by their parents, who will either be watching unseen, or gathering food, and that you should leave them as they they are. “Removal of a fledgling from the wild has to be a very last resort – then only if it is injured or has definitely been abandoned or orphaned.”

So, thanks to my phone, I was very quickly reassured that I was doing the right thing by simply leaving it where it was, despite its anxious chirping and my worries about dastardly feline predators.

He was quite a chunky, round, fellow, with pleasantly dishevelled feathers, a tell-tale sign that he was just a youngster. He was mostly dark brown, yet speckled with dashes of light brown, and my gut instinct told me he was a baby blackbird, although I wasn’t sure. I took a few photos to look it up on my return, and, sure enough I was right. I think my dad would have been pleased. My countryside knowledge is growing by the week!

Dad just loved the nature that surrounded him, and he described June as a ‘beautiful time’ in his column from 17th June 1978. He goes on to talk about its reputation of being a ‘dry’ month, and the long-range forecast in that year predicted it would live up to that reputation. “However,” he adds, “We must not overlook the possibility of heavy downpours – indeed they’ve already come!”

Which is pretty much the same as now, with the first few days of June being as Dad described 40 years ago. I’ve checked the long-range forecast for this month too and it is strikingly similar, predicting mostly dry weather with the occasional heavy downpour.

He goes on to explain that is also known as the month of the ‘haysel’, an ancient word no longer in use, and not found in any of his trusty dialect glossaries. It refers to the period of gathering in the hay, when the ripe grass is cut, dried and carried into the barns for storage. When Dad was a boy, it was a time of great communal activity, and the whole village would turn out to help the farmers gather in their hay before the next heavy downpour. The farmer’s wife would provide a ready supply of drinks to the thirsty workers, including beer and cider, although according to Dad, the rather unappetising-sounding ‘cold tea’ was more commonly drunk.

Dad’s favourite part was once they were in the yard, when him and the other small children would launch themselves into the barn and, as it was in the days before bale machines, make dens and hiding places in the fresh, warm grass as it was unloaded off the carts. He notes that by 1978, almost all of the hay-gathering was done by machinery, and wistfully observes, “Haysel has gone from our language; I wonder how long it will be before haymaking as we knew it also disappears?”

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That Old Chestnut

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The footways are positively brimming with blossoms against a backdrop of vivid and vibrant greens
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A horse chestnut ‘candle’ showing both the yellow (unpollinated) and pink (pollinated) flowers
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The red horse chestnut is significantly smaller than its white relative
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The beautiful horse chestnut at my tennis club that distracted me during a match

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 8th June, & the Gazette & Herald on 6th June 2018).

One of the best things about being a countryside writer and regular walker of dogs is that I have the enormous privilege (which I never take for granted!) of being able to get outside most days and appreciate the amazing county I am so fortunate to live in.

Today, as I write this, the sun is beaming down and I have been on two good walks where I took the time to really examine the rural world around me. At the moment, the footways and hedgerows are positively brimming with wild flowers and blossoms against a backdrop of vivid and vibrant greens and a walk surrounded by such natural splendour is truly therapeutic. To me, a few doses of this each week is as good as any medication.

And it isn’t just a treat for the eyes. Whenever I pass the stunning pink dog rose, the scent that fills the air is just sublime, and it never ceases to amaze me that such beauty can be found in our wild and uncultivated places.

One of the floral displays that most impresses me around this time of year has to be that of the horse chestnut tree (Aesculus Hippocastanum). I find it truly stunning. I play tennis for a village team, and right by the courts is possibly the most beautiful example I have seen. Last Monday night, I couldn’t help but look at it between points, it was so eye-catching (although I didn’t let it distract me too much to not win the match!) and it seems my dad felt the same way about these glorious trees. On 10th June 1978, he wrote: ‘One of the most striking of our trees is the horse chestnut, with its multitude of candles, as the flowers are so often called. No other tree can put on such a magnificent display of flowers, unless we include the cultivated ones.” And he is right. The sight of a horse chestnut festooned with countless cone-shaped blooms makes it appear like a giant candelabra lighting up the countryside.

At the start of the season, from a distance the blossom appears creamy-white, thanks to the yellow splash at the centre of each white bell-shaped flower head. These bee-friendly blooms are actually very clever, as once they are pollinated, the splash turns vibrant pink to alert approaching insects to the fact they have already been pollinated and so there is no point in visiting them. I’m sure our endlessly busy worker bees are very grateful for this time-saving tip-off. Once the flowers begin being pollinated, the whole tree appears to transform from creamy white to pale pink.

You will see a red variety of horse chestnut (Aesculus x carnea) dotted about the countryside and our open spaces, but is less numerous and generally much smaller than the common horse chestnut. It was introduced into this county from Germany in around 1820 as a hybrid between the common tree and the shrub Aesculus Pavia (or red buckeye). Like its larger relative, it also produces conkers in September and October, but they are usually smaller and housed in less prickly casings than the standard variety.

Both trees are beautiful when in full bloom, but which is your favourite? I must say, for me, the common white variety can’t be surpassed.

I’d like to say a couple of thank you’s here to two readers. I’m afraid I couldn’t decipher the name of the first (it might be AW Grant?) but they sent me a lovely card and in response to my question about butterfly names (May 2nd) they enlightened me on the fact that the Glanville fritillary butterfly is named after 17th century entomologist Lady Eleanor Granville, who was an expert on the creatures.

The second reader is Edith Bennison, from Stokesley, who sent me a lovely letter of condolence, and told a funny story to cheer me up about her son. He was on a visit to North Yorkshire Police Headquarters with his sister, when, much to his sister’s embarrassment, he told the following joke to the room full of policemen:

‘Where do policemen live?’

‘999 Letsbe Avenue!’

Edith says: “Well my daughter was hoping the floor would open up and swallow her…but the policemen just burst out laughing!”

Well that old chestnut certainly did cheer me up. So thank you Edith!

Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

ENDS

No need to get ratty

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 1st June, & the Gazette & Herald on 30th May 2018).

I was driving home late one night along one of our quiet country lanes when a great big rat dashed out of the verge and scurried across the road in front of me, its long pink rubbery tail illuminated by my headlights. This is not the first time it has happened, and I always experience an involuntary shudder every time it does.

It makes me wonder why I am so squeamish around rats. I don’t have the same feeling about mice – I recently caught one outside my back door that I found investigating my recycling boxes. I managed to trap it in a plastic tub, and it was so tiny and cute that there was no way I could possibly destroy it, so I released it into some nearby fields (I can hear the seasoned agricultural contingent among you groaning!).

But rats have always suffered from a ‘bad boy’ image, and are regularly depicted as the villains in children’s fiction. Famously they are the worst fear of George Orwell’s unfortunate hero from ‘1984’, Winston, who has to face them through a cage secured to his head in the dreaded Room 101.

It’s possible that this common fear stems from the belief that rats were to blame for the devastation caused by the Black Death. In the mid-fourteenth century, it killed 25 million people across Europe, and even more during later resurgences. The speed of the spread, so it was believed, was due to infected fleas that lived on rats.

But now we know they may well have been unfairly vilified, as a study published in January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS.org) showed that it is more likely that it was down to human fleas and body lice. Poor old rats having to shoulder the burden of that reputation for so long!

In my dad’s column from 3rd June 1978, he talks of the old custom of ‘rhyming rats to death’. I have to confess that I have never come across that phrase, but according to Dad, it was an Irish belief that rats in the fields and on rural farms could be rendered unconscious if you talked to them in rhyme. No particular poem is mentioned as having these soporific qualities, but Ben Jonson, the English poet and dramatist, wrote: “Rhime them to death, as they do Irish rats,” and Shakespeare also referred to the belief when Rosalind, in As You Like It, says: “I was never so be-rhymed since Pythagoras’ time, that I was an Irish rat.”

Dad also quotes this fascinating little ditty:

“The rat, the cat and Lovel our dog,
Rule all England under a hog.”

This seemingly innocuous verse was in fact a searing criticism of those in power at the time it was written in 1484, and was found pinned to the door of St Paul’s Cathedral and other prominent places all over London. The rat was King Richard III’s confidante, Sir Richard Ratcliffe, the cat was Speaker of the Commons William Catesby, and Lovel was Viscount Lovel, who had a reputation for being the king’s ‘lap dog’ or ‘yes man’. King Richard’s emblem was a white boar, hence the reference to a hog.

The poet was ultimately unmasked and found to be wealthy landowner William Collingbourne, a fierce opponent of the king, and he paid a heavy price for writing those few words as he was put to death for treason.

Despite the general dislike among the population towards rats, they are actually supposed to make very good pets. When I was at school, one of my classmates used to bring his white rat into class, and he was a most well-behaved and tame thing, who would sleep in master’s blazer pockets during lessons, so the teacher never knew he was there.

Domesticated rats are known as ‘fancy rats’, coming from the term ‘animal fancier’, and there are numerous professional breeders and a whole community of rat fanciers, with an estimate of about 100,000 pet rats in the UK. They have a reputation for being cleverer than a dog, and more hygienic than a cat. They are sociable, affectionate, trainable, and easy to keep, and if the National Fancy Rat Society (nfrs.org) is to be believed, they are the best of the rodent population to keep as a pet.

So I have one remaining question then – can you take them for a walk?

Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

 

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!

The goat was Cooked

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Captain James Cook, who was born in Whitby
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A replica of The Endeavor near the Whitby coast. Captain Cook’s original vessel was built in the town
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A painting depicting the death of Captain Cook

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 27th April, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th April 2018).

Following my column in January about mascot goats, I was intrigued to find out from Dad’s column from 29th April 1978 that one of North Yorkshire’s most famous sons had his own companion goat.

Captain James Cook took a goat on one of his famous voyages, and she was so important, that we have a record of her 1772 death, the anniversary of which falls this week on 28th April.

Dad says he didn’t know its name, but “such was the fame of this goat that it was admitted to Greenwich Hospital as a pensioner. My information is somewhat scant on this subject, for I do not know the gender of the animal, nor its age.”

Well of course, that was a challenge to me to fill in some of the blanks about this famous creature, and those of you paying attention might have spotted that I’ve already revealed one fact – the goat was a she.

There was a very practical reason why Cook would take a female goat – she was a constant source of fresh milk. In his time, illnesses were rife among sailors who spent months away at sea with poor hygiene and little access to fresh food or water. Life-threatening illnesses such as dysentery, typhus and scurvy thrived due to malnutrition and dirty, cramped living quarters. Dr Samuel Johnson described the life of a sailor as like ‘being in jail with the chance of being drowned.’

Often, crews would return from long voyages with barely a third of their number alive. Author Jonathan Lamb has written about scurvy several times, and says: “In 1499, Vasco da Gama lost 116 of his crew of 170, in 1520 Magellan lost 208 out of 230, and in 1742, George Anson lost more than 1,300 of his compliment of almost 2,000 – all mainly to scurvy.” (It makes me wonder just how many bodies still lie at the bottom of our oceans?)

Captain Cook’s first global expedition in 1768 was in the Whitby-built HMS Endeavour, aiming to reach Tahiti for the Transit of Venus (where the earth, sun and Venus all aligned), which would help them measure longitude at sea, an opportunity that only came around about once every 125 years. He took with him an elite team of scientists, including an astronomer, two naturalists and eminent botanist Sir Joseph Banks.

It was Banks to whom the goat belonged, and it had already circumnavigated the globe with him, so had well-honed sea legs. In Robert Chamber’s 1864 Book of Days, a compendium of interesting facts, he mentions this famous goat and calls it simply ‘The Well-Travelled Goat’, so it’s not surprising my dad couldn’t find out its name.

Cook was determined to change the bad habits of his sea-faring predecessors by implementing a strict regime of discipline and hygiene, and carried the best nutrition possible. It was already known that citrus fruit could prevent scurvy, but they had no way of preserving the fruit on board. Instead, Cook ensured his men were very well fed, taking along vast quantities of sauerkraut, and whenever they landed in port, they stocked up on as much fresh fruit and green vegetables as possible.

Previously, sailors were used to using excrement-filled slop buckets in their filthy living quarters to relieve themselves, but Cook set aside a specific area on the ship for a toilet. Severe punishments were meted out to those caught going to the loo anywhere else and there was a regimented cleaning rota to ensure the ship was kept as clean and bug-free as possible.

It has been reported that Cook lost none of his men to scurvy on any of his three epic sea voyages, and although that fact has been disputed, it is clear that the health and wellbeing of his men were top priorities. Undoubtedly he had a far better survival rate than most and set the standard for successors to follow.

As for the goat, she was rewarded for her loyal service by being allowed to graze out her days among the green pastures of Kent. Her high status was reflected in an engraved silver collar which the grateful Sir Joseph Banks bestowed upon her. Dr Samuel Johnson himself wrote the latin inscription which, once translated, read:

“In fame scare second to the nurse of Jove,
This goat, who twice the world has traversed round,
Deserving both her master’s care and love,
Ease and perpetual pasture now has found.”

(Sources: captaincook.org.uk, mediographia.com, wellcomelibrary.org (Nicola Cook), bbc.co.uk)

Fear of the fatal fungi

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Chef Tommy Banks in the garden of the Black Swan, Oldstead
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The White Horse at Kilburn
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The aptly-named Death Cap mushroom

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 9th March 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 7th March 2018.

I’ll never forget the moment when local boy Tommy Banks, enthusiastic forager and head chef at the Michelin-starred Black Swan, Oldstead, produced his incredibly personal tribute to his late grandfather on the TV show Great British Menu in 2016. He had created his dish, a dessert called ‘My Great Briton’, with precision, tenderness and obviously deep love for his grandfather, who for many years was custodian of nearby landmark, the White Horse of Kilburn. Tommy flavoured a parfait with oil extracted from the Douglas fir trees that grow on the hills around the White Horse. When the dish was served to a soundtrack of his grandfather’s voice, it had us all, and Tommy too, in tears. His appearance on that show catapulted him and his family-run restaurant into the stratosphere and Oldstead became a must-go destination for the serious foodie.

The thing about foraging, though, is that you really do have to know your stuff. In his column from March 11th 1978, Dad talks about the dangers of confusing your fungi, and how calamitous it could be to get it wrong. His topic came about as a result of a colleague asking him if Death Cap mushrooms grew in North Yorkshire. Dad had never seen one, but he knew it grew in moist shady areas covered by deciduous trees such as oaks, chestnuts and beeches, and so deduced it was entirely possible.

The Death Cap is incredibly toxic and accounts for more than 90% of deaths from fungus poisonings. One of the reasons people make mistakes is because they look similar to perfectly edible varieties, and are rather tasty when cooked. In 2014, there was a surge in poisonings in California after a spell of heavy rain and mild temperatures caused the mushrooms to flourish. Fourteen cases were reported over a few weeks, with three of those afflicted needing liver transplants. In 2008, a woman from the Isle of Wight died after mistakenly picking and cooking a Death Cap, and in 2013 another from Bridgewater suffered organ failure after putting one from her own garden into her soup. That year, there were 237 reported cases of fungus poisonings in the UK.

In 2016, warnings were issued across the country after the wet and mild autumn had led to significant proliferations of the deadly mushroom, and as last autumn was similar, I’m assuming those warnings are still valid.

But the Death Cap isn’t the only toxic mushroom that grows here, and many have appropriately lethal names, such as Destroying Angel, Funeral Bell, Fool’s Funnel and Panther Cap. But if I came across one on a country ramble, I wouldn’t know my Meadow Wax Cap (edible) from my Deadly Web Cap (poisonous).

In a 2014 statement issued by Public Heath England, Dr John Thompson, director of the National Poisons Information Service (Cardiff Unit), said: “When it comes to wild mushrooms, people really need to be aware of the very real potential dangers involved…While mushrooms growing in the wild are tasty and safe to eat, it is not always easy to differentiate between toxic and non-toxic species, even for people with experience in foraging.”

This was certainly the case for Nicholas Evans, bestselling author of The Horse Whisperer, whose story resembles a plot straight out of one of his own novels. The writer almost killed himself, his wife, his sister and his brother-in-law in 2008 after cooking what he thought were innocent ceps. Evans, a seasoned countryman, was usually extremely careful in checking what he had picked against a trusted book of mushrooms. But this time, he didn’t, and cooked several Deadly Web Caps for dinner with butter and parsley. The next day, they started to feel ill with nausea and stomach cramps, and within hours, all four were in intensive care. Thankfully, they survived, but were sick for months afterwards, and the consequences were life long. For three of them, their kidneys were destroyed, and they ended up having to have dialysis for several hours, several days each week, and eventually, all underwent kidney transplants, with Evans receiving his from his own daughter in 2011.

Despite these fungal nightmares, one of my favourite things to eat will forever be mushrooms on toast, and I have heard that the flavour of foraged mushrooms is in another league to the mass-produced varieties on our supermarket shelves. But I’m going to take some convincing before I dare to venture into the wild to pick my own. (Source: wildfoodsuk.com)