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?”

Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

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

Dawn – a chorus or a cacophony?

 

 

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The blackbird often leads the chorus, like an avian Gareth Malone
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And early bird in full song

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 18th May, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th May 2018).

The insomniacs and early risers among you will have noticed that as the mornings are getting lighter, so the noise produced by our energetic bird population is getting louder.

I have a love-hate relationship with the dawn chorus, depending how much sleep I’ve had during the night. If I’m well rested, then it’s like uplifting music to gently come round to. After a wakeful night, however, it’s more like an unpracticed school orchestra warming up in my garden.

Like the call of the cuckoo I mentioned last week, the arrival of the dawn chorus is another sign that winter is behind us. The chorus is predominantly made up of male birds looking for love, and those with the loudest songs quickly attract partners. The bird produces his tune from an organ called the syrinx, and a lusty syrinx draws the females like bees to pollen. His spirited birdsong saps much of his energy, and so not only does he have to be fit, but he must be an excellent hunter to ensure he has enough food to keep his strength up. So if he can be heard above the other members of the chorus, discerning females will assume that he is likely to not only father healthy chicks, but also be a reliable source of sustenance for the growing family.

The dawn chorus season lasts from late April through to early June, and once a bird has secured his lady love, he is no longer required to sing so loudly. So as the season progresses, fewer birds take part. It’s likely that you will hear the odd bird singing a lonely tune at dawn late on in the season, but sadly he’s probably been saddled with an inadequately-performing syrinx and as such, is destined to remain single and loveless.

As my dad explains in his column from 20th May 1978, there’s an order in which the birds sing the daily chorus, and more often than not it’s the blackbird who starts them off. He is one of our finest songsters and, like the bird equivalent of Gareth Malone, he leads the feathered choir melodiously towards the new day. Soon his contemporaries, such as the song thrush, the wood pigeon, the robin, the turtle dove, the pheasant, the willow-warbler, and the wren all join in.

As the sun comes up, the chorus diminishes, usually lasting from half an hour before to half an hour after sunrise. This is because that once the day has fully dawned, then the insects, seeds and nuts that the birds feed upon become easier to spot. The sounds that you hear during the day are mostly bird calls which are a type of communication, such as alerts to danger, disputes between rivals, or messages to one another.

There’s quite a difference between birdsong and bird calls. Calls are short, simple sounds, whereas songs consist of a more complicated and longer sequence of notes. There is some debate about whether birds can sing just for the sake or enjoyment of it. But when I watch a blackbird in full throttle near the top of the poplars by my house, he certainly looks to be enjoying himself.

The dawn chorus is a phenomenon that happens all over the world, and the first Sunday in May is now International Dawn Chorus Day where we are invited to get up early and appreciate one of nature’s most entertaining performances. The day came about in the 1980s when broadcaster and environmentalist Chris Bailey hosted a birthday party at 4am specifically so that his guests would enjoy the dawn chorus, and it grew from there, with 80 countries now participating. Events are organised all over the UK by bodies such as the Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and the National Trust, so that we can all learn to appreciate the wonder of such a spectacle.

As I’m writing this a few days before Sunday 6th May, I’m yet to make up my mind whether to rise early or not, as in recent days, I have already heard the dawn chorus several times thanks to a doggie guest who seems to want to make sure I don’t miss it! So, as he will have gone home by Sunday, I might just take the opportunity to grab a much needed sleep in!

 

Don’t bleat about the bush

The Sycamore Gap tree in Northumberland

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The famous Sycamore Gap tree
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The mulberry tree at Wakefield prison (copyright Yorkshire Post).
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The Mulberry logo

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

One of the things I battle with when researching these columns is my habit of going slightly ‘off-piste’ when looking for interesting topics to talk about. I get easily distracted by something that I am unlikely to use, but is nevertheless less quite fascinating. In fact, when I was looking for a new notepad, I found one that boldly declared on the front ‘I am 100% NOT procrastinating…HONEST!’. I had to buy it.

This week, having read my dad’s column from 11th February 1978, I was on the hunt for interesting facts about mulberries, as he talked about the origins of the words to the famous nursery song ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’.

Of course, when I googled it, one of the first things that came up was a link to the website of the famous leather goods brand. Over the past few years, a Mulberry bag has become one of the most sought-after accessories for women of a certain age, so of course, I got distracted by all the images of gorgeous bags, purses and shoes. What also caught my eye (apart from the eye-watering prices) was the ‘Our Story’ tab.

I discovered that Mulberry was founded in 1971 by Roger Saul who set up the business from his kitchen with a £500 loan from his mum. He called his new brand Mulberry after some trees he passed on his way to school, and his sister designed the now famous Mulberry tree logo.

What was odd though, was that apart from a brief mention at the beginning, Mr Saul did not feature further on the ‘Our Story’ tab. After a bit more research, I found a twisted plot so dastardly that it outdid the Machiavellian exploits of the Ewings in the 1980s TV hit ‘Dallas’. And now I’ve said that, you’ll want to know what happened, won’t you? So you see how easy it is to get distracted? I promise to come back to the mulberry bush…

In the early 2000s, Mulberry needed an injection of cash which came from a Singaporean billionaire called Christina Ong, who bought 41.5p.c. of the company’s shares. Mrs Ong, who had huge ambitions for the business, then engineered a boardroom coup to oust its founder and chairman. To remain at the helm, Saul, who owned just 38p.c. of the shares, needed the support of his long-term friend and deputy chairman Godfrey Davis. Davis controlled 4.5p.c of the shares, which would have given Saul the majority he needed. But to Saul’s horror, Davis sided with Ong, and his fate was sealed. He was left to watch from the sidelines as his former friend replaced him as chairman, and the business he founded in his kitchen went on to become a global fashion powerhouse.

So, distraction over, it’s back to the mulberry bush song. According to a book published in 1994 by former Wakefield Prison governor Robert Stephen Duncan, female inmates came up with the song to keep their children entertained as they walked around a mulberry tree in the exercise yard. Some killjoys cast doubt that it is its true origin, but why let the facts get in the way of a lovely story? As far as I am aware, the mulberry tree still stands, and in 2016 was nominated for the tree equivalent of the Oscars, the Woodland Trust’s ‘Tree of the Year’ awards. Sadly, it didn’t win and was beaten by that woody upstart, the Sycamore Gap Tree in Northumberland. To be fair, that is a spectacular tree, far more pleasing to the eye than Wakefield’s wizened mulberry. It nestles in a dramatic dip, with Hadrian’s Wall rising either side, and is said to be one of the most photographed spots within the Northumbrian National Park. It gained its own piece of Hollywood fame when it was featured in the 1991 Kevin Costner film, ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’, and so is also known as ‘The Robin Hood Tree’ (but I bet there isn’t a song about it!).

I would like to express my thanks to the many people who have sent their condolences, prayers and good wishes following the death of my sister, Tricia Walker, on 8th January. The past few months have been a very difficult time for our family, as Tricia’s cancer progressed so quickly and came so soon after Dad passed away. Your good wishes are helping to keep us strong. Thank you.