Summer Slides into Autumn in North West England
Summer Slides into Autumn
The countryside of North West England is well into its inevitable slide towards autumn. The warblers have left and the green of the leaves is going, giving way to a spectacular colours that will enhance the landscape before they eventually fall. Should you be inclined to walk through woodland into the heart of tranquility, it is possible to observe squirrels as they whisk along the branches questing for nuts, an activity that will continue into the coming weeks as they stockpile their gains. This is a vital exercise if they are to survive the onslaught of winter. Maturing fruits, berries and nuts are now prominent and many diverse species of wildlife will gorge themselves, seeming to sense that winter is lurking around the corner. The arduous months will take their toll on the fat reserves the creatures build up at this time.
Along the hedgerows and in the grassland at this time of the year, the evidence of how numerous spiders really are becomes apparent. These habitats are clad with a multitude of webs filled by shimmering drops of heavy morning dew. Locally, hawthorn has produced copious amounts of fruits. These red berries, known as haws , are the result of a good spring allowing favourable pollination, rather than the misconception that the amount of berries are a sign of a bad winter to come. these haws have acquired quaint country names such as cuckoo beads and pixie apples.
All are signs that summer is at an end. However, before the coming winter is upon us, many of these colourful fruits will have been utilised as ingredients for home made pies and jams or as components of herbal medicines. Elder berries that hang in heavy sprays upon the boughs are used to make a cordial, which , when taken at night in hot water, will keep winter chills and chest infections at bay. They also make an excellent country wine. Nature's larder is well stocked with sprawling thorny branches laden-ed with rose hips. Rose hip syrup is still produced commercially and came to prominence during World War two when vitamin C was in short supply. An elderly acquaintance of mine remembers when the syrup was sold for one shilling and six pence a bottle.
Wild rose hips contain more vitamin C than the cultivated varieties or any fruits and vegetables, including black currants and oranges. However, having to split the hip into two halves in order to scrape out the seeds and fine lining of hair is a laborious task.
English Oak under attack
By the end of the month sweet chestnuts will be falling. In days gone by, they were roasted over hot coals on winter streets and were popular in their hey day. They are not related to the more familiar horse chestnut, but they do share the similarity of the round spiny cases. There are normally 2-3 nuts to be found in each case. Incidentally, the horse chestnut acquired its name from the fact that the fruit of the tree commonly known as "conkers" were once ground into a powder which was added to the food of horses with breathing problems. Natural foragers such as the squirrel and jay will be competing for acorns and hazel nuts throughout this harvesting time.
The wood whispers of autumn hues that will change dramatically as nature embraces the woods with a cloak of russets and gold. Battle scarred leaves will fall from their arboreal mothers in a defiant blaze of colour.
Oak trees supply a plethora of fruits on which many of our species of wildlife depend onto see them through the hardest months of the year. Acorns are taken by small mammals, squirrels, and a host of birds especially the colourful jay, wood pigeon, nuthatch, carrion crow and the greater spotted woodpecker. It is the acorn that helps to distinguish the U.Ks two native species of oak. The English oak produces acorns that are borne on long stalks called peduncles and they sit in narrow cups.Those of the sessile or durmast oak sit directly on the twig, having no stalks at all. Oaks play host to a multitude of creatures particularly in summer when insects and other invertebrates are at a premium. Their availability coincides with the abundance of new life at that time, when they gleaned from the tree by bats, and birds in order to feed their young. Acorns are used by other creatures and are often attacked by weevils and other insects. One particular group of insects, gall wasps expit the oak tree in many ways. A particularly destructive gall wasp, Andricus quercus calicis, destroyed vast amounts of acorns during the autumn of 1983, when they were present in plague-like proportions.
The ridged, and swollen disfigurement, found on the acorns of English oaks, are known as Knopper Gall. Thankfully, this is now in decline as various predators have caught up with the perpetrator. Oak apples are a common annual occurrence. When they first appear they have, as their common name suggests, the form and colour of miniature apples, but as they age they become brown and wrinkled. The wasp whose presence causes the oak apple usually emerges in July. During autumn the tiny holes appear which are made by the emerging offspring. Another familiar find on the underside of oak leaves, which can be found at this time of the year, is cherry gall. The wasp whose larvae induced the growth, emerge as adults in mid-winter and lay their eggs on the oak buds. Spangle galls also appear on the underside of oak leaves as red swellings and are normally dispatched in small clusters. A single larvae develops inside each one. The galls then drop off the leaves in autumn, allowing the grub to overwinter in the leaf litter below.
Gall wasps belong to the family Cynipidae. Most are tiny and inconspicuous looking more like thin flies or ants rather than the conventional wasp.