Throughout 2010 I am revisiting the little green nature book that accompanied my childhood and seeing if I can still spot the plants and animals featured in its monthly sketchbook pages.
The book is “Wild Life Through the Year” by Richard Morse and it was published in 1942. You can read about earlier months here.
I have to admit it now seems rather bizarre trying to draw any comparisons between the nature of South East England in the 1940s, a South Wales village in the 1960s and my garden and a few streets in the city of Cardiff in 2010. Although there have been some surprising successes.
It has also made me pay attention to the wild world around me and I have been able to identify more species than ever before.
However, looking at the June sketchbook, I almost give up before I start trying to tick off any of the 12 items featured. I have never seen many of them, even when I was a child in the countryside.
But as I persevere and do a bit of googling I do find that every month there is an overarching story of habitat loss since the 1940s – and latterly attempts to save endangered species.
June in South Wales in 2010 has been a very dry, warm month and the garden is suffering, also looking worse for the fact that some early shrubs still have flowers that have died ungracefully.
On the bright side, it has been a month for baby birds at the bird table – mostly great tits, coal tits, blue tits and starlings. On one occasion I counted 10 baby blue tits at once, in varies stages of maturity and fading yellowness, some of their grey caps starting to turn to blue.
The main trees in bloom this month tend to have subtle green flowers, no doubt because they are wind pollinated so have no need for bright colours to attract insects. Best of these on the streets have been the limes (linden) and in my garden the field maples.
I see Richard Morse has lime flowers coming up in his July sketchbook, so we are ahead of him this time, having been late with the elderflower expected in May, which came in early June.
I have been delighted to find a couple of lovely wild flowers not far from my home in the city, on communal lawns and in overgrown gardens.
The foxes (about which I have written a blog post) and grey squirrels have been ever-present in the garden all month.
Here is what you would expect to see in June in the 1940s…
1. Swallow in flight 2. House martin in flight 3. Flowers of sweet chestnut 4. Agrimony 5. Corn poppy 6. Cinnabar moth 7. Lacewing-fly 8. Field rose 9. Common hair-moss 10. Edible boletus 11. Common black slug 12. Bullhead, or miller’s thumb
1. Swallow in flight
2. House martin in flight
Living in the country, from an early age I was taught the difference between swallows, swifts and house martins. Swallows have forked tails, house martins have much shorter tails and swifts again have longer wings and shorter tail and are almost crescent-shaped.
Swifts appear to be all black, although close up they are dark brown. House martins and swallows have white undersides but the swallow has a distinctive red throat.
There were house martins in the eaves of our village school, in their cup-shaped nest made of the red clay soil we have in South East Wales.
I also remember one occasion when my brother found a grounded swift in our garden. It was helpless and he thought it was injured, but as soon as he lifted it off the ground it flew from his hand. A swift’s legs are so short and its wings so long that it has trouble taking off from ground level.
Nowadays we have swifts nearby in Cardiff city centre and they fly over, screaming, in the summer. Although their numbers seem to be down this year. By chance this week I had an appeal for help from the RSPB, who are worried about the decline in swifts, possibly because nesting sites are being destroyed. Read about it here .
There are probably also house martins about in the city but swallows are a more rural bird. I do see them from the train when I pass through Abercynon on the way up the Valleys.
All three of these birds are welcome summer visitors to Britain, spending winter in South Africa. Hence the saying “One swallow doesn’t make a summer.” Find out more here.
3. Flowers of sweet chestnut
It has been very remiss of me, but I haven’t been keeping an eye out for sweet chestnut trees (Castanea sativa) in Cardiff this month. We have lots of horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum), mentioned last month, but they are from a completely different family.
Horse chestnuts are in the family Sapindaceae (which includes maples), while sweet chestnuts are in Fagaceae (which includes beech and oak).
Here are some sweet chestnuts in fruit later in the year, pictured on a trip to Yorkshire in August a couple of years ago.
Even in the 1940s agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) was a bit obscure, as shown by Richard Morse’s words: “The agrimony, the salad burnet and the adder’s tongue fern attract relatively little attention to-day, but years ago they were assiduously collected by country-folk for use in salads and medicines, while the moonwort was regarded as a veritable wizard of the vegetable kingdom.”
Common agrimony is also known as church steeples or sticklewort and was thought to cure musket wounds and ward off witchcraft.
However, its name comes from the Greek Argemone, meaning a plant healing to the eyes. Find out more on this website.
5. Corn poppy
The corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) is a feature of the arable lands of Europe, rather than the stock-rearing and mixed farming areas I have lived in. However, I have of course observed them in the past and have noticed their decline through changes in farming methods.
In Britain the red poppy has become the symbol for war remembrance, following the World War I battles in the fields of Flanders, where the poppy still grew happily in the ploughed-up land destroyed by the trenches. It was a symbol of hope but also of the blood spilt.
Here’s a nice explanation of the poppy’s significance .
Today conservationists are making efforts to revive the poppy and other wild flowers, as shown by this image, recently in the news…
6. Cinnabar moth
I mentioned the cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae) back in January, when we were on the subject of groundsel, a weed on which the yellow and black caterpillars of the red and black moth fed.
Its favoured food, though, is ragwort (Senecio) and the moth has been introduced into New Zealand, Australia and North America to try to control the weed, which is poisonous to livestock.
I don’t see many moths these days, but I did catch this pair of buff ermine moths (Spilosoma luteum) on the garage wall the other day. The paler female was there the night before and in the morning she had company…
Oh, I can do this one! I sometimes see the delicate green lacewing (Chrysoperla carnea) in the kitchen. It is so fragile that at first glance it is just a tiny, faint shadow on the ceiling.
Only closer inspection reveals it is one of these beautiful little things, now known just as lacewings, not lacewing-flies.
Lacewings are beneficial to gardeners as their larvae eat aphids, mites, whiteflies, mealy-bugs, leaf-hoppers, thrips, and caterpillars.
The small one I found on the back door frame the other day seemed injured – maybe by a close encounter with a spider web. It was stuck by gunge on one delicate wing. I did what I could to remove it without damage and put it on some greenery in the garden.
8. Field rose
Richard Morse writes: “…along the margins of the wood you may find such attractive blossoms as those of the dog rose, the field rose and the large white convolvulus.”
Well, you wouldn’t expect me to find a field rose (Rosa arvensis) here in the middle of Cardiff. Or the dog rose (Rosa canina), which is similarly wild. However, there are similar sorts of things around in the city.
In the garden of a derelict house I found this, which I suppose is just a feral pink floribunda. Pretty anyway!
As for the convolvulus, I have had more luck here. In my country garden in the 1960s the large white convolvulus (Calystegia sepium) was a weed, which we called bindweed or withywind. There was also a smaller pink convolvulus (Calystega soldanella).
An odd thing, but for several weeks I have been admiring a flourishing patch of bindweed in the overgrown garden of a housing association office on a Cardiff street. Should be an eyesore, really!
9. Common hair-moss
As far as I am concerned, summer in the city is NOT the place for moss. It is hot and bright and dry and all the mosses I photographed earlier in the year (see my moss blog post) have shrivelled and look in a sorry state. Even the new moss I spotted in May is no longer as green.
However, common hair-moss (Polytrichum commune) is no doubt still flourishing away beside a river or stream somewhere. This is a big, starry green moss and I hope one day to see some and recognise it…
10. Edible boletus
Again I say summer in the city is not the place for cold, damp fungi. Although I have a patch of shady woodland, I am hard pressed to find anything as lovely as the edible boletus (Boletus edulis). Especially as it is a prized ingredient for modern chefs, usually by its alternative names of porcini (Italy) or cep (France).
11. Common black slug
I think maybe summers were wetter in the 1940s? Slugs are another thing I won’t be able to tick off my list this June, although every morning I do see silver slug trails, sometimes on the bird table, so maybe they come out to play in the cool of the night.
I have no doubt I will see some if we have a wet autumn.
Richard Morse writes: “…snails and slugs in seemingly endless variety can be found wherever there are leaves to be eaten”. The black slug (Arion ater) is a big and juicy one…
12. Bullhead, or miller’s thumb
Richard Morse has made this month difficult for me. He says: “In streams and rivers, young fish now abound, including those of the bullhead, or miller’s thumb – a fish which, like the stickleback, prepares a nest for its eggs – or at any rate an apology for one.”
I have never seen a bullhead (Cottus gobio), although I did fish for sticklebacks as a child. Bullheads live in stony river bottoms and are apparently crepuscular – they come out from under their stones only at dusk to feed.
In parts of Europe they are declining – possibly because of gravel extraction from river beds and the building of weirs and dams. They also need clean water, so are vulnerable in polluted conditions.
You can find more pictures from my June garden here.
See other months in the Wildlife Through the Year archive