Starling Murmurations

Each winter for the last few years, there have been starling murmurations over Grantham and this year is no exception! I saw them gathering on a pylon in the fields beside Harlaxton as I drove along the A607 in this evening, and as I drove past they all rose en mass and began to flock over the western tip of Grantham. I parked up for a few moments to watch this incredible spectacle of aerial gymnastics.

There are several theories as to why starlings flock together like this and treat us to such a display. They gather just before roosting, which they do communally, and so you see smaller flocks gradually join the largest flock so that the numbers grow and grow before they drop down to the trees and shrubs where they spend the night communally. This grouping together may allow them to exchange information on good feeding spots, or just help them to gather with the rest of the local starlings to maximise the warmth which multiple bodies brings on cold winter nights.

The birds move in unison, twisting and turning in shapes a little like those you’d see in a lava lamp, and this behaviour increases in speed and complexity if there is a predator about. This is believed to be another of the reasons for the murmuration behaviour. Safety in numbers is an instinctive behaviour for many species – including birds, fish and mammals – and it works on the basis that if you are in a large crowd, there are many targets beside yourself which makes it unlikely that a predator will get you individually. The dynamic flight patterns of the murmuration adds a further element of safety by confusing the predator as the flock bends, twists and turns as one.

Starlings are a common sight, but they are actually a red list species. Each bird in the UK is given a colour-coded assessment based on the current status of the species. This works on the traffic light system – green indicates least conservation concern whilst red indicates the highest conservation priority. Starlings are on the red list because, despite these large winter flocks appearing impressive, long-term monitoring by the British Trust for Ornithology shows that starling numbers have fallen to just 1/3 of their population in the mid-1970’s. If this decline were to continue along the current trend, then it would be only a short time before starlings were all but extinct.

The flocks will begin to disperse as starlings pair up and establish nests, so take the opportunity to watch this natural phenomena whilst you have the chance! The hour before sunset is the best time to get out and look for them, and they are currently focused on the western tip of Grantham, sometimes moving over the centre earlier in the evening.

If you’re looking to commision ornithological surveys such as wintering bird surveys in the midlands, check out Landscape Science Consultancy’s website here.

What did the faeries ever do for us?

I picked up a copy of a little Shire Classics book called ‘Discovering the folklore of plants’ when I was caught out with nothing to read a few weeks ago. The historical beliefs associated with our native flora and their uses can be fascinating, as can a good guide to botanical epiphets which explains the latin parts of species names to somebody like me who didn’t have the benefit/torture of latin lessons at school. This additional context can add to the understanding of a plant, its habits, uses and historical connections which often have a bearing on the patterns still present in the landscape today. I suddenly saw significance, after reading this book, in the grouping of mature holly, bay and elder outside the doorstep of our rented cottage.

As I read through the book, I began to make a note of the superstitions and supernatural beliefs which frequently seem to result in an ecological or environmental benefit. In the same way that religion historically safeguarded moral behaviour by providing an all-seeing deity to watch over our deeds, the belief in the spirits within plants often seemed to ensure good environmental practise.

Many of these beliefs seem to have been prevalent up until the earlier parts of the 20th century. It was in 1917 that the five photographs of faeries in Cottingley were published to mixed public reaction, however many people believed them to be genuine, including none other than Arthur Conan Doyle.

Incidentally, I am aware that this is rather like a topic which an under-occupied vicar may have written a pamphlet on in the 19th centurary to be read by only 3 other people. Fortunately, blogging opens up such exercises in futility to the busier masses!

Leave some fruit for the birds

Many conservation charities and wildlife organisations advise gardeners to leave some of their windfall fruits, such as apples and pears, to provide a food source for garden birds. Many bird species, particularly the blackbirds including the native blackbird and song thrush as well as the migratory redwing and field fare, rely upon fruits and berries especially when the weather turns colder and their preferred food of invertebrates is in short supply.

Before social media and gardening magazines promoted the message on behalf of the birds, appeasement of the faeries performed a similar role:

Stray fruits were left at the end of picking for the faeries, in a custom variously called ‘pixy-hoarding’, ‘cull-pixying’ or ‘griggling’”

Blackberries are stripped from the brambles today, as can be seen from their absence below 2m along most public footpaths. However, an old superstition drew a line under the feasting which would ensure provision of fruit for birds and mammals as the weather turned wintery:

‘In many English counties, blackberries are never picked after Michaelmas Day (29th September) when the devil curses them.’


A presumption against tree-felling

Woodland once covered the vast majority of Britain but now represents only 12% of land cover. Unsurprisingly, considering that they evolved within this vast woodland habitat, the majority of our native fauna also relies upon trees for food or shelter, from tiny invertebrates up to birds and mammals as well as fungi, lichens and mosses. It follows that every tree is sacred in terms of ecological benefit.

It was historically considered unlucky to fell a number of tree species, including ash, hawthorn, holly and elder.

 Elder was one of the most unlucky species to fell of all, as the elder mother dwelt within and guarded the tree. Her permission must be sought before the tree could be cut.

We also have these beliefs to thank for some of the standard trees present in hedgerows even to this day.

‘The ban on cutting holly means that the handsome, dark green trees stand high above farm hedges, giving visual emphasis to the landscape’

Hawthorn stands out in particular in the folklore as a faery tree which could bring some serious ill luck upon those who cut it.

‘In Ireland, a ‘sentry thorn’ or ‘lone bush’ was a faery trysting place demanding the greatest respect and especially dangerous at May Day, midsummer of Halloween when faery power was at its strongest. Farmers laboriously cultivated round these thorns in fields. Felling must be carried out for ritualistic or healing purposes only, never just to tidy the farm.’

In the modern world, trees and shrubs stand little chance of holding up a housing development or major infrastructure project unless they are home to a protected species rather more real than the faeries, such as bats or breeding birds. But even into the 1900’s, hawthorns could hold sway over the designs of developers.

When one thorn lay in the path of a railway, the track was elaborately carried over it to avoid felling. To fell a hawthorn in preparing a house site means misfortune or even death for those who will live in the house.’

Garden for wildlife

Our gardens are one of the most ubiquitous areas of potential habitat within the landscape. If only properly planted and managed, they would create green corridors which would snake through our towns and cities and turn a village into an oasis of trees and shrubs within an arable landscape. This importance to make each garden count is recognised by many wildlife charities; the RSPB, the Butterfly Conservation Trust, the Bat Conservation Trust and Buglife will all advise on species to include within the planting. The Nottingham Wildlife Trust has an ongoing campaign to create mini meadows within gardens, providing free species-rich seed mixes to help establish these little patches of biodiversity across the county.

Yet the draw of the nice, neat paving or that lovely sheet of tarmac is too much for many. Almost 1/3 of the 20 million homes with front gardens have turned them into hardstanding for cars, a 2012 report showed, whilst lazy insurance assessors require the removal of larger trees growing close to houses – often without justification – and discourage their inclusion in new developments.

Trees were traditionally viewed as protective entities and were specifically planted at the doorstep to houses in order to ward off harm.

‘Aspen would keep thieves away;

Bay with its pungent smelling leaves would keep the plague away;

Elder, with the protective elder mother dwelling within, would keep away witchcraft, lightening and evil;

Holly would also protect against lightening, as well as fire and the evil eye’

‘Rowan; the cardinal keeper of the northern cottage door keeps witches away’

‘A rosemary bush near the doorstep purges the house, and a pot on the doorstep keeps thieves and witches away.’

Similarly, the greening of inert brick walls would help to protect the house.

Honeysuckle is a mighty barrier to the witch and, growing over the door, keeps out fever and the ill intentioned’.

Ivy if it grew vigorously on a house its occupants would be safe from witchcraft and the evil eye.’

Both of these species are fantastic nectar sources for insects during their respective flowering periods, the late flowering of ivy making it particularly important in the cycle of nectar sources for our pollinators.

Don’t pick wild flowers

As everybody knows now, the mantra of the countryside is ‘take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints’, a message which encourages visitors to enjoy nature without taking it home. Whilst many of the remedies and uses of plants within the book talk of their picking for decoration, for cures, for rituals, there are some which are protected by the faeries.

‘Anyone picking stitchwort is likely to be pixy-led’

‘Anyone who stepped on St John’s Wort would be carried off by a faery horse which rose from beneath him and took him for a wild ride, then in the morning dropped him off at the wayside miles from home’

‘Willowherb and cow parsley would bring death the mother of any child who picks it’


Let nature take its course

Weeds are often defined as any plant in the wrong place. Personally, I love seeing any vegetation greening up an otherwise inert area of concrete or pavement; I am not a fan of the Best Kept Village competition which seems to see such natural opportunism as the antithesis of a suitable village. So although this aversion to weeding doesn’t seem to be supported by the folklore in general, the note below caught my eye:

‘A self-set elder is lucky and should be given space to grow’

Horseshoe bats in Leicestershire? Never say never!

There was a report last month of the first greater horseshoe bat recorded in Ireland*. Ireland is missing a number of species which are common on the mainland; most famously snakes but also woodpeckers and the noctule bat amongst others. Perhaps, like woodpeckers which are increasingly recorded, the greater horseshoe might be about to establish itself but it seems more likely to be an individual who is lost, blown over from the mainland perhaps. This is one of the rarest species of bat in the UK and its range is restricted to the south-west of England and the south of Wales. The reason for this range is largely climatic, partly related to landscape features and perhaps also linked to the availability of suitable roosting sites, particuarly for hibernation*.

This species, surprisingly, turns up in the biological data records around Grantham – the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) has a recording of this bat just beside Melton Mowbray, some 10 miles to the west of Grantham and a good 100 miles from the tip of its normal range. The site of the record was once a mine, now home to bats – principally myotis species such as Natterer’s bats – which gather in mating roosts in the autumn and then hibernate through the winter. The members of the Leicestershire and Rutland Bat Group, who monitor the site, got quite a surprise when they found that, alongside the usual small, crevice roosting myotis bats was a large, free hanging greater horseshoe who had settled beside them for the winter. Most of our UK bat species, contrary to popular depiction, actually roost sideways, face up or face down in holes, cracks or crevices. The only two species who you will always find in the  classic upside-down bat-hang pose are the two members of the Rhinalophus genus, the greater and the lesser horseshoe. The greater horseshoe in this mine therefore stuck out like a sore thumb, hanging by its weak back legs, wings wrapped tight like a cape around a bat the size of a small pear. Where this species spent the remainder of the year is unknown, but for several years it returned to this winter roosting site although it has now been absent for some 20 years.

It could be that this individual was part of a colony within the species’ normal range and made an exceptional commute to cooler winter climes, or even is a member of a hitherto unknown northern colony but it is much more likely that he became lost or separated from his usual range, perhaps due to bad weather or the destruction of a roost, and was simply making the best of his new situation and continuing to lead a horseshoe lifestyle as best he could, admittedly without the company of his kin. Herein lies the long-term problem, without a mate he was never going to establish a new population. This is the difference between the range of a species and the tolerance of individuals; it may well be quite possible for a bat to exist outside of their normal range for a period of time but it is a different matter to expect a population to survive and thrive. Horseshoe bats are relatively long lived for such small mammals; they are known to reach 30 years*. The disappearance of this individual after only a few may be due to old age or migration to a more suitable habitat. But it could be that the winters were a little too cold, the landscape was a little too fragmented, the range of suitable roosting sites was too lacking to suit the year-round changes in conditions.

This is why we must conserve species where thrive, rather than assume they will be fine whilst numbers are still good and concentrate conservation around the edges. Greater horseshoe bats used to be much more abundant within their range in the UK as little as a century ago – a Victorian naturalist suggested they be counted in their roosts by the square yard as the individuals were too numerous and densely packed to count each. I wonder if they would believe tgat now a roost of 20 bats could be considered large. The parallels can be drawn with other species which are common but declining; starlings still seem to be everywhere but there are only 20% the number there were 32 years ago* and a continued decline of this magnitude could soon see them relegated to a rarity alongside the horseshoe bat. Many species of butterfly, including the meadow brown, have undergone similar population drops in recent years.

The great crested newt often receives a bad press for holding up development and the economics-uber-alles mantra of the current government has led them to conclude that we should opt out of the European level protection afforded such species. It is true that, compared to species such as the horseshoe bats, stone curlews, pine martins and the large blue butterfly, the great crested newt is not exceptionally rare in this country. But on an European level, it is, and that is why it is so important to take care of it here, where it is in its range and where it can flourish if care is taken to safeguard its habitat.

We often can not see the big picture if we simply look out of the window and extrapolate to the rest of the county, or country, or continent. You would never expect to see a greater horseshoe bat foraging through woodland on the edges of Grantham. Similarly, you would never expect to see the day when starlings, brown hares or meadow browns were extinct in the UK but the recent State of Nature report indicates startling declines in the populations of a wide range of native UK species. Never say never.