March 2017

 

A host of golden daffodils
Sheila Sims

Although the seasons are definitely changing, with mild winters meaning that some things start earlier than they used to, March is still the best month for daffodils. However, the truly native flower, the one that inspired Wordsworth to write his famous poem, may be threatened with extinction. Cross pollination with garden centre varieties is seeing the more robust cultivars in greater numbers along our roadsides and in woodlands and of course they do look lovely. The English Heritage, which looks after some of Britain’s historic gardens, is not against the cultivated daffodil but wants to preserve the wild, native one and launched a big bulb planting last autumn to try to save this delicate flower; native bluebells were included at some of the sites as this is also a victim of cross pollination with the Spanish variety.

Three-cornered leek
Sheila Sims

Another flower in bloom this month is the Three-cornered leek, also known as the Three-cornered garlic. It is an Allium, a member of the onion family, which has a strong, garlicky scent; it gets its name because the stem is triangular in cross section. Although it has become naturalised in Britain it is not a native, originating in the Mediterranean basin. It is considered to be an invasive plant and will certainly take over in the right conditions. It is an offence to plant it in the wild or allow it to spread into the countryside but this is difficult to control for this flower has a friend which helps to disperse its seeds – the ant. The seed has an attachment called an elaiosome which gives off a scent that attracts the ants; they carry the seeds back to their nests and eat the elaiosomes, which are rich in fat and proteins, and feed them to their larvae. Ants keep a tidy house and the remaining unwanted seeds are then discarded into the nest’s trash heap which is composed of dead ants, vegetation and other organic matter – perfect compost for the seeds to germinate! This clever process is called myrmecochory and there are many plants, including Gorse, which benefit in the same way. The Three-cornered leek is a pretty, elegant flower and because of the help it gets it can appear in your garden, or in fields and woods, seemingly from nowhere.

Some of Norfolk’s woodlands have beautiful displays of spring flowers and the woods at Felbrigg Hall are also famous for their magnificent beech trees. These are particularly special because they are genetically different from beech trees in the rest of the country; their isolated coastal location meant that they developed in a unique way. The Felbrigg rangers have gathered the seeds and they are being stored at the Kew Gardens Millennium Seed Bank in Sussex to help preserve these wonderful trees. Plant seeds from all over the world are stored there so that species do not die out. Diseases have changed woodlands and these seeds could form the basis for the future of our Norfolk beeches. Worthwhile, as the Beech tree, which is associated with femininity, is regarded as the queen of the forest; her consort, the oak, is king.

Squirrels love beech mast!
Sheila Sims

Beech trees can live for up to 400 years and some grow to be 40 metres (130 feet) tall. Both the male and female flowers are borne on the same tree and they are pollinated by the wind. The new buds are particularly attractive, bronze coloured and pointed, on zig-zagged twigs and the young leaves of the variety Copper beech are quite stunning when the sun shines through them. Beeches are an important source of food for many different kinds of wildlife. Several moth caterpillars feed on the leaves and the seeds, called mast, provide meals for birds, mice, squirrels and voles. We also have uses for this tree; the wood is used for furniture, tool handles and veneers and gives a wonderful flavour to smoked fish.

As with many of our native trees the Beech suffers from pathogens. A sap sucking scale insect causes beech bark disease and the roots can be attacked by fungal infections. However, there is one fungus found living with these trees that is highly valued – the truffle. This one doesn’t cause harm but lives in association with the tree, each providing the other with essential nutrients; this kind of partnership is called symbiosis. Although pigs were traditionally used as truffle hunters, it is dogs which usually to do the job in this country; the strong scent of these fungi is easily detected by one trained to be a ‘truffle hound’. Anyone finding this forest gold will most certainly keep the location to themselves – truffles are worth an awful lot of money!

Beech makes a wonderful hedging plant, growing thickly and retaining its dry leaves in the winter, providing good roosting and nesting sites for birds.

Beech hedge in winter – Sheila Sims

Now that the breeding season is starting it is best not to put out chunky food, such as whole peanuts, in your bird feeders. Small seeds are fine but bear in mind that most birds, even the seed eaters, feed their young on small insects and caterpillars, so mealworms, live or dried, will provide a more natural diet; the dried ones should be soaked as they can dehydrate the chicks if fed in their dry state. Mealworms are the larvae of a type of beetle and live ones can be ordered from breeders. (Yes, they do exist! I‘m always intrigued by some of the unusual ways people find to make a living). We once ordered some just before a postal strike and consequently they were sitting in the sorting office for a while. After they had finished the bran, sent with them for sustenance during the journey, the mealworms became peckish and proceeded to eat their way through their packaging, causing screaming horrors when the postal people came back to work. We were sent an explanatory letter along with the chewed remains but no mealworms. They probably found dark corners amongst unclaimed parcels, pupated and eventually emerged as beetles, I’m sure creating more hysteria!

Cley Marshes
Sheila Sims

The tidal surge, which happened in January along the east coast, caused a lot of damage to the fresh water marshes at Cley nature reserve turning them into salt water habitats. This will have killed many of the invertebrates that are food for coastal birds and there was fear that the young Grey seals on Blakeney Point nature reserve would have suffered. However, they seem to have fared well as a record number have been counted by National Trust rangers. Blakeney Point is home for England’s largest colony of Grey seals and it is well worthwhile taking one of the boat trips to see them.

Grey seals
at Blakeney Point
Mike Sims

The coast road, which was closed after the flood because of the large amounts of debris dumped by the sea, is now open. The storm also uncovered some interesting remains along the coast. A piece of fossilised neck vertebra, thought to have belonged to a prehistoric rhinoceros which roamed our county 700,000 years ago, was found at West Runton where many other fossils have been discovered. The cliffs there get battered by the sea during stormy weather causing them to collapse, revealing tales from the past on our Norfolk coast.

Things of interest to do in March:

  • Daffodil mile – Sunday 29th, start at Honing church
  • Minsmere Specialities – wildlifetoursandeducation.co.uk or 01263 576995.
  • Reserve Rangers (learn reed dressing) – Hickling Broad.
  • Walk at Hunstanton Cliffs.
  •  Ramble and Roast – Cley Marshes.

www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.

 

©   Sheila Sims 2017.   Email:  sheila@norfolknaturediary.uk

 

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