After the bad weather we had last month and all the inconveniences (winter seems to come as a complete surprise to Britain every year), nature has answered back with all the trees and hedges looking wonderful; many in flower and leaves still young and fresh. Hedges have been used as boundary markers and to contain animals since Bronze Age man first started to farm. Britain was heavily forested then and trees were cleared to create space for stock and crops but strips of woodland were left to surround the clearings and these became the first hedges. The Romans planted more as did the Anglo-Saxons but it wasn’t until the Enclosure Acts, mainly during the 18th and 19th centuries, that hedging really took off. These Acts of Parliament meant that landowners could enclose land, much of which had been common and farmed by tenants and peasants, to create larger and more profitable farms. Hedges were planted to mark the boundaries and many commoners, now unable to work the land, were forced into towns and cities. As we’ve talked about before, hedges were removed during the first and after the second world wars so that more food could be grown.
Hedges are important for wildlife and act as nesting sites for birds, habitats for insects and corridors for animals such as hedgehogs and small mammals, also many plants are at home in hedgerows. Honeysuckle, Ivy, Bryony and Bramble climb through the branches and flowers, such as Wood anemones, Primroses and Violets, grow at the foot of the hedge; all these are lost when a hedge is removed. Also, snow will drift on to roads from fields without hedges to hold it back.
Forget-me-nots can also be found by hedges, especially if the ground is damp and shady which are the conditions they like the best. They are, however, quite adaptable and will grow in sunny, sandy soil but maybe not as well.
Legend has it that the name came about when a knight and his lady were walking by a river. He reached down to pick the little blue flowers to give to his love and slipped and fell into the water. He was carried away down the fast moving river entreating ‘Forget me not’ to his companion. (We are not told whether or not he was rescued). The Greek name for the Forget-me-not is Myosotis which means mouse’s ear and is thought to describe the shape of the petals but I think it is much more likely to refer to the leaves which are oval, soft and velvety.
Forget-me-nots have seed pods, which stick to shoes and animals, allowing the seeds to disperse to bring more flowers; a welcome sight in the spring with their bright blue ‘eyes’.
One animal which often burrows at the foot of hedges is the unloved Brown rat. Rats are intelligent, keep themselves very clean, are trainable and make good pets, so what’s not to like? Well, as we know, a lot. They carry a variety of diseases, contaminate grain and food stores, damage buildings and will chew electric cables, sometimes causing fires. And then there’s that tail…we like tails that wag, furry tails, tails that are cuddly, not naked, scaly tails – no, we don’t like those sort of tails!
The Brown rat originated in central Asia and spread across the world, following people and hitching lifts on ships. In Britain it is sometimes known as the Norway rat because it was thought to have arrived on our coasts carried by a Norwegian ship but in fact it came by various vessels. They now inhabit every part of the world except Antarctica, parts of the Arctic and some islands; those islands that they made their way to have seen devastation to their ground nesting bird population. Rats are omnivorous and will eat more or less anything. They are adaptable, making their homes everywhere: in towns they are in buildings and sewers, in the countryside they infest farms and crop fields. If you keep chickens you will almost certainly also be keeping rats. Because they always live near a food source there will be burrows within easy reach of the chickens’ food and as it is highly nutritious the rats grow well. There will be obvious, worn paths leading to the food as they follow the same route, the shortest, to get their dinners. They can breed all through the year if conditions are right with litters of up to 12 young, 22 is the record. Those ratlets are themselves ready to breed at between 3 – 4 months old. Small wonder there are so many of them. I don’t like being responsible for killing anything but they have to be controlled and the main execution methods used by pest controllers are traps and poison. Traps are sometimes a bit hit or miss, they can snap shut on limbs or noses causing suffering to the animal and the type of poison used is an anticoagulent which means that the rat suffers internal bleeding. I have seen them dying in this way and it is not a pleasant sight but if one of our Lurchers gets one, death is very quick. There are rat controllers who have packs of terriers that work together and I believe they dispose of quite a lot of the pests.
The albino laboratory rat is a descendant of the Brown rat and many colour variations, known as ‘Fancies’, have been bred for the pet trade.
There is another type of rat in Britain, the Black rat also known as the Ship’s rat. This one is much rarer than its cousin being found mainly around docks, ports and in coastal towns, although some were discovered inland in Cornwall in 1999. Bites from the fleas carried by these rats were thought to have caused Bubonic Plague, known as The Black Death, which killed millions of people in Europe in the past, but recent studies have suggested that it was more likely caused by human fleas and lice; there were plenty of these around.
Now to a more pleasant subject.
We have many beautiful birds in Britain and these have been added to by migrants from abroad, some of which have settled and made Britain their home. One of these is the Little egret, a small, elegant, white heron, which was once common in Britain. They were eaten in medieval times and hunted in great numbers in the 19th century, along with other members of the heron family, for their feathers to decorate hats and so declined rapidly. After that they were hardly ever seen in this country until they first nested on Brownsea Island in Dorset in 1996. Since then they have spread and are now found in marshes, lakes and coastal areas in many parts of the country. Our watery Norfolk is an ideal habitat for these birds and, as well as in inland lakes, they can be found in nature reserves along the coast; Cley, Titchwell and Holkham are good places to see them. Many are now resident all the year round and their numbers are boosted in the autumn and winter with visiting birds from Europe. Little egrets feed mainly on fish, which they stalk and catch in shallow waters, but they will also take amphibians, reptiles, small mammals and invertebrates. They are colonial nesters often nesting alongside other wading birds and will lay 4 – 6 eggs which are incubated for three weeks. The chicks fledge after 4 weeks and will stay with their parents for a further month after which they become independent.
It is always a treat to see these birds with their beautiful plumage and startlingly bright yellow feet.
Things to do this month include:
• Nature detectives & Seaweed pressing – both at Cley Marshes.
• Children’s wildlife watch (Cuckoos) – Hickling Broad.
• Searching for sharks – Holme Dunes.www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
© Sheila Sims. 2018