The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Weekly Nature Watch 2 August 2019

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Notwithstanding recent record high temperatures, there is a sense that we have arrived at the beginning of the end of summer August being the last full summer month of the year.

Inevitably, the intense heat gave way to rain and ‘normal service’ was quickly resumed. And, as the birds continue to dumb down, becoming increasingly silent, purple has arrived in our landscape in many forms. Tall standing foxgloves wave at us fromroadside verges, together with the inevitable rosebay willowherb, the famous fireweed that engulfed much of London’s blitzed landscape after Hitler’s bombs had raineddown on the capital city. Rosebay is one of those plants which seem destined to colonise areas previously devastated by fire or worse. It is, therefore, widely regarded as an invasive weed species however, once it was extensively used as a decoration in Victorian gardens because of its striking colour.

Of course, foxgloves are extremely familiar roadside flowers. Delightful though it may seem to conjure up images of foxes donning the bell-like flowers as gloves for their dainty little feet, it appears more likely that the name ‘foxglove’ was derived from old Anglo Saxon. The word ‘gliew’ meant a musical instrument with many bells, whilst the ‘fox’ may be a corruption of ‘folk’. In some parts of England, foxgloves are known as ‘fairy bells’ but fairy bells or not, foxgloves are of course poisonous. Yet from them is extracted the drug digitalis, used to treat heart complaints, its magical qualities discovered by one William Withering back in 1785.

Adding further purple to the landscape’s palette of colours are the thistles, whichdespite their presence as a symbol of this proud nation, are also widely regarded as pernicious weeds. Yet at present, the crop of thistles in my paddock is ablaze with all sorts of bright colours, oranges and yellows predominating as a plethora of small tortoiseshell butterflies swarm all over them. There is also an abundance of painted lady butterflies immigrants from Africa. The last time we had such an influx was in 2008. Despite the doom and gloom we are hearing about global warming and climate change, at least here this year, a wide variety of pollinators seems to be prospering. Sharing the thistles are countless bees and indeed the amazing presence of a whole mass of bees on our cotoneaster earlier this summer was indeed encouraging, as has been similar activity on a flowering privet in recent days. The trend, however, is definitely not encouraging. Pollinators are reducing severely in number and that is a warning to us all.

The element of Global Warming, manifested in the high temperatures of last week canclearly have some benefits. Nevertheless, the warnings are clear. Our world is constantly going through change. Across the centuries, there have been wild fluctuations in temperatures as witness successive Ice Ages, the last one a mere ten thousand or so years ago. And then by contrast, came the heat of last week. The climate changes naturally all the time but now man’s fatal hand seems to be having increasing influence.

It is clear that we are only now beginning to understand the effects of the vast amounts of pollution produced during the Industrial era, when coal was the driving force behind the emergence of heavy industry. Furthermore, we are still pouring these pollutants into the earth’s atmosphere, as some persist in ignoring the warnings and the long-term consequences of continuing to burn yet more vast quantities of coal. Our world and its wildlife are amazingly resilient and have a remarkable ability to adapt and evolve but there has to be a red line beyond which our very survival may well be threatened!

There are further examples of purple coming to the fore up on the hills with cross-leaved heaths and bell heather also beginning to flower. Soon the main heather crop, ling, will be also be blooming transforming our upland landscapes into those purple hills and moors, for which Scotland is so famous. It is as if the landscape wasgoing through a curious requiem for the summer now slowly approaching its final throws.

Yet, there is other colour to admire as numerous birds continue to take advantage of the food we provide. The two most colourful visitors at present are the goldfinches, which seem to have an insatiable appetite for sunflower hearts and the great spotted woodpeckers, which along with a noisy group of starlings, have a passion for the slabs of fat we offer. The whispering conversations of the goldfinches have been described as resembling the muffled sound of Chinese bells. Others have likened their whispered conversations to the chatter of the very fairies themselves. And, as we enter August, fairy rings will begin to appear in many of our woodlands.

These are circular markings on the ground, where courtship rituals have been conducted between a roebuck and a doe. August sees the culmination of a period beginning in May when this year’s kids were born and August, when the next roe deer mating occurs. During this period, the buck’s temper becomes increasingly frayed as he attempts to re-establish and then defend a territory in which he is totally dominant. Itis, therefore, a time punctuated by confrontations and sometimes physical conflict between competing bucks which is often manifested by the coarse barking that emanates from the woodlands they inhabit and thus fight for. Often people refer to the roe deer as the ‘gentle roe’, yet there is very little that is gentle in the breast of a rampant buck when he is establishing or defending his territory. Meanwhile, amidst all this angst, the does, by contrast, seem always to be the picture of peace and serenity, the image of that ‘gentle roe’!

But in August, now comes the denouement. Territorial integrity has been decided andby and large, the period of conflict is over and the ultimate aim of all this aggrofollows! Therefore, the final act is the coming together of the triumphant buck andhis doe. The courtship is relatively brief as the buck and doe perform a kind of dance, sometimes around a single tree or sapling, before at last the doe consents to his desires. This is how those ‘fairy rings’ are formed. The pregnancy, however, isnot straightforward. Indeed, along with badgers, pine marten, fallow deer, stoats and our grey and common seals, roe deer employ a method known as ‘delayed implantation’, in a way, a form of suspended animation.

Thus, the development of the fertilised egg is put on hold until, in the case of the roe, the beginning of the New Year. Therefore, all these animals can mate in late summer or autumn but bear their young only when conditions are most favourable. Consequently, roe deer kids are not dropped until ideal conditions prevail in the following spring by which time there has been enough growth of succulent vegetation for the doe to be able to make much milk for her kids. It’s a very different approach compared with normal pregnancies, an idiosyncrasy for which, of course, nature is famous. The vicissitudes of nature are curious and sometimes mysterious, although there was a time not so long ago when many folk believed that those fairy rings really were made by the little residents who dwelt at the bottom of gardens!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods