150 years ago today the West Riding Consolidated Naturalists Society had a ramble through Coxley valley. Here’s how it was reported in the local press a week later:
EXCURSION AND MEETING OF THE WEST RIDING CONSOLIDATED NATURALISTS SOCIETY.
Notwithstanding the unfavourable appearance of Saturday last, the day appointed by the above society to visit the district of Coxley valley, a fair representation of most of the societies comprising the union arrived by different trains at Horbury Bridge and, uniting together, started about three o’ clock on the ramble, by way of Water Lane, up the beautiful and retired valley of Coxley. The whole company expressed themselves delighted with the locality, and although occasional showers fell during the afternoon, which rather marred the pleasure of the party, keeping them to a great extent on the beaten track, yet the bursts of sunshine which at intervals lighted up the wooded slopes of the valley, and other peculiar aspects of the day, proved a rich treat to the observant and enthusiastic naturalist.
The air was fragrant with the odour of the wild rose, the wayfaring tree and other odoriferous plants which are here found in abundance – the woods resounded with the sweet notes of the warblers, and the denizens of the lake-like pools sported on and beneath the surface of the waters, giving an appearance of life and motion to the otherwise quiet and sequestered scene.
There was plenty of work for the botanists, both in the way of land and water plants; but in consequence of the extra quantity of water in the dams, specimens of several of the rarer plants could not be observed. The meadows a little above presented a very interesting appearance, more particularly with respect to the flora. The Plentago Media, or Hairy Plantain, is here found in abundance, and was in full bloom.
At this point a second party of naturalists from Clayton West district joined the principal company, and the united body now taking to the right of the valley and up the steep embankments, passed through several fields to Middlestown, then by way of Smithy Brook and Thornhill Edge to the place of meeting – at the house of Mr Garthwaite, the Savile Arms Inn, Thornhill.
Thanks to Nev Ashby of the Horbury and Sitlington History Group Facebook page for spotting this.
Wakefield Naturalists, established 1851, were prime movers in getting the West Riding Consolidated Naturalists Society together, it later became the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union, which in turn gave rise to the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. I don’t recall wayfaring tree in Coxley, or hoary plantain for that matter. The note about where the rarer water plants were is useful because in an account of a similar meeting that I’ve seen they mention sundew gets a mention and I’ve always wondered where that would have been growing. Mill dams would be continually changing level, so it’s not surprising that marsh plants were able to become established.
This week spring has certainly sprung with frogs croaking, swirling and spawning in a fevered frenzy in the margins of a local pond. Also, nearby goat willow (pussy willow) are in flower. Botanically these trees are known as dioecious plants so the male and female flowers are found on separate trees. Initially, female catkins are easily overlooked, but are attractive in their own right when seen close up. However, very soon they grow long and green. The seeds are woolly and fluffy and are windblown during May and June. The male catkins are more noticeable turning yellow when full of pollen and often attract large numbers of adult butterflies feeding for the first time since the autumn after hibernating during the winter. Perfect timing as on 16 March 2021 my local walk included sightings of small tortoiseshell, comma and peacock butterflies.
Frog and frog spawn at Wrenthorpe
oung female flower on goat willow
Small tortoiseshell at Wrenthorpe
The first Covid-19 lockdown is now one year old and the virus has sadly had a massive impact on so many people’s lives. Happily, the success of the national vaccination programme, together with the incredible work of the NHS and the help of so many other people and organisations give signals of hope and recovery. These thoughts were perhaps captured in an image taken last summer during a lockdown walk through Brandy Carr when I came across an NHS rainbow. A child may have simply placed it on the field fence and unknowingly at the time there is a young oak tree with the prospects of hundreds of years of growth ahead of it in the background. Also, during the lockdown periods nature has been our doorstep natural health service and the well-being gift that has kept on giving. This is despite its own struggles trying to survive and maintain a place in our modern world. Hopefully its important role will be increasingly recognised and lead to further actions to help it to become more firmly and securely established as part of our everyday lives.
NHS rainbow and oak tree at Brandy Carr
The recent snow and ice has melted revealing a drab field layer of razed and decaying undergrowth. Despite the same seasonal hardships some neighbouring plants are now teetering on the brim of spring pushing their new infant green shoots upwards towards the growing hours of daylight. Indeed, this year looking higher up the vertical vegetation structure into the understorey and shrub layer of our hedgerows and woodlands there is a particular abundance of hazel flowers. These catkins which formed unnoticed during the autumn and winter are the male flowers and are commonly known as lamb’s tails (see photo attached). Hazel is wind pollinated and does not rely on insects to do this. Their pollen will drift in the air until resting on a female flower. These flowers are minute and easily overlooked and apart from a tiny red vase shaped tuft look just like another small bud along the bare narrow stem (see photo attached). Large amounts of pollen are produced ensuring the hazel nuts of autumn are formed providing a feast for squirrels and small mammals such as wood mice. Also, numerous larva of various moths and other insects feed on the foliage making the hazel a most valuable wildlife plant.
Male flowers on hazel at Wrenthorpe Park
Female flowers on hazel at Wrenthorpe Park
Snowdrops and winter aconites have also defied the winter and are now in full flower (see attached photos). They are a treasured double act, well naturalised and established in our urban greenspaces helping to cheer us up before the top of the bill flowers of spring arrive.
Winter aconites at Alverthorpe
Snowdrops at Wrenthorpe Alverthorpe meadows
The days of grey skies, ice packed ponds and blankets of snow, together with storm Christoph during this January have been enough to make us all shiver and seek refuge. However, this coming weekend 29th to 31st January there is an opportunity to brighten our spirits particularly during these difficult times by taking part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. It is the world’s largest garden wildlife survey and it has been helping us to understand the changes occurring to the wildlife on our own doorstep especially for our more common garden birds since it started in 1979.
It only takes one hour, anyone can take part and best of all it can all be done in the comfort of our own homes or local green spaces while respecting current Covid-19 advice. Last year the UK top ten were as follows 1. house sparrow 2. starling 3. blue tit 4. woodpigeon 5. Blackbird 6. goldfinch 7. great tit 8. robin 9. long-tailed tit 10 magpie. However, at this time of year when natural food is scarce our bird tables can attract surprise visitors. Indeed, every bird counts to the survey and adds to our appreciation and enjoyment of wildlife. I am hopeful the robin photographed at home on 14 January2021 will visit again to keep its place in the top ten. More details about the Big Garden Birdwatch 2021 are available at the following link www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch/
Robin searching for food. 14 January 2021
Some day we will get it right for the birds!
First we put up a blue tit box and sparrows nested in it, so we replaced it with a sparrow terrace with three nest holes and the blue tits nested in it.
Now the blue tits are sub-letting to a group of wrens.
As I went to make our morning cuppa, passing the back door something caught my eye, I looked out at the sparrow box and in the half light could see a little head appear from hole number one. I was amazed to see a wren fly out and it was quickly followed by three more, they had obviously been using it as an overnight roost.
We had spotted a wren yesterday coming out of hole number three, while at the same time a blue tit was taking great interest in hole number one. Another blue tit attempted to investigate the middle hole but the one at hole one in no uncertain terms let it know it wasn’t welcome, although it didn’t seem bothered by the wren.
We watched three wrens this evening. One popped in the middle hole then joined the other two in hole one.
It would be lovely to think that we could have blue tit and wren making a nest in the terrace this Spring and a bonus would be a sparrow in the middle. Well, who knows what will happen with these contrary birds!
Some wildlife followers may see winter as a season of relative emptiness and in some ways a time that is almost unused by nature itself. To others the return of falling snow and ice over the past few days may create a mini wild arctic landscape of the mind right on our doorsteps. The bounty of local hawthorn berries along Jerry Clay Lane and Trough Well Lane at Wrenthorpe have been hungrily foraged by redwing, fieldfare, mistle thrush and blackbirds. Now their attention is turning to plantings in urban areas and in particular gardens with apple trees. Indeed, blackbirds and mistle thrush have become obsessive feeders of fallen apples and are now increasingly unfriendly to any other birds attempting to muscle in on their valuable windfalls. Attached photos show a mistle thrush in between courses in a small orchard close to Jerry Clay Lane and a blackbird standing guard over fallen apples at Wrenthorpe Road.
blackbird feeding on apples at Wrenthorpe Road.
blackbird feeding on apples at Wrenthorpe Road.
Many birds and animals are now fighting for survival to take them through the worst of the weather to spring. Just putting out any unwanted apples on the lawn and keeping bird feeders topped up, together with a supply of fresh water can make a massive difference to them and repay us with memorable close-up views of nature in our own backyard. Attached photos show close encounters with Grey squirrel and nuthatch at Nostell Priory by the bottom lake over the New Year period.
Grey squirrel at Nostell Priory
nuthatch at Nostell Priory
Together with the bird sightings our local lockdown walks have also revealed several wildflowers in bloom even at this time of year. These include red deadnettle, daisy, dandelion, cow parsley and hogweed. Perhaps winter is not so bleak after all.
As with all the previous autumn indoor meetings, we are unfortunately having to postpone the December meeting. I was really looking forward to Tom Aspinall’s talk on bees as it came highly recommended. I will reschedule it for next year hopefully when things should be a lot better. I will review with the committee about how we progress things going forward in the new year and it maybe that we have to consider using Zoom. I’ve used Zoom for several of my lectures and joined other clubs in Zoom meetings – not thee same as meeting in person but at least we can meet up.
I think I will miss the December meeting altogether and not replace it with an outdoor meeting as we are still in Tier 3 and technically shouldn’t meet up. However, I am hoping that we can get together for a field meeting in January,
I wish you all a happy Christmas and look forward to a brighter season in 2021.
Today during my regular lockdown walk the early morning mist added another visual permutation to a now very familiar landscape. A background of electricity pylons and other urban paraphernalia, together with the busy M1 motorway were magically masked away. Suddenly a mature common ash tree (see attached photo) stood proud of all the urban tangle albeit for a short while only, but perhaps just long enough to give a glimpse back in time to its early life when the future of this species was more assured. Sadly, this arboreal, landscape and wildlife treasure is threatened by ash-dieback. This is a highly infectious fungal disease originating in Asia and first recorded in England in 2012, although it may have been in the UK since 2002. The fungal spores can spread in the wind and also by human transportation, especially by unknowingly moving infected young plants ready for planting elsewhere. Current estimates suggest we may lose around 50% to 80% of the UK’s ash trees in the next few years. At the moment scientists are working to discover genes with resistance to ash-dieback and this may offer glimmers of hope for ash trees in the future.
ash tree at Brandy Carr
Much more heartening this week on the same walk has been the sighting of a tree sparrow. This is a very scarce bird although there has been some signs of a recovery in the UK in recent years. It has a brown cap and black cheek spots, unlike the house sparrow. See attached grab photograph taken at Lindale Lane, Wrenthorpe.
tree sparrow at Lindale Lane Wrenthorpe
On 24 November 2020 I watched two red kite methodically surveying the fields between Wrenthorpe and Brandy Carr and Kirkhamgate. This species almost became extinct in the UK, but has now made an incredible comeback thanks to reintroduction programmes and legal protection. See attached photo taken from my image stock.
At a recent meeting of Wakefield Camera Club, I was asked to identify a bird seen perched in a tree at the bottom of a garden in Wrenthorpe. Expecting a jay, as this is the bird that most often crops up, I was totally suprosed to be shown an image of a little egret perched high in a tree in the middle of Wrenthorpe! The garden likely backs on to Balne Beck whcih flows through the centre of the village and the egret is feeding along the beck and maybe even taking fish from garden ponds. Whateever it’s doing there, it illustrates just how much the bird life of Britain is changing. I remember twitching a little egret in Chesire or somewhene when it was a real rarity for Britain back in the 80s. How far we come and now these beautiful birds are commonplace at most of the waters around Wakefield and even, it seems , in more urban areas too. Thanks to Robert Bilton for sending the images.
Little Egret in Wrenthorpe
Little Egret in Wrenthorpe
Recently my island of green which lies off the coast of the Wakefield city centre has been transformed. Trees have released their leafy loads from the summer skies to form a mosaic of colours and shapes on the landing fields of autumn. Together with being a visual treat there are also the unmistakable sounds, which keep in step as we walk through deep layers of fallen leaves. This year this is amplified by a mass percussion section of snapping and crunching acorns under foot. Many will be taken by jays and other wildlife. Some will soon start to germinate to provide future generations of the nation’s favourite tree the oak. The leaves will be collected by a silent army of worms and other allies. Taken to underground bunkers to help form and improve tomorrow’s soil.
Another silent witness is the field maple, which has suddenly come forward to show its autumn glories. In summer the leaves get their colour from a green pigment called chlorophyll. In autumn as the leaves die the chemical balance of this and other pigments changes to expose the beautiful yellows and golds. The attached photo shows a single leaf still attached to a tree at Brandy Carr. A small to medium size tree and hedgerow shrub the field maple is our only native maple. It is a most valuable landscape and wildlife tree. The early flowers are a timely source of nectar and pollen for insects. Aphids feed on the leaves that in turn attract bluetits and other birds, together with insects such as hoverflies and ladybirds. In addition the seeds are eaten by small mammals. Also, the timber is prized by wood-turners and carvers.
field maple at Brandy Carr
Yesterday during my local walk I noticed my silent witnesses have coincidentally arrived with the emergence of a fungus called Lawyer’s Wig. In part this may be because when young the shaggy white scales on the cap of the fungus may resemble a lawyer’s wig . Also, it is perhaps more commonly known as shaggy ink cap and the attached photo show the fungus growing in a grass verge at Carr Gate. It shows the cap of the fruiting body is beginning to self-digest quickly dissolving into a blacky inky slime. Indeed, during the 17th and 18th centuries it is believed the liquid may have been used for making legal documents and bank notes, because the lack of any fungal spores may otherwise have suggested a forgery.
shaggy ink cap at Carr Gate