On the wild side

AT the arrival of September the first signs of autumn appeared. Leaves of silver birch and horse chestnut became multi-hued and bumper crops of hawthorn berries caused boughs to bend beneath the weight of plump haws.

I well remember collecting rosehips as a young boy: one old penny per pound for myself and a few pence for the school funds. Hessian sacks were filled and dispatched by the headteacher to be crushed and converted into Delrosa Syrup. The 2012 crop of rose hips is markedly less. After examining elder bushes in the Borders I have concluded that their berries have suffered most. Perhaps this was due to wet, cool weather at pollination time. All the fruits mentioned provide vital sustenance for many birds and mammals including woodpigeons, starlings, thrushes, waxwings and wood mice.

Weather conditions have not helped our insects with numbers well down. One theory suggests that our butterflies were smaller this year possibly caused by poor growth rates in caterpillars and so resulting in proportionately smaller adults. Small whites, green-veined whites, small-tortoiseshells,peacocks and red admirals remained scarce. One memorable sighting occurred on September 17, when I roamed along Nun’s Walk in Coldstream. This high vantage point looking across the River Tweed to England, is backed by a south-facing wall. Approximately 20 red admirals were gathered there soaking up the warmth of the stonework.

Hemp agrimony is a plant I have sometimes encountered alongside woodland margins but in this part of the country it is almost always a coastal plant. Tall sprays of pink-mauve blooms produce a fluffy appearance due to the large number of tiny individual flowers. Some specimens had gone to seed but many remained at their best during early September and could be admired from Berwick north to St. Abbs. Most plants occupied moist recesses along the cliffs but there were also several big clumps alongside the East Coast railway line.

The tall attractive blue-lilac flower heads of field scabious were seen along some stretches of disused railway lines and dry roadside verges. The composite heads contain roughly 40 -50 individual flowers, each having four unequal petals. Devilsbit scabious prefers moist, slightly acidic grassland and is often encountered in the Lammermuir Hills. This species has petals of equal size but the overall appearance is more ragged than the field variety. Both species were growing close to one another on the cliffs at Burnmouth so providing a useful comparison. Scabious plants were once crushed and the juices drunk or smeared on the skin as an ointment to supposedly cure scabies.

A pod of 26 pilot whales beached between Anstruther and Pittenweem on September 2. These marine mammals can attain individual weights of up to 2.5 tonnes and are normally living well out to sea from the NW coast of Scotland. About 50 people assisted in trying to revive and refloat the floundering animals. Unfortunately 16 died on land and there was another casualty amongst those returned to sea. Nine remained in the Firth of Forth during subsequent days but I was upset to hear that these stressed survivors were subjected to further abuse. People set out in boats “in order to view them at close range”.

Sid Clarke is speaking to us tonight on ‘British Orchids’ so do please come and join us, we meet in the Duns Parish Church hall at 7.30pm. Entry is £1 which includes refreshments at the end and you don’t have to be a member.