Thursday, 09 December 2021

Deer and slugs eat helleborine heads while I enjoy half rack of ribs

Deer and slugs eat helleborine heads while I enjoy half rack of ribs

THE weather forecast on the radio had sounded gloomy but the morning turns out to be bright, so we set off after breakfast to explore.

First, we visit a corner of Kingwood Common just past Barn Farm that is not very well known and are immediately rewarded.

The vast majority of a very large colony of broad-leaved helleborines (Epipactis helleborine) that I first encountered many moons ago have flowered and are now bearing juicy looking, fruiting stems.

This is a good sign as so many had been decapitated earlier in the year by either deer or slugs.

The former are a menace with no natural predators apart from us humans. Don’t get me wrong, I like deer but with the destruction of flowering plants and shrubs we find ourselves in a difficult situation.

There are simply too many of the creatures. In the case of the Reeves’ muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi), introduced in 1901, there are now more in the UK than in the animal’s homeland of China.

I have been lucky enough to regularly come across little roe deer fawns in bracken dens all alone. If you do find one, leave it alone as mum knows where it is.

As to slugs, in my experience they have a distinct propensity for wrecking the flower heads of orchids when conditions are damp.

Rosemary suggests that we take a peek at one of our favourite woodland glades only a few hundred yards away, so we make our way along a bridleway that ultimately leads to Greyhone Wood. Above and below, rowan trees (Sorbus aucuparia) and tutsan (Hypericum androsaemum) present red berries as if they are gifts. I bet these won’t last long when our avian winter visitors arrive.

The track is framed by a wonderful array of trees — oak, ash, beech, field maple, goat willow, silver birch, aspen, cherry, holly and downy birch.

Our path is lined, as if in a military parade, by pendulous sedge and woodland grasses. They stand to attention, so I jokingly tell them to “stand at ease”. It is so lovely to walk along here.

We reach the sunny glade to find a fine display of flowers. It is a bit late in the year but there is much to note nevertheless. Apart from the delicate yellow flowers of perforate St John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum) and agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), the entrance is quite sublime with a large contingent of day-flying moths and butterflies flitting about at speed.

Enchanters’ nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) springs eternal and woodruff (Galium odoratum) is also prolific.

We find a semi-parasitic plant, red bartsia (Odontites vernus), with pinky-purple flowers, and wood vetch (Vicia Sylvatica) similarly coloured. Herb-Robert (Geranium robertianum) is ubiquitous.

After reaching a large goat willow, we turn back to admire a large contingent of bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) and male ferns (Dryopteris filix-mas) beneath the trees.

A spider waits in the centre of its web strung between pendulous sedge (Carex pendula) and water figwort (Scrophularia auriculata). It is damp in here.

Unfortunately, we have to watch where we walk as this area seems popular with dog walkers who can’t be bothered to clear up after their pets (or clients’ animals in the case of “professionals”). How thoughtless can you get?

Before returning to the car, we decide to inspect a hard-paved area used as an open salt depot, the contents used for spreading on local roads in harsh winter conditions.

It is a curious place, seemingly unused for a long time, surrounded by swaying trees and full of wildflowers that crop up between the cracks of the slabs. One standout is the little scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) with its small but attractive red flowers when seen up close.

Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) shines with its yellow, clustered flowers, full of a fair variety of insects.

Wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), its yellow flowers in bractless umbels, is a delight to see and also popular with all forms of arthropods.

Spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare) has done its duty with the once purple florets now feathery pappus hairs.

Small tufted forget-me-not (Myosotis laxa), which favours damp ground, is here too.

Broad-leaved willowherb (Epilobium montanum), common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) complete the scene.

I’m not a great fan of the butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) but there are two here on the margins both in flower. One is full of butterflies, including red admirals (Vanessa Atalanta), silver-washed fritillaries (Argynnis paphia) and commas (Polygonia
c-album). It really is a lovely sight.

In the background, aspens flutter in the slightest breeze.

I spot a flesh fly (Sarcophaga carnaria) on a ragwort. It looks like a Newcastle United fan with its black and white thoracic stripes.

We find a Japanese rose (Rosa rugosa) in full flower, pinky-purple. Who knows how it got here but it’s a handsome, showy plant.

After returning to the car, we decide to visit Lambridge Wood as we are likely to see some interesting flora there — and we do.

We park in the narrow lane that leads from Broadplat to Bix to examine the roadside vegetation.

Apart from the occasional passing traffic, it is blissfully quiet and there is a lovely view towards Lawrence Farm.

Rosemary spots a rare green-flowered helleborine (Epipactis phyllanthes). Sadly, it too has been decapitated but I am able to identify it by examining the narrow-ovate and powerfully veined leaves.

There are strange formations to the beech trees deep in the woods as if they are providing us with signs, I’ll remember them all.

Rosemary cannot but help herself feeling the bark of the beech, oak, cherry and other trees.

She finds the fruiting stem of a violet helleborine which seems a little early, if not unexpected.

Turning round to return to the car, I spot a broad-leaved helleborine in full flower, a real beauty. It is such a variable plant and likes to grow in semi-shade.

Unlike its cousin, the violet helleborine, which prefers deeper cover, it displays distinctive downy stems.

The leaves are strongly veined and spin around in a whorl unlike the violet’s that are normally parallel-sided.

A great find and a tall specimen to boot.

Before we reach the car, Rosemary points out a couple of strange-looking plants on the east bank. They are yellow bird’s nest (Monotropa hypopitys).

Completely lacking in chlorophyll, this plant feeds off leaf mould. It is very scarce in Oxfordshire, having first been recorded in 1677.

On the way home, we stop for a very pleasant lunch at the Crown in Playhatch. My half rack of ribs is huge. Phenomenal and tasty too.

Back home, I settle down and play a CD compilation of Mama Cass Elliot’s work and pick out a song that was the theme tune for the 1970 film Monte Walsh.

It’s a haunting melody called The Good Times Are Coming. The music was composed by John Barry and lyrics written by Hal David.

I was entranced when I first heard it as a child and still love it. The final stanza runs thus:

The good times are coming
They'll be coming real soon
And I'm not just pitching pennies at the moon
The good times are coming
When they come, I'll be there
With my both feet firmly planted way up there
In the air.

My birthday present trees have settled in very nicely and are growing at speed, which is amazing at this time of year.

The weather forecast looks good for my big day, when it usually rains.

Rosemary tells me that in Norway (her father was Norwegian) if it rains on your birthday it is an indication that you have been naughty but if the sun shines, then you have been well-behaved. She is expecting rain!

vincent.ruane@hotmail.com

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