DISCOVERING HIDDEN NATURE IN THE SUMMER SUN
Sorrel, once cultivated as a vegetable; and the mole, the curse of many gardeners
For centuries, sour-tasting Common Sorrel leaves have been used in fish dishes and salads. Sharp, astringent and refreshing, John Clare described how parched field-workers would chew the leaves of “Sourgobs” raw to slake their thirst. Be wary though, the tartness of “Vinegar plant” is due to high levels of oxalic acid – the same substance that makes eating raw rhubarb a bad idea
Sometimes called “narrow-leaved dock”, the sword-shaped leaves clasp the stem, distinguishing Sorrel from other docks. Growing in unimproved grassland along roadside verges, woodland edges and river banks, grooved stems with branched flower spikes at their tip are produced from May through to August. Initially green, the separate small male and female flowers soon turn through shades of pink to crimson. Four-winged red fruits follow, a welcome food source for finches, especially goldfinches.
Once cultured as a vegetable, Sorrel was also used as a diuretic in herbal medicine and the Vitamin C content made it an effective treatment for scurvy. The juice was used to remove stains from linen.
Sorrel leaves are the larval food-plant of the Small Copper butterfly. The caterpillar eats a small groove on the underside of the leaf, leaving the transparent upper surface intact and creating a silvery channel. As it grows, larger chunks are eaten, perforating the leaf. There are several broods of the adult in a good year, from May through to October, though the second brood in August is usually the largest. A relatively common and delightful little butterfly, both sexes are similar. The upper forewings are a distinctive brilliant, shining copper with black marks and borders, while the black-brown hindwings have copper borders. The butterflies live in small, discrete colonies and you are unlikely to see many at once.
Despite his small size, the male Small Copper is a quarrelsome, restless butterfly, ready to take on any intruder that ventures into his sunny territory. Look for them nectaring on hawkweeds, thistles and marjoram on rough ground. Fleabane, with its golden-yellow daisy- like flowers, is a favoured food source in damp habitats and water margins. There used to be a Large Copper that lived in fenland, but it has been extinct in Britain since the middle of the nineteenth century and attempts at reintroduction have so far been unsuccessful.
Though many farmers and gardeners may wish that moles were extinct in Britain, there are estimated to be about 30 million of these rarely seen creatures living on our island. Moles spend almost all of their lives underground in a series of semi-permanent and permanent tunnels: a greater proportion of red blood cells than other mammals allows them to obtain enough oxygen. They live primarily in woodland and farmland where the soil is deep enough for tunnelling: industrious diggers, they can create up to 200 m of tunnel a day, digging with their spade-like forelimbs. “Molehills” are the excess soil pushed to the surface. “Mole” likely derives from the Middle English “moldwarp”, meaning earth thrower. The underground network is hundreds of metres long with tunnels of varying depths, and it acts as a huge pitfall trap: the solitary mole feeds by picking up worms, insects and other invertebrates that fall into it. Excellent senses of touch and smell compensate for poor eyesight and lack of external ears. The uniform texture of the fur allows it to lie in any direction, making it easier for “the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat” (Jacobite toast) to reverse rapidly in its tunnel.
Female moles give birth to one litter of three or four pups a year in a specially constructed spherical nest chamber, lined with dried grass, within their underground labyrinth.
The young start to leave the nest after about a month and disperse from their mother’s range after about nine weeks – around July and August. Dispersal takes place above ground and it is these youngsters that you – and predators – are most likely to encounter.
Though many farmers and gardeners may wish that moles were extinct in Britain, there are estimated to be about 30 million