WATERSIDE WILDLIFE

DIS­COV­ER­ING HID­DEN NA­TURE IN THE SUM­MER SUN

Canal Boat - - Contents -

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

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