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7th August

Bernard’s Blog No.14

The beginning of August is Lammas, or if you are Irish, ’lughnassa’. From the Saxon   Leffmessday meaning loaf mass it is the traditional time for cattle to be returned to the hay field to graze the aftermath of hay mowing. It is another reason for a ritual feast and dance. It was traditional to cut a blessed loaf into four quarters and place each of them in the corners of the barn before bringing in the crops. 

August can be a quite month for wildlife. For birds the breeding season is over now, birdsong is almost silent and many birds are hiding away to moult and replenish their energy reserves before migrating or to prepare for the winter. The blackbirds and other garden birds seem to have deserted us but they haven’t gone away. Now that the young birds have fledged, the parents are looking understandably worn out having carried beakfuls of worms and other food to their nest-sites over the past few weeks.  So, they rest and grow new feathers while there’s shelter from summer leaves and plenty of ripening fruits and insects to feed on and the food we put out on bird tables and feeders sometimes goes untouched. They become inconspicuous for a time as they may be more vulnerable to predation during their moulting period. Generally, moult will not overlap with other processes which are a drain in a bird’s energy, such as breeding or migrationThere’s not much song – the garden and countryside can be eerily quiet – and few birds to see.  What’s more, when birds do appear, they can look quite strange – yellowish blue tits, blackbirds with speckled heads, brown-headed starlings. This year’s young are losing their first feathers and moulting into their adult coats.

It is a good time however to see the Jays who go into a frenzy of acorn-gathering and it is thought they can hide up to 5,000 in a season, transporting them in their gullet to be buried and eaten later. They are good at finding them again, even in snow, but when you go wandering across a summer parkland, you may come across a tiny oak sapling far from the nearest tree, it’s the one the Jay forgot.

Some of our new planting for the planned Biblical trail will need a season to establish their growth and will benefit and look better after a shower or two, but….

The Globe Thistles (Ecinops ritro) are already looking impressive in the bed in the memorial garden. Stunning spikey deep blue flowers of two inches on three- foot stems are often used in flower arrangements. Numerous references to thistles occur in the Bible from Genesis, Job,  Proverbs and other books.

At this time of year, colonies of our common Black Ant are on the move. They produce huge numbers of large-winged virgin queens and smaller winged males all called alates. This is the mating season and the flight is a mechanism to ensure not only that colonies can establish elsewhere, but also reduce the chance of inbreeding.  The flight requires clear weather since rain is disruptive for flying insects. Different colonies of the same species often use environmental cues to synchronize the release of males and queens so that they can mate with individuals from other nests, The actual “take off” from the parent colony is also often synchronized to overwhelm their predators. The young mated queens land and, in the case of most ants and all termites, remove their wings. They then attempt to found a new colony. So, if the conditions are right, on just a few days each year (usually when you have a picnic in the garden or are watching a tennis match!) there is an explosion of flying ants from beneath paving slabs

or cracks in the path, off to found a new colony. Not many insects get a mention on the weather forecast but a few weeks ago the Met Office reported with a video that a cloud of ants was picked up moving eastwards on their weather map radar and was mistaking them for raindrops.                                 ‘Mummy ant’    

Yarrow (Achillea) grows in grass and on wasteland and you can find it creeping through lawns and the churchyard this month. Its been here since June and will flower through until later in November. It looks a

little like Cow Parsley with white clusters of flowers and dark green, feathery leaves. Don’t dismiss it as another weed as it has a historic story and a reputation as a healing herb. Its Latin name Achillea millefolium, honours Achilles, warrior and healer of Greek mythology, who taught his men to use the plant to staunch wounds on the battlefield. It is also known as the milfoil, or thousand leaf, and its medicinal qualities are supported by science as well as myth. So, when you see it flowering at St. John’s, think how it once flowered on the war-torn plains below the walls of Troy.

For the past few years, we have had enquiries in the churchyard, usually in the autumn, about “What are those large white balls in the grass?”

They are back early this year- Giant Puff Balls, an amazing fungus. The fruit bodies’ up to 30 cm diameter have a smooth white, leathery texture and have appeared opposite the porch and near the Ruskin tomb. This year they are beside the Tamberlin room but don’t be tempted to give them a kick or a prod they will release microscopic spores into the air. The interior is initially white and fleshy becoming yellowish as they mature and turn to olive brown. Attachment to the soil is by means of a tiny cord, and mature fruit bodies often become free and get blown by the wind scattering spores in the process. They won’t be here for long but will no doubt be back next year.

Standing alone between the Lloyd memorial and the hedge is a Field Scabious. It is the sky-blue flower of late summer with a broad, flat flower head made up of many little flowers, each sitting atop a rough, hairy single stem. The leaves are variable, some deeply lobed, others unlobed. This one is the only one I found in the churchyard whilst hunting for the grave of a famous ‘penny-farthing’ cyclist. But that’s another story.


24th July

Bernard’s Blog No. 13

I have had a few days away with my daughter in Shipston on Stour in The Cotswalds.  A beautiful part of the country and an opportunity to find new ‘Blog’ material. Shipston  is a small market town in Warwickshire, The towns name derives from being known in ancient times as ‘Sheep-wash-Town’. Shipston was for a long time an important sheep market town and after the demand for local wool began to diminish the town continued to flourish thanks to the opening in 1836 of a branch line from the horse-powered tramway built a decade before to link Stratford with Moreton-in-Marsh. The line became a modern railway in 1889. The town was also an important coaching town and many of the inns from that era survive in the area of the High Street. Shipston was a working Wool Town and developed many woollen skills, including those for making tapestries including the famous Sheldon Tapestries in the neighbouring farming hamlet of Barcheston. which became central to the history of English tapestry making. It is today officially commemorated by the ‘Wool Fair’ which usually takes place on Spring Bank Holiday Monday but was not held this year due to Corvid restrictions. It was a walk with Bertie that drew my attention to the many Teasel flowers along the riverside and reminded me that Teasels were once used when their flowering heads were dried for ‘teasing’ apart strands of wool and for combing the nap of fabrics. including the baize used on billiard tables.

In the textile industry, clusters of the flower heads would be fixed to frames for this purpose. This month they are in bloom, their spiny stems topped with purple spiralling globe-shaped spiked flower heads, and the hum of bees. In the autumn the goldfinches will be back to feast on the seeds.

Back in Shirley, our churchyard maintenance contractor has spent a weekend tidying and cutting the boundary hedge and will be taking a huge quantity of trimmings away in the next few days. He has almost completed the planting of the additional ‘Biblical reference’ plants for the trail we have planned and we can put the finishing touches to the booklet which will indicate where to find a ‘Burning bush’, ‘Fig Tree’, Passion flower’, ‘Olive Plant’ or ‘Judas Tree’ and many others.

As you come through the lych gate, on your right is a clump of Crocosmia (Montbretia) in full flower.

The vivid red flowers are coincidentally and aptly called ‘Lucifer’, so this will go into the booklet. The ‘June gap’ between spring and summer butterflies is over and the high summer species begin to appear in force. The Buddleia at the south east wall of the chapel is in flower and the long sausages of purple, fragrant flowers are a magnet for butterflies and bees. It is time I consulted my butterfly buddy Neil for some identification advice. It only took one phone call and twenty minutes later he was beside me, book in hand. It was sunny and warm and as we moved from the lych gate to the west of the churchyard we immediately saw ‘a little brown one’ as I pointed out to him. “A Gatekeeper” he thought and correctly confirmed it from his book. The Gatekeeper was once known as the ‘hedge brown’, and got its current name from the habit of basking near gates and stiles. The grass here is quite short, so the ground is marginally warmer, enabling the insect to get to its optimum temperature for flying more quickly, as it did. Gatekeepers are smaller, brighter and more attractive than

some of its cousins we saw that day. The next little brown one was a Meadow Brown last seen by me in Dorset, but one of the most widespread butterfly species. We spent a wonderful peaceful part of the morning moving around between the headstones and noted ‘Small white’, ‘Large white’ female ‘Brimstone’, ‘Red Admiral’, ‘Peacock’ (on the buddleia. See pic.)’ Small Copper’ .On a subsequent visit I noted a Common Blue and a Comma. We also spotted a Dragonfly and several grasshoppers * but got rather depressed when we saw The Parakeets stripping the berries from our Mountain Ash so deciding we needed a coffee and departed. It was a lovely way to spend an hour and we agreed to return soon. 

“Butterflies can’t see their wings, they can’t see how truly beautiful they are, but everyone else can.  People are like that as well”

Naya Rivera

Thank you Sharon for the quote

*Grasshoppers are among what is probably the most ancient living group of chewing herbivorous insects, dating back to the early Triassic around 250 million years ago.  Sixty -five million years ago, when a huge asteroid-induced extinction event killed 95 percent of living things on Earth, these were one of the creatures that survived. Grasshoppers have had a long relationship with humans. If you can gently catch one, look closely at these little locusts. It is easy to believe that they are ancient creatures mentioned in the Bible. Swarms of locusts can have devastating effects and cause famine, and even in smaller numbers, the insects can be serious pests. They are used as food in countries such as Mexico and Indonesia. They feature in art, symbolism and literature.

They make the familiar buzzing sound, a constant accompaniment to long hot summer days and muggy evenings, using a process called stridulation- rubbing a rough leg across their wings. As naturalist Andy Beer says “It is the soundtrack of summer.”

7th July

Bernard’s Blog No. 12

I shared a Bertie dog walk with one of my (grown-up) granddaughters last week. I suppose it’s the generation gap but I often relate stories and anecdotes to her which she loves, particularly songs or poems I recall from my childhood and which she has never heard before. She had earlier bought some petunias to plant in a flower bed and I sang to her “I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch”. “You’re making it up”, she said so I suggested she asks “Alexa” to play it as that seems to be the current source of her music requirements.  On today’s walk we were joined by another of my (grown-up) granddaughters and our walk took us through the churchyard where we did some wild flower spotting. What’s that pretty bell-shaped flower?” was identified as Field Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) in a large mat beside the footpath. I

explained it was a Bindweed whose stems coiled anti-clockwise as opposed to the Honeysuckle we passed by the gate on the way in, whose stems coiled clockwise. “How do you know that?” they asked. So, I sang some of the Flanders and Swan song “Misalliance” about the unrequited love of the two flowers. We had to ask ‘Alexa’ to play that when we got home as I could not remember most of the words.

The Field Bindweed is a pink or white striped trumpet shaped, scented flower with arrow shaped le