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Yew Trees – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

yews at boleskineWith many of the leaves gone from the trees the yew  trees are now conspicuous and take on a grandeur of their own.  There are few trees in the Highlands that  are so mysterious and with a rich history of folk lore and myths.  They have attracted writers, artists and poets for centuries and so much so that a number of monographs have been written about them.  By far my favourite is “Yew – A History” by Fred Hageneder  as it covers so much of this ancient tree’s uses from the making of longbows to the poetry and the dating of old yews to a potential poison.  Another fine monograph is “The Eternal Yew” – how apt a title, by Trevor Baxter.    The age of yew trees has always been part of its mystery particularly as one yew – the Fortingale Yew in the grounds of the Kirk at Fortingale, a Perthshire village at the entrance to the romantic Glen Lyon, is reputed to be the oldest tree in Europe.  The estimates for the age of this famous yew are between 1500 and 3000 years and they are based on the girth of between  52 and 56 feet, but, unfortunately,  only fragments of the girth survived.

However, the Fortingale yew now has a rival as there is a yew in Wales, at Defynnog, that is reputed to be 5,000 years old.  However, you do not have to travel that far to see an old yew as in the  Highlands there  is one at  Dundonnel  south west of Ullapool although  compared  with others it is a mere, estimated, 2,000 years old.   The gardens are open for some days during the year and I well remember the last time I went there.  After paying the modest entrance fee I asked “where is the tree” and they  knew straight away which one I wanted to see.  It is a very impressive tree so why not visit it next summer when the garden is open again?   Closer to Inverness  is where I took the photograph of the superb looking yew trees in Bolingbroke Burial Ground near Foyers.  The shape of yew trees varies depending on their age as it is broadly conical when they are younger.  Then the older it gets the more columnar it becomes as the branches grow outward as quickly as the height grows.  That is why the Boleskine ones are that delightful columnar profile.    The added advantage of these yews is that the churchyard is on the side of Loch Ness so there is always  the chance of seeing the Loch Ness Monster!

You cannot think about yew trees without thinking  about the famous longbows.   The best wood for the bows is, by far, the yew followed by wych elm. In the north, Including  the Highlands,  the alternatives that were used were the ash, hazel, fir or oak.   The advantage of the yew was that it could be cut so that it contained both sapwood, to give springiness, and heartwood, for the sheer strength.   The problem was that there were just not enough yew trees to meet the demand for archers in the UK.  So the problem  was overcome by importing very large quantities of timber from the continent , mainly from Spain.  There was an added bonus with using yew that is often overlooked but it was very important.  The seeds of yew yielded a deadly poison and it was use to tip  the arrowheads.

Elder berries – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

elderberiesAlthough there was some doubt about how good  the crop of rowan berries would be this year now they have ripened it looks as though  it will be a bumper one.   So it looks as though there will be plenty for the resident mistle  thrushes, blackbirds and song  thrushes to gorge themselves. That is before the large numbest of migrants from Scandinavia, the fieldfares and redwings, descend on them and finish the bulk of them.   Once the rowan  have gone these immigrant birds will move south to England or west to Ireland.    What we tend to forget is that whilst relatively large birds are taking  their fill other, smaller birds, will also take them, such as robins, blackcaps, bullfinches, blue tits and starlings.   Then there are the mammals from pine marten to mice that will take them so if you want any for yourself to make rowan jelly or rowan berry wine  then make sure you get there before the birds or mammals descend on them.

Rowan berries with their rich reddish/orange  colour are very conspicuous especially with such a rich crop as this year with the cascades of berries dropping from the trees.    They tend to make us forget that there are other berries around such as blackberries, many people in  the Highlands  call them brambles, as well as wild raspberries and sloes.   All these have their own roles to play in th general countryside as food for wildlife.   They have, for centuries, also played a role for ourselves for medicinal  purposes and for food let alone symbols for Clan Badge and Crests and County Flowers.  In contrast, one tree, perhaps a shrub would be a better word, is often overlooked because of its size and dark berries it is the elder and its elderberries.

Elder is one of the trees, another is the aspen, that is reputed to have been the wood used for the cross of Calvary.  Elder also has the reputation of being the tree used by Judas to hang himself.  The medicinal properties of all parts of the tree  are varied and bark, leaves and berries  are made into drinks, ointments, eye lotions and poultices.  Elderberry wine and elderberry tea area well known remedies for colds and flu.  The wine resembles port, and indeed it was found that the medicinal virtues of old red port in the late nineteenth century could be traced to the elderberry wine with which it was adulterated.     You can make  elderflower tea, elder syrup, elderflower champagne ( either alcoholic or non alcoholic!)  Elderflower wine is a common drink and  then, later in the year  is elderberry wine.   An excellent book for these recipes and some background information is “A Country Cup” by Wilma Paterson published in 1980 but available in  second hand book shops.

As for wildlife and the elder tree there are more birds at them than those at the rowan tree berries with 23 after the  elder berries and only 12 at the rowan berries.  Perhaps the smaller size of the elder berries make them easier  to manage for the smaller birds.   However, woodpigeon and collared  dove are on the elder list and not on the rowan list.   In contrast badger are reputed to prefer the trunks of elder to sharpen their claws and many badger setts have elder growing close by and you can readily see the scratch marks. This is nothing to do with the badgers liking the trees but  simply that it is likely to be the nearest tree because of the high nitrogen content.  This is why elder  also grow around old rabbit warrens because the rabbits’ droppings  enrich the nitrogen content of the soil.

The Rowan Tree – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Sunday, August 21st, 2016

rowan berries on treeNext time you are in the  countryside just stop by a rowan tree and wonder at the uses we make of them.     Medicine, food (even more important  food for wildlife),  timber,  symbols, myths  and legends and not forgetting the poets.   At this time lf the year if you look up into the branches you can get an idea as to whether it will be a bumper year for the rowan  berries or not.  The berries, in tight clusters, are still green and it is hard to imagine how colourful and attractive they can be such as in the photograph that I took in the  Autumn last year.    However, the  present green clusters can still give an idea of the crop and it looks, as far as the trees I looked  at,  to be only an average year.    This will not make much difference as far as we are concerned but for wildlife it will be different matter.   For example the mistle thrushes, often in family groups from local residential birds will  have a go at the berries first.  These local birds are then followed by the very large numbers of Scandinavian thrushes, redwings and fieldfares.  Ironically how many descend on us each Autumn  depends on their own rowan trees in their  vast forests.  If their crop is good  their departure may be delayed and some birds may   decide not to move at all.  When they reach us, if the rowan berry crop is not good or has already been taken,  they will just move south or west to Ireland.  No less than  twelve species of birds are known to take rowan berries as food from starlings to robins and blackcaps to jays.

It is surprising  just how many animals take rowan berries  and one, the pine marten, seems to delight in taking and eating large numbers.   If a pine marten  has been feeding on rowan berries then the droppings  will look like the red of them as undigested  parts pass through their systems.  The heavier male pine martens have been known to clamber along the  branches so that the outer parts bends over and when it gets low enough the females reach up and takes the berries.  Wood mice will  freely take rowan berries and will often store  them, albeit briefly, in old birds’ nests for them to come back to later.  If the berries are low enough for the badgers to reach up and take them they will and if not they have been known to climb up to six feet off the ground to get this  delicacy.   Whilst there are no butterflies whose caterpillars feed on rowan leaves there are  six moths including the brimstone moth and the orange underwing.

Norman MacCaig, the Highland poet, wrote a poem entitled “Rowan  berry” in April 1977 and the five first lines encapsulates the rowan berries.

“I’m at ease in my crimson cluster. / The tree blazes / with clusters of cousins – / my cluster’s the main one and I / am the important berry in it.”

As for the culinary uses for ourselves, I always turn to a little known book “A Country Cup” by Wilma Paterson published in 1980.    She lists various recipes including Rowanberry Liqueur and Rowanberry Wine.  It is not only recipes she mentions as she say that some believe the rowan would keep the dead from rising so was planted in graveyards,  especially in Wales.  In the Highlands it was made into coffins.  Also  ale and beer brewed with the  berries is an incomparable drink.