Out in the woods: August 2013

Who would have believed that after all the ghastly weather we had earlier  in the year July would produce such an astonishing heat wave, so much so that  some of us were longing for a cooling shower or two!    

Along comes August and  we are more or less back to normal just in time for the holidays; our weather  never ceases to amaze and surprise us but the mystery always gives us something  to talk about. 

Of course, whatever the weather is doing, it is always a joy to walk in  Sherrardspark Wood which is now cloaked in the darker, more mature greens of  summer which combined with the scent of the pine trees and the crackling of the  dry leaves on the woodland floor gives an altogether different feel to the  wood.   Also, all the early  rain seems to have encouraged the brambles and bracken to take over even greater  areas this year with the advantage that it is nicely covering some of the bunds  created as a result of earlier conservation work, making it almost impossible to  see where they are.   August is  the month when we look forward to a brilliant display of heather at Sefton  Plantation but at the time of writing I am rather concerned at the large areas  of brown, rather than green, so it will be interesting to see what happens and  find out why it appears to have died back.   We shall soon see what develops  and hopefully nature will once again impress us, failing that you may have to  put up with last year’s heather photographs!

We are all well aware of the spectacular displays of flowers in the wood,  such as bluebells, cowslips, foxgloves and heather, but this year my eye has  been particularly caught by the Rosebay willow herb and Common ragwort.   Yes, you’ve guessed it, this is my  cue to delve into their history, particularly since this year we have a fairly  large crop of ragwort appearing on the cleared bank between Rectory Road and the  pathway leading down to Templewood Vale, interspersed with patches of willow  herb which we find all over the wood.   I have to say that it all looks  very pretty in the bright summer sunlight.

The Rosebay willow herb is a very familiar plant to us, which seems to  pop up everywhere, but apparently until the mid-eighteenth century it seems to  have been regarded as an ornamental garden plant, ‘French willow’, which  occasionally escaped into the wild, and apparently in Hertfordshire in the  1840’s it was described as ‘rare’ in woodlands.  As we are aware, over time it has turned  out to be one of the most successful and colourful colonisers of waste places,  but although the records track the change they do not explain it.   During the First World War the  spread of willow herb exploded, especially in large areas of woodland that had  been felled to supply timber for the war effort, but it was during the Second  World War that it was one of the first plants to brighten London’s bomb sites; I  suppose the pretty pink flowers became a cheering sight to people living in the  East End and elsewhere.   No  surprise it is also known as Bombweed and Fireweed, but where did Ranting widow  come from?   Amazingly each  plant is responsible for about 80,000 seeds and we have all experienced the  clouds of downy fluff floating about on a windy day when the fruit capsules  explode so it’s hardly surprising it is so abundant today.

I felt sure that willow ‘herb’ must have some medicinal benefit and sure  enough, although not used much in medicine in recent times, in the past it was  the favourite of open minded American physicians in treating diarrhoea and  typhoid.   Also, its soothing,  astringent and tonic effect is apparently wonderful for all sorts of intestinal  irritation, and it makes a good mouthwash.   Probably safer to stick to known  remedies I think!

Moving on to the Common ragwort, what a wide variety of names we have to  chose from here:  St. James’ wort,  Staggerwort, Stammerwort, Yellow Tops, Stinking Willie and last, wait for it,  Mare’s Fart!   St. James is  easily explained as being the patron saint of horses; Staggerwort comes from a  time when it was mistakenly believed that an infusion from the plant, and  administered in small doses, provided a cure for staggers, a disease that  affects the brain and spinal cord of horses.   Stinking Willie, and presumably  Mares Fart, derives from its unpleasant odour when bruised.   I haven’t come across an  explanation for Stammerwort but of course its common name of ’Ragwort’ comes  from the ragged-looking leaves.

We all know of the danger this plant holds, for instinctively neither  horses nor other grazing animals will normally eat the growing plant, which is  very wise as it causes irreversible liver damage.    Some years ago it was  reported by a Ministry of Agriculture adviser that Ragwort was responsible for  half the cases of stock poisoning in Britain.   I don’t think I will be finding  any medicinal cures with this one, but ironically, paddocks and pastures full of  the golden flowers, with swallows dipping amongst the ragged-edged leaves, is  said to be one of the most beautiful sights of high summer.   Maybe not for farmers and horse  lovers!

But, there is a good side to everything in nature and ragwort is an  important source of nectar and pollen for about 150 species of insects, such as  bees, flies, moths and butterflies, so it does have a valuable place in our  environment.

 Walking with  family in the wood recently the young ones eagle eyes spotted a startling, quite  small, black and white moth settled on one of the way markers.    Fortunately the camera was to  hand and looking through a reference book to identify it, the illustration of  ‘Black arches’ is almost identical to the moth we saw.    To quote the book, “A  striking moth which occurs in England from Yorkshire southward, particularly in  the New Forest and in Wales.    It is found near woods from July to September, and lays its eggs on  oak.  Wingspan 42 mm”.   I am not knowledgeable enough on  the subject of moths to know whether this is an unusual find in our  Sherrardspark Wood, but perhaps some of you will recognize it from the  photograph.

I am very pleased to confirm that as part of our 2013 Guided Walks  Programme an afternoon Fungal Foray has been arranged for Sunday 27th October with Christine James, Landscape & Ecology Officer of Welwyn Hatfield  Borough Council.   In view of  the previous popularity of this event numbers will be restricted for this walk  so if you would like to join us you will need to reserve a place with Marian  01707 322505 or Helen 01707 329034, when you will be advised of the meeting  point and time of commencement.    This will be our last guided walk this year, but I am pleased to say that  the wood wardens are already planning a new schedule for 2014 which will include  some of our popular favourites and, hopefully, some new ones as well.

Our dedicated, enthusiastic wood wardens have continued with various  tasks over the summer, as of course there is a huge amount of practical work  that needs doing every year in the wood.   A seasonal programme of work is  carried out by our group who work closely with Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council’s  Landscape and Ecology Officer.    Activities include tree planting and aftercare, selective tree felling,  keeping paths and entrances accessible, clearing out ditches and ponds, litter  clearance and management of the heather area.  Quite an impressive list for an entirely  voluntary group of people.  Work  parties are held in the wood on Thursday and Sunday mornings throughout the year  and if you would like to make a real contribution to our environmental work in  Sherrardspark Wood, Gary (01707 375216) is the person to contact.   Full instruction and guidance is  given and there are jobs to suit all levels of fitness and of course the wood  wardens provide tools and protective gear where needed.

It’s not all work though!    Mid-morning breaks are a highlight with tea, coffee and biscuits  provided, and some volunteers visit a local pub for lunch and refreshment to  chat over the morning’s work!

Next time I join you it will be October and autumn – where has the year  gone?   It is quite true that  the older you get the quicker time flies by; well it does for me anyway!    Enjoy the rest of summer and  particularly time spent in our most treasured Sherrardspark Wood.

Marian Dawson, Sherrardspark Wood Warden

[This article is also published in Welwyn Hatfield Times Magazine August 2013]


black arches moth ragwort new wood july 2013 willow herb