Bluebells

Better late than never, the bluebells have finally reached their peak at Alvecote Wood.  Every spring, for a fleeting moment, there is a little catch in the throat and flutter in the chest as these beautiful little flowers are glimpsed among the trees.  Elegantly curved, softly perfumed, they carpet the floor, providing a beautiful counterpoint to the emerging leaves with their fresh lime-green colour.  To me, they are the quintessence of spring.
Bluebells are part of the very-important ground layer in a woodland.  There are the canopy trees, then the shrub layer, then the ground flora.  Emerging early, to capture the light before the canopy trees block it out, they are a vital part of the woodland ecosystem, providing pollen for early pollinators including bees and butterflies.

Bluebells are one of the reasons we need to manage our woodlands.  Clearing excessive bramble and thinning the canopy when it gets too dense have many beneficial effects, the most important being to let in light and warmth to the woodland floor.  Bluebells respond well to this, but so do lots of other things – we have lesser celandine, bugle, greater stitchwort, primrose, violets and wood sage at this time of year, and later come the foxgloves and various types of willow-herb, as well as the wild raspberries. If we are letting in enough light for the bluebells to thrive, then other things thrive too.

In this short sward we also see natural regeneration – little seedlings of oak, ash, hawthorn and silver birch start to come through.  This is the future of the woodland.

We figure that if we are managing the woodland well, then the bluebells are an indicator that we are doing our job.  Britain is surprisingly important for bluebells, having about half of all the bluebells in the world.  They may be common for us, but they are rare elsewhere, and we need to look after them.
As far as we can tell, all the bluebells in Alvecote Wood are the native English bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta.  Unfortunately, these bluebells are becoming progressively more rare, coming under pressure from the Spanish bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica.  The problem is not only that this escape from gardens and colonises natural habitats, but also that it hybridises with the native bluebell, forming a hybrid Hyacinthoides x massartiana.  Hybrids are usually very vigorous, and this is no exception, resulting in more rapid growth and greater spread than both of the parent species.

How can we tell them apart?  Well, the native bluebell has a number of key characteristics:

  • Top is gently curved rather than straight upstanding – the Spanish and hybrids tend to be straight
  • The flower is long and slim with recurved petals at the end – the Spanish and hybrids are wider and the petals do not curve back to the same extent
  • The pollen on the stamens is white or cream coloured – Spanish and hybrids have blue or greeny-blue pollen
  • British bluebells are usually blue – they can rarely be white or pink, but if there are a lot of varied colours in a carpet of bluebells, this suggests hybridisation.

You can help track the spread of Spanish and hybrid bluebells in Britain through the Natural History Museum survey scheme.  Their web site is very helpful and gives lots of information about how to identify the bluebell types.
Another passion of mine is trying to capture the bluebells in photographs.  It is easy to take photos of bluebells, but harder to capture the “essence of bluebell”, by which I mean that emotional response you get when looking at a carpet of these beautiful little flowers.  My general approach to this is:

  • Get down low – get in among the bluebells and try and capture the feeling of being a creature living in the bluebell carpet
  • Focus on one or a few bluebells – don’t go for wide depth of field, go narrow, and let the rest of the bluebells merge into a blur of blueness
  • Try and get other colours into the picture, particularly that lovely lime green of spring
  • Make the most of the dappled light on the woodland floor

This is easier said than done when the floor is covered also in nettles and brambles, and you are allergic to Hyacinths (bluebells are just wild hyacinths, really, and give me horrendous hay fever).  But the rewards are there.  If you can capture the essence of bluebell on your camera, you have the most wonderful reminder of spring the year through, and particularly during those bleak winter months.  Bluebells are special plants for so many reasons.  Get out there and enjoy them while they are at their best.  They are a gift from spring to us, and one we simply can’t miss!

Respect


There has been lots in the news recently and most of it boils down to one thing – respect, or rather lack of it.  The lack of respect between people from different countries, of different religions (or even branches of the same religion), between those from different social background, between those with lots of money and those with none and between women and men, young and old.
People are all different, and all have different opinions.  What differs, however, is how we react to opinions that differ from ours.  There seems to be an ever-increasing need for some to impose their opinions on others, regardless of the impact those decisions may have.
Now it is obvious that we need laws to protect people, and some of these laws may be unpopular with a proportion of people – but if they are enacted by a democratically-elected government, and applied fairly, and don’t result in systematic discrimination, then that is a reasonable way of making sure that society can function.
But what many countries seem to have in place now is an agenda that is devoid of respect – for people, and even more so for our natural heritage and environment.  Laws and regulations are enacted by one group of people, that apply to another group, and which are a long way from how the legislators would like to be treated were their situations reversed.  As such, they constitute an abuse of power – they are not fair laws, not applied fairly, and designed to discriminate and humiliate, rather than for protection or fairness.
I always felt that you should treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself – “Love thy neighbour as thyself” is a philosophy of tolerance, justice and fairness that it would be good to see applied unconditionally, but which rarely is.  That doesn’t mean you always have to agree with other people, but you should not dish out to other people treatment that you would not expect to receive yourself.  I also feel you should be tolerant and respectful of those different from yourself, or with differing views, provided those people do not seek to harm others as a consequence of those views.  To quote the Wiccan Rede “..an it harm none, do as ye will” – very difficult to live by, but a good template for living a life of and tolerance.
But it seems we can’t do this – not even for other people.  So how much less can we show respect and tolerance for the species with which we share this beautiful planet, and upon which we ultimately depend?
Badgers and cattle TB are a case in point.  Lots of people with strongly-held and often-conflicting views.  The fact is that 10 years ago we didn’t know what the role of badgers in spread of TB was, and more importantly, whether culling them would reduce bovine TB.  Strongly-held opinions could not be resolved, so a proper trial was carried out, which would answer the question as to whether a cull in the worst-affected areas could help reduce the spread of bovine TB.  The answer was clear – a small reduction (16%) within the cull zone, with an increase outside it, as terrified, infected badgers fled to new territories, spreading the disease.  Even using a rigorous method of trapping and humane culling, the results were equivocal.  The covering letter for the report stated:
while badgers are clearly a source of cattle TB, careful evaluation of our own and others’ data indicates that badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under
consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better. Second, weaknesses in cattle testing regimes mean that cattle themselves contribute significantly to the persistence and spread of disease in all areas where TB occurs, and in some parts of Britain are likely to be the main source of infection. Scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone.” (http://archive.defra.gov.uk/foodfarm/farmanimal/diseases/atoz/tb/isg/report/final_report.pdf)
So what did the Government decide to do?  Ignore the facts and decide cull thousands of badgers, a protected species while claiming they were acting on scientific evidence.  But the scientists disagree, and their advice disagrees – this is deceitful.
In being deceitful, they show a lack of respect to the scientists who laboured long and hard to produce this report, and whose expert opinion they ignored, as well as for nature as a whole, the many members of the public and animal welfare organisations who are aghast at the prospect of slaughter and most of all to farmers, who need a solution to the problem instead of having to fork out money for something that has been shown to be ineffective.  But they have been left with no choice.  A species is to be wiped out in large areas of the country, using money that could instead have been used to develop a proper vaccine, and invested in research on ways to allow badgers and cattle to co-exist without threatening their mutual health.  Nature takes second places to votes.  Again.  Protection of nature is OK so long as it doesn’t get in the way.
Lack of respect for nature seeps into every aspect of our lives:  into planning regulations, business, the forestry sell-off debacle, the failure to act on neo-nicotinoid pesticides threatening our bees…the list goes on and on.  Much of it is born from ignorance, but much from greed, from a lack of wishing to treat our fellow creatures with respect.  And very short-sighted too.  We are part of nature not above it, or isolated from it, not even if we clad ourselves in designer clothes, equip ourselves with the latest mobile phone, and drive around in the most prestigious car.
The badger culling regulations are not fair because they don’t show respect:  they are unilateral, harmful (even those supporting the cull will agree they are harming relations within and between communities), have ignored the best advice available, and are ignoring very sound options for which funding has been withdrawn to pay for the cull.  Lack of respect is not limited to one particular group in society, one creed, one level of the social strata, or one set of vested interests.  We have seen examples recently from many walks of life:  Hillsborough, the phone hacking scandal, very damaging welfare reforms for sick and disabled people, as well as those who claim benefits to which they are not entitled, criminal gangs who terrorise neighbourhoods, and who steal from and intimidate others, the paparazzi who stalk people and make their lives a misery – but the consequences of that lack of respect can be devastating when it becomes a fundamental element of those who have the power to institutionalise that lack of respect.
We respect the farmers and strongly support their desire for a solution.  If need be, we will pay for our local badgers to be vaccinated, because while we don’t wish to see them culled, we also want to help in any way we can to reduce the risk that they form a reservoir of infection for local livestock.  The fact is, that it is possible to respect nature, and live with it, and preserve and improve it for our children.  Because if we don’t, the consequences will be catastrophic.