Thursday, 26 February 2009

Holly - A Slow and Stealthy Invasion?

A couple of Christmases ago I had to smile at an article that I read in a newspaper claiming that there was a shortage of Holly. There's certainly no shortage in the Mersey Valley - Holly seedlings are everywhere! Has anyone else noticed?

Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a native tree. It is a 'dioecious' species which means that male and female flowers occur on different plants. This means, of course, that the familiar red berries only occur on female trees. It is also quite slow growing and the females don't start producing berries until they are around 20 years old. Holly is also semi-evergreen and retains many of its leaves throughout the winter.

In 'Flora Britannica' Richard Mabey tells us that Holly was (and occasionally still is) fed to livestock. In spite of its prickly leaves they, "...have one of the highest calorific values of any tree browsed by animals, and are rich in nutrients." Oliver Rackham has described Holly leaves as, "iron rations for sheep". Mabey also quotes the findings of a researcher called Martin Spray who found that the use of Holly as cattle food, "was a widespread, if not always well-documented practice up until the eighteenth century. [And] it seems to have been particularly prominent on the grits and sandstones of the Pennine foothills, roughly in the triangle formed by Derby, Leeds and Manchester." Spray also found many 'holly' and 'hollin' place names, and even surnames, in this area.

I don't really know what the Holly invasion means, but could it be that the old countryside is, in a sense, re-asserting itself? If so, there are few animals around to browse on it and in a hundred years time (if there's anything left of the Mersey Valley by then) local people could find themselves living in the midst of a vast, gloomy Holly wood ...

Incidentally, another evergreen species is beginning to appear as well. I estimate that for every 20 or 30 Holly seedlings there is a Yew (Taxus baccata) seedling - and I haven't got the faintset clue what that means!

Dave Bishop, February 2009


'Flora Britannica' by Richard Mabey, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996

'Woodlands' by Oliver Rackham, Collins, 2006

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