Sunday, 27 September 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - Hilda Broady's Journal

27th September, 1959

Several patches of fungi were seen in the stream bed, but the specimens were very small.

Hogweed was still in flower. I broke off an old woody stem of Hogweed and banged it against the tree. About sixteen earwigs fell out of the stem and scurried off, one being taken as a specimen.

I was interested to see that bramble and Rosebay Willowherb were showing through the charred ground near the Sycamore tree.

Posted by Dave Bishop, 27th September 2009

Thursday, 24 September 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - Mrs Broady's Journal

20th September, 1959

Several more fires were burning when I visited the plot and I was surprised to see that the grass had begun to grow where the first fire had been; the green contrasted with the charred ground.

As so many Sycamore leaves were eaten away I looked on the underside of the leaves and found many of them covered in greenfly.
Leaves were falling, yet those on the side of the tree affected by the fire did not appear to be falling.

The water pepper stems and leaves had turned a deep red, but a few plants in the stream bed were just flowering. There were several spiders in the undergrowth at the sides of the stream, and many hoverflies about. The bed of the stream was springy and felt quite damp to walk on. I dug into it, hoping to perhaps find some earthworms, but did not manage to dig far owing to the woody roots present.

I'm a few days late posting this entry in Mrs Broady's Journal. This is because I've been spending so much time writing a letter of objection to the Hardy Farm Football Development. That's the problem with the 'Great God Development', in our modern world - it not only robs you of the places you love, it can steal your time as well! - Ed.

Posted by Dave Bishop, 24th September 2009

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Book Review

The Herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper and the fight for medical freedom by Benjamin Woolley, Harper Perennial, 2004; Paperback (ISBN: 0-00-712658-1), 402 pp, £8.99

A couple of weeks ago I walked along the river bank from Chorlton to Fletcher Moss in Didsbury. I found a few interesting plants but my best find was this book in the Oxfam bookshop in Didsbury village.

The author tells the story of one of the most famous of all English herbalists, Nicholas Culpeper. Nicholas lived during the first half of the 17th century – one of the most turbulent in all English history. His life was relatively short but it was an eventful one. He was born the son of a country parson, but his father died when Nicholas was an infant. His mother took him to live with her father, another country parson who was also a Puritan (what we would call today a ‘religious fundamentalist’) and a biblical scholar. Nicholas’s relationship with his grandfather does not appear to have been a happy one. Eventually the grandfather sent Nicholas to Cambridge where he learned Latin but did not graduate. Then Nicholas really ‘blotted his copybook’ by falling in love with the daughter of a local nobleman – a circumstance which had the potential to severely embarrass his grandfather. The couple decided to elope and made their way, by separate routes, to the south coast. On her way to the tryst the girl was struck by lightning and killed. A heart-broken Nicholas was banished to London where he took up an apprenticeship in the Apothecaries trade. For a variety of reasons Nicholas eventually had to abandon his apprenticeship and then got married and set up an unlicensed medical practice with his wife. This practice, which was largely based on herbal remedies, offered “medical help to anyone who needed it, no matter how poor.”

And this was a time when medical help was desperately needed because cities, towns and villages were over-crowded, insanitary and breeding places for countless infectious diseases. People, especially young children, died in droves from everything from chickenpox to smallpox. Periodically plague would appear and wipe out thousands of people (well over 40,000 Londoners died in the ‘plague year’ of 1625 alone).

At the point in Nicholas’s life when he should have been settled another catastrophe befell England – the Civil War. This brutal conflict, a result of the religious, political, economic and social tensions which had been building up for decades, if not centuries, killed more British people, in proportion to the population of the day, than did the First and Second World Wars combined. Inevitably Nicholas was swept up in it and was severely wounded in one of the first battles of the war, the Battle of Newbury in 1643.

Woolley suggests that Nicholas never really recovered from this wound – but he had other battles to fight. Medical practice was controlled by the haughty and patrician College of Physicians. They were concerned that the Apothecaries were undermining their monopoly by treating patients. The Physicians succeeded in licensing the Apothecaries and insisted that they confine themselves to the preparation of medicines only. The only medicines that the apothecaries were allowed to prepare were those listed in a weighty Latin tome called Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, which had been written and published by the Physicians. Nicholas translated the Pharmacopoeia into English, added information on the medical uses of the various preparations, and succeeded in publishing it. This work was a best seller and severely undermined the Physicians’ monopoly. Bolstered by his new found fame Nicholas wrote and published several other works, including one on midwifery and his most famous work, ‘The English Physitian, or An astrologo-physical discourse of the vulgar herbs of this nation’ (alternative title: ‘Culpeper’s Complete Herbal’). This book, first published in 1652, was to remain in print for centuries. Nicholas died in 1654 aged only 37.

In this book Woolley contrasts Nicholas’s career with that of the most famous Physician of his day, William Harvey. Although they probably would not have had much sympathy with each other Harvey was just as much a rebel and revolutionary as Culpeper. In the 17th century medical orthodoxy insisted that all medical knowledge was contained in the works of ancient Greeks and Romans and, in particular, the works of the Roman physician, Galen. Harvey dared to contradict the Galenic tradition by describing the working of the heart and the circulation of the blood based on his own observations. Today Harvey is regarded as the father of modern scientific medicine whilst Culpeper tends to be dismissed as something of a quack and a charlatan – mainly because of his interest in astrology. Woolley points out that this is not a fair assessment. In spite of Harvey’s discoveries the Physicians still clung to Galenic methods, which involved such harmful practices as blood-letting and treatment with powerful emetics and purgatives. It’s suggested that they may have killed at least two kings: James I and Charles II with their deadly meddling (and they may actually have been implicated in the assassination of the former). On the other hand Culpeper’s work may have involved a bit of harmless astrological mumbo-jumbo – no more irrational than much of the Galenic tradition – but for centuries countless people swore by his herbal remedies and could rely on little else during times of sickness.

One aspect of this book that I found particularly striking was the chapter headings. Each chapter is prefaced with the name of a herb, Nicholas’s description of that herb and it uses, and some modern remarks and observations on the same plant. The twelve herbs are: Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), Borage (Borago officinalis), Angelica (Angelica archangelica), Balm (Melissa officinalis), Melancholy Thistle (Carduus heterophyllus), Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), Rosa Solis, or Sun-Dew (Drosera rotundifolia), Bryony, or Wild Vine (Bryonia dioica), Hemlock (Conium maculatum), Lesser Celandine, or Pilewort (Ranunculus ficaria), Arach Wild & Stinking (Garden Orache = Atriplex hortensis) and Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). I have found nine of these twelve herbs in the Mersey Valley. Some, like Lesser Celandine, are common and found everywhere, whilst I have found Garden Orache only once. Of the remaining three, Sun-Dew was, until the mid-19th century, common on all the Mosses (i.e. peat bogs) hereabouts such as Carrington and Barton Mosses and Baguley Moor - but, with the draining of these areas, is now extinct. Melancholy Thistle once grew up around the Bury area and may still occur in the southern Pennines but I have never seen it in the Mersey Valley and don’t expect to do so. I have not seen Wormwood in the Mersey Valley for many years but it still occurs on waste ground in the city centre.

In spite of the plants missing from the above list many others mentioned in Culpeper’s book still grow around here and it is remarkable to think that, in a sense, we still live surrounded by the ingredients listed in a 17th century herbal!

I note that this book is still available from Amazon. I recommend it highly.

Dave Bishop, September 2009.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Greater Celandine and Sutton's Cottage

Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus) is a member of the Poppy family (Papaveraceae). It is quite common in urban areas but rarer in wilder places. It appears to have been introduced, from mainland Europe, at some time during the last few centuries, for its medicinal properties – in spite of the fact that it is very poisonous.

The sixteenth century herbalist, John Gerard gave a good description of it (1):

The great Celandine hath a tender brittle stalke, round, hairy, and full of branches, each whereof hath divers knees or knotty joints set with leaves not unlike to those of Columbine, but tenderer, and deeper cut or jagged, of a grayish green under, and greene on the other side tending to blewnesse: the floures grow at the top of the stalks, of a gold yellow colour, in shape like those of a Wal-floure: after which come long cods [seed pods] full of bleak or pale seeds: the whole plant is of a strong unpleasant smell, and yeeldeth a thicke juice of a milky substance, of the colour of Saffron [i.e. orange]: ...

He then repeats some weird myth about swallows using it to restore their sight and goes on to recommend it for eye problems. This too is a myth and a dangerous one - on no account should you allow any part of this plant anywhere near your eyes! In more recent times the juice of this plant was probably used for removing warts (2) – but I would suggest that if you’ve got a wart which needs removing you should see your doctor.

Greater Celandine occurs in a number of places around the Beech Road/Chorlton Green area, including my front garden on Brookburn Road (where it is ineradicable), an alley at the back of Beech Road and the corner of Beech Road and Wilton Road (around the launderette). The plants in this last location are different from the others because they are ‘double-flowered’. This means that they have more than the normal four petals giving them a ‘frilly’ appearance (see left hand photograph). I have often wondered how these particular plants came to be there – but local historian, Andrew Simpson, may have provided the answer in his description of the dwellings that used to occupy that very spot:

Sutton’s Cottage by Andrew Simpson (3)

Sutton’s Cottage was one of three which stood on the corner of Beech and Wilton Road. It may have been there from the beginning of the nineteenth century and was only demolished in 1891.
It was a wattle and daub building. These wooden houses were constructed from a timber framework. The horizontal beams were grooved so that a wall of branches woven like basketwork was made to fill the void. This wall was then covered with a mixture of clay, gravel, hay and even horse hair. Thatch was used for the roof. Such houses were easy to build and equally easy to maintain, but there could be disadvantages to living in them. If the walls were thick enough then they provided good insulation and kept the interior dry. But the porous nature of walls meant they were damp and crumbling clay meant endless repairs.

According to a Parliamentary report “Many of them have not been lined with lath and plaster inside and so are fearfully cold in winter. The walls may not be an inch in thickness and where the lathes are decayed the fingers may be easily pushed through. The roof is of thatch, which if kept in good repair forms a good covering, warm in winter and cool in summer, though doubtless in many instances served as harbour for vermin, for dirt, for the condensed exhalations from the bodies of the occupants of the bedrooms....

From 1851 and maybe earlier Sutton’s Cottage was home to Samuel and Sarah Sutton. He was from Dean Row [near Macclesfield] and she was from Withington. Their cottage was on land rented by William Bailey and so it is more than likely than Samuel worked for the Bailey family who ran the farm almost opposite. They brought up four children in the cottage and for most of the middle part of the century their neighbours in the other two cottages were the Beastons and the Cravens. Samuel died in 1881 but Sarah survived until 1890. It may be no coincidence that the cottages were demolished a year later. The name Sutton’s Cottage may well be a late addition. Earlier they were known as Laburnum Cottages and before that had no name.
Inspection of a surviving photograph of Sutton’s Cottage (see right hand photograph) shows it to have been surrounded by a hedge and behind that hedge was probably a typical English cottage garden. In one of her books (4) the great Somerset gardener, the late Margery Fish, tells us that, “Double flowers have always been popular with cottage gardeners” and she goes on to describe double Sweet Rocket, double Wallflowers, double Lady’s Smock, double Red Campion, double Stick Catchfly, double Buttercups double Violets etc., etc.
Double flowers are the result of mutations and more detail can be found in ref. 5. Unfortunately, Mrs Fish doesn’t mention double flowered Greater Celandine but it would seem that American gardeners still grow it and it appears to come true from seed (6).

So the question is: are the plants that appear every year, in varying numbers, near the Beech Road launderette, the descendants of those that Mrs Sutton planted in her cottage garden all those years ago – in effect her legacy? Well, given how persistent Greater Celandine is in my garden, it remains a distinct possibility.

Dave Bishop, September 2009, with thanks to Andrew Simpson


1. ‘Gerard’s Herbal: The Essence thereof distilled by Marcus Woodward from the Edition of Th. Johnson, 1636”, Bracken Books, 1985.

2. ‘Flora Britannica’ by Richard Mabey, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996.

3. Personal Communication from Andrew Simpson, 9th September 2009.

4. ‘Cottage Garden Flowers’ by Margery Fish, faber and faber edition 1980 (first pub. 1961).

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Memories of Grasshoppers and Crickets by JoAnne Wood

My article about the Grasshopper that I photographed on Barlow Hall Tip (FoCM blog, 23rd August 2009) prompted this response from FoCM Committee member, JoAnne Wood, who has lived in Chorlton all her life:

In response to your recent inquiry on the blog requesting information about crickets in Chorlton meadows I may be able to help.

The photo dated by my father as March 1947 shows the back garden of “Brookfield” 27 Edge Lane Chorlton.

The building originally the old Coaching House has now been demolished and rebuilt.
The pram in the foreground is mine I was six months old when the photo was taken. Beyond the back is the large expanse of field, which is now the site of Meadow Court.

As a child I would play for hours in that field listening to and watching the hundreds of crickets, they would sit in my hand rubbing their back legs together to make that unique chirping sound.
Grasshoppers inhabited the area in abundance as did many other forms of wildlife and I know how privileged I was to grow up with it.

Beyond that field to the right is a large hut belonging to the rifle range on Turn Moss playing fields.
On the left you can just make out the out-building and farm house belonging to Winders Farm on Hawthorn Lane, this was the only building I could see from my bedroom window.

I hope this little bit of local history recorded by my father all those years ago will be of some help in filling in the gaps of Chorlton wild life.

JoAnne Wood, 7th September 2009

I would like to thank JoAnne for contributing her memories and her Dad's photograph. If anyone else has similar memories, that they would like to share with us, please feel free to send them in - Ed.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Moths of Hardy Farm by Ben Smart

I met Ben last Saturday after a meeting about the proposed Hardy Farm football development. He told me of his interest in the moths of the area and I asked him if he could let us have an article for the blog. The following article was in my inbox by Saturday evening - and what an amazing article it is! Who would have thought that such a relatively small area could contain so many moth species!

The Moths of Hardy Farm

If you look for them, this is an area that is full of moths in all stages of their life cycle. Between 2001-2005 I ran a moth trap in one of the back gardens leading to the old playing fields area of Hardy farm. Including the moths attracted to the light trap and those I have found in my wanderings around the area I have recorded over 600 species of moth. I gave up the light trap when I found it was more interesting to look for moths in their natural habitat, often in the caterpillar stage.

Most of the interesting records have been of moths found either on the trees in the old playing fields area, or amongst the low growing plants of the area close to the river.
I have recorded a number of species which have been new for Lancashire, as well as many others which have been unrecorded for 50 years or so.
Examples include the Lead-coloured Drab, a species of macro-moth that feeds on poplars, particularly aspen, in its larval stage. Another Lancs first was the micro-moth Phyllonorycter dubitella which was reared from its leafmine found on the single sallow tree close to the south-west corner of the existing Chorlton and West Didsbury football club.

Many of the smaller moths can be found as leafmines. This refers to the larva actually feeding inside the leaf often leaving a distinctive pattern on the leaf. The adults that emerge rarely wander far from the foodplant, but are so tiny that for recording purposes it is often easier to record the species by looking for its leafmine.
An example of this, found on the willows by the side of the footpath from Hardy Lane to the Mersey, is an even smaller moth, Stigmella obliquella. As the moth itself is only about 2mm long it is very easily missed! Larger moths abound also. Last October (12.10.08) I found a 5cm long Poplar Hawk-moth caterpillar feeding on the same willows. Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillars may also be found in late summer feeding on Rose-bay Willow Herb.

Another interesting moth is Luffia ferchaultella. This belongs to a group known as the psychids. As far as I know the only Lancashire records for this species have been found in Chorlton. It is a parthenogenetic species, in that only the female moth seems to exist. It is also a wingless species. How it is dispersed is unknown but some closely related species are spread via predation by birds, as the eggs of the female can pass through the bird’s gut unscathed, as the larvae can go on to hatch and feed. The larva of Luffia ferchaultella goes on to produce a case which is coated in sand and fragments of lichen and algae, sometimes arranged in bands of colour, and may be found eating algae from the trunks of trees. Another Psychid moth, Narycia duplicella, may also be found as a larval case on the trunks of the trees in Hardy Farm. This species, though, does produce winged adults.

For a small area, this seems incredibly rich in unusual moths that I don’t seem to be able to find in other areas, even those designated as nature reserves. Because most moths live high up in the trees or fly only at night, much of this is unnoticed. However to lose an area like this would be devastating for the biodiversity of the Mersey Valley.

Ben Smart, 5th September 2009

Ed's Note: Ben also sent me the photographs above. The left hand photo is of an Elephant Hawk Moth and the right hand one one is of a Poplar Hawk Moth caterpillar. I will also put these, plus some other photos that Ben sent me, on the 'Inverterbrates' Picasa photo album.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Gatley Carrs Wildlife and Natural History by Peter Wolstenholme

Peter Wolstenholme is an RSPB member with a special interest in Gatley Carrs at the eastern (Stockport) end of the Mersey Valley. We would like to thank him for giving permission to post his report for July and August 2009 on this blog.

Vegetation by mid to late summer is getting rather drab, as spring gives way to late August most of the vegetation is mature and trees and bushes are fruiting. Sloes, Blackberries, red berries of Arum lilies, Sycamores and Horse chestnuts are all fruiting.

Among the dying flowers of the rosebay willow herb there are probably Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillars munching away at the stems of the plants. I have certainly seen these huge caterpillars in past years on the Carrs.

In July there were damsel flies such as Banded Demoiselle and the abundant plants of nettle provide vast reserves of food for caterpillars of butterflies, such as Peacocks, Commas, Small Tortoiseshell, and Red Admirals. Other butterflies this summer have included Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood, Large and Small Whites, Holly Blue and Common Blue. A flew Painted Ladies have been noted on the reserve but not the millions seen in some parts of Britain.

In August the most splendid dragonfly present on the reserve - often feeding close to the pond - was the very large brown dragonfly with brown wings - the Brown Hawker (Latin name Aeshna Grandis). It is well worth looking for this dragonfly at this time of the year on sunny days.

Until the end of July the skies above the Carrs were dominated by the sickle winged flight of the Swift and its diagnostic screaming call. During August bird song faltered as Blackbird, Song Thrush, Whitethroat and Blackcap ceased singing. However Robin and Wren sang right through July and August. A pair of Reed Bunting sang and produced a brood of young by the pool. Kestrel and Sparrow Hawk put in brief visits. During August chiffchaff and Coal Tit sang and Wood Pigeon and Collared Dove cooed from the hedgerows.

During August the pool was often a centre of interest as both an adult and immature Heron put in an appearance. A pair of Moorhen had three young and there were also a few young Mallard and Canada Geese. There were Grey Wagtails along the banks of the stream and a few records of single Kingfishers - the bitterness of mid winter apparently meant they made no attempts to breed by the stream around the pool.

The trees around the pool attracted Tree Creeper, Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker. There were also young Long tailed Tits, Goldfinches and Greenfinch foraging in the bushes.

The last day of August found six Swallows feeding over the meadow. Two were adults with deeply forked tails and the others were shorter failed juveniles being fed on the wing by their parents. The same day on a Farm Reserve on the Wirral a Hobby was hawking overhead before its fairly imminent return to the tropics.

The tall stems of the brilliantly flowered Purple Loosestrife were by the pool at month end

As August ends summer migrants are still with us but soon the first winter migrants will be coming through the reserve as autumn comes in September.

With best wishes to you all.

Peter Wolstenholme
RSPB Manchester and SK8

Saturday, 5 September 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - Hilda Broady's Journal

5th September, 1959

There was very little obvious change on the plot apart from the signs of more fires. A number of fires had obviously been started by children, one of these being on my plot. The children had slung a rope over a high branch on a Sycamore tree and were using this for the purpose of swinging over the fire.

My visit finished up being a nature lesson for six other children who wanted to know what I was doing. We identified all the trees in the neighbourhood, and looked at the seeds of different plants. My reward was a large spider, whose web one of the children found.
An unidentified fungus was found growing at the side of the stream and a specimen was taken. The side of the Sycamore tree nearest to the previous fire appeared charred and the leaves quite brown and dead.

The hawthorn haws were becoming wrinkled and their colour dull compared with the Guelder rose berries which were bright red.Whilst the Sycamore and Hawthorn trees appeared dull and dark green, the Oak seedlings still retained their shiny green leaves.

So it would appear that kids were setting fires in long grass 50 years ago - just as they do, all too frequently, today. I suppose that this highly damaging practice will carry on until our culture, as a whole, starts to respect the environment (if that day ever comes).

I wonder if there are any people locally who still remember Mrs Broady's impromptu nature lessons? - Ed.

Posted by Dave Bishop, 5th September 2009

Friday, 4 September 2009

Tasks Programme - Autumn/Winter 2009 - 10

Below is a list of tasks that we're going to have a go at this autumn and winter. We hope to include other events in the calendar, which we will let you know about as they are arranged.

All of these tasks will start at 10:30 am and end at around 4:00 pm - there will be no obligation to stay all day, so if you want to come for just the morning or afternoon, feel free to do so.

For all of these tasks you should make a special note of the meeting place as this will vary from task to task.

Sunday 6th September 2009

Scrub clearance with the Sale and Altrincham Conservation Volunteers (SACV).

Meet: Jackson's Boat Bridge

SACV Contact: Julian Fox (07957355468)

Sunday 27th September 2009

Norway Maple control

Meet: Chorlton Ees car park

Note: Norway Maple was widely planted in the 1970s and 80s but seeds itself around like mad - so we need to remove the seedlings and saplings to make room for other species.

Sunday 18th October 2009

Norway Maple control

Meet: Ivy Green car park

Sunday 8th November 2009

Bramble Clearance

Meet: Chorlton Ees car park

Note that many areas, which were once more diverse, have now been overrun by brambles - we need to cut them back a bit.

Sunday 29th November 2009

Bramble Clearance

Meet: Chorlton Ees car park

Sunday 20th December 2009

Scrub Clearance at Hardy Farm Fruit Woodland.

Meet: Jackson's Boat Bridge

Sunday 10th January 2010

Scrub Clearance around Ponds on Chorlton Ees

Meet: Chorlton Ees car park

Note: The ponds on Chorlton Ees are surrounded by small trees and scrub - we need to open them up a bit to let more light in (and less leaves).

Sunday 31st January 2010

Scrub and Bramble Clearance

Meet: Chorlton Ees car park.

Note: There is a flower rich area at the back of Chorlton Ees car park which is getting overgrown - we need to tidy it up a bit to give the flowers a chance.

Sunday 21st February 2010

Scrub Clearance at Hardy Farm

Meet: Jackson's Boat Bridge

For all tasks tools, gloves etc. will be provided. You will need to dress for the weather, wear suitable footwear and bring a packed lunch.


- Car parking at Jackson's Boat is for pub customers only, so, if arriving by car, please park at the Mersey Valley Visitors' Centre car park and walk down Rifle Road to the meeting point.

There are two car parks associated with the Chorlton Ees and Ivy Green Local Nature Reserve:

- Chorlton Ees car park is at the nd of the cobbled road off Brookburn Road (by the side of Brookburn Road Primary School).

- Ivy Green car park is on Brookburn Road itself, opposite the Bowling Green pub.


Chorlton Water Park, tel. 0161 881 5639
Sale Visitors' Centre, tel. 0161 905 1100

Dave Bishop (FoCM Chair): tel. 0161 881 6276; mobile: 07947535691 (voice calls only, please).

Posted by Dave Bishop, 04.09.2009

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Bat Walk - Sunday 13th September 2009

Find out all about these fascinating flying mammals on Sunday 13th September when members of the South Lancashire Bat Group will be leading a walk starting at the Sale Water Park Visitor Centre. We hope to see and hear several species of bat present in the Mersey Valley and we will be using bat detectors to help us identify them.

Event details:
Where: Sale Water Park Visitor Centre
When: Sunday 13th September 2009
Start: Arrive promptly for 7pm (we will be leaving on the walk shortly after)
Finish: 9.30 pm at the latest
Anything else: please bring a torch

Tuesday, 1 September 2009


For some weeks now swallows have been gathering, in small groups, on the power lines near the river at Hardy Farm. Presumably they are getting ready for their long migration to Africa. I don't know very much about swallows or about their migrations. FoCM Treasurer, John Agar is a keen birdwatcher and offered to pull together some information on these subjects; below are his findings:

The Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

This instantly recognisable bird is regarded as the harbinger of summer. The arrival from winter quarters is generally early April but the vanguard may appear in early March often caught out by unexpected snowfall.

The favoured nest site is inside buildings. It builds an open nest of mud, cemented by saliva and strengthened with plant stalks and straw. The female lines the nest with feathers before laying eggs (4-5) which she incubates alone, between 14 and 16 days being fed mainly by the male. The young birds leave the nest after 19 – 23 days and are fed by their parents for a while. Two –three broods may be reared during the summer.

In late September and early October the birds form up in large groups ready for their return journey to South Africa. Unlike many other migrants they do not put on large reserves of fat since they feed during their leisurely return flight. They move Southward through Britain and across the Channel at its narrow eastern end. They continue South Westward through France and the Iberian Peninsula and across the Mediterranean. This 2000 Kilometre
(1,200 Miles) journey is completed in about 6 weeks and is thought to be made up of 10 legs i.e. 120 Kilometre a day, each of which forms just part of the birds day.

The birds are then presented with (as are many other migrant species) their most formidable barrier, the Sahara Desert. Many birds perish, however a bird with good food reserves and in good condition can cross the 1,500 Kilometre (930 miles) in a couple of days to reach the rich feeding grounds of the Niger River. Having reached this point the birds are only half way through their journey. Having negotiated this most difficult part of the journey they still face danger from predation by, amongst others, tribes-people who trap them for food. However by mid to late November they will be feeding right down on the Cape of Good Hope.

It is amazing to think that the chick from this tiny fragile egg can, with luck, in 4 – 5 months time be 9,000 Kilometres (6,000 miles) away in South Africa especially as it has never made the journey before.

The return journey in spring is much faster and can take as little as five weeks and is made more to the East. It is only in the last 60 years or so with the advent of bird ringing that accurate details of migration have become known. It was thought that Swallows hibernated in the mud of ponds probably due to their habit of gathering in large numbers in trees and reeds surrounding ponds prior to migration. Indeed it was suggested in 1703 that the birds wintered on the moon!

John Agar, 31st August 2009