The Grantham Oak

The Oak of Belton Lane – referred to in some places as the Grantham Oak – is perhaps the most surprising and impressive tree in town. The oak stands on the eastern side of Belton Lane, to the north of the town of Grantham, beside a pedestrian crossing and surrounded by a crescent of residential housing. This is not the typical location for a tree which is likely to be over 500 years old!

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The Grantham Oak, dominating the scene with the pedestrian crossing across Belton Lane to one side, and residential housing to the other

The Grantham Oak – a pedunculate or English Oak (Quercus robur) – has a girth of 7.02m when measured at 1.5m above the ground. To give a rough visualisation of this – it would take over four adults reaching finger-tip to finger-tip to hug this tree. Using this measurement of girth, we can estimate the age of this tree – although this is not an exact science, and is subject to speculation over the early growing conditions of the tree and the stresses or privileges it might have endured or enjoyed over the years.Using the methodology produced by John White – the tree may be 530 – 560 years old, indicating a possible planting date around the 1450’s. To put this in context – this is around the time of the War of the Roses; the founding on the Inca dynasty; and when Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake.

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Sunday morning walkers passing the Grantham Oak

The tree is a pollard – this means that in the distant past, it was cut above the height at which animals can graze. This was generally done to faciliate sustainable harvest of a tree either to provide fodder for animals or for wood timber. Retaining the base of the tree but continually taking new growth allows it to be harvested regularly without killing the tree. Indeed, one result of pollarding trees is that they often live for much longer than non-pollarded specimens.

A ‘wolf tree‘ is one which is older and larger than those around it – it often has a shape and structure which seems unaffected by external influences such as shading or competition, whilst it’s establishment means the younger trees grow and develop in response to it. I often see this in woodlands – especially where an old oak is situated towards the edge of a more recent forestry plantation – but the Grantham Oak is an example of a ‘wolf tree’ in a residential setting – the houses which line Belton Road were built to arch in a crescent surrounding this magnificent tree at its centre. This tree is still valued by many who live close or drive past it – it was nominated in the hunt for the UK’s 2014 Tree of the Year competition.

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The Grantham Oak with the crescent of houses set back from the canopy

The map below illustrates the current location of the tree – set at the edge of residential development, a little way offset from the green corridor along the River Witham which passes through the town to the west.

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The OS map below shows the current location of the tree in a changed environment – extensive residential development now covers its previously countryside landscape.

The housing around this tree was only established in the 20th century and inspection of older maps before this date indicate that in 1905, the land around Belton Lane was agricultural countryside.

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This map from 1905 positions the tree opposite entrance road to Harrowby Mill. Beyond the Oak would have been open fields to the east and west in sharp comparison to the residential housing which populates this site now.

The Harrowby Mill, still present but converted to residential use, lies opposite this tree on the west of Belton Lane and this can be seen as the only marked development in close proximity to the tree back in 1835. Although this was almost 200 years ago, even then the Grantham Oak would have been an impressive specimen of some 300 years old and would have stood dominantly across the road as workers left the mill.

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An extract of a map from 1835 showing the approximate location of the tree with the red dot. The road on which the tree is situated – now Belton Lane – was already in existence along with the Harrowby Mill adjacent to it.

This is registered as Tree 2560 on the Woodland Trust Ancient Tree Register – a link to the tree’s individual page can be found here. The tree is included in the ‘40 Special Trees of Lincolnshire40 Special Trees of Lincolnshire‘ book produced by the Lincolnshire Tree Awareness Group (TAG) under the title ‘The Grantham Oak’. The text describing this tree states that it was originally enclosed by Belton Hall Park although a contact at Belton said that the land at Belton Lane was never within parkland indicating it may never have been a ‘parkland’ tree.

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The incongruous yet magnificent Grantham Oak

I have done my best to piece together a little history and information on this tree, but I would love for this to be just the beginning. If you have any information, photographs or stories relating to this tree, please get in touch with me or leave a comment below and I can update the post to grow the story around this magnificent resident of Grantham.

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The Grantham Oak in November 2016 – just beginning to take on the tones of Autumn

For a similar post on one of Grantham’s impressive trees, take a look at this post on the copper beech on the high street!

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Starling Murmurations

Each winter for the last few years, there have been starling murmurations over Grantham and this year is no exception! I saw them gathering on a pylon in the fields beside Harlaxton as I drove along the A607 in this evening, and as I drove past they all rose en mass and began to flock over the western tip of Grantham. I parked up for a few moments to watch this incredible spectacle of aerial gymnastics.

There are several theories as to why starlings flock together like this and treat us to such a display. They gather just before roosting, which they do communally, and so you see smaller flocks gradually join the largest flock so that the numbers grow and grow before they drop down to the trees and shrubs where they spend the night communally. This grouping together may allow them to exchange information on good feeding spots, or just help them to gather with the rest of the local starlings to maximise the warmth which multiple bodies brings on cold winter nights.

The birds move in unison, twisting and turning in shapes a little like those you’d see in a lava lamp, and this behaviour increases in speed and complexity if there is a predator about. This is believed to be another of the reasons for the murmuration behaviour. Safety in numbers is an instinctive behaviour for many species – including birds, fish and mammals – and it works on the basis that if you are in a large crowd, there are many targets beside yourself which makes it unlikely that a predator will get you individually. The dynamic flight patterns of the murmuration adds a further element of safety by confusing the predator as the flock bends, twists and turns as one.

Starlings are a common sight, but they are actually a red list species. Each bird in the UK is given a colour-coded assessment based on the current status of the species. This works on the traffic light system – green indicates least conservation concern whilst red indicates the highest conservation priority. Starlings are on the red list because, despite these large winter flocks appearing impressive, long-term monitoring by the British Trust for Ornithology shows that starling numbers have fallen to just 1/3 of their population in the mid-1970’s. If this decline were to continue along the current trend, then it would be only a short time before starlings were all but extinct.

The flocks will begin to disperse as starlings pair up and establish nests, so take the opportunity to watch this natural phenomena whilst you have the chance! The hour before sunset is the best time to get out and look for them, and they are currently focused on the western tip of Grantham, sometimes moving over the centre earlier in the evening.

If you’re looking to commision ornithological surveys such as wintering bird surveys in the midlands, check out Landscape Science Consultancy’s website here.

New Year Plant Hunt

Each year, the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) run a New Year’s Plant Hunt where they invite people to record as many species in flower as they can in the New Year – between 1st and 4th January.

After a few days away, and four plant hunts down, I decided to cheer up the first day back to work by carrying out a fifth and final Plant Hunt on the 4th of January, this time on home turf. Previous hunts had been in Exeter, Tyntesfield National Trust, Bristol City Centre and rather closer to home, in Stonesby Quarry and Branston just over the border in Leicestershire.

I started in the dark so the first few photographs are interesting examples of headtorch botany, but the sun steadily rose and the images soon lit themselves. I walked from Harlaxton village to the A1 along a stretch of the Grantham Canal, and then into the centre of town. Having stopped the clock for a morning at work, I headed back out at lunchtime to close out the three hours allowed for a search by heading up to the Hills and Hollows at the back of the town. The whole route was around 5.5 miles and took a little under 3 hours to complete.

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Green alkanet – Pentaglottis sempervirens – by headtorch

I counted up a total of 44 species on this hunt – the most of any of the individual five hunts undertaken which perhaps shows the benifit of walking on familiar ground! The full list and a montage of all the species is provided at the end of this post but I’ll focus now on a few examples of the kinds of flowers which I encountered and the trends which seemed to appear across four days of hunting for flowers in different habitats and counties.

One of the most fruitful locations seems to be cracks, crevices, edges and other overlooked places in built-up areas. Think of those splashes of green at the side of pavements, at the bottoms of walls and fences, or the edges of front gardens. Survival in locations such as these often means a quick turnaround from seed germination, to flowering, to setting seed before the opportunity vanishes. In this way, the species is maintained wherever niches arise, and persist with a constantly shifting distribution map. Such species encountered in this hunt include petty spurge, shepherd’s purse and annual meadow grass.

Then there are those species which are flowering precisely when they intended to. Gorse typically begins flowering on the Hills and Hollows to the east of Grantham in December and continues through into the summer although flowers can really be found at any time of the year. This gives rise to the saying ‘when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion’. Winter heliotrope is another species which is often found flowering over Christmas and into the new year – there is a colony of this growing beside the River Witham, right in the centre of town. Naturalised species can also be counted in the New Year Plant Hunt – these are non-native species which are growing wild without intervention Periwinkle is a brightly-coloured example of a winter-flowering naturalised species which was growing towards the Hills and Hollows.

Next are a bunch of slightly early spring species. These are those which are preparing to flower soon but have apparently been tricked into doing so a little earlier than usual by the clement conditions. Examples include shrubs – such as hazel, blackthorn, holly and dogwood – as well as some spring flowers such as primrose and lesser celandine. Another naturalised species on the list was wood spurge, a healthy self-set colony of which was flowering away at the base of a hedge towards the east of the town. These species typically flower between February and May so a January flowering is not excessively early.

Another common theme I have spotted is the propensity for species to flower where the vegetation has been cut recently. This can be easily visualised where the daisies and dandelions still brighten up most lawns. Along the Grantham Canal, it was noticable that hogweed and cow parsley both flower just to the sides of the towpath where there was a late-summer/early-autumn cut but are absent further out where the sward escaped the blades. Perhaps this works a little like the Chelsea Chop technique which delays and extends the flowering period, but cutting is also a form of stress to the plants, and this can encourage them to flower and set seed as a survival response.

Finally there are the long-season species – these are flowers which naturally flower late into the year. Examples include wood avens, red and white campion, white deadnettle, field speedwell and yarrow all of which were recorded flowering along the Grantham Canal towpath. The ever-delightful ivy-leaved toadflax also falls into this category flowering from May right through into the early winter – this delicate little flower grows in cracks and crevices in many of the walls throughout Grantham. The persistence of these species, especially considering there has been little frost to speak of so far this year, is broadly in-keeping with their general phenology.

It’s been a good few days and a great excuse to get out and find some wildlife in the depths (although clearly not the dead) of winter. I found a total of 64 different species across five hunts in four counties! Many thanks to BSBI for organising this – the deadline for the results is the 8th January and I’m looking forward to seeing the results and analysis which will follow their collation of records from around the country. From the conversations on twitter, it appears that many people have got involved this year. If you want to get involved next year, check out the BSBI webpage and get recording when New Year’s Day comes around again!

A montage of the photographs of all the species recorded on the Grantham New Year Plant Hunt is provided below, along with the complete species list.

Grantham Large

Daisy (Bellis perennis)
Annual meadow grass (Poa annua)
Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)
Cock’s foot (Dactylis glomerata)
Winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans)
Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
Petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus)
Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)
Ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)
Nipplewort (Lapsana communis)
Prickly sow-thistle (Sonchus asper)
Canadian fleabane (Conyza canadensis)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.)
Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum)
Hazel (Corylus avellana)
Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium)
Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
Red campion (Silene dioica)
Periwinkle (Vinca major)
Bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.)
White dead-nettle (Lamium album)
Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.)
Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)
Dove’s foot cranesbill (Geranium mollis)
Common mouseear (Cerastium fontanum)
Perennial sowthistle (Sonchus arvensis)
Common field speedwell (Veronica persica)
Wood avens (Geum urbanum)
Shephard’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
Green alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens)
Red deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
Pineapple mayweed (Matricaria discoidea)
White campion (Silene latifolia)
Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris)
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
Wall barley (Hordeum murinum)
Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Wavy bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa)
Wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides)
Gorse (Ulex europaeus)
Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)
Smooth Hawk’s-beard (Crepis capillaris)

Wildflowers at Harlaxton Wharf, Grantham Canal

I stopped off at Harlaxton Wharf on a cycle along the canal and got somewhat waylaid identifying the flowers there – for a very small square of land, you will find many species of wildflower! These include many species planted intentionally, using Naturescape seeds and the assistance of the Princes Trust when the Wharf was restored. Others, including some of the more understated species but also some of the most impressive, are centuries-old inhabitants of the Grantham Canal bankside. I have run through a whirlwind description to help you identify the species which are there – I may have missed some so please let me know if you spot anything else whilst waiting for a Canal Boat ride from the Grantham Canal Society – more info about the trips which leave from the Wharf can be found here and details of the renovation works are here. There is also a gallery of photographs of the wildflowers, arranged by colour, to help you with identification.

Sign at Harlaxton Wharf
Sign at Harlaxton Wharf

If you are visiting before July then the big flashy purple flowers from tall grey/green plumes of vegetation are corncockle (Agrostemma githago). Large herbaceous plants with purple flowers after this stage are the more likely to be the later flowering rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium), the plants of which can grow to 2m tall with their purple flowered trumpets topping a tower of lanceolate leaves. If the last description sounds right, bar the size, then the more diminutive broad-leaved willowherb (Epilobium montanum) might be your species – this grows no more than 50cm in height and is altogether more delicate than the big bruiser which is rosebay. The fluted flowers often shade from white to pink as they mature.

Greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) is also growing here – the flowers are almost thistle-like but are plumed with tendrils at the petal tips. The colour is blue with a tinge of purple and the leaves are unlike thistles completely – robust fleshy and smooth green leaves with none of the spikes associated with thistles.

The large familiar yellow flowers growing from a rosette of toothed leaves (dandelion coming from the French: Dents de Lion) are your common or garden dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.). Watch out too for smaller, finer flowered versions – these are autumn hawkbit (Leontodon autumnalis) and they are not in flower until later in the year, as the name suggests.

Common nettle (Urtica dioica) should be known to most – if it stings you then you have your identification. The flowers on this are non-descript to say the least, fine tassles of tiny flowers in a sting-bead. If your ‘nettle’ has flowers then check the colour. There are a number of non-stinging ‘dead’ nettles and two of these are found at the Wharf. Luckily, their colour gives them away – white dead-nettle (Lamium album) is white whilst red dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) is red. There are other differences to tell the apart – the key characteristic is size and stature – if your deadnettle is approaching the structure of a stinging nettle then it is most probably white. Red is much less sturdy, often lower to the ground with finer leaves. There is a third option for a species with nettle-like leaves but no sting and this is hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) – this has spikes of purple flowers which look almost orchid like. The best test here is scent- if there is a powerful unpleasant scent from the crushed leaf (certainly not like anything else I have ever smelt) then this is your species!

Taller flowers of red or white on long flower stalks with soft ovoid leaves are the red campion (Silene dioica) and the white campion (Silene latifolia). Again, there are other campions to choose from – the bladder campion can be seen out in the limestone swards of The Drift or the Viking Way – but only these two species are on the Wharf. Colour is key to ID!

Rounded, softly serrated leaves and a noticeably squared stem identify common figwort (Scrophularia nodosa). The flowers are deep red but tiny – at first glance you might think them buds waiting to burst into an exciting rich flower but closer inspection reveals them to be at the height of their glory.

Buttercups come in different shapes and sizes and two can be found here beside the canal – creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) is a very common species which is often found in damper places – a wet flush in a pasture field will often be stained yellow with the flowers. Other species are also common and a second can be found here – bulbous buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) differs in the leaf and structure but the key ID is in the flowers – the sepals (these are the green beneath the flower) are reflexed, that is they are peeled back like a banana and pressed against the stem below. Earlier in the year, you will see buttercup-like flowers but these could well be lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria). The flower petals of this species are more pointed than the very rounded petals of the buttercups and the leaves are round and shiny rather than serrated and dissected like those of the buttercups. For similarity of name rather than similarity of plant, I will also mention the greater celandine (Chelidonium majus). This is no relation to the lesser celandine but shares a name nonetheless. Greater celandine is in the cabbage family and is a much larger, more foliose plant. You get a lot of leaf for your flower!

Spiky plants next: there are three purple-flowered thistle species to be seen. The biggest, boldest thistle with spikes which look as though they have the ability to impale are the spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare) – think of the spikes as spears for an easy way to remember. There are too smaller species which look as though they could just give you a nasty prickling – here the key difference to tell them apart is the presence of spiky leaflets on the main stems – welted thistle (Carduus crispus) has them whilst creeping thistle (Cirsium arvensis) does not. To confuse matters ever so slightly further, there is another similar species you will see which is in fact a sowthistle rather than a thistle – the thistles all have purple flowers whereas the sow thistle has yellow flowers. The prickly sow thistle (Sonchus asper) has spikey leaves which wrap around their stem. A smooth version of this called, appropriately enough, a smooth sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) grows alongside it.

Of very different structure, but on the theme of spikes, are the white-flowered bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.) which rambles along the ground and up through adjacent shrubs and trees. It should be familiar to anybody who has been blackberry-ing. Also instantly recognisable is the rose which grows wild here – the curved thorns and open white-pink flowers should be immediately recognisable to genus. This species is the dog rose (Rosa canina).

The tall, white-flowered umbellifers are another distinctive group – their flowers are in umbels which can be thought of as umbrellas for an easy visual clue. The leaves vary but are generally divided to a greater or lesser extent – lots of ‘empty space’ within the leaf footprint if you will. If the leaves are big and bold, divided into big lobes then you have hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium). Then there is the notorious ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) – if you have it in your garden then you can pick it out of a line-up. The leaves appear directly from the ground very much like the leaves of the elder after which it is named. This will also send up dense heads of white flowers in a compact cluster. If it is neither of these, then next check is the stem – if there are purple dots of blotches then you have the highly toxic hemlock (Conium maculatum) – back away slowly and for goodness sake do not touch or eat. This leaves two other umbellifers which flower at the wharf and the simplest way to differentiate is to ask what time of year it is. Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) is a big, brash species which flowers early in the spring and is generally going over by the end of May. This is superseded by the smaller, finer, more delicate hedge parsley (Torilis japonica) which flowers for the remainder of the summer.

Two primrose species are to be found – a line of wild primrose (Primula vulgaris) grow along the bank with their pale yellow, individual flowers which are open and relatively large with wavy, indefinite edges. By contrast the cowslip (Primula veris) has groups of tighter, more enclosed flowers which hang together – a brighter yellow in colour with flecks of orange.

Ivy (Hedera helix) should need no introduction – a creeping plant with glossy green heart-shaped leaves. The flowers in the autumn are a great nectar source – clusters of small black sphered which look something like a tiny bunch of black grapes.

Some of the largest leaves on the Wharf belong to burdock (Arctium lappa) – these are greyish green above and whitish green below. The burdock flowers are fairly insipid but the seeds are a ball of hooks which fall apart to individual hooked seeds when you try to pick them apart when snagged on hair or clothes.

Another species which will stick to you if it has a chance is cleavers (Galium aparine). This has tiny four-petalled white flowers and grows in long strands, often creeping and climbing its way through other vegetation, with little whorls of leaves intermittently up its stem. There are a number of galium species in the UK but this is the most common and the only one which will stick to your jumper with ease!

There are a number of small plants with purple flowers and a more or less creeping characteristic – I will tell you about each in turn. Plants with little deep-purple trumpet-shaped flowers and ivy-shaped leaves – these will be the ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea). If the leaf description sounds right but the flowers do not, then perhaps the delicate trailing ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) is your species – these flowers have three lower petals and two upper with a yellow patch in the centre. If the purple flowers are star-shaped with fine green filigree foliage and red-wine stems then it is probably herb Robert (Geranium robertianum). Finally, if the plant has a more upright character with purple pea-like flowers and tendrils on the ends of the pinnate leaf stems, then this will be the common vetch (Vicia sativa).

A species which stands apart from the others is Lords and Ladies or Arum lily (Arum maculatum). The deep-green, often dark-flecked waxy leaves emerge straight from the ground in the early spring with the pale hooded flower rearing up soon afterwards with the long purple flower spike below. The action is all over by mid-May with the green berries appearing on a low spike, turning to red in the autumn.

Small yellow flowers on a substantial plant could be wood avens (Geum urbanum) – these leave a strange seed something like a strawberry after the flower has been fertilised and the flower lost. Nipplewort (Lapsana communis) is a taller species with a number of yellow flowers present in a very diffuse ‘head’. The flowers on the former have five distinct petals whilst the latter is a composite flower – it is a member of the daisy family – and has a larger number of yellow florets which somewhat crowd into one. If your plant is much lower to the ground, with red-flecked yellow pea-like flowers and clover-like leaves, then it will be bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus). A final yellow-flowered possibility is the low, fleshy groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) whose flowers look perpetually as though they are just about to emerge – a bud waiting to burst. It never will – the flower rivals figwort for the disappointment following from bud to flower.

Clover-like flowers and clover-like (three-leafed) leaves growing close to the ground or sometimes bubbling and swelling into a mound is the white clover (Trifolium repens). This is a creeping plant and will rarely be found with individual flowers and leaves. A discreet, compact little plant with a flower spike of tiny white flowers to only 10cm high and leaves like lines of diminishing green coins laid out along the stem will be wavy bitter-cress (Cardamine flexuosa). A creeping, clambering plant with as much green sepal as white petal on the flower will be common chickweed (Stellaria media). A much more upright plant will be garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) – rub the leaves and release the faint smell to confirm the ID but be warned that this does not confer the taste to food it is used in cooking, unlike wild garlic which is found up in Belvoir Woods and out east at Belton House amongst others.

Multiple blue flowers with small, soft, green leaves like the ears of some small creature? Water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides). And no, despite the name, this will be growing on the banks of the Wharf rather than in the canal itself.

Two poppy species are flowering here; the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) has flowers which are an insipid but delicate shade of purple with grey-green foliage. The more familiar common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) can also be seen – these are the archetypal poppy with the deep red leaves and the black centre.

The old childhood adage said that where there are nettles to sting, there is dock to relieve. I never found this to be true but there are two species of dock to be seen. The big, bold, cumbersome species is broadleaf dock (Rumex obtusifolius). A smaller species with long, narrow pointed leaves and red veins is the wood dock (Rumex sanguineus).

Even amongst the gravel beside the water there are species which find a home. The tiny pearlwort (Sagina procumbens) holds tiny (really tiny) green pearl-like flowers aloft from fine-leaved foliage which ambles and spreads from the base. The whole plant is usually only a few centimetres in any direction. A bigger jumble of fennel-leaves with yellow and white flowers is the pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidea) – again a crush of
the leaves and a sniff should reveal the truth of the name.

I have left until last the most effusive and the most unimpressive flowers – I will deal with the latter first. The fat hen (Chenopodium album) flower is a mealy, beady insipid-red affair which you would struggle to even notice. The leaves always remind me a little of dinosaur footprints – this is a plant which will generally pass everybody by although it does make good eating! By contrast, the ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) – like the garden variety but blown up to gigantic proportions with crinkle-cut leaves and a big yellow centre is fairly unmistakable.

Grantham’s Copper Beech

This is hopefully the first of a short series of blog posts about some of Grantham’s trees, and which better to begin with than the copper beech in the town centre.

Copper beech outside the Grantham Guildhall on St Peter's Hill

The copper variant of the beech arose as mutants in the wild populations where they were first recorded in Germany around the 15th century. Copper beeches are now found growing extensively throughout Europe as ornamental trees in towns and gardens and the setting of this tree – in the town centre set before the impressive Guildhall – is a typical location.

Copper beech outside the Grantham Guildhall on St Peter's Hill

It seems likely that the tree was planted not to compliment the Guildhall but as part of the parkland setting deemed appropriate for the new Isaac Newton statue erected in 1858 when the area known as the ‘wilderness’ was cleared of its trees and shrubs and replaced with well-spaced and altogether more civic trees.

The Isaac Newton statue on St Peter's Hill in its setting before the Guildhall was built
The Isaac Newton statue on St Peter’s Hill in its setting before the Guildhall was built

Copper beech outside the Grantham Guildhall on St Peter's Hill
Old photographs show many trees which are no longer extant, but the girth of this copper beech suggests that it may have been one of the originals. This photograph was taken in the summer of 1900, some 42 years after the Isaac Newton statue was erected, and a younger version of the beech can be seen substantially shorter than it is today. I think that the copper beech standing today is the smaller one with leaves, rather than the taller leafless tree behind – a tree with no leaves at this time of year is unlikely to have lasted another 114 years!

St Peter's Hll in 1900 - taken from A Pictoral History of Grantham
St Peter’s Hll in 1900 – taken from A Pictorial History of Grantham (no infringement of copyright intended)

In this next photograph, taken in the 1950’s, the tree is clearly developing into a more impressive specimen opposite the then Picture House cinema on the High Street.

St Peter's Hill in the 1950's with the Granada and Picture House cinemas on the left and the copper beech to the right. Source: Grantham Cinemas - When the Curtain Falls
St Peter’s Hill in the 1950’s with the Granada and Picture House cinemas on the left and the copper beech to the right. Source: Grantham Cinemas – When the Curtain Falls (no infringement of copyright intended)

This tree has clearly seen a lot in its time. The green upon which it is set has seen other parkland trees come and go, seen the houses to the north knocked down and the Guildhall erected in their place, seen a huge water tank placed upon the grass below during World War 2 and a bomb crater open up just tens of metres away, seen cars replace horses along the Great North Road which used to pass before it until the A1 bypass was built in 1962, and seen almost every one of Grantham’s citizens pass by for the last 150 years.

Water tank placed on the grass beneath the trees on St Peter's Hill during the war. Taken from Grantham at War (no infringement of copyright intended)
Water tank placed on the grass beneath the trees on St Peter’s Hill during the war. Taken from Grantham at War (no infringement of copyright intended)
The Belvoir Hunt on their annual boxing day meet-up at the top of St Peter's Hill with the Copper Beech in the background
The Belvoir Hunt on their annual boxing day meet-up at the top of St Peter’s Hill with the Copper Beech in the background

The tree is now set within its own enclosure, with a bark chip base to protect it from compaction and excessive wear around its root zone. It is surprisingly little vandalised for a beech tree in such a prominent position, with most of the marks simply the well-healed scars of previous branches lost. On a rainy day, the trunk develops stripes of dark and light where the water chooses to run. Mosses grow upon it and lichens etch circles upon its bark.

Rain patterns on beech bark

Beech trees can live for 300 years and this tree, which appears to be healthy and well protected is only middle-aged. There is every chance that it could see another 150 years of Grantham life pass before it yet.

Copper beech outside the Grantham Guildhall on St Peter's HillNote: Many thanks to the Grantham Library which has many books on aspects of local history as well as old photographs which allowed this short history of the tree to be compiled – an invaluable resource for Grantham!

Harlaxton to Woolesthorpe – a 9 mile walk via woods, water and Vikings

For something a little bit different, I thought I would share a walk which is one of my favourites in the area. It starts from the village of Harlaxton to the west of Grantham and takes you out across farmland, through woods, around Denton Reservoir, follows the canal for a while as well as a taking in stretch of the ancient track – the Viking Way. Best of all, the mid-way point of the walk has a choice of two different pubs where you can stop for lunch!

The walk is 9.3 miles in total and can be shortened in a few places if you consult an OS map. This includes cutting up the Viking Way to avoid the village of Woolesthorpe (and both of its pubs!) and starting in Denton rather than Harlaxton.

The numbers on the instructions relate to the map. I have also put in italics a few points of interest along the way.

Harlaxton to Woolesthorpe Walk Map
Harlaxton to Woolesthorpe Walk Map

I hope you enjoy this walk and that all the instructions are clear – let me know if you try the route out and anything interesting you see along the way!

Point 1

Start the walk in Harlaxton village – there is a layby where you can park opposite the medieval monument and phone box which are just beside the village shop. To reach the starting point from the A607, turn left into the main village (if you are coming from Grantham) and follow the road round until you find this location.

To begin the walk, head back up towards the A607 on the High Street.

As you pass the shop, you can see a field on the left-hand side which is an old orchard often grazed by a diminutive pony. There are often interesting wildflowers such as greater celendine to be seen along this edge in the summer months, as well as spring flowers such as forget-me-not earlier in the year.

Point 2

When you reach the A607, turn left and walk west for a few minutes until you reach the see a wide layby on the opposite side of the road. At the nearest end of this, you will see a metal gate and a footpath sign pointing you north along a track signed Peashill Lane. Take this track, being careful to close the gate properly behind you, continue past a farmstead and follow a rough track down a gentle slope.

There are a number of old ash trees lining this track as well as interesting wildflowers with the purple flowers of common vetch and black knapweed on the verge mingling with more arable weeds such as pineapple mayweed and field poppies on the edge of the crops.

When the footpath forks to the left or the right, take the right to do a slight kink but continue down towards the canal in the same direction as previously.

Point 3

On reaching the canal, turn left through a gate and head diagonally across to the opposite corner of the field where you will find a gate allowing you onto a wooden footbridge over a ditch.

This field is a great spot to see fieldfares and redwings which migrate into the country in the winter time and can be seen from around October onwards. They forage in the open countryside and will quickly strip the remaining red and purple berries from hawthorn and blackthorn.

Point 4

Having passed over the ditch, continue straight ahead to the right of the hedgerow before you until you pass over a stream and up a set of steps to reach Denton Reservoir.

Denton Reservoir is one of the best spots for waterfowl in the area – many species such as mallards, great crested grebes, coots and moorhens can be seen all year round but are joined by large numbers of tufted ducks and pochard during the winter. You might also spot cormorants and herons on this waterbody.

The reservoir is favoured by anglers and you might be lucky enough to spot species including pike and perch if you keep an eye on the water as you walk around.

At night, this is a great spot for bats with Daubenton’s and soprano pipistrelle foraging across the water. They can be best seen during a visit around half an hour after sunset on any warm evening between May and September. The much larger noctule bat flies high over the hedgerows and field edges which run around the perimeter of the reservoir, hunting insects on high rather than taking those which arise from the water.

Walk to the right around the edge of the reservoir, taking care as there are no rails or fences, until you reach a path which drops down to your right in a gentle slope to bring you to a little brook which leaves the reservoir here.

Point 5

Take this path down and then follow the brook away from the reservoir until you reach a point where the path turns left or right. Take the path to the left. Quite quickly, when the woods end on your right hand side, turn right along the boundary between the trees and the field.

Walk along the woodland edge for the length of a field, then pass into the next. Here, cross the field diagonally along a well trodden path until you reach a small carpark area and a bridge which passes over Grantham Canal.

Point 6

Cross over this bridge and then turn left to follow the tow-path of Grantham Canal as it winds through the landscape.

Grantham Canal
Grantham Canal

The canal is an excellent way to ‘reveal’ the landscape it passes through. It was built to be as flat as possible, to minimise the need for locks, cuttings or embankments. With this in mind, the meandering route and wide loops which the canal takes reveal quite subtle undulations in the landscape, as well as more prominent landforms. As you leave the bridge, you will notice a wide loop which the canal takes around a field and, looking back, you notice the way that this farmland rises up.

You will pass under 3 more bridges as you proceed. The first is the road bridge for Casthorpe Road which links Denton and Sedgebrook. The second is an old canal bridge similar to the first which you can take left to follow the Viking Way up Brewers Grave – this route will take you all the way to Oakham to the left or Hull to the right. The third is a small footbridge which takes a footpath up to the road between Denton and Woolesthorpe.

The hedgerows which flank the towpath to the right provide a feast of blackberries and sloes in the autumn. There are also hawthorn berries which are also edible although not entirely pleasant in my experience!

If you look to the water, you can often spot shoals of juvenile fish including roach and dace as well as their larger parents further out into the channel.

Dragonflies and damselflies are to be found in abundance along here in the summer right through to September. The dragonflies are usually much more substantial, and hold their wings out flat when at rest, as though they were soaking up the sun. Damselflies, often an iridescent blue, hold their wings together, as though they were making themselves as unobtrusive as possible.

Walk along the canal until you pass the locks and reach another bridge, just before the pub.

Point 7

Cross the bridge just before the Rutland Arms (or the Dirty Duck depending on your preference).

The pub does good standard pub food and offers a range of ales and other drinks for refreshment – a stop on one of their canal-side picnic benches is often a welcome rest at this point. This pub can get very busy, especially on nice days, so bear in mind that there is also another pub at Point 8.

Then follow the track away from the canal up to the road where you will turn left towards the main village of Woolesthorpe. There is a pavement along this section. Cross and continue in the same direction when you reach a crossroads and turn left when you reach Worthington Lane.

Point 8

Walk up Worthington Lane until you come to a second pub called The Chequers.

The Chequers offers a slightly more refined fare than the Rutland Arms – think ciabatta rather than sandwich! They also do a good range of drinks and there is a large beer garden at the back which is always a pleasant place to sit for an hour or two.

If you walk past the frontage of the pub, you will see a very optimistic cricket pitch ahead of you – walk down the right-hand side of this until you reach a stile. Cross the stile and head up the hill, keeping the woodland on your left hand side.

This is a steep section but offers fantastic views back across Woolesthorpe and out across the Vale of Belvoir. You can see just how flat the land is all the way out to the Trent to the east. Straight ahead, you can see Belvoir Castle on the top of the hill.

View from the top of Woolesthorpe Hill
View from the top of Woolesthorpe Hill

Point 9

When you reach a stile on your left hand side, go through it and follow the footpath past an area of recently cleared woodland. When you reach the road, turn right and follow it to a bend. This section does not have a pavement and cars can travel quite fast along it so walking on the wide grass verge is recommended! Luckily the walk only takes a minute or two.

Point 10

When you reach an s-bend in the road, you will see a house on your right and ornamental gates which lead into the Belvoir Estate. On your left is a track which takes you down to the canal – this is where the bridge we encountered along the canal would bring you to. Instead, we want to take the track to the right which takes you away from the canal and through an area of young woodland. This is the Viking Way.

The track winds along between arable fields, bordered by hedgerows with sweet chestnut trees as standards all along. If you like chestnuts, it is well worth bringing a bag along to fill if you are planning a walk along here in late September or early October.

The ease of walking along here does vary, depending largely on whether the various 4×4’s or trail bikes have been obeying the signs and keeping off. The restrictions on them vary but they are often permitted to use the route at certain times of the year when the disturbance and damage they cause can be enough to make it tough going for much of the rest of the year.

Point 11

The track will soon reach a railway bridge and a row of houses will appear just afterwards on the right hand side. Cross over the bridge and turn immediately left to drop down the bank and follow the path of the old railway to the left.

You will pass a damp pine plantation to the left where woodpeckers can often be heard drumming on the trees or cackling their cry. On the right hand side soon after, you will pass a lake where you might be lucky enough to spot a heron stalking the shallows.

On the approach to a second bridge, where we leave this section, you will see a lot of young ash trees lining the sides of the old railway line and forming a light canopy over the track. Ash is a relatively quick growing species and often colonises abandoned locations such as this. Walking along this section, take a moment to consider how different the landscape would be if ash were to go the way of English Elm as a result of Ash Dieback disease.

View across the fields to Denton Church
View across the fields to Denton Church

Point 12

When you reach another bridge, take the track which brings you up to the right of it, just before the bridge itself, and come back out onto the road. Turn right and follow the road down and into the village of Denton. Again, we are on a stretch of road with no pavement and potentially fast cars so do be careful for a few hundred metres until you reach the pavements which carry you safely through the village.

As you enter the village, just beside the Denton sign, there is a patch of butterbur on the left hand side. The great wide leaves and tall flower spikes look rather prehistoric and are very noticeable in May when they are in flower. This is a species often associated with wet habitats and the stream which passes just beside these plants explains their position here.

As you pass through the village, you will see the village hall on the right hand side. This is one of the buildings from the WWI encampment at Belton Estate during the war when a machine gun training ground was located there.

The road will bend left, then shortly right to head uphill towards the A607. Walk along until you see a footpath sign indicating you to turn off to the left.

Point 13

Follow the footpath down a narrow jitty between two hedgerows and out into a field. Walk ahead and slightly right to cross a stream at the bottom of the field where there is a bridge to the right of dense willow. There are often cows in this field so be sure to keep dogs on leads.

As you enter the field, take a look to the left where you can see an impressive old oak in a private field behind the houses as well as a beech on the field boundary.

After crossing the stream, head back uphill to a stile which opens onto a track.

Point 14

Turn right along the track for about 20m, then leave it again over a stile to your left. Follow the path diagonally across the field to reach a gap in the hedgerow at the far corner.

If you look to your left as you walk, you can see the canal which you just walked and another nice view out across the Vale of Belvoir.

View from the A607 - the ladybird balloon is a familar sight on nice summer's evening across the Vale of Belvoir
View from the A607 – the ladybird balloon is a familar sight on nice summer’s evening across the Vale of Belvoir

Go through the gap, (carefully!) cross the A607 and go straight over the stile into the field opposite. Then take the track diagonally to your left to cut off the corner of the field and reach a gate which will bring you back into the village of Harlaxton. Walk through the two gates and then continue along the road which the footpath becomes.

Point 15

When you meet another road at a T-junction, instead cross over and go through a gate into the field. Cross this field along the footpath and go through two more gates to bring you out into the churchyard of Harlaxton Church.

Walk across the front of the 13th Centuary church (look out for the gargoyles as you go) towards a large copper beech.

This is recorded in the Woodland Trust register of coronation trees which were planted to mark the coronation of the queen in 1963.

To the left of the beech is a small carpark and, just to the left of this, a track which leads you down the side and brings you back out opposite the monument at the start of your walk.

Reptiles in Grantham

One of the main aspects of my job as an ecologist is conducting reptile surveys – sadly I’ve never conducted one in or around Grantham but I would love to know what can be found in the local area. If you have seen any reptiles, I would love to know – as would ARG UK who have the Record Pool where you can record your sighting.

The standard way to survey for reptiles is to lay down sheets of refugia – often metal tins, carpet tiles or pieces of roofing felt are used – in suitable reptile habitat, then come back and check to see any reptiles which are either sheltering underneath them or using them to warm up as the sun heats the refugia. This works very well with some species but is less successful at detecting others, such as adders. An alternative way is to approach suitable basking spots, such as log piles, stones or nice south-facing ground early in the day (before it gets too warm and the reptiles move off to forage) and see if you can spot one before it spots you!

Grass snake

The one species I have encountered around Grantham is the grass snake, this is a non-venomous species which is often found associated with water where it hunts amphibians and small fish. One individual I have seen in the Grantham area was along Grantham Canal on the approach to Denton Reservoir and most recently another along a footpath which passes through Croxton Park but I would not be surprised if it were also present within the town of Grantham itself. It is quite an adaptable species and can often be found in gardens, especially if you have a pond. If you do see one, you have no reason to fear it although its main defence mechanism is to secrete an awful smelling substance which you will be able to smell on your hands for a good while after so please don’t touch! They also do a rather disturbing (and in my opinion overacted) job of playing dead, only uncoiling and moving away when they are sure the danger has passed.

The most characteristic feature of a grass snake is the yellow patches on its neck. It could be confused with the adder, but lacks the zig-zag pattern on the back as well as the red eyes. The only other species you may encounter which looks similar is the slow worm but this is a smaller creature (actually a legless lizard rather than a snake) which is a brown/gold colour. This page has some great pointers to help you identify a grass snake.

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Common lizard

The common lizard is another species which may occur in the Grantham area although I do not know of any confirmed sightings since 1979. This is the only lizard you are likely to encounter in this part of the country and is therefore difficult to mistake for anything else! They are small and often shy creatures whose presence is most often only registered as a rustle in the undergrowth as they scurry out of sight. They are quite a common species in some parts of the country and can certainly be found in north Nottinghamshire around the Sherwood Forest area.

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Slow worm

The slow worms is actually a legless lizard – this website on Rushcliffe Wildlife suggests they are present in small colonies only a few miles to the north of Grantham. In some parts of the country they are very common with strongholds in the west country where they are regularly encountered in gardens, most often when sheltering under rocks or logs, and are a welcome addition to the pest-control brigade, feeding on small invertebrate prey including small slugs.

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Adder

The final species which could possibly be encountered in the vicinity of Grantham is the adder – our only poisonous snake. These have been recorded historically but not for almost 40 years now – the last record relates to Salter’s Ford Valley from 1979 according to the data search in this document which I turned up through a quick google search. The habitat typical of adders includes open heathland and moorland as well as rough countryside associated with forest edges. Due to the intensity of agriculture around Grantham, these populations are likely to be isolated and decreases in the availability of habitat in the last 40 years may well have resulted in the population dying out. There is a possibility that they may persist in some of the more isolated locations out to the south of the town towards Stamford.

They will bite if harassed (or trodden on) so do take care if you see anything which you suspect may be an adder. However they will only do so under provocation and in self defense – they will not attack people without good reason! Reports of adders along canals and waterways such as Grantham Canal are almost always a mid-identification of a harmless grass snake which has a great affinity for water where it will swim to hunt. More details on identification can be found here.

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The other native species – smooth snake and sand lizard – are very specific in their habitat requirements and would not be found in or around Grantham.

I hope this quick guide is useful and don’t forget to record any sightings of reptiles or amphibians in the Grantham area on the Record Pool.

If you’re looking for reptile surveys in and around Grantham and the Midlands in general, check out Landscape Science Consultancy’s website here!

Mistletoe in the Vale of Belvoir

On a walk along the Grantham canal through Redmile in the Vale of Belvoir, we spotted this very distinctive shape in a tree growing somewhere in the village – sadly it looked to be on private property. The photograph is terrible but this is mistletoe, a very common species in the south and west of the country but not something I have ever seen around Grantham before – the populations along the main road running through Burton Joyce was the closest colony I was aware of.

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Mistletoe – latin name Viscum album is a hemi-parasitic plant, a half parasite if you will. Unlike some parasites, it does some of the work for itself, hence the green pigmentation of the chlorophyll. It does however take a range of other nutrients from the tree it is growing upon although they are unlikely to do damage to an established tree. The common name gives a clue about its mode of establishment – ‘mistle’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon word for dung and ‘tan’ derives from the word for twig* . Birds, most notably the mistle thrush but also species such as the blackcap, eat the berries and excrete them onto the branch afterwards. The seeds germinate here and the distinctive globe of mistletoe develops.

The distribution of mistletoe in the UK is very much to the south and west where it can be very common, particularly favouring apple orchards which has led to the myth that the predominance of orchards in the west country explains the distribution. This is not the case however -apple is one of the most favoured hosts and also happens to be grown in the way which suits mistletoe best – in open spaces rather than denser woodlands. Around 200 tree species can act as hosts however the tolerance of mistletoe for the less optimal ones declines as the suitability of other conditions deteriorate. It is these other conditions – the winter minimum and summer maximum temperatures – which actually limit the plant to a rarity in much of the country*. The mistletoe likes true seasons, cold winrers and hot summers as well as humid springs to germinate.

This awful quality photograoh is not the only record of mistletoe in the area fortunately, this website has photographs of a number of other specimens in the area, noteably in Bottesford only a few miles away. Why they have developed here and where the population origionated from, I do not know. But it is a lovely sight – this time of year is ideal to get out and spot them but hurry, it won’t be long until they’re lost amongst the leaves of their hosts!

February Hibernation Survey at Harlaxton

Last Sunday was one of those beautiful days when everybody feels spring is just around the corner. The garden was filled with birdsong and sunshine, neighbours decided it was finally time to venture out and sweep those autumn leaves, daffodil bulbs bulged yellow at their tips where flowers are just waiting to appear.

What better day to descend into a sealed up tunnel, feeling the temperature drop steadily on a headlamp-lit thermometer, to search for hibernating bats!? Along with another member of the Lincolnshire Bat Group, we gallantly left the sunlight behind to see what we could find.

Entering the tunnels

In the past we have come across hibernating barbastelle bats, a rare species in the UK and here, at almost the northerly limit of their range, but sadly this time they were absent from the deep cracks which staircase down the brickwork where the tunnel curves.

Several years ago the Bat Group put up boxes in the tunnel, to provide a greater range of roosting opportunities and in here we did find some bats – two boxes had brown long-eared bats sleeping soundly inside, their long ears tucked behind their wings with only the tragus – the fleshy projection within the ears – apparent.

Hibernating brown long-eared bat

Only one of these bats was present during the January survey which means that some time in the last month, the other has flown and found this as a new place to enter torpor. This is not uncommon, bats will rouse during warmer winter weather and will often feed briefly before returning to their torpid state.
Along with the bats were around 60-70 peacock butterflies, all with their wings tightly closed and apparently oblivious to our torchlight as we passed by, careful not to disturb them. Many had damaged pieces of wing from last year – the first butterflies of the year are often tattered old veteran tortoiseshells, peacocks and brimstones.

Hibernating peacock butterflies

A number of herald moths were also present, including the pair pictured below who appeared to be hibernating upon a spiders web! I would love to hear any feedback on this interpretation – I do not think they have fallen prey to the spider as this same pair were present last September when I checked the boxes were ready for the winter and are apparently still alive and well! They will take flight when the weather warms, sometime between March and May.

Hibernating herald moths

If you are interested in joining the local bat group, visit their webpage for details – there are events throughout the year that you can take part in. For details of your local group if you are outside of Lincolnshire, the BCT webpage has all the info.