The story of Britain's trees can only be told with any real certainty from the end of the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago. This is thanks to the fact that pollen is remarkably well preserved in peat and lake sediments and so the grains can be extracted and identified and dated through radiocarbon techniques.
These pollen records show that the earliest colonisers of our Island were mostly fast-growing species like birch, aspen, willow, pine and hazel. They were followed by oak, ash, lime, holly and alder.
Some of the trees we are most familiar with and would name as iconic British species are in fact much more recent additions. Beech for example didn't turn up until 5000 years ago. The same goes for Hornbeam, and Sycamore came later still, with Oliver Rackham (God Of The Forests as far as many Ecologists are concerned) arguing that it didn't turn up until the 16th century (there are no old Celtic or Saxon names for the tree).
Juniper has been here since the Ice left. It is one of only three native evergreens (the other two being Scots Pine and Yew) and it can be found in the South on chalk and in the North on limestone and moorland. Across Europe it is a common and widespread tree, but here in the UK (particularly in the South) it is not faring so well. The Native Juniper is in general decline and is therefore a BAP listed priority species whose incidence is being mapped and recorded to enable ecologists to work together to save it.
I spent this morning on Stockbridge Down where there is a reasonable population of Junipers, helping to manage the habitat around them to prevent them being swamped by faster growing scrub species like Blackthorn, Dogwood and Brambles.
A neat ID trick with Dogwood is to break a leaf in half and look for the small strings that hold it together. If they are present, it's dogwood, if not it's probably one of the buckthorns that look very similar.
We had the obligatory Bonfire (welcome now because the weather has turned cold)....
And got some of the background on the conservation efforts that are going on to help keep these trees alive and well. Cat, the NT ranger for the Down, has been working on a Juniper Project with some of her volunteers for the past 2-3 years and she is already seeing the results of this. One of her innovations has been to put cages under the female trees (Junipers are either male or female) so that the berries can fall into a protected space when they drop in September, and remain protected during the two years it can take them to germinate, and then the several years it takes them to grow and reach a height where they aren't in danger of herbivory (great word) ie being eaten by rabbits and deer.
Juniper berries have traditionally been used to flavour gin (which is frankly a good enough reason to look after them, without all the ecology-related stuff :o)) but the tree also plays host to 64 invert species, 30 of which are specific to Juniper, with most of the others only additionally occurring on Pine or Yew, so they provide crucial habitat too. For example, Juniper is mother to 16 moth species, among them the tiny Juniper Carpet Moth (which is no threat whatsoever to carpets). This moth is rarely seen, but the good news is that the upsurge in cultivated Junipers in gardens since the 1960s means it has massively increased its distribution range. Other species that specialise on Native Juniper have not been so lucky and face extinction if the native trees are not saved, so this is important work.
We are all used to mucking in when it comes to practical conservation work, but this morning I forgot my gloves so had to borrow Fi's while she had a break. Other than that I took photos of everyone else working :o)
I also found what I think are Mullein plants. Over a hundred of them were growing in the Juniper clearings. You may or may not recall my involvement this summer in a Butterfly Conservation project to record mullein, because it is the sole food plant for the nationally scarce Striped Lychnis Moth (you can read about it here). If this is Mullein growing on the Down, it is going to be important to record it and then look for caterpillars next year and record those too.....
I'll leave you with a small but typical snapshot of the other end of my day in the form of L last night suddenly announcing he had a Science Test paper he was meant to have done over half term due to be handed in the next morning. This was despite me asking several times through half term whether he had any homework to do and being assured he hadn't.
It was ten pm by then and I was thinking about turning in for the night. Instead, I breathed deeply, squared my shoulders and sat calmly down to help. Fortunately, this homework was perfect for me because it was about the Carbon and Nitrogen Cycles, and I wrote a paper on those last year. We got it done (passing through tears, furies, colourful and imaginative curses against all setters of homework (these should probably have been graded 'A' for their inventiveness), scribbly, unreadable-because-grumpy writing, which had to be crossed out and done again (cue further fury swiftly followed by despair), teeth gnashing and threats of imminent computer removal along the way) and L was finally able to go to bed about 10.30.
Only to reappear 5 minutes later saying he couldn't find his bus pass. Which resulted in repeated searches of the entire house, the garden (pitch black and by now freezing cold), the car and the garage, under all the beds and behind the sofas, inside blankets, trouser and shirt pockets, the dog's beds, the log pile, the fruit bowl, the washing machine, L's school bag, M's work bag, my college bag, Poppy's favourite hiding places, inside shoes and wellies, winter coats, and for some inexplicable reason, the fridge and the freezer.
All to no avail.
L, doubtless able to tell from my face that this was not my idea of a soothing pre-going-to-bed routine, was telling me he could probably get a replacement card, I was frantically going through wallets and purses trying to scrape together sufficient change to pay for the bus because I had to be in college by nine the next morning and wouldn't have time to get any change for him in the morning, all the time thinking why does this always have to happen at 11 at night?????
At last we gave up the search and I admitted defeat. L brushed his teeth, got into his PJs, climbed into bed. I kissed him goodnight and he got out a book to read. I was on my way downstairs to let the dogs out for a wee and tidy up the kitchen before going to bed myself when the pile of discarded damp school uniform in the bathroom started shouting that it needed picking up.
I went in and as I bent to pick up the trousers and shirt, what did I see lying neatly on top of the carelessly abandoned pile of clothes? The bus pass. Of course.
I went back into L's room.
What's this then? I said, waving it in front of him.
Oh, he said in a mildly interested voice. Where was it?
On the bathroom floor, I said, in what I thought was an unreasonably calm voice, all things considered. On top of the clothes which you'd taken off an hour earlier when you had your bath.
Oh, says L mildly. Yes you're right: I'd forgotten I put it there.
I went to bed, by which point the soothing effects of the wine, the fire and the book I had been reading earlier seemed to belong to a different lifetime :o)