Mushrooms on Composted Bark

A Year of Mushrooms

This year, with such a damp autumn, there have been some wonderful fungi at Sun Rising.  Half hidden under fallen leaves, or in areas of longer wet grass, sometimes tucked up against the post of a tree plaque, there are so many different varieties.  My ability to identify them barely begins, but perhaps that allows my wonder and delight to be undimmed by knowledge, to be childlike and free.  There are tall shaggy white ones and big fat plate-shaped ones.  There are deep russet-brown ones, dark chocolate-brown ones, pinky ones, and every hue from cream to yellow.

Yesterday, as we began our tree planting, with 42 new trees put in along the track beyond the cairn, we came across a wonderful display.  Under the tarp covering our heap of composted bark we found mushrooms to make anyone pause.

Mushrooms on Composted Bark

Mushrooms on Composted Bark

Of course, we need to be using the composted bark: over the coming three weeks of tree planting, with each tree needing its doughnut of mulch, we’ll make a pretty big dent in the heap.  But the mushrooms we see are only the ‘fruits’ of the fungi organism.  The body of the fungi is underground, as a network of mycelium – in this case, it is spreading through the composted bark.  The mushrooms will have shed their spores or ‘seeds’ into the bark.  As we break it up, putting the bark around each little sapling, we’ll be spreading the fungi around the new woodland areas.

Having written that, my mind is now full of questions!  There’s so much to learn.  I’m off to dig out a book on fungi …

Guelder Rose and Field Maple in Autumn Colours

In Search of Red and Gold

What inspires me to write a post for this blog is most often the simple beauty I come across at Sun Rising each and every day.  The changes, brought by the turning of the seasons, the shift from dry to wet, from warm to cold, the effects of wind, the presence of the wildlife, all fill my mind as I walk around the site.  When some image is captured in a photograph, it feels only fair to share it.  I am aware too that many who read these words are not able to get to the natural burial ground often, and value the chance to see some of what I do each day.

Sometimes those beautiful moments are harder to find.  Sometimes the days are long, the world seems to have gone mad, nature itself seems too harsh, and it takes an effort to find peace: my coat drenched with chilly rain, my boots heavy with mud, I shake myself, striving to dislodge the filters of tiredness, reaching to see clearly the beauty of nature around me.

Guelder Rose and Field Maple in Autumn Colours

Guelder Rose and Field Maple in Autumn Colours

The young woodland at Sun Rising is now coming into its richest autumn colours.  This year, they aren’t brilliant.  We’ve not had the deep frosts needed to destroy the chlorophyll and turn the leaves yellow and gold.  Dry, bright, crisp-cold days are what bring out the reds, russets and purples; instead, the wet weather has meant many trees are losing leaves without much of an autumn display.  Some of our younger trees are also still recovering from almost 18 dry months , from the start of summer 2018 through to this damp October, and as a result they have shed their leaves early.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of wonder.  The blending colours in this photograph, from the field maple’s pale greens, yellows and gold, into the gorgeous reds of the guelder rose, caught my eye yesterday.  Between trees with leaves still a dark matt-green, the ivory bark of the silver birch with tender leaves now yellowing, there is the guelder rose with its shamelessly rich burgundy.  Its scarlet viburnum berries, the rose hips and deep red apples, all offer moments to pause and gaze, to breathe and remember: even in the madness of this world, there is beauty.

New Interpretation Board at Sun Rising, 2019

New Interpretation Board

In the process of creating a nature reserve and natural burial ground, over a number of acres and a number of years, it is inevitable that ideas will change. The first design map, imagining what the site would look like, was drawn up in 2005: it was a beautiful possible landscape, with curves and loops, copses and parkland trees.  Yet, immediately we started to work on the land, the land began to teach us.  It didn’t take long before we were simplifying our ideas, learning every step of the way.

Since the first version was put in place by the main car park, in 2006, the interpretation board has been updated and replaced once, in 2012.  However, over the past year or so, when showing visitors around the site, I’ve had to explain how its map was in fact sadly out of date. I was – I promised them – in the process of designing the new one. It is a relief to be able to announce that it is now in place.

New Interpretation Board at Sun Rising, 2019

New Interpretation Board at Sun Rising, 2019

The design, slightly altered, is just as simple, but the map shows more detail.  You can now see just where the areas of wildflower meadow are, and will be, as you can with the woodland, hedgerows and copses. You can also see where we will be leaving a wide grassy ride.  The cairn, Tyr’s stone, the butterfly stones and other features are identified.  Some of the established paths are on there, although others will be added.

You’ll notice that the north-eastern corner is not complete.  In years to come, what is now the top car park will become the main entrance, and we are still in the process of designing exactly how that will be.  When our ideas are clearer, we’ll be showing you the plans and asking for your feedback.  And when those plans start coming into being, of course, it’ll be time for a new interpretation board!

Until then, I look at the photograph above.  The wildflower meadow is mown, but for small pockets for little creatures to hide in.  The trees are a dark dull green, some leaves starting to turn and fall.  The sky is pale.  It’s a dreary autumn day in the heart of England, damp and chilly.  But even on such a day, the map shows hope and promise: of wildflower meadows in full bloom, butterflies, bees, and the skylark in full song.  It won’t be long – winter is before us, but summer will return …

Wild Service Tree Berries

Little Brown Applenut Berries

The wild service tree is one of the really special trees we plant here at Sun Rising. Another of its common names is the checkers or chequers tree. Sorbus torminalis, it’s in the same genus as the rowan and the whitebeams, but it is quite a different creature. Although native to England, and particularly the heavy clay of South Warwickshire, many people have never heard of this magnificent species.

Wild Service Tree Berries

Wild Service Tree Berries

Its blossom in spring is not extraordinary: handfuls of little white flowers, often high in the canopy. The trees don’t start flowering until they reach around seven years old, and it takes another year or so of maturing for the tree to set its blossom, growing the equally insignificant berries. To me they look like tiny little apples, in a rich nut-brown. If the summer is hot enough to ripen them fully, apparently they can taste rather like dates – I’ve not yet tried one, but the birds seem to like them late in the year.  When the tree really comes into its own is in the autumn when, more extravagantly than any of our native trees, its large palmate leaves can break into a thousand hues of gold, through bronze and maroon, to shameless scarlet.

More importantly, and fascinating as a history of this tree, before hops arrived from the continent, it was these little brown berries that were used to flavour our beer.  There’s a debate as to whether the common name of checkers tree was taken from the name of old pubs, or if pubs were named after the checkers trees that were so integral to the beer: I like the latter.  The patterning on the silvery bark can look wonderfully checkered as the tree matures.

Centuries ago, it was a common tree in this landscape, but as old woodlands were felled, it was one of the species that wasn’t readily replaced. It has a beautiful fine wood for timber, and can grow to 10m – 25m tall.  But the truth is that it just didn’t grow as easily as the Warwickshire weed that was the English elm, nor as readily as ash, maple or oak.  Across the continent, in warmer climes, the berries ripen sufficiently each summer to set their seed, but in England the wild service tends to spread through suckers. Once you’ve cleared the old wood, there’s no chance for those suckers to grow.  With hops taking over its role in brewing, there weren’t enough reasons to keep replanting.

Its importance in Warwickshire, however, is now becoming clearer.  With the large elms lost, and ash die-back killing these beautiful trees too, and with the oak under threat, some tree experts wonder if the wild service tree may be the next significant large tree of our countryside.  It does need a little help to get going from seed, and it can look a little straggly in its first decade, getting its roots established in the soil.  But we are hoping you agree, this tree is really worth the time and trouble: perhaps one day it will be bringing its glorious autumn colour to fields and hedgerows all over Warwickshire, and who knows, perhaps some small brewer will again try the little nut-brown berries to flavour a local beer …

The Roundhouse across Betty's Meadow, Mown

The Autumn Meadow

The summer is over, harvest coming to its end and autumn most definitely creeping in.  As the guelder rose leaves flush to scarlet and burgundy, and the silver birch pale to yellow, the meadow has been transformed – from a thick brown tangle of seedheads to fresh stubble.

The Roundhouse across Betty's Meadow, Mown

The Roundhouse across Betty’s Meadow, Mown

All the main areas we have planned to cut have now been cut.  This includes the wildflower meadows and specific sections of grassland.  There are short stretches of ruderal and tussock margin around the edges of the field which will be cut back to allow space for regeneration and fresh growth next year, and most of the woodland burial areas will be tidied up with another strim before winter.  But otherwise we are done.  It feels tidy and clear.  The summer was wonderful, but there is a relief too in feeling its heavy growth lift and go.

A quick thank you to the sturdy volunteers who came – at very short notice – to rake the last of the hay off the wildflower meadows before this rain set in on Sunday.  That was hugely appreciated!

If Sun Rising were a part of a mixed farming concern, all the grassland would have been cut back in July, producing a crop of hay or haylage that would have been fed to livestock through the winter.  At the latest, the wildflower meadow could have been left until mid August: at that point, what we cut would have been of some value to horses, or (the extra chewy bits) donkeys.  In previous years we have taken bales up to Redwings Horse Rescue Centre. 

This year, however, we made a decision not to cut until September: we wanted to ensure the maximum seedfall.  It means that what we have cut is too thin and dry to be fodder.  A good deal of it we are composting onsite: it’s an experiment, to see if we might create a larger amount of compost than we do from tribute flowers in the compost bins.  We’ll let you know how it gets on.  You can certainly see the heap steaming on a cool day!

Wasps approaching their Nest at Sun Rising

The Wonderful Wasp

Back in the spring, a large wasp was seen buzzing around the cabin.  A queen of our most common social wasp, Vespula vulgaris, she was looking for a place to start a nest.  When she had made her decision – between the oak boards by the back door of the cabin – we debated whether we should let her stay.  We decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Wasps approaching their Nest at Sun Rising

Wasps approaching their Nest at Sun Rising

They have such a bad reputation, but these social wasps really are wonderful!  Along with many other insects that we civilized humans don’t like, they play a crucial role in our environment.  The adult wasps only eat sugars, where possible wild sugars from flower nectar (but any sugars will do), and in their search for flowers they act as pollinators in the same way that bees and other insects do.  They also capture a huge number of small spiders, greenfly, aphids, caterpillars and other insects, which they feed to their young in the nest.  They play a crucial role in balancing our ecosystems: they are one of nature’s pest controllers.

So our busy queen laid her eggs, tucked away between the boards.  Soon, the first young worker wasps (infertile females) were buzzing around, and as the summer grew warmer we had a happy stream of wasps to-ing and fro-ing from the cabin wall.  Now and then they would buzz over, complaining about our proximity, but on the whole they got along perfectly well right beside us.  If we didn’t pay them much attention, they didn’t pay us much either.

Yes, they do sting, but only if they feel threatened or confused, only in defence.  We’ve been stung twice, and it’s irritating and itchy!  When a wasp stings, it emits a scent that other wasps will smell, making them alert to the possible threat, so it’s important to step away.  We may not understand why they feel threatened, but we have to accept when they do.  We adjust our behaviour, giving them space to feel safe once again.

Mostly wasps sting in late summer and early autumn.  This is because the nest’s social structure is changing.  As summer nears its end, a small number of the eggs in the nest will develop into fertile males, called drones, and fertile females.  The particular hormone that maintains the colony’s cohesion stops being produced, and these fertile wasps begin to swarm out of the nest.  There’s a feel of uncertainty around the nest: they need more space to explore, more quiet to feel OK.   

Once they’ve mated, the drones slip away to die, their work complete.  In the nest, as autumn chills arrive, the worker wasps and the old queen also die.   It is only the young pregnant females who survive: they will find somewhere quiet, alone, sheltered, to hibernate through the winter.  Not all will make it – but those who do will emerge in the spring to look for somewhere new where they might set up their own nest.  

Nature isn’t always easy, but learning how it works does help.  I’ve enjoyed our summer, with our busy, curious, helpful, beautiful – albeit sometimes grumpy – housemates.  

Main Car Park Resurfaced with Gold Gravel

Introducing the Crunch

When we first created the main car park and laid the stone tracks at Sun Rising, the question of what material to use was a key issue.  We decided to go with the most local stone: Hornton ironstone, from the quarries just up the hill.  This would bring to the natural burial ground the rich red-gold of our Cotswold stone, minimise any necessary miles of haulage, and keep business local.  It was a little chunky for a while, but with vehicles driving over it, with frost and sun, the stone gently broke down, creating a perfect surface.  Most of the tracks through the site have also reached – or are on the way to reaching – that state too.

The main car park, however, gets too much use.  Instead of remaining perfect, the ironstone started to break down to the point where, in wet weather, it was getting muddy with puddles.  In icy weather, it could be slippery.  A further coating of small stone was a short-term fix, these breaking down into dust all too quickly.  Last winter, although the land desperately needed rain, the dry weather helped us get through without too many problems.  A solution needed to be found.

Main Car Park Resurfaced with Gold Gravel

Main Car Park Resurfaced with Gold Gravel

Over the past few days we have resurfaced with a ‘gold’ gravel, again from a local quarry.  Our hope is that this will remedy the situation with regard to those cold and wet weather problems of mud, puddles and ice.  We hope you like the look of it too: it is lighter than the ironstone, but not too bright, and over time the ironstone dust should darken it further.

We are aware, however, that there are a few setbacks to gravel.  Although it is not thick, it can be harder to walk on for those with limited mobility and tricky for wheelchairs: please let us know if you need help.  Heavy vehicles can leave ridges, but we’ll keep an eye on this and rake when and where we need to do so.  Finally, and what we were hoping to avoid, there is a crunch.  Cars and feet are no longer quiet as they were on ironstone.

However, that crunch does create a marked difference: when you walk through the gate into the burial ground, you walk from gravel to ironstone.  As such, you go from noise to a quiet underfoot. It’s a quiet that somehow amplifies the peace of the nature reserve.  In that respect, it’s rather wonderful.

If you have any queries, or concerns, do let us know.

Path through Growing Woodland

Going to Seed

There comes a point in life when age creeps up and very few of us can maintain the elegance of younger years. As I look over the wildflower meadow now, into the woodland and along the hedgerows, it is clear that summer’s glory is now behind us. The meadow is going to seed and starting to look rather tatty. The dark green leaves on the trees are starting to lose their lustre. The paths, enjoying the mixture of sunshine and showers, are still lush and growing, but elsewhere the grasses are drying and falling. It’s all past its best and autumn is on the way.  I can relate to that very well …

Path through Growing Woodland

Path through Growing Woodland and Drying Grasses

This week the serious end-of-season clearing will begin.  The new wildflower meadow, between the roundhouse track and the pond, will be cut.  Although not everything has gone to seed, important for our timing is the need to cut the creeping thistle.  What has established well this year will come back next year.  Once the meadow has been cut, we’ll see the patches that remain bare, not having recovered from last summer’s extensive drought: we’ll reseed where it seems sensible.

The established wildflower meadow, together with areas of grassland, will be cut over the coming few weeks, in between the still-welcome bursts of rain.  Before we know it, September’s golden sunsets will be with us, with ripening apples and blackberries.  For now, though, in the midst of nature’s late summer tattiness, we continue to celebrate each little butterfly and hoverfly, dancing silently over the drying seedheads.

Rosy-striped Knot-horn (Oncocera semirubella) at Sun Rising

Our Little Rare Rosy

Throughout the year, our wonderful moth-ers (as opposed to mothers) come to run surveys at Sun Rising.  During the summer months, that is every month, the last one being at the end of July.  Everyone will be aware that there are far fewer moths than there used to be in this world, so every little whisper of good news that emerges from one of our surveys is well worth shouting out about.

Two moth species were found at Sun Rising that have never before been recorded in our little square of England!  The Pyrausta nigrata has a common name of the wavy-barred sable.  It’s a beautiful little moth, dark chocolate brown with tan flecks and a white wave across the wings, and we suspect it has been drawn to the site by the growing patches of wild marjoram.

Rosy-striped Knot-horn (Oncocera semirubella) at Sun Rising

Rosy-striped Knot-horn (Oncocera semirubella) at Sun Rising

Oncocera semirubella is an even more important find: the rosy-striped knot-horn moth, this is an exquisite pink and gold moth which feeds on birdsfoot trefoil and clovers.  This one is a Notable B species on a national level, which means it is really rather rare throughout the country.  We’re very happy to have it!  The photograph above was taken by one of our fabulous moth-ers, Peter Beasley.  Thank you, Peter!  It’s an exciting find and worth celebrating.

Lammas Meadow Flowers

Lammas Meadow

The first of the cereal crops are now beginning to be brought in around us.  Before long, the vast combine harvesters will be humming through the day and night.  The barley is almost ready, and some fields are already cut to stubble and dotted with huge round bales.   It is Lammastide – the festival when our ancestors celebrated the first loaf of the new harvest.

Harvest is reflected here at the natural burial ground and nature reserve: the high point of summer has now passed.  Over the past three weeks, we have been topping the grasses in new woodland burial areas where they were tall and thick, but most grasses have now dropped their seed and are naturally beginning to die back.  The same is true of the midsummer flowering plants, the oxeye daisies, vetches and trefoils, all of which are mostly gone to seed.  Later flowers, the knapweeds, betony, meadow vetchling and field scabious are still in flower, drawing in sunshine and rain amidst the browning meadow.  There are pockets of wild basil, lady’s bedstraw and the last of the roses are blooming.  In the newly developing meadow, the white and pink yarrow is vitalised with splashes of the last annuals – blue cornflowers, bright yellow corn marigolds and scarlet poppies.

Lammas Meadow Flowers

Lammas Meadow Flowers

In the growing woodland, the guelder rose is starting to fruit, with rich deep orange berries.  Provoked too by the lack of rain over the last 15 months, the first leaves of the viburnums, cherries and birches are beginning to turn.  On wet days, with heavy cloud, we can almost begin to feel autumn coming.  But not yet!  We aim not to cut the meadow for another month, allowing all the wildflowers to go to seed, by which time it will look wonderfully tatty!

As July slips into August, it is a softer, slower time than the hectic growth of high summer, yet it can also be heavy and chaotic in places.  These are days when perhaps we must find extra patience with ourselves, and with others.  It’s a time to pause, watch the butterflies, and just let life be a little messy.