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Towpath Tales

3rd December 2023 @ 6:06am – by Adrian Leighton
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A walk along the canal towpath will reveal the continuing story of the wildlife in all its forms. Whilst most of the bees and other insects are hunkering down for the winter and most plants are in the process of natural recycling, there is still a story to be read.

One of these that I have been perusing is that of our changing seasonal pattern due to the change in our climate. It would appear that the natural world around us is actually more able to adapt to this than we are. With the mild Autumn sending out signals that "Spring is round the comer some plants are well advanced for their Spring showing. Others admittedly seem rather confused. I counted over twenty plants in bloom which should not be, according to the books! These include White Dead Nettle, Black Medic, a Field Rose. Near Bridge 73 is also a lovely "garden" of Red Clover (May to September flowering). This, growing right beside the canal, is a mass of flowers in its shrub-like form. In amongst these is the seasonal Yarrow and another rather unusual flowering plant for the setting, a Common Kidney Vetch in flower. Usually flowering in the summer and common on lime soils, it is a plant with an interesting story. It is named after its large kidney-shaped yellow (sometimes reddish) flowers. It provides a food source for caterpillars of the Small Blue Butterfly. Common Kidney Vetch has root nodules that host nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These make atmospheric nitrogen available to feed the plant and enrich the soil. It has medicinal properties and has been used as a a traditional treatment for kidney disorders. How this plant has ended up beside the canal is unknown. As a herb of the pea family, Fabaceae, its seeds are in the form of a pod, so its preferred method of spreading is through animals and birds and in this case possibly by water. Like our own family history, wild plants also can have a fascinating hidden history.

Talking of families, it is pleasing to see the Moorhen family which inhabits the pound above Lock 3. This comprises of five adults – two parent birds and three youngsters from two broods. For several years we seem to have lost our resident Moorhens. (I know that a whole brood was drowned a few years back , when they got caught in the lock). It can be quite a hazardous life for young Moorhens and other ducks on the canal. One of the features of Moorhen family life is that, like some other birds, the off-spring of a first brood can be seen "baby-sitting" the second brood in a season.

There is also a group of Mallard ducks which frequent the wooded area above Lock 1. These are migrant birds from Northern Europe who arrived in October for the winter. Our summer ducks have gone on south. You can tell the difference by the migrants being slightly bigger and more grey. But the tell tale sign is that they are more wary of humans and quite flighty , possibly because they are more often shot at in their summer residence! Those with us in the Summer can be quite chilled about us human ( I have passed two feet away from one taking an afternoon siesta on the towpath and it did not move a feather.)

I have noticed that we have our "Lonesome" Swan back with us. He is the same swan who was around last winter, having previously been ringed at Coole Pilate. He seems to welcome a chat and especially if it is accompanied by bird food!

So there is still much to enjoy and engage with in the natural world of the towpath even now Whether it,s the flash of a kingfisher blue, the bobbing tail of a grey wagtail, the grumpy and reluctant flight of a disturbed heron, the chatter of fieldfares and redwings feeding on the winter haws, a plucky flower of a dandelion or even buttercup, all remind us of that infinitely big world of life that continues to surround and embrace us.

Finally I would like to thank those who have offered me their congratulation on receiving the RHS Britain in Bloom Community Champions Award. I would like to dedicate it to all the plants, insects, birds, animals and humans who, in and around our village, have accompanied me on my ecological journey during the past few years.

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