27 July, 2015

danger: do not eat

Ragwort is an attractive plant, with clusters of star-shaped yellow flowers at the top of each stem. It is also a noxious weed, and in the UK at least, it is an offence to allow it to grow on your land. There have been numerous cases of livestock being poisoned where the weed has sprung up on land given over to grazing.

Despite these strictures, and although it doesn’t grow in huge stands, like nettles and rose bay willow herb, it remains remarkably common. And although most animals that eat it will die, there are creatures that are happy to tuck in, including the larvae of the cinnabar moth. Cinnabar, a bright red sulphide of mercury, is the principal ore of this metal and the basis for the artists’ pigment vermilion. The moth is mainly black, but with vermilion edges to its wings.

I’ve provided these background details because a few days ago I was walking along a quiet lane near my house when I happened to notice a specimen of ragwort along the roadside that was infested with strikingly coloured caterpillars. The specimen pictured on the right is less than 1.5 metres away but is unaffected.

The first photo was taken immediately, and the second was taken by Paula a couple of days later. Although caterpillars can be seen on different stems, they are all part of the same plant. Somehow, the caterpillars are able to absorb the alkaloids in the ragwort without succumbing to the plant’s toxicity, although any bird that fancies a meal of such caterpillars will not be so lucky, because the alkaloids remain unaltered in the bodies of the caterpillars.

It is often said that vividly coloured creatures—reptiles, amphibians, insects—are the colour they are as a warning to potential predators, although I’m bound to ask how any predator would know that the bearers of such bright colours are lethal to eat. Nobody will have told them to keep away.

Another interesting point concerns the food supply. Caterpillars are no more than eating machines, and it is probably safe to assume that no individual leaves the plant on which they emerged from the egg, so if there are too many caterpillars on a single plant, the food supply is bound to run out before the caterpillars are ready to pupate. Cannibalism is therefore a possibility, so I will be keeping a close watch on this colony to see what happens as the caterpillars grow larger.

20 July, 2015

bovine boogie woogie

In my last post, I described a walk through farmland north of Penrith, following public footpaths, that I’d explored earlier this month. It is the kind of walk that I knew Paula would enjoy, and as she’s currently in town for a family wedding, this weekend was the perfect opportunity for another look.

Where the outward path bears away from the railway at the two-fingered oak, it crosses an area of open rough pasture for several hundred metres before reaching the corner of a field. On my first visit, I kept to the left and followed the fence that was in line with my direction of travel, thus avoiding the need to climb any fences, but when I’d returned home on that occasion and checked the map, I noted that the path I was trying to follow ran along the right-hand side of the fence.

Consequently, as we approached the corner of the field, I wondered how easy it would be to cross the fence. There turned out to be a stile so rudimentary that I’d failed to spot it on my first visit, mainly because keeping left and thus outside the field seemed to be the obvious thing to do. I’d noticed on my previous visit that the cows in the field were attracted by my presence, even though that presence was on the other side of the fence:

I therefore expected our presence on the other side of the fence to attract attention, and I was right. Within a minute, we had built up a quite considerable entourage, as the following three photos show (the second is an enlarged version of the first, which was taken by Paula):

I can imagine people being intimidated by such behaviour, especially as from time to time our followers broke into a trot, but cows are docile beasts, except when protecting their calves, and they can easily be intimidated if necessary, so I didn’t feel threatened. Paula isn’t used to such close encounters with large animals, but she did accept my assurances that we weren’t in any danger, and we continued on our way, turning occasionally to discourage the bolder members of the following herd.

Eventually, we reached the far end of the field, where we found another stile. The cows that had been following us loitered around for a few minutes, seemingly disappointed that we were leaving them, before returning to their principal occupation: eating grass.

This wasn’t our only encounter with bizarre bovine behaviour. Shortly after leaving that field with all the cows, we crossed the River Petteril at a wooden footbridge, intending to recross the river at a second footbridge about 200 metres upstream. However, as we were approaching this second bridge, Paula suddenly shouted.

“It’s chasing us!”

I immediately turned round, only to see a young black bullock about two metres away, seemingly on the charge. Fortunately, in that same instant, it screeched to a halt. Well, at least it tried, but the grass was wet, and the bullock went into a spectacular four-leg skid, ending up little more than half a metre away. The following photograph was taken shortly after this close encounter.

We completed the walk without further incident.

07 July, 2015

petteril pathways

The Thacka Beck* Nature Reserve, which I referred to in Early One Morning, is bounded to the north by Thacka Lane. I normally follow this road, under the railway and up to the main road through town, on my early morning walk, but I noticed a path leading north along the west side of the railway a couple of weeks ago, and my Ordnance Survey map of the area indicated a public right of way, so I thought it might be worth investigating.
* from Old Norse bekkr, stream.
Everything went well for the first kilometre or so—the path was clearly visible and easy to follow—but it gradually became apparent that not many people walked this way, and I decided to turn back in the middle of a field when the path could no longer be seen. The apparently well-trodden first kilometre I account for by people walking their dogs along this section of the path.

After this fruitless foray, I turned my attention elsewhere, and a couple of weeks ago, I found myself at the beginning of a public bridleway about 5km out of town, which ran roughly parallel to and west of the path I’d explored earlier. This didn’t start out well when I encountered a small herd of cows in a short section of green lane:

I don’t expect to be attacked by cows, but they are big beasts, and the road was narrow, so I decided that the sensible option would be to avoid them altogether by climbing over the fence, from where the photograph was taken. This path wasn’t easy to follow either, and it seems likely that not many people come this way. However, when I reached the River Petteril, everything seemed to slot into place. For a start, there was a footbridge over the river, and a clearly defined path leading away from the other side:

The path crosses a field to join an overgrown green lane, which leads eventually, without further navigational difficulties, to Thacka Lane:

It occurred to me that I should go back to the path I’d abandoned earlier to see whether, with a bit of effort, I could reach the Petteril and thus have a complete circuit. This time, I encountered another unexpected hazard:

This photo was taken looking back along the path, and I reached this position by once again climbing the fence alongside the path, having noted from a safe distance what appeared to be a mare standing guard over a dead foal. You can see from the photo that it isn’t possible to pass the mare without coming within range of her hind legs, and you should never walk that close to the back end of a horse.

The path continued to be easy to follow, either being confined between stone walls (first photo below) or featuring a friendly ‘kissing gate’ (second photo) to let me know that I was still on course.

Even when the line of the path is defined only by a straggly line of bushes, it’s impossible to go astray…

…but soon after this section, the path disappears altogether. However, by continuing in the same direction, parallel to the railway, I was able to pick up sporadic signs of worn ground, so I was in a position to spot when the path swung away from the railway across a large area of rough pasture.

This is what my Chinese friends would call a ‘two-fingered’ oak, and it makes a good way marker. The path is clearly visible just right of the tree, but note the line in the grass to the right of the tree and parallel to the horizon. This is a roughly circular area where the grass and reeds have been flattened, creating a phenomenon that might be considered analogous to a crop circle:

The ash is one of the commonest trees around these parts, but this one is unusual in having had its top half violently removed, presumably by a lightning strike. The debris in the foreground is a dead hawthorn and isn’t connected to this cataclysmic event:

During the 1970s, 20 million elm trees died in England and Wales as a result of Dutch elm disease, a micro-fungus spread by bark beetles, but some did survive. There are actually three in the following photograph, much closer together than you would usually see trees of this size:

Shortly after passing the elms, the path reaches the River Petteril and follows the south bank upstream until a rough stile over a fence is reached. This leads to a footbridge over the river.

It is tempting to follow what appears to be a path off to the left in this photo instead of crossing the stile, but if you do, you will either face a very awkward climb over a fence to reach the bridleway, or a long trudge back to this point.

I’ve included the following photograph because when I first saw this blaze of white in the water I thought it was scum. It isn’t. It’s thousands of tiny flowers, like daisies.

The footbridge over the river shown in the third photograph above is soon reached, and I knew at this point that it would be completely straightforward to find my way back to Thacka Lane.

01 July, 2015

photographic abstraction #15

This latest instalment in my photographic abstraction series features one of my most used motifs: concrete walls stained by moss or mould, or disfigured by lichen. Carnival is an internal wall of a derelict building, the spidery coloured lines of which remind me of Kandinsky, although I make no claims of aesthetic equivalence.

Riders in the Mist is a pattern that is commonly seen on the external walls of traditional Chinese houses, while Turning Japanese is a different type of pattern on the same type of surface. Sonata in Green and Black can be described as a ‘standard’ mossy concrete wall.

The odd one out in this collection is The Third Circle of Hell, which even a casual glance will confirm is of rust stains. In fact, this is a huge industrial steel door, and I’m puzzled as to why it has rusted according to this pattern. It does make for an interesting image though.

From the next chapter in this series, there will be fewer photos of stained walls as I start to introduce entirely new motifs, including one that I defy anyone to identify its origins. Part of the reason for the change is that most of the concrete walls I’ve photographed recently have an amorphous quality that results in a lack of distinctiveness (cf. Night Life in Photographic Abstraction #14).

I hope that this has whetted your appetite for more, although you will have to wait three months for the next instalment.

turning japanese


sonata in green and black

the third circle of hell

riders in the mist

previous posts in this series
Photographic Abstraction (this one includes a detailed description of the aesthetic rationale that underpins these images)
Photographic Abstraction #12
Photographic Abstraction #13