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Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Norland Moor Draft Management Plan - have your say!

The Draft 2018 –2028 Management Plan for Norland Moor is now available for public consultation.
Download from the Council website, search ‘Norland moor’, or find it at:- www.calderdale.gov.uk/v2/residents/leisure-and-culture/parks-and-open-spaces/nature-reserves/norland-moor  For more information, please contact countryside@calderdale.gov.uk or phone 01422 284415.  The consultation ends on the 5th October.  We welcome your comments and look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,
Calderdale Countryside and Woodlands Team,
Public Services Directorate,
Calderdale MBC,
Spring Hall Mansions,
Huddersfield Road,
West Yorkshire,
Telephone 01422 284415

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Tuesday 14th August - Calderdale's lost Cornfields and the changes in wildlife 7.15 Imperial Crown Hotel, Horton St.

Yellowhammer by Dave Sutcliffe

Tonight's wildlife talk proposes more changes to Calderdale's agriculture to hopefully help birds like this, and the Twite, so recently seen in good numbers locally.

Non-members welcome. Donations accepted at the membership desk.

Sunday, 12 August 2018


A flightless female moth on the path this evening which I may have disturbed while gardening. I watched this one climb a dead leaf, perhaps to attract a mate. They have only vestigial wings so stay put and allow the males to find them by pumping out pheromones. I think I've heard that a male can detect even a single pheromone molecule with his antennae.Went out to look at 9.30pm but she was still alone.
Can anyone give a solid ID? Perhaps the vapourer moth Orgyia antiqua?

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Rishworth Moor, 11th August 2018

Whilst looking for flints at Green Withins, there were quite a few black darters (and common hawkers) about.

Thursday, 9 August 2018


Darnel, also known as Cheat, is a grass (Lolium temulentum) now extinct in this country but before modern cleaning of seeds was a very common weed in cereal crops. It is very similar to wheat and cannot be easily told apart until the grass produces seeds. The toxin is contained in the seed and is a narcotic alkaloid--a nerve poison.

It has long been known for its poisonous qualities and is believed to be the Tares mentioned in the Bible. The Romans said it caused blindness; "Lolio victitare" (to live on Darnel) was a phrase applied to a dim-sighted person.

It causes symptoms of drunkenness, trembling, inability to walk, hindered speech and vomiting. For this reason the French called the grass 'Ivraie',  meaning drunkenness, which we anglised into Rie or Rye grass (not the same species but looks similar). The word Darnel is also of French origin and means stupified.

In 1861 a Sheffield workhouse had 80 inmates affected after eating oatmeal containing Darnel.

England's only native mediaeval heresy, Lollardy, is believed to be named after this plant.

You can still see this grass if you go to Alnwick Castle gardens and enter the poison plants  enclosure, the gate will be locked whilst you are inside.

Eating bread in former times was a risky business with the chance of being poisoned by Darnel or Ergot. If that didn't happen your teeth were ground away by the coarse sand and grit in the flour from using grindstones. The titles of Lord and Lady come from old English words for loaf keeper and loaf kneader.

                                          Darnel at Alnwick Castle poisonous plant garden

Saturday, 4 August 2018

HSS walk points to a horrible history

On the HSS walk today we found a grass flower with hard black spurs protruding. This insignificant spur is the Ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea) which has a long and unpleasant history. Its relationship with the grass family goes back at least 100 million years, when found in an amber fossil.

Settle down with a cup of tea and I will tell the story of the collapse of civilisations, death and derangement; all through eating a slice of bread and jam.

It all begins with Rye, Secale cereale (not to be confused with the Rye grass used for silage). It was a weed grain and occurred wherever Wheat was cultivated; they were inseparable. Rye itself was not cultivated for food until about the 5thC AD, in Eastern Europe, and was the last of the popular cereals to be brought into cultivation. 

But the danger with Rye is its propensity to be infected with the Ergot fungus and it was in the Rhine Valley in 857 A.D that the first major outbreak of gangrenous ergotism was documented. The symptoms were called 'Holy Fire'  because of the burning sensations in the extremities of the body and it being seen as a punishment from God.

The alkaloids produced by the fungus can affect every part of the body, including the nervous system. Bread containing only 2% Ergot can cause an epidemic and result in gangrene, where victims lose fingers, toes and limbs. This is due to the alkaloid producing a vaso-constrictive chemical which cuts off the blood supply. The toxins can pass through a mother's milk and poison the baby. Former sufferers are more prone to the symptoms when next affected. The alkaloids are very stable and do not break down during baking or with boiling for up to 3 hours.

The mortality rate could approach 50% and the great population declines in history can be explained when it is known poisoning causes abortions.

In 1039, an outbreak of Ergotism occurred in France. During this outbreak a hospital was erected by Gaston de la Valloire to care for the victims. He dedicated this hospital to St. Anthony and through this gesture, Holy Fire came to be called St. Anthony's Fire. Monks would eventually start the order of St. Anthony and over 370 hospitals were built; each one symbolically painted red.

France was the centre for many of these severe epidemics because Rye was the staple crop of the poor and the cool wet climate conducive for the development of the fungus. In 944 AD in Southern France, 40,000 people died as a result of Ergot. 

It  was not until 1670 that a French physician, Dr. Thuiller, put forth the concept that it was not an infectious disease but one that was due to the consumption of Rye infected with Ergot, or what the French farmers called Cockspurs. Thuiller knew the "cockspurs" had been used by alchemists in their potions to hasten childbirth but he could not convince farmers these were the cause of this dreaded disease.

In 1853, Louis Tulasne, an early mycologist and illustrator, worked out the life cycle for the Ergot of Rye and concluded that it was a fungus and this, not the Rye, was the culprit.

If you wish to read more, including frightening historic accounts of the effects of this fungus, I may oblige.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Don't yawn at awns of grass

The seed of wild Emmer Wheat keeps its attached protective scales when it drops to the ground. These scales have bristles (awns) at the tips which cultivate the seed by propelling it mechanically into the soil.

During a period of increased humidity in the night, the awns of the seed capsule become erect and draw together, in the process pushing the seed into the soil. In the daytime the humidity drops and the awns slacken back again; fine silica hairs act as hooks in the soil to prevent the seed from reversing back out again. 

During the course of alternating stages of daytime and night time humidity, the awns pumping movements, which resemble the kick of a swimming frog, drill the seed as much as an inch into the soil.

When Sweet Vernal grass seeds are put on a moistened hand, they will move about like little insects from the uncoiling of the spiral twist of the awns.

It is a party trick with one species to put the seed in the palm of the hand and watch it travel up your sleeve and end up at the armpit.

Some awns can be deadly to animals. One species of grass is known as 'Rip Gut', an annual Brome naturalised in many countries. The awns are 2" long, very sharp and very rough due to tiny barb-like hairs that face backwards. This enables the seed to catch and lodge like a fish hook. They can then drill themselves into animal bodies and cause festering sores. 

Are Beavers really fish?

Before Darwin came along there was a belief in fixity of species. 

However, Medieval thought could be very flexible in getting round it's own strictures; a good example is the Monks classifying Beavers as fish (the excuse being they had a scaly tail); done in order that meat could be eaten on the numerous "fish only" Saints' days.

Another example is the long held superstition that Wheat can degenerate into Rye. This all began with Pliny 2,000 years ago and a philological muddle and mix-up when interpreting his texts. Subsequent writers compounded the muddle and propagated this absurd belief.

This had curious repercussions. In the 13thC, Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his decision of which bread might be used for the Host at Communion, ruled that Wheat bread should be used. But a concession he made was that Rye bread might also be used because Wheat degenerates into Rye and therefore Rye is the same species as Wheat.

Not to be outdone, there began a general belief that other crops can degenerate into weedy species. Even as late as the 1920's in Cambridgeshire it was believed Oats changed into weedy Brome and in the 1930's some still believed that Barley can transmute into Oats.

Above information is mostly gleaned from Agnes Arber's book 'The Gramineae' published in 1934.