King Alfred’s Cakes

This week we started our weekly wildlife walk from the stable block as usual but headed towards the energy centre. The first item of interest was the large oak which stands in solitary splendour by the staff car park. Lots of green leaves waving around – not oak leaves but polypods – that is ferns which grow on the moss and the bark of the tree.  And despite yet another cold, wintery day we found a few signs of spring as we walked around the Garden.

But back to last week’s otter poo. A close examination had revealed that it contained a lot of small fish bones, maybe minnows. No sign of frogs or other amphibians. And no further spraint on the favoured rock and although the camera facing it had taken a set of 3 photos, I didn’t look at them – probably ducks or a cat. Instead Bruce and I moved it to a more promising location behind the polytunnels. Only 3 years of trying for an otter photo – wildlife watching needs a lot of patience!

From the energy centre we headed along the lane to North Lodge where we heard a chaffinch singing – briefly – and spotted a few more Elf Cups.

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We were somewhat surprised to find a solitary young hawthorn in full leaf, very green and a vivid contrast to everything else. Then, further down the lane Jan spotted a group of 6 elder bushes. These were, she said, evidence of the past presence of a badger sett. Badger love elder berries and excrete the seeds in their dung pits which are scattered around the sett – hence the bushes. It also looked to be excellent habitat for dormice.

On to the meadow and, like everywhere else, lots of molehills. We wonder whether the rather prolonged wintry weather has anything to do with their hyperactivity which everyone has been reporting all over the country.  But then a real find on an old fallen beech.  Lots of fungi, including some rather beautiful Turkey Tail fungi.  And King Alfred’s Cakes, so-called because of the legend that King Alfred, when in hiding from the Danes, once burnt some cakes by failing to take them out of the oven. These fungal growths, which look as if they have been burned, are a reminder of his poor cooking and hence the nickname, but their correct Latin name is Daldinia concentrica. They grow in either a black form or a dark brown – it is said that perhaps the lighter colour shows that Alfred did remember to take out the cakes before they were totally incinerated!  And they apparently make very good firelighters!!  Another name for them, Cramp Balls, stems from the tradition that carrying the fungus in your pocket would prevent cramp.

But alas we are no fungus experts and, as Bruce pointed out later, what we had actually found were Batchelor buttons, or Bulgaria inquinans, also known as Rubber buttons.  Somewhat similar to the uninitated and just as interesting.

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Near the log was a stand of young blackthorn, an excellent place to find the small white eggs of the Brown Hairstreak butterfly – but alas we found none. Later in the summer this will be an excellent habitat for Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs. Apart from a few celandines and the odd dandelion we found nothing much until we got to the wood behind the visitors car park. Here we found the first wood anemones, wild garlic and the promise of a bluebell bonanza when spring does eventually arrive.

Although the weather on our four walks has so far has been cold, amazingly it has been dry. But this will no doubt change and we would ask anyone who wants to join us on these walks to bear this in mind. Keep an eye on the weather – you may need your wellies and warm winter clothes.

If any members or volunteers want to join us, no expertise required, please contact Colin Miles for further information.

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