Burdock and Teasel
The banks of the rivers and canals are now lined with teasel and burdock, which rise above the surrounding vegetation. Both are species have curious histories and uses.
Teasel is a large attractive plant, a great subject for macro-photography, with its strange flower-heads, spiny bracts, and tendency to collect water drops where the sessile leaves emerge from the stem. The Teasel has a number of unusual features. It is fairly well established that the plants attract, trap and feed from, insects caught in the water collected in the reservoirs. The teasel flower heads have been harvested for use for carding or napping in the fabric industry, and the sub-species, Fuller’s teasel, was traditionally grown near Taunton. The seed head features prominently in the Clothworkers Company Coat of Arms. The wild teasel seeds are also an important food for goldfinches.
The burdocks have traditionally been used for a wide variety of treatments in herbal medicine, and the roots can be eaten as a vegetable. Popular in the Far East as a cooking ingredient, especially in Japan, where it is eaten shredded with carrots. The leaves can be used to treat burns. But what you are most likely to notice is the tendency of the ripe flower heads to cling to your clothing. This inspired, in 1940, the invention of Velcro by a Swiss inventor named George de Mestral.
Common yellow lily and arrowhead are populating the rivers Brue and Cary, creating an attractive array of patterns, poking through a film of duckweed. There are still orchids to be seen; you may find the Pyramidal Orchid in the meadows.
Most birds have now fledged and are feeding avidly building up their strength. Smaller species become independent quite quickly, and the adults will start a second or third brood, whereas larger species may take a long time to mature. Buzzard chicks will follow their parents around for most of the following year, and only reach breeding maturity after two years. If you hear a repeated plaintive buzzard call from the middle of a tree, it will be a young one waiting to be fed.
Whilst large numbers of these small falcons arrive on the levels in May, some stay to breed, feeding on the dragonflies. The word on the levels is that there are four pairs nesting around Shapwick, and with patience, you can watch them hunting over the reed beds. They will swoop over the water, grab a dragonfly, sometimes dissecting them in flight, but often landing in a dead tree to remove the wings and inedible parts. They are one of the stars of the levels, and exquisitely patterned, much like a small peregrine. They can fly at great speeds, and a pair may be seen chasing each other high in the skies.
Mute swans are now raising their cygnets. They lay 5-8 huge chalky eggs in a nest which is vigorously protected against all comers. Despite this, the chicks suffer quite a high rate of predation, the Pen (female) often ending with just three young. Foxes, mink and pike will take their toll. The young are fluffy silver balls with black beaks, and start feeding as soon as hatched. They will grow into grey versions of the adult, only taking on the white colouration and orange beak during the winter. Swans spend a great deal of time preening, and a healthy swan will maintain immaculate white plumage. You may see large communities of non-breeding birds, composed of the immature, the old and others who have failed to secure mates. Swans also make excellent photographic subjects; their curved necks provide endless compositions, and their tendency to feed with rear end and legs in the air, or resting with one leg up. Their reputation for aggression is rather exaggerated, but if they do start hissing, you are disturbing them, and getting too close.
Photographs © C J Chappell
Mute Swan cygnet