Wonderful wildlife in Cheshire
The letter R is the theme this month as we look at Cheshire wildlife<br/>Words by Sue Tatman
The raven is the largest member of the crow family, reaching up to 29ins (69cm) in length. It is easily identified by the large, heavy beak and shaggy feathers around the throat. The all-black plumage often has a blue or purple tint.
They make a wide variety of vocalisations, but the most distinctive is a deep 'cronk', often heard before the bird itself is seen
Ravens often feed on carrion, so were widely associated with death; this may be one reason for the persecution which has driven them from much of our countryside. They are now staging a come-back: when they nested in Cheshire in 1991 this was the first recorded breeding in the county since the 17th century.
Traditionally ravens nest on cliffs and crags, but in much of Cheshire these are a scarce resource so our ravens have demonstrated their adaptability by building nests in quarries, on tall chimneys, electricity pylons, on Jodrell Bank radio telescope and most famously Chester Town Hall. There are now believed to be about 25 breeding pairs in the county, and at least as many immature and unpaired birds.
Ravens were once linked to the Celtic god Bran, one of the guardians of the British Isles, which is why the birds are kept at the Tower of London. Legend tells us that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, Britain will fall.
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This bright yellow daisy provokes loathing in many people. The plant contains toxins which when eaten by livestock cause irreversible damage to the liver. Cattle and horses will avoid ragwort in pasture, but if it is cut and dried as part of a hay crop it is readily eaten, with often lethal results. For this reason ragwort is classified by the Weeds Act of 1959 as one of the five main injurious weeds of the British countryside, and is often controlled on farmlands and roadsides. But despite this it is common and widespread.
Although some would like to see ragwort eradicated completely, it has an important role supporting biodiversity. The plant is the food source for the caterpillars of several species of moth. The most noticeable is the cinnabar moth, whose caterpillars are striped a conspicuous black and orange. These caterpillars are able to store the toxins from the ragwort in their own bodies, so they themselves become highly toxic. The bright colours are a warning to predators to avoid them.
The rowan is a small tree, a member of the rose family. It can grow in very poor or acidic soils, and at much higher altitudes than most British trees, hence the alternative name of Mountain Ash. The leaves are also similar to ash, being divided into two rows of tiny leaflets. But the leaflets of rowan leaves are gently serrated, while those of ash are smoother and more pointed.
Rowan trees produce clusters of creamy white blossom in late spring, and these are followed by bright red berries in autumn (some of the widely planted ornamental cultivars have orange or even yellow berries).
We find the berries unpleasantly bitter when raw, although they can be used to make a sharp jelly traditionally served with game or lamb. However the berries are a welcome winter feast for many birds, including blackbirds and thrushes. Some years it may attract spectacular migrants such as the waxwing.
The red berries were also the source of many of the folklore associated with rowan. The twigs were once used in divining, and the tree was widely planted alongside houses as a protection against witches. The wood was used for carving runes, and to damage or cut down a rowan was considered to bring bad luck. Rabbit
Rabbits were first brought to Britain by the Normans. They were kept in extensive pens, known as warrens, and were highly valued for their meat and fur. They were kept like this for several centuries before they escaped in sufficient numbers to establish themselves in the wild.
Partly due to their legendary reproductive ability rabbits are now common and widespread, and are often considered pests due to their extensive burrowing and their fondness for our own food crops. Rabbit numbers reached their peak before the introduction of Myxomatosis in the 1950s, and the disease still plays a role in regulating rabbit population size.
Rabbits have now become an important part of our countryside, and they are the staple diet of some of our most iconic predators, including fox, polecat and buzzard.
It is ironic that in its native Spain and Portugal rabbits are now an endangered species, due to over-hunting, habitat loss and disease. Low rabbit numbers in Iberia have had seriously affected rare local predators such as Iberian lynx and imperial eagle.