Monday, June 24, 2024
HomeNewsNotes from the Sticks: The candle-shaped vandal

Notes from the Sticks: The candle-shaped vandal


WALKING by a stream this week, minding my own business, I suddenly saw something that made my blood run cold.

(You might think Jaws music here.)

This is the scene:

The villains are the candle-like growths on the stream bank. I could not get a decent close-up so this is a stock picture:

These are the early shoots of Equisetum arvense, better known as the field horsetail or common horsetail, though it should be called the world’s most pestiferous weed. I have not (yet) had the pleasure of dealing with Japanese knotweed, but I have engaged in hand-to-hand combat with ground elder and bindweed, and I can tell you that those nuisances have nothing on the horsetail.

I believe it is a very ancient plant. It does not have flowers but bears spores on the shoots as seen above. Later in the year it produces stems up to 2ft tall which look to me more like a small fir tree than a horse’s tail.

These can grow densely in a wide range of environments.

What distinguishes this plant from other perennial weeds is its roots, which can extend 7ft down. If you try to dig them out, the merest fraction of an inch left behind will grow and make a new plant. The miracle is that the entire country is not strangled by these thugs.

Many years ago I had a garden with one bed infested with horsetail (luckily only one). The first thing I tried was pulling them up. They laughed merrily and grew back stronger. Next I tried weedkiller in the form of glyphosate (I never use any chemicals in the garden now but this was a long time ago). It was a product called Roundup, if I remember rightly, and it was a gel which came with a brush in the lid. It was immediately apparent that the brush was not going to do the job so I put on rubber gloves, poured some of the gel on to one palm, and dragged the stems through my fist to get them nicely covered. I think a few looked a bit poorly later but the rest lapped it up.

Next I decided on drastic action. I dug the whole bed out to a depth of maybe 18 inches and removed every vestige of the horrible white roots, and there were a lot of them. The bed was home to some hardy geraniums so they came out and were replanted when all the soil went back. I could hardly believe it when the wretched weeds appeared in the spring as if nothing had happened.

The one thing that nearly worked was a heavy-duty weedkiller called Casoron G4. It had to be sprinkled on to the soil in winter, avoiding the geraniums. It did subdue the horsetails between the geraniums but the crafty brutes diverted their stems to come up through the geraniums. At this point I conceded defeat and moved house.


Sheep of the Week

This is the Texel, probably the most common breed in our area of east Lancashire. It has a distinctive wide, short face which is free of wool, and a black nose. Here are a couple of ewes:

And here is a ram I met in the autumn and wrote about here. 

These sheep originate from the island of Texel off the north coast of the Netherlands and are thought to be the result of crossing native sheep with English breeds. The first animals imported to Britain came from France in the early 1970s. They have proved to be a big success as a meat breed, being very muscular and lean. As a result good rams are valuable. In 2020 a six-month-old fetched a world record £368,000.

Here is a video:

You can find out more from the Texel Sheep Society. I note that the pictures on the website show the fleece to be tan-coloured, but the ones I see round here are white.


The other day the blackbirds set up a terrific commotion and when I looked to see what was the matter, a female sparrowhawk had caught a cock blackbird and landed. It re-arranged its prey in its talons and flew off with it. Obviously I felt sorry for the blackbird, but it was awesome to see such a perfect killing machine in action.


Finally, regular readers know that Kathy Nel (‘linuslimmy’) is kindly collating anecdotal evidence about bird and insect numbers, either increases or decreases (or even static).  Here is her latest round-up of contributions.


Wiltshire – songthrush, slow worms, adder, grass snake, common lizard

Dewsbury, W Yorks – robins, wrens, bluetits, blackbirds, magpies, longtailed tits, parakeets (but just one sparrow)

Aberdeenshire – coal tits, bluetits, great tits, chaffinches, siskins, goldfinches, woodpeckers, a robin, a blackbird, pair of jays, magpies, a pair of crows, a pair of wood pigeons, a treecreeper

Occasionally: a redpoll, longtailed tits, a brambling, greenfinches, tree sparrows, a pair of blackcaps

(Not on feeders:) sparrowhawk, buzzards, wren, pair of grey wagtails

Locally: herons around the River Dee, yellowhammers, pied wagtails, swallows, winter visiting geese flying over

West Wales – bluetits, sparrows, finches, starlings, greater spotted woodpecker, a couple of squirrels

Locally: collared doves, magpies, buzzards, red kites and once a sparrowhawk

Insects: variety of flies and types of wasps, honey and bumble bees, carder bees, small tortoiseshells, a couple of painted ladies,  large white butterflies, common blues, meadow browns.


N Yorkshire – 2 pairs of jays

Norfolk – (2021) more red admiral butterflies than usually seen

North Kerry – sparrows, finches and bullfinches, tits, robins, barn swallows (shed), wrens, magpies, pheasants roaming freely, collared doves and a woodpecker in the spring (’21).

Giles County, VA -robin invasion! 30 seen at one time! A cloud of them fly down in the morning from the mountains and leave at dusk. Neither do neighbours recall seeing anything like it before. This resident’s mother living in Hampton, VA had also a large gathering of robins on her dogwood tree one morning and didn’t leave until the last berry had been stripped! Again, this unusual behaviour. [Ed – I take it these are American robins, Turdus migratorius, not our British robins, Erithacus rubecula.]

I also received a lovely photo of a greater spotted woodpecker on a feeder in a garden in Warrington on a rainy day!


Norfolk – Hardly any blackflies spotted during 2021 but already seen in Wroxham this year. Surprisingly, wasps! Even accounting for the fine spring weather we’ve had this does seem unusual

Pegwell Bay, Kent – A solitary avocet seen on March 15 and 16

Isle of Wight – Our reader writes: ‘Having dedicated many years encouraging wildlife into the garden, I am now rewarded with many sparrows, starlings, robins, blue tits, great tits, chaffinches, blackbirds, dunnocks, wood pigeons, collar doves, crows, magpies, jackdaws, the occasional jay, stock dove and siskin. A pheasant visits most days and, on a couple of occasions in winter, a waxwing – it stripped the berries off my holly tree. The gulls come every day – herring gulls, black-headed and common gulls. Frogs haven’t been seen in the garden pond for a while but there is a colony of newts, and many waterboatmen, pondskaters, dragonflies and damselflies. Plenty of butterflies and slow worms.’

Inland South Coast – Two moorhens have been seen in a garden surrounded by a 6ft high fence and in forty years of living in the property this is definitely a first!

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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