Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Hazel trees and nuts

click photo to enlarge
In the "wildwood", the entirely natural woodland of c.4,500 B.C. that was unaffected by Neolithic or later peoples, hazel (Corylus avellana) was a prominent tree. It had been one of the first trees to colonise Britain's warming land as the Ice Age came to an end. In time, along with the oak it became the dominant species of much of upland England, southern Scotland, Wales and Dartmoor. It was found elsewhere, but not in the same numbers. But, the steadily rising temperatures encouraged the growth of pine, elm, oak and lime, and these trees overwhelmed the smaller hazel. It did continue to find a place along the edge of forests and in clearings, its nuts distributed by jays, red squirrels, wild boars and other birds and mammals, but it lost its former dominance.

The hazel is the only native British tree that produces nuts (the chestnut and walnut are introduced species). As such it has always been a food source for people, and cultivated varieties such as the Kentish Cob have been bred. In early and medieval times its supple wood was harvested from coppiced trees for use as wattle, hurdles, thatching sticks, hedging poles, fish traps and much else. The thicker branches were used for shepherds' crooks and walking sticks. However, changes in woodland management and farming led to there being only 114,000 acres of hazel coppice by 1945, and today very little of that survives. A further cause of the decline of hazel was the introduction of the grey squirrel in the nineteenth century. These animals can clear trees of all their nuts in September, only some of which they eat. Those that they bury don't usually germinate because at that time of year they are insufficiently ripe. The result is that today, after the elm, the hazel is the most seriously threatened native tree in Britain.

Contrary to popular belief trees do feature in the Lincolnshire Fens. Where I live there is a variety of species, some native such as the lime, others, like the horse chestnut, introduced. Moreover, there are hazel trees. The other day, whilst collecting sloes from the blackthorn bushes we gathered a few ripening hazel nuts to store, further ripen and sample in a few months time. Grey squirrels are common in the villages and small woods of the Fens, but the relatively isolated place where we found these hazel trees is one where I've never seen these destructive mammals (though we did see a jay). In fact, some of the hazel nuts were fully ripe and beginning to fall so perhaps there's a good chance that they'll further propagate the species in this locality. Never one to miss the opportunity of a photograph I picked a small nut cluster with leaves attached and took this rather botanical looking shot in natural light at home.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 100mm macro
F No: f13
Shutter Speed: 0.3 sec
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation:  +0.67 EV
Image Stabilisation: On