Talks Summer 2011:  Water voles ; Cornish Coastal Path ; National and Local Birds ; Ruislip Woods; Northumberland ;Ferns and gardens:how ferns found their way into the garden.

This page provides a synopsis of the recent talks given to the Harrow Natural History Society by visiting speakers.


Home Page                                Our next talk will be given in September by Mike Howgate on the Hidden Rivers of London.  See home page for details.

December 2010: Water voles

Wetlands for Water Voles & People Project


Ali Hauser


This presentation gave an introduction to the £0.5 million Wetlands for water voles and people project.   This is an active partnership between the Hertfordshire and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, the Environment Agency, British Waterways, Hertfordshire Biological Records Centre, Thames Water and the Lee Valley Park, which is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.


The Hertfordshire and Middlesex Wildlife Trust ( is one of 47 trusts in Britain. As a charity, the Wildlife Trusts are responsible for reserves totalling 43,700 hectares, advising developers, lobbying and supporting national campaigns and holding events to raise awareness.


Introduction to the ecology of the water vole.


Britain has three vole species, the field vole, bank vole and water vole.   The water vole is the largest at about 12-20cm in length and weighing 70-320g. It has a typically vole body shape with a rounded body, furry tail, blunt face and small ears hidden in the fur.   Rats are larger, with larger eyes, pointed face and sleeker body, large very visible ears and a long scaly tail which is bald.


It enters the water with a plop, which acts as a warning to other voles.  It sits high out of the water and produces a big wake.  It is not properly adapted to a riparian lifestyle, not having webbed feet and its fur gets water logged when remaining submerged for a long time.  However they are excellent swimmers.


Water voles range across much of Great Britain, northern and central Europe and parts of Russia.  In Britain they are found occupying the banks of ditches, dykes, slow-moving rivers, ponds and streams.  The River Chess by Frogmore Meadow Nature Reserve provides an illustration of good water vole habitat.  Water vole territories tend to be linear apart from the reedbeds.  In Europe they are not so closely associated with water, living mainly underground, a little bit more like a mole. Hence their Latin name Arvicola terrestris (dweller of fields)

Water voles are often found making round burrows about 4-8cm in diameter along the tops and sides of banks. These provide protection and form a network, which is added to, with different levels to avoid flooding.  In areas with no bank side, such as reed beds, water voles make nests, which are hard to see and often ruined if found


Gestation is 21 days, with up to 8 young per litter and 2-5 litters per year.  Young are weaned at two weeks and independent by 6 weeks.  Young born before June can breed that year.


Water voles are expected to live up to three winters, though the majority rarely live past two. Over-winter mortality can be as high as 70%, especially with dispersing juveniles seeking to establish territories.   It is mainly female water voles that are territorial.


Water voles are known to eat 227 different species. In winter they can eat roots, rhizomes, bark and bulbs etc.  Water voles consume 80% of their body weight daily


How to spot a water vole. 


 Burrow & lawn       Feeding station                Remnants                   Water vole                   Rat


Burrows are a good sign but they may not be occupied.  They are often characterised by a neatly cropped ‘lawn’ around the entrance to the burrow.  Tracks may also be a good indicator but are not totally reliable.  Droppings are distinctive 8-12mm long cylindrical pellets rounded at both ends, easily distinguishable from the vile-smelling rat droppings with their pointed end.  Most distinctive is the remains at feeding stations, since water voles bite through reeds, sedges etc at a constant 45o angle.


The decline of water voles.


In the UK the population had fallen from its estimated pre-1960 level of around 8 million to 2.3 million in 1990 and 354,000 in 1998 (a 90-95% loss).  There are no water voles in Cornwall or Northern Ireland.  Water voles have been in long-term decline since 1900 and populations are now scarce and fragmented.  Review of data demonstrated that water vole populations in Britain had suffered a rapid decline since 1990.  Changes in both land use and riparian habitat management have resulted in habitat loss and degradation causing fragmentation and isolation of water vole populations. This has led to increased vulnerability to predation.


Anti-predator behaviour includes running to their tunnel systems- some entrances can be underwater, hiding in the vegetation or diving under the water and kicking up a screen of sediment. These defences have been sufficient to ensure the survival of the species since the last ice age.


Threats to water voles and their habitats include overgrazing, ploughing close to water, domestic cats, dredging, pollution, loss of natural banks and water abstraction and drought


The most significant threat, however, is that from American mink, which have bred and extended their range from releases and escapees from mink farms, the last of which closed in 2003.  There are an estimated 110,000 wild mink wreaking havoc with indigenous species.  Water voles are projected to be facing extinction by 2012.  Water voles’ defences are not good enough to survive mink predation, as mink can enter their burrows.  Dramatic declines can result from over-winter predation.  The main predation pressure on a local water vole colony arises when a female mink is nursing her young and needs to provision the litter with fresh meat.  Dispersing mink can cover 20-40km, thus nearly all extant water vole populations face a high likelihood of mink eventually dispersing into their habitat.  Females can hunt up to 1.5 km up and down the river from the den.  This strategy will locate all water vole colonies in that area but will also wipe out the whole colony because she hunts nightly.  Mink are efficient hunters of water vole and will preferentially take them over other species.

   American mink


Water voles used to be widespread throughout Hertfordshire.  The decline of the water vole over the last 15 years or so is one of the most catastrophic declines of a species ever known in the UK, far more rapid than the decline of the charismatic mega fauna of Asia or Africa.  As across the UK, the Hertfordshire population began to decline, with many of our watercourses losing signs of any water vole activity by the end of the last century.  Today strongholds remain in the Lee Valley and along the River Mimram with other good populations on the River Chess and in wetlands around Hitchin.


Wetlands for Water Voles and People Project.


This project aims to:

      conserve and increase water vole populations, increasing the number and range of water voles in Hertfordshire and the Colne Valley;

      increase local community participation in water vole recovery and wetland protection; and

      improve public access to and understanding of wetland habitats.


It involves determining the presence of mink through 137 raft or trap sites across Hertfordshire.  As a result, 268 mink have been caught and despatched since December 2004.


The project also involves survey training to identify the presence of water voles.  30 people have been trained and survey days carried out.  Events are held to raise awareness and habitat works are carried out to improve the situation for water voles.  Hertfordshire has 5 wetland havens at Purwell Ninesprings, Tewinbury, Silvermeade, Frogmore Meadows and Cassiobury Park.  There are encouraging signs that the elimination of mink is allowing some small recovery of water vole populations along some stretches of rivers.


How you can help


The project would welcome help from the public at large:

      Tell us about any sightings of water voles or their field signs;

      Join a local survey group or training session to learn to survey for water voles; and

      Support the Wildlife Trust!



January 2011: Cornish Coastal Path

The Cornish coastal footpath.


Ivan French


Established in 1929, the south-west coastal footpath was one of the earliest long-distance footpaths.  It extends for 500 miles from Poole along the coasts of Dorset, south Devon, Cornwall, north Devon and Somerset to Minehead..  The Cornish part of this footpath extends for 249 miles, of which the National Trust manages 125 miles.


This presentation described a walk undertaken by Ivan and his wife from Falmouth to Padstow, covering 138 miles in 14 days in June, with no pre-booked accommodation and carrying all their needs on their backs.


The only deadline they had to meet was the ferry across the Helford River to Helford to avoid adding 10 miles to what was already a 10-mile day. This was met but the absence of bed & breakfast accommodation in Helford meant another 5-6 miles to a farm recommended by the Post mistress.


The walk included passing through both abandoned and active coastal quarries, visiting St Michael’s Mount, seeing the spectacular Minack Theatre and wandering around the Levant mine in Cornwall, as well as seeing lots of plants and butterflies.   The walk finished with a bus journey from Padstow to Parr via Bodmin and St Austell.


The presentation was beautifully illustrated with numerous slides.





February 2011: National and Local Birds


National and Local Birds


Denis Bristow   (RSPB Pinner)



This presentation covered the history and work of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Europe’s largest wildlife conservation charity. 


The aims of the RSPB are to:


It is one of the oldest wildlife charities, starting in 1889 in Didsbury, Manchester by a group of ladies worried about the destruction and capture of birds for their feathers for the fashion trade.  For example, Great White Egret tail feathers were used purely for decoration on hats.  A particular problem is that if one of a pair is lost during the breeding season, it invariably leads to abandonment of the nest by the other, which cannot manage to rear chicks alone.  Up to 300 tons of feathers were at one time imported into London docks every month.


In 1947, bird watchers on the east coast found avocets, which had long been absent from Britain, at Minsmere in Suffolk and this bird was adopted and remains as the official logo of the RSPB.  Avoceets have now spread more widely, particularly to the Exe estuary in Devon for the winter.  The bittern likes similar habitat and, while 8 or 9 years ago there were only 10 or 11 breeding pairs, today there are over 80 as well as winter visitors from Europe.  The RSPB continues to plant reed beds to encourage these visitors to stay.


The RSPB has 118 reserves covering more than 76,000 hectares and they receive over 1 million visitors per year.  (These figures are somewhat dated as there are now 160 or so reserves).


Ospreys at Loch Garten in Scotland are a success story.  These were first discovered in the late 1940s/early 1950s and thanks to protection from the RSPB have continued to thrive and the population is now gradually building up and spreading to other areas.  They had previously been persecuted by landowners and gamekeepers, in common with any bird with a hooked bill, despite the fact that they only eat fish and thus pose no threat to pheasant chicks.


In the 1950s/1960s, the pigeon racing fraternity complained that the increase in the numbers of peregrine falcons was resulting in increasing deaths of their pigeons.  The British Trust for Ornithology and the RSPB carried out a special investigation, which found that peregrine falcons were in fact in dire straits because dieldrin, ddt and other agricultural chemicals were being ingested by their prey and building up in the falcons, leading to the production of thin-shelled eggs that could not bear the weight of the incubating parent bird.  Many of these agricultural chemicals have now been banned and the peregrine falcon population is now on the increase, even breeding in town centres (eg at the South Bank Power Station).


The red kite was a widespread scavenger on middens but it too suffered badly from persecution and by the late 1920s there were only 8 or 9 in Wales (all descended from a single female).  Captive-bred birds were reintroduced from Europe and there is now a healthy population, with, for example, over 600 birds in the Chilterns.


The corncrake was a common bird of farmland but changes in agricultural practices led to its decline.  Successful appeals by the RSPB in the northern isles for crofters to leave fields until grass grows to a reasonable height are now leading to numbers increasing.


International projects include a large number in Europe and Africa (the migration routes of summer visitors) with some in India and Saudi Arabia.  Education projects in southern Europe and Africa have campaigned against the practice of liming for birds, which may then be eaten as a delicacy.  This affects, for example, the Arctic Tern, which has the longest migration of any bird, flying 25,000 miles per year from the Arctic to the Antarctic, one of its fly routes being down the west coast of Africa.


There are about 29 species of albatross and many are suffering as a result of long-line fishing (and trawling) because they see the fish on hooks and are themselves caught on the hooks and drowned.  Modern techniques using streamers to deflect the birds away from the hooks cut the losses considerably and fishermen in several areas have been persuaded to use these techniques.


The presentation ended with slides of a number of water birds, including:


The presentation ended with a plea to help protect our heritage of birds by:



March 2011: Ruislip Woods

Ruislip Woods as a National Nature Reserve


Colin Bowlt


Ruislip Woods comprises Park Wood, Copse Wood, Mad Bess Wood and latterly Bayhurst Wood.  It is the largest area of ancient oak/hornbeam coppice woodland in South east England.

There is evidence of continuous woodland cover dating back almost three thousand years.

Recently a flint arrow head was found together with a bronze pin which would have been used to attach it to the shaft.  This find led to an excavation which revealed charcoal made at some time during the Bronze Age about 700 BC from fourteen different tree types.

Reference is made in the Domesday Book of 1186 of the woods within the Manor of Ruislip being used for firewood, timber and pannage for pigs.  Within Park Wood there still exists the earthwork boundary dividing the woods between two separate landowners both Norman French convents.  There is an important earthwork still to be seen as a bank and ditch which divided off a section of the woods for one of England’s first deer parks.


The tree flora consists amongst other things of oak, hornbeam, beech, woodland hawthorn and wild service.  The latter two are ancient woodland indicators.  Ground flora awi species include bluebells, wood anemone and yellow archangel.


Current management action involves the reintroduction of hornbeam coppice on a 15 year cycle which was restarted in the 1980s.  Cattle are used to graze the grass and keep the scrub at bay although they also take all ground flora.  Subsequent to them depleting the heath spotted orchids, the area has been enclosed to allow regeneration.  Scrub clearance is ongoing and allows the opening up of the traditional waste land areas.  The paths through the woods are heavily used and become very muddy and spread laterally.  Some board walks have been laid to prevent this degradation but it is an expensive solution.



  English bluebells


Yellow archangel



April 2011: Northumberland

Northumberland and the Borders

Dr David Brook OBE



This paper presents a tour from Berwick-upon-Tweed to the lower Tweed valley and the north Northumberland coast, showing some of the features of interest and the abundant wildlife of the region.


Historic Berwick upon Tweed is the most northerly town on the Northumberland Coast at the lowest crossing point of the River Tweed.   It has been a thriving trading centre and international port from as early as the 12th and 13th centuries.


Berwick was a Royal Burgh of Scotland in 1120 and during the many centuries of border warfare changed hands no fewer than 14 times, the last being in 1482.   It was part of the ransom paid by the captured William the Lion of Scotland to Henry II in 1147.   It was sold to the Scots by Richard I to get money for his Crusade.   It was destroyed in 1216 by King John in person.   When William Wallace (Braveheart) was executed in 1305 in London, one quarter of him was displayed here as a warning to other rebels


Berwick had a special status as a free borough and was mentioned separately in Acts of Parliament.   So far as records had shown, it was still at war with Russia in the Crimea, having been specifically listed as declaring hostilities in 1854 and having been left out of the 1856 Peace Treaty.


The Guildhall, built in the 1750s, is possibly the most handsome building, facing and dominating broad Marygate.   Of rich brown stone in a Classical design, it has a grand portico with giant Tuscan columns and a tall spire.   The bells ring for Holy Trinity Church as well as the curfew.   The top floor used to be a jail and prisoners were aired on the balcony round the roof.


Berwick’s well-worn appearance seems to suit its historical role as a buffer town.   It was an important trading centre and international port.   The town captured or sacked 13 times before 1482, when it was finally made English. Until 1746


The Barracks were built between 1717 and 1721 in response to town objections to billeting soldiers in public houses.   Their design is attributed to Vanbrugh.   They contain the museum of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, which is open to the public.


Berwick has had two sets of protecting walls.   The first walls were completed in the reign of Edward II and little is left of them.   The town was then fortified by Elizabeth I, starting in 1558, on the new Italian design with great emphasis on effective use of artillery.   The walls cost a staggering £128,648 and were the most expensive undertaking of the Elizabethan period.   They are the only example of this style in Britain and among the earliest of the type in Europe. 3 of the projecting bastions, shaped like flat arrowheads, remain.


Three bridges span the River Tweed at Berwick.


The red sandstone Berwick Bridge (the Old Bridge) is the 5th known bridge crossing the River Tweed on or near this location.   Initially constructed between 1611 and 1624, it was finally completed in 1634.


The Royal Border Bridge (the Railway Bridge) was designed by Robert Stephenson and built between 1847 and 1850.


The Royal Tweed Bridge (the New Bridge) was built between 1925 and 1928 as part of the A1 trunk road, prior to construction of the Berwick bypass in the 1984.   It was the longest concrete bridge of its time.

Robert Stephenson’s Royal Border Bridge, Berwick-upon-Tweed

The Union Bridge across the River Tweed

Himalayan Balsam on the banks of the River Tweed


Paxton House, one of the finest Palladian country houses in Britain, was built to the design of John Adam in 1758.   It sits on elevated ground overlooking the River Tweed, 4 miles west of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and is set amidst eighty acres of garden and parkland, a haven for birds and animals.


The Union Bridge (also Union Chain Bridge) is a suspended-deck suspension bridge that spans the River Tweed between Horncliffe, Northumberland, England and Fishwick, Borders, Scotland.   When it opened in 1820 it was the longest wrought iron suspension bridge in the world with a span of 137 metres (449 ft), and the first vehicular bridge of its type in Britain.   It is the oldest suspension bridge still carrying road traffic.   The bridge has been maintained by the Tweed Bridges Trust since the abolition of turnpike tolls in 1883.   It is a Category A listed building in Scotland and a Grade I Listed Building in England. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument in both countries.   Before the opening of the Union Bridge, crossing the river at this point involved an eleven-mile round-trip via Berwick-upon-Tweed downstream or a twenty mile trip via Coldstream upstream.


From the A1 to just upstream of Coldstream, the Tweed forms the border between England and Scotland.   The Tweed Forum was formed in 1991 to promote the wise and sustainable use of the whole Tweed catchment (3,080 square miles) through holistic and integrated planning and management.   The catchment management plan, built on consensus of a wide range of interests, covers a variety of issues including water quality, flood management and tourism and recreation.   Other activities of the Forum include:


Red Squirrel at Paxton House, Berwick-upon-Tweed

Red Squirrel at Paxton House, Berwick-upon-Tweed

Pheasant at Hirsel Country park, Coldstream

The Hirsel Country Park comprises farmland and areas of forestry with a designed landscape around the house and the River Leet.   The parkland is 19th-century in character but was laid out originally in the late 18th century and some tree planting from this period survives.   The structure of the 18th-century walled garden also survives.   This estate has been the seat of the Earls of Home since the early 17th century.   Walks around the country park take in a late 18th-century lake, which is home to geese, swans, moorhens, coots, ducks and grebes, and follow winding paths through a 19th-century woodland garden with rhododendrons.   Ornamental gardens around the house date to the mid-20th century.


The Carboniferous rocks of much of the north Northumberland coast consist mainly s of limestones, sandstones and shales with, in places, a few coal seams.   295 million years ago, these rocks were folded and fractured and were intruded by large quantities of dolerite (the Whin Sill).   More recent rocks, which form substantial parts of the undulating landscape of the coastal plain include glacial till (with boulders of rocks from the cheviots and from Scandinavia) raised beaches and wind-blown sand dunes.


Holy Island or Lindisfarne, is one of the most important sites in the history Christianity in Britain.   In AD635 St Aidan founded a monastery that was to become the spiritual and educational heart of Northumbria in its 'golden age '.   Here, amongst his beloved animals and birds, St Cuthbert sought respite from his missionary work.   Today that same peace can still be found, for twice each day the tide sweeps across the sands, severing the link with the mainland for several hours.


The 6th and 7th centuries were a period of outstanding brilliance both for Holy Island and the whole of Northumbria.   Aidan and Cuthbert travelled and preached throughout the kingdom, which became the envy of Europe.   Eidfrith, Bishop-Abbot 698-721, produced with his monks the magnificent illuminated  manuscripts known as the Lindisfarne Gospels.   This 'golden age' was also noted for its standing stone crosses, poetry and gold metalwork - but above all for the saintliest of men.


In 793, the first Vikings came in their longboats to burn, steal and kill.   Time after time they returned to ravage the holy places, and in 875 the monks were forced to flee in terror, bearing their Gospels, the body of St Cuthbert and other precious relics.   For 200 years monastery remained uninhabited.


In 1082 the Benedictines revived the community, renaming   Lindisfarne 'Holy Island' to commemorate the holy blood shed during the Viking invasions.   The rebuilt sandstone priory remained inhabited for 450 years until Henry VIII ordered it's Dissolution in 1537.   The priory was once more abandoned, to become a quarry for the new castle being built on the island against possible Scots incursions.


After the union of England and Scotland in 1603 the strategic importance of the castle diminished, although it remained in use as a garrison.   At the beginning of the Civil War, the castle was a Royalist stronghold but soon fell to the Parliamentarians.   After a long, slow decline, the castle became a private residence in 1880, being restored by the famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.   In 1944 the castle was given to the National Trust.


The route across the Holy Island sands used in the time of Aidan and Cuthbert remains the only access to the mainland.   In 1954 the causeway was opened, forming a permanent man-made link with the mainland, and extended in 1965.   Nevertheless, the tide still renders the road impassable for 2 hours before high tide and 3 hours after, and once more Lindisfarne is restored to its island status. 


The Village of Bamburgh is the ancient capital of Northumbria and the cradle of the regions history, famous for the magnificent castle that dominates the coastline.


Ida, the Saxon monarch and founder of the dynasty of Northumbria kings, first built a castle here in the 5th century.   In the years that followed the settlement was named 'Bebbanburgh', after Bebba, the wife of Ida's grandson.


King Oswald, a convert to Christianity, spent some of his early years in exile on the Scottish island of Iona.   When he regained the Northumbria throne, he sent to the monastery there for monks to spread the gospel throughout his lands.   In AD635 , Aidan and Oswald built the kingdoms first first church in Bamburgh, probably on the site of the present church, which was built between 1170 and 1230.   Like the priory on nearby Lindisfarne (Holy Island), the first castle suffered from numerous Viking raids and was rebuilt in 11th century, reaching its present magnificence in1272.


In later centuries it fell into disrepair, Lord Crewe, the last of the Prince Bishops of Durham, bought the castle in 1704, creating a charity school for girls there.   But the Trustees fell into financial difficulties and it was bought as a private residence in 1894 by William, 1st Lord Armstrong. Restored to its former proud state, the castle has remained the family's home since then.


Lesser Black-backed Gull, Seahouses

Immature Herring Gull, Seahouses

Herring Gulls, Seahouses

Redshank, Seahouses

Curlew, Seahouses

Grey Heron, Seahouses


The village of Bamburgh is the last resting place of Northumbria's most famous heroine, Grace Darling.   She was born in 1815, daughter of the keeper of the Longstone lighthouse on the Farne Islands.   On the night of 7 September 1838, in a severe storm, the Forfarshire, a steamship bound for Dundee with 39 passengers, was swept onto the rocks of Big Harcar, one of the outer Farnes.   Grace and her father rowed a boat through the howling gale and lashing rain to the scene of the wreck, and succeeded in rescuing 9 passengers, 5 first then another 4; sadly other 43 perished.   She was claimed by tuberculosis in 1842 and was buried in Bamburgh churchyard, opposite the museum that commemorates her bravery.


The Farne Islands are a group of low-lying islands approximately 3 miles off the coast of Northumberland.   There are 28 islands at low water and 16 at high water.


There are an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Grey seals on Farne.   Pups are born in November and gain up to two lb. a day in weight.   After only 6 to 8 weeks parents leave the pups to fend for themselves.


There are 40,000 pairs of Guillemots on Staple Island alone.   A single pear shaped egg is laid onto the bare rock, with no nest made.   Razorbills are darker in colour than Guillemots with a distinctive white stripe along the beak.   Both species are early breeders and typically fledge by the end of June.


50,000 pairs of Atlantic Puffins nest in burrows excavated in the peaty soil and lay a single whitish egg.   Puffins nest just beyond arms reach, numbers peaking with last year’s juveniles in mid July- most puffins leave the Islands by the end of the month.


Up to 500 pairs of Eider duck live off crab and shellfish.   Their nest is lined with down and they lay up to 10 eggs.   They are the earliest breeders with chicks often leaving the Island in early June.


Kittiwakes build a nest of seaweed and grass, clinging to the cliffs.   Four species of tern- common, arctic, sandwich and a few roseate breed on the Farne Islands


Grey seals on the Farne Islands

The Longstone Light, Farne Islands

Grey Seals on the Farne Islands


The Longstone Light was built 1825 to 1826.   Since 1980 it has been unmanned and operates automatically.   The lighthouse is 4 nautical miles from harbour, flashing once every 20 sec. day and night.


Brownsman Island has no public landing - apart from the National Trust wardens.


Inner Farne has its Peel Tower and St Cuthbert’s Chapel.   St Cuthbert moved to Inner Farne in 676, becoming bishop of Lindisfarne in 685 on request of King Eyfrid.


10 years ago, The Alnwick Garden was derelict and forgotten.   The Alnwick Garden project was begun by the Duchess of Northumberland and was part-funded by European Union.   It is designed by the Belgian garden designers Jacques and Peter Wirtz.   Notable features include the Poison Garden and the Grand Cascade, with 4 different water displays on the hour and half-hour.


Alnwick Castle was built as a medieval fortress in the 1300s.  It is one of the two largest inhabited castles in England.   It has been the home of the Percy family (Dukes of Northumberland) for almost 700 years.  The surrounding landscape was designed by Capability Brown.   Falconry displays are held in the Inner Bailey



July 2011: Ferns and gardens:how ferns found their way into the garden.


Howard Matthews


The speaker has always been more interested in botany and ecology than gardening.  Ferns are not bred like flowers, which have been subject to years of selective breeding and hybridisation.  The ferns in the garden are the original species.


Magic and folklore


Ferns were not grown in medieval gardens.  Indeed mystery and folklore grew up around them from medieval times.  For example, moonwort was long associated with things magical and was believed to have the power to open locks, unshoe horses and change metal.  Male fern was seen as essential in a love potion.  Pagan ceremonies developed around ferns and “fern seed” was believed to have magical properties, giving invisibility, as mentioned in Shakespeare’s King Henry V.  It was claimed that fern had a blue flower at midnight on midsummer eve, with the seeds appearing moments after – if collected they gave the power to discover hidden treasure, while to drink the sap conferred perpetual youth.  In the 17th century, it was believed that setting growing bracken on fire would produce rain and the High Sheriff of Stafford was asked to prevent this during a visit by King Charles I to ensure fair weather during the visit.


Herbal uses


Renaaissance gardens were very formal and had no ferns but ferns had many herbal uses, including male fern, lady fern, royal fern, hart’s tongue, maidenhair fern, polypody, rustyback and wall rue.  Infusions were made from ferns fr a wide number of ills.  Adder’s tongue was regarded as a cure for tumours, to bite on a young crozier in spring was the rural remedy for toothache and extracts from rhizomes of bracken and male fern were used to expel intestinal worms.


Fern gatherer

Wardian Case

Fern gatherer 1877


In general, the ferns were not grown for herbal purposes but simply gathered from the wild as required.  However a list headed Additional commonly grown plants listed by Jon Gardener circa 1350 includes polypody as a “primarily medicinal herb.  Around 1525, Thomas Fromond, a landowner from Surrey, compiled a list of Herbs necessary for a garden, in which herbs for pottage included hart’s tongue and in about 1596 John Gerrard of Gerrard’s herbal is said to have grown black spleenwort, male fern, lady fern, adder’s tongue, hart’s tongue and wall rue.


Other uses


Bracken was used for bedding for both humans and animals, for insulation under floors and in walls and as thatch where few other materials were available.  It was also used as packaging material for produce such as fresh fruit or for transporting Welsh slate.  When burnt, bracken was used as top dressing for peatlands because of its high potash content and later it was burnt to produce potash for glass-making and for soap-making..


Fern collections


There were few fern collections in England.  John Tradescant, owner of a botanic garden in Lambeth, brought North American plants back from Virginia in 1628, which included ferns.  Others were added in 1680 and 1699, including sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis).  The only other recorded exotic fern at the time was a Blechnum in King Charles II’s garden in 1671.


By the 1770s, collecting ferns was more popular and considered more important botanically.  Between 1770 and 1790, 68 species were brought to Britain, most to private collections and the rest to Kew.  Joseph Banks, Director of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, worked to encourage the introduction of new plants.  In 1768, Hortus Kewensis listed 10 ferns; in 1789 it was 34.  Rear Admiral Bligh (of mutiny on the Bounty fame) brought back 37 ferns from the Indian colonies.  However, the propagation of ferns was not understood, since they lacked flowers so when a plant died it was replaced with another living specimen imported from abroad.


In 1794, John Lindsay, a British surgeon in Jamaica who had received botanical training, demonstrated that the dust from the underside of fern fronds (spores) grew into something like small liverworts, which would ultimately produce new fern plants.  However, it was not till 1848 that the fern life cycle was fully understood,


The 19th century saw a steady inflow of new arrivals to Kew from the colonies and other foreign places.  In 1822 there were 40 species of ferns at Kew, by 1845 there were 200 and in 1846 there were 348 species in the fern houses.  The first tree ferns were supplied in 1841 from New Zealand.  John Smith’s catalogue in 1857 included 560 exotic species of cultivated ferns and by 1895 the collection at Kew had risen to 1,116 species and varieties of exotic ferns, 97 fern allies and 586 British forms.


Ferns become popular


By the time of the accession of Queen Victoria, there was a growing interest in the natural world, with a wide range of books and manuals offering guidance on this fashionable pursuit.  The middle classes formed natural history societies and the workers had field clubs with whom they had countryside rambles on Sundays.


Knowledge of the propagation of ferns grew slowly, with propagation on a large scale first carried out successfully at Liverpool Botanic Garden in the early 1800s.  By the 1840s, there were notable collections of ferns in both public and private gardens, though the main interest was in exotic species cultivated in stove houses.


The Wardian Case


The invention of the Wardian Case represented a significant advance in maintaining ferns once they had been propagated.  This closely glazed case (an ornate miniature greenhouse on legs) was invented by Nathanial Ward to house a hawk moth chrysalis but he noticed that spores of male fern germinated within the case and flourished in the humid atmosphere so he then experimented with ferns.  Previous efforts to cultivate ferns had been unsuccessful in the midst of the smoke and fumes of Victorian London.  At the same time, new glass-making techniques and the abolition of the glass tax in 1845 meant no home was without a Wardian case.  Initially used for expensive, imported exotic species which required heat to survive the British winter, they were soon used also for the cultivation of hardy British ferns, which were available free of charge and needed no artificial heat.  Fern collecting became all the rage, especially with the expansion of the railways making more of Britain accessible.




From the Wardian Case, it was but a small step to the fernery in a glazed Victorian conservatory alongside the house or in botanical gardens.  Examples included a great exhibition of 1866, Brighton Aquarium, Benmore Fernery, Edinburgh Botanical Gardens and Tatton Park, which still has its fernery.  The fernery at the Swiss Garden at Biggleswade was built on the 1830s and remodelled in the 1870s, when a pulhamite (artificial rock) arch was added.  By the 20th century it was in total ruins but it was restored in the 1970s to 1980s.  The fernery at Ashridge near Berkhamstead is no longer used as a fernery but relics remain.

Taton Park Fernery

The Swiss Garden Fernery with pulhamite arch

Edinburgh Botanical Gardens 2007


Canonteign Fern Garden

Bench at Ashridge


Tree ferns


Most of the tree ferns on sale now come from Tasmania, where there are estimated to be 120 million Dickensia Antarctica tree ferns.  However, large areas have been clear-felled for plantations, road-building etc and there has been no control over harvesting on private land.  Cut trunks readily grow new roots at one end and fronds at the other, even if not planted.  Sale of tree ferns is now licensed by the Tasmanian government,


Fern books and artefacts


In 1837-41, the first of a number of detailed and well illustrated fern books (Shirley Hibberd’s The fern garden) were launched and spurred on the growing band of field botanists.  In the mid-1840s, the emphasis changed to fern varieties and cultivation hints.  20 guides were published between 1840 and 1866.


Ferny artefacts included benches with fern backs at the Swiss Garden and at Ashridge.


Fern collecting


Fern collecting became a profitable sideline and even normal species were collected by the “spivs” of the day who invaded ferny areas and dug up every fern they found.  In 1896, The Gardener’s Chronicle reported that two men from Bexley, Kent, were charged in Totnes with damaging Devonshire hedges.  They were engaged with a horse and cart in wholesale removal of ferns and about 5 hundredweight of roots were found in an outhouse.  Fines of £5.00 and £2. 10s plus damages were imposed and in default of payment one man was sentenced to 6 weeks hard labour and the other to one month.  Commercial collectors followed hard on the heels of the amateurs.

Royal fern

Oblong woodsia

Hard ferns

Hart’s tongue

Male fern



The effects of this collecting were significant.  The royal fern suffered greatly and it has disappeared completely or become very rare at many of its old haunts where it had been common. 


Because of publicity giving exact locations of its habitats, the Killarney fern has vanished from practically all of them.  It was first discovered in Scotland in 1863 by Robert Douglas, the “walking postman” of Arran.  Despite a warning from the Edinburgh naturalist W.B. Simpson to keep the location secret, Douglas showed the location to some gentlemen from Glasgow, one of whom returned and stripped the site bare.  It was also eradicated from one of its few sites in north Wales when the discoverer mentioned its location to a friend.  Only a handful of small colonies of Killarney fern remain today, the location of which is kept secret.


The small alpine fern Oblong woodsia was almost eradicated by collectors.  In the Natural History Museum herbarium are sheets containing numbers of plants that were pressed entire, including roots.  Wholesale collection of this naturally rare species soon exceeded what the wild populations could stand and it is today teetering on the edge of extinction in Britain.


The emphasis changed from collecting in the wild to commercial suppliers, such as the W & J Birkenhead Nursery.  Catalogues offered over 1,000 species and varieties and one offered 50 varieties of hart’s tongue.


Fern varieties


Variation is caused by genetic mutation, resulting in all or most of the leaves having a peculiar feature.  Some variants breed true 100% of the time, while others produce a mixture with wide variation, with only 5 or 10% having the desired form.  A limited number of species produce variants, particularly lady fern (more than 300 forms named from it), hart’s tongue and soft shield fern.  There is a remarkable abundance of fern variations in Britain (about 1,000 named).  A number of forms originally found in the wild as single plants have been propagated by spores or by division so that their existence has continued to the present day.  Apogamous ferns produce direct from the spore, while, in  normal ferns, the spore germinates to a small liverwort-like growth which produces male and female organs which fuse to form the fern.


Exotic ferns


Ostrich fern

Sensitive fern

Dryopteris lepidopoda


A common exotic fern is the Ostrich fern, native to central and northern Europe and North America but not to the UK.  It multiplies by rhizomes and there used to be one at Boston Manor.  The sensitive fern at Grimsdyke is probably a relic of Victorian planting.  There are a lot of ferns endemic to Japan, such as Dryopteris lepidopoda, with its rather gaudy colour and the autumn buckler fern or rosy buckler fern (Dryopteris erethrosora).  The house holly fern flourishes in warmer climes such as the Mediterranean region.  There are also shield ferns fro the far east and from North America (sword fern).


Modern production


Modern production is by in vitro reproduction, taking bits of tissue and putting them in sterile jelly, as practised at a very large scale in Dallas, Texas.  The one exception in terms of the breeding of ferns is a cross of lady fern with Japanese painted fern.  For home propagation, the speaker uses sterilised compost if a self-sealing plastic bag, into which he taps the spores and leaves for a couple of months.


Ferns today


The fern craze continueduntil the early 20th century and was really finished by the Foirst World War, when garden staff and knowledge were lost, large estates broken up and ferneries became disused.


Rock gardens, in which ferns were included were fashionable in the 1920s and after the Second World War there was a rediscovery of the countryside.  Bottle gardens were in voguein the 1960s and 1970s and tree ferns became popular in the 1990s.  Since then a number of Victorian and Edwardian ferneries began to be restored and there have been new constructions such as the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew and the Eden Project biomes in Cornwall.