Half-Penny: aliens and interlopers

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There are many words used to describe species which, through human intervention, have found themselves existing far outside of their historic, natural range. Terms such as invasives, aliens, invasive aliens and nonindigenous species are quite familiar; while a glance at social media often reveals myriad more unflattering phrases: pest, nuisance, menace, vermin – I particularly loathe the latter. Regardless of the terminology applied to them, however, such species have become a figment of daily life in present day Britain: intermingling with and, in some cases, out-competing many of our native creatures. Some are unwelcome, some are accepted and others are ignored entirely; though for many, myself included, aliens and interlopers have quickly become a fact of life around our respective local patches. So much so, in fact, that they appear rooted in the very foundation of the places we know and love. My local patch, Half-Penny, is no different.

Setting out with the express intent of documenting the variety of exotic species thriving, or merely surviving, within the wood, I arrived just before dawn – the bright yet deceivingly cold sunlight just beginning to percolate down to the woodland floor. Bouncing off the palmate leaves of Sycamore and transforming the carpet of native Butterbur and Ground Elder beneath into a mosaic of jaded and rejuvenated greens. Sycamore – a non-native species introduced by either the Romans or the Tudors, depending on the source, so familiar that is often hard to imagine the tree being anything other than a time-honored resident. One alien down.

Further into the wood, an assortment of plump, white berries shone by the side of footpath – a beacon of unfamiliarity, far removed from anything else found within the depths of Half-Penny. I am, of course, referring to the ivory fruits of Snowberry Symphoricarpos albus – a North American species which here, in my wood, has spread like wildfire, now representing the dominant shrub species across at least half of the site. An appealing species, boasting delicate pink flowers earlier in the year that, reluctantly, I have come to accept as a permanent feature of life here. Indeed, it would take a considerable effort to halt its creeping but clearly apparent advance.

Moving forward, the smell of Himalayan Balsam caught my attention long before first glimpse of the the sea of swaying pink blooms that dominates the mid-wood in late Summer. A species familiar to many that needs no introduction: balsam is a blight to native flora yet a handy source of nectar for various pollinators, many of which, today, could be seen hovering deftly around the bell shaped flowers. The internal jury is still out on this one; though less so on the small stand of Japanese Knotweed uncovered further into the tangle. A species which, due to a combination of education and personal experience, I find it hard to look upon with even a hint of appreciation. I doubt said stand will remain small for long, given the tendency of this species to spread like measles. It may have a hard job competing with the already established balsam, however. May the best (or worst) plant win.

Stopping briefly to admire the hulking frame of a Turkey Oak – a much more welcome invader which, year after year, provides a reliable source of delightfully hairy acorns for woodland residents to savor – my attentions soon turned to a yellow bloom protruding conspicuously from amid a riverside depression. Monkeyflower Mimulus guttatus, another invader of American origin which, rather oddly, is the county flower of Tyne and Wear. This species, much like the Turkey Oak, does not appear to be causing much of the problem in the wood; and like the oak with its comical, fuzzy fruit, provides a handy resource for local animals. Demonstrated by the Carder bee buzzing hastily between flowers as I watched, intrigued.

Less conspicuous than the botanical interlopers yet equally as prolific, it was not long before I caught sight of my first Grey Squirrel of the day. An unwelcome arrival which, more so than any other, cuts straight to my heart despite its altogether cute appeal. You see, during childhood visits to the wood, native Red Squirrels were a familiar sight, common even. A trend which lasted right up until 2013, when, to my surprise and distress, I sighted my first grey in the area. An ill omen of things to come later as the latter increased and the former decreased, fading from existence by 2016 – the same time as I began work as a Grey Squirrel control volunteer.

Grey Squirrels are one alien I find it hard to tolerate; not because I see them in a particularly negative light – they are rather endearing, in truth – but because of the damage done to a much-loved local species. I suspect this makes me a frightful hypocrite given my begrudging fondness for balsam and the plants impact upon native flora, though none of us are perfect. Though I wish we didn’t, we all place varying amounts of significance on certain species, often at the expense of others. It’s human nature.

Today I appreciate the squirrel for what it is, a highly adaptive and incredibly successful species. With more evidence of the rodents continued success in Half-Penny uncovered upon my departure. A pile of gnawed hazel shells: a small but stark testament to the changing nature of Half-Penny which, in spite of human interference, appears set to shift further in years to come.