HERE in Lancashire we have had the most glorious weather for weeks. There has been an easterly breeze most of the time which has kept it perfect. One advantage of the sunshine is that it makes it easier to see the fish in the brook at the back of our house, as they cast shadows on the bottom. I have written before about our eels (here, though sadly I have not seen any for several years) and our trout (here; there are quite a few this year, up to about eight or nine inches long). There is a third species which I saw for only the second time here last week, the bullhead (Cottus gobio).
Also known as miller’s thumb, this is a strange little fish which looks prehistoric to me. I think they are relatively plentiful but they are rarely seen because they spend their days under stones, coming out in the twilight to look for invertebrates to eat.
They have some unique and interesting features. I found an excellent article on the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust website so I am shamelessly quoting from it here.
The bullhead is a member of the spiny-finned ‘sculpin’ family of fish. There are about 300 species worldwide, the vast majority of which live in the sea and are similar in appearance to gobies. The bullhead is the only freshwater sculpin in the UK.
Bullhead are around four inches long with a big head, prominent eyes and a wide mouth. Their bodies taper towards the tail. They are usually mottled brown, though males turn almost black in breeding season.
To enable a bottom-dwelling lifestyle, bullhead have no swim bladder and their eyes point upward for enhanced predator-spotting. The eyes have a double cornea with a fluid layer between, which helps protect them as they dig in under stones. The huge fan-like pectoral fins have big spines to grip the riverbed and help them stay put in fast flows.
Adults are very territorial, and live under a favourite stone that they will defend from invaders by wafting their fins and making warning sounds described as ‘knocking’. Bullhead can spend their whole adult lives in possession of the same stone, and they have a homing instinct so if they are moved or washed away they will often find their abode again.
The male excavates a nest under his home stone. The female lays up to 400 orange eggs which the male fertilises and guards. He fans cool, oxygenated water over the eggs and patrols the nest, turfing out predators that have sneaked in, such as caddis-fly larvae in their stick, leaf or stone cases. Talk about the ideal husband!
Now that wild flowers are in full swing I have noticed that while walking along the bank of the Ribble I can stop at any point and by turning 360 degrees spot seven different species – occasionally one or two more but rarely fewer.
Here is a lovely wild rose I saw last week.
I believe it is the dog rose (Rosa canina) but there are several kinds and they hybridise, so I am not sure.
Sheep of the Week
COMMENTER ‘Little Black Censored’ wrote on last week’s Notes from the Sticks: ‘There is a flock of black Hebridean sheep near me; such graceful thin ankles! Do they not count as British? Or are there different colours on them that I have not noticed?’
I have to admit that I thought I had written about Hebrideans but I seem to have missed them. So let’s put that right. Here are a couple in the Highlands:
And here is a ewe in Northumberland:
They certainly count as British: their complex history can be traced back to before the Iron Age when their ancestors were part of the Northern European short-tailed sheep group.
In the past they were usually white but often black, brown, russet or grey. As a result of selective breeding, now nearly all have black wool which fades to brown in the sun and may become grey with age. A few have no horns but typically they have two or four. Six or even eight are not unknown. (The term for more than one pair of horns is ‘polycerate’.) Some have woolly topknots. As Little Black Censored remarks, they do have slender legs.
They are small compared with most other breeds but they are hardy and able to thrive on rough grazing. They are particularly fond of browsing, which I found out last week is the technical term for feeding on the leaves, shoots and fruits of woody plants (this material is known as ‘browse’), rather than grazing, which is eating grass. The National Trust employ a flock at Baggy Point in North Devon, and here they are hard at work on a blustery day.
(The NT also have cows at Baggy Point to control the vegetation, and I was surprised to find this hidden in the website: ‘Cattle conservation grazing: Four Ruby Red cattle have joined the wildlife and are playing their part in keeping this habitat diverse. The cattle help to keep the area from becoming overgrown. “Without grazing or human intervention this coastal area would become overgrown with brambles, gorse and bracken. This lack of plant diversity is not good for wildlife. The cattle break up the scrub and allow other plants to grow up, creating a mosaic of rich habitats which in turn will support an array of invertebrates, birds, reptiles and mammals” – Jonathan Fairhurst, National Trust Lead Ranger.’ I wonder if the NT rewilding-mad nomenklatura are aware that their staff hold sensible views.)
Because Hebridean sheep are so hardy, they are often crossed with larger breeds so that meat lambs can be produced from marginal land.
You can read more about the breed and its history at the Hebridean Sheep Society website. There is another website run by enthusiasts who are trying to retain the traditional character of the Hebridean sheep. It’s got lots of interesting info and pictures, and you can see it here.
Here’s a great video of Hebridean lambs.
Finally, a comment on last week’s column from ‘Togo’: ‘Here in North Wales we seem to have a solution to the sheep fleece conundrum. A local vineyard is, for the second year, putting the fleeces from a local sheep farmer to use. The farmer, like other sheep keepers, was finding the product less than worthless until the vineyard started to lay the fleeces under the vines. The results have reportedly been excellent. The sunshine is reflected back and helps ripening and the crop pests are inhibited by the fleece which also retains moisture around the vine. Win, win for farmer and wine maker. It is taking place about 3 miles west on the A55 from us and attracting visitors from other vineyard owners. Particularly the French ones who reportedly have no shortage of snails to spoil their crop.’ Here is a link.
Wheels of the Week
THIS is a 1196 cc Vauxhall Mk 1 Astra hatchback which has recently turned 40, being registered in April 1983. I think this is the only car I have featured in Wheels of the Week that is still being manufactured, so they must be doing something right.
It started life in August 1979 as the German-made Opel Kadett D. It was delivered to Britain (presumably with right-hand drive) from November, then sold in Britain from March 1980 rebadged as the Astra. It replaced the Vauxhall Viva, and was Vauxhall’s first model to have front-wheel drive. For some reason the parent company General Motors sold both the Opel Kadett and the Vauxhall Astra in Britain through separate marketing operations competing directly with each other. All the cars were made in Germany until November 1981 when production started at Ellesmere Port. Eventually GM sorted out the marketing nonsense and the Opel version was phased out in Britain.
Here is the launch advert which I presume is from March 1980.
There were three body styles: hatchback, saloon, and estate, all with two or four side doors. It was initially available with 1300cc and 1600cc overhead-camshaft engines, and a there was also a 1200cc version which used the older Opel OHV engine – I think this model must be one of those. In 1983 an 1800cc fuel-injected version was added in the Mk 1 Astra GTE. The white 1800 GTE was the first UK car to be ‘colour-coded’ with body trim that matched the base colour of the car: this included wheel arch extensions, front side and rear lower skirts, mirror covers, bumpers and even the alloy wheels were painted white. This is the TV advert for the GTE.
The Mk 1 was produced until 1984 when it was replaced by the Mark 2, which featured a restyled body.
The Astra is now in its eighth generation, which went on sale in November 2021.