A look at the wild side

Chapter Four of Life Along the River by Kathryn Shreeve

Local historian and writer Kathryn Shreeve has been with Friends of the Rib & Quin from the very beginning. She has published several books on the area through the ages and in ‘Life Along the River’ tells the story of our river valleys through history, serialised into chapters on our website.

In the fourth installment, the catchment’s natural history comes into focus


4
A look at the wild side

So much for the human population of the valley, now it’s time to look at the wildlife, both past and present, that shares it with us.  As we’ve already seen, once the glaciers had retreated and the cold-weather herds of reindeer had been and gone, the climate as far as the fauna and flora are concerned has been fairly stable ever since – apart from one or two so-called ‘Little Ice Ages’.  This is obviously not the place for a comprehensive list of all the species found in our river valleys, so just a few examples are given here to illustrate the huge diversity of what we have and what we stand to lose.

As far as mammals go, we’ve already mentioned the introduction and naturalisation of fallow deer by the Normans.  But since then we’ve also seen the huge proliferation of the muntjac – introduced from China to Woburn Park in 1838, and now to be seen just about everywhere.  These have been a couple of the gains, but we’ve also had losses: wolves have not been seen in southern England since the early Middle Ages, but were undoubtedly here in the valley before that.  On the river itself, we may well once have had beavers, but these were hunted to extinction in Britain by the end of the 16th century.  Even current re-wilding projects for these animals are unlikely to bring them back here, with too much agricultural land at stake.

Otters too would have enjoyed these rivers, but trapping was not uncommon in order to save the fish.  But then came the American Mink!  These were introduced to the UK’s fur farms in the 1920s, but of course they eventually escaped and were found to be breeding by the mid-1950s.  They are now widespread in our canals and rivers.  Gordon Worby of Cold Christmas “once found an old otter trap in the river; he had never seen an otter but said mink were trapped here.  Ena McDonald recalls running to tell her father a dog was stuck on an island and being told it was an otter.”

A much earlier reason for the demise of the otter here could have been due to another descendant of Sir Ralph Sadleir, owner of Standon Lordship, Mr. Ralph Sadleir!  On the very first page of the well-known Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton, written in 1653, the protagonist boldly admits to an enjoyable day’s hunting ahead: “I intend this day to do all my business, and then bestow another day or two in hunting the Otter, which a friend, that I go to meet, tells me is much pleasanter than any other chase whatsoever; howsoever, I mean to try it; for tomorrow morning we shall meet a pack of Otter-dogs of noble Mr. Sadler’s, upon Amwell Hill.”

Water voles too would have been common as the banks should be perfect for them, but today you’re more likely to see a rat than ‘Ratty’ himself!  Sadly, the true rat is seen in numbers along our rivers, whereas once upon a time men were employed as ‘ratcatchers’.  The demise of the water vole from the start of the 20th century has been due to a variety of factors, but it has certainly accelerated since the introduction of the mink.  These creatures, delightful though they are, will also prey on fish, invertebrates, small mammals and birds, and consequently eradication of them has become necessary.

Daubenton’s bat © Frederico Martins CC-by-NC

As for smaller creatures, these are much harder to document, especially if they are those of the shadows of the night.  Bats are certainly to be found along the river, but not in the numbers they once were.  “In the 1940s, the bats at dusk between Cold Christmas and Sawtrees were so numerous someone standing in the road with a broom could knock them down.  Gwen Hazelwood described how she was sometimes afraid to go out at dusk for fear of bats getting in her hair.”  The Daubenton’s Bat is one of the species found along the Rib which particularly likes the water, skimming over the surface hunting for insects such as caddis flies and mayflies.

When it comes to domesticated animals, we certainly lost the aurochs or wild cattle back in pre-history, and have been mostly left with the Holstein black and white cow – hardly a fair trade!  Until the Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century, cows of various colours would have been seen in the fields here, and generally smaller ones too, but not so any longer.  And also oxen, which were used as draught animals for many centuries, and would have been a common sight pulling ploughs.  Sheep would have been smaller too, and probably a lot more of them could be seen in the fields.  In the days of woollen clothing they were literally vital to life.  Pigs were the other domesticated animal descended from the wild pigs of the woodlands.  These were once kept in ones and twos by most people living in the valleys, but they were always more an animal of the back-yard than the open ground.

And then there were the horses!  Up until the 20th century the whole of life here was horse-drawn.  In fact, horses were so much a part of the scenery, either in the fields or on the roads, that they would have been as much taken for granted as our motorised vehicles are today.  And there were different types of horses for different purposes, from the draught horses that took over from the oxen, to the coach horses on the turnpike, and the faster ones of the gentleman’s gig.  All equine life was to be seen here.

As for the birds found in the valley, again some have flown in and others have flown away.  Birds lost over time would include one as big as the crane.  These would have been served at the Tudor aristocratic table, and may well have been found beside the Rib at Standon.  One field name there, Cranham, is thought to be Old English for ‘home of the cranes’, so perhaps they will return one day!  The kite, once a common bird of prey, was then lost to us but has now returned, to become common once again – thanks to reintroduction.  

A Jack Snipe hiding in plain sight with two tortoiseshell butterflies

Kingfishers, those glorious flashes of colour over any river, can still be seen but are much rarer than they once were.  A newspaper article of 1880 by the Hertfordshire Natural History Society records a list of the animal species to be found along the Rib at that time.  The bird list also includes Little Grebe, Water Rail and Snipe, but of these the Rail is no longer seen.  Moorhens and mallard ducks are still quite common, but no longer that other delightful river dweller – the dipper.  In May 1976 Victor Tott of Braughing saw one: “On the 16th the little-dipper was seen in the River Quin, I am pleased to know this, it is many years since we had this little bird in the village.”  His may well have been one of the last sightings.  Little Egrets have become the latest incomers to the valley, and are a welcome sight. [Sand martins in the banks across the meads?]

European glow worm – Lampyris noctiluca

As for the invertebrates, these are almost too numerous and various to mention at all, but two come to mind.  First, the introduction by the Romans of the edible snail – an enormous chap with the wonderful habit of cementing up his shell-opening during the winter!  Now a protected species, they can still be seen throughout the valley. And then there are the rare and wonderful glow-worms that can be seen in a couple of places along the valley of the Rib on a summer night glowing green in the dark.  Of those invertebrates that live in the rivers, the larvae of various flies, such as mayflies, stoneflies and caddis flies can be found all along both the Quin and the Rib, as well as masses of other even smaller invertebrates, but the reduction in bat numbers may be a result of the reduction in the numbers of these river flies.

Another major intruder to our rivers is the American signal crayfish – not a fish at all of course, but a crustacean – and the enemy of our own European freshwater crayfish.  In the late 19th century this latter variety was a common find here: “The crayfish, or crawfish … is frequently met with at all parts of the Rib, and is especially abundant at Latchford.”  One enterprising lad from Cold Christmas tied his bait to an old bicycle wheel suspended from a bridge in order to catch them!  Sadly they are now extinct in this county due to the ‘crayfish plague’ brought into the country with the Government’s introduction of the signal crayfish.  Like the mink, these were supposed to be for commercial purposes, but of course they too escaped and have become voracious predators, feeding on pretty much anything in their path including fish, frogs and plants. 

We shall come to the fish in the next chapter, but if this was a sample of the fauna, what of the flora?  In the same article from the Natural History Society, it states: “Webb, in his Flora of Hertfordshire, states that there are about 460 genera and species found in the Rib and Buntingford district”, so who are we to dispute Mr. Webb’s finding?  Some of these would undoubtedly have been found in the osier beds just downstream of Thundridgebury, where willow wands used to be cut annually and taken away to be made into baskets.

Watercress in flower – Zeynel Cebeci

One plant that has always been found along the chalk streams of Hertfordshire is the humble watercress.  As we saw in chapter one, this has even been put forward as a possible derivation for the name Rib.  “Hertfordshire provides ideal conditions for watercress growing, namely broad valleys with good light, and water which arises from the chalk aquifer at a constant 11°C all year round.”  The growing of this plant on a commercial scale was introduced in 1815 and rapidly spread all over the county, including in two places on the Rib – near Braughing and Standon, and another on the Quin.  Helped by the proximity of the London markets, several generations of the same family would run these businesses, and on the Rib, Quin and Ash the beds were run by the Ginger family.  It wasn’t until after the Second World War that the industry went into decline, but it’s still possible to see where the beds were today.

Other common plants found in the river are Water Forget Me Not and Water Mint.  Isolated pockets of Water Crowfoot can also be found, although this requires plenty of light and a good depth of fast-flowing water over a gravelly riverbed, which makes it an important indicator plant for a healthy chalk stream.  A dwindling plant along the river is Lady’s Smock, and a rare species occasionally found, not in the river this time but in the meadows of Standon Lordship, is the Southern Marsh Orchid.

Another rare plant that can be found on the Rib is Carex cespitosa or Scarce Tufted-Sedge.  It has to be admitted that this plant is not going to win any beauty contests, but it certainly makes up for it in other ways: “Rather remarkably we have within our catchment the ONLY known specimen of Carex cespitosa in the UK and the most western specimen in its entire range!”  So rare is this that its location is kept secret, but let’s hope that it can be preserved and increased over time. One of its main enemies is yet another introduced species – Himalayan Balsam.  Introduced in 1839 as an ornamental garden plant it now strikes terror into any horticulturalist’s heart because it is so difficult to eradicate.  Another of the same ilk is Giant Hogweed, also found here.


References
1 See FORQ website for more on the geology of the area
2 Natural History article – see ‘Sources’
3 High/Nokes, memory of Lillian Allen

Sources
Blowers, Emma: Around Cold Christmas – 4th edition, 2020
Gover, Mawer & Stenton: The Place-Names of Hertfordshire, 1938
High, Val. and Nokes, Mary, ed.: No Washing Machines Then: Braughing People Remember, 2004
Partridge, Clive: Skeleton Green: a Late Iron Age and Romano-British Site, 1981
Perowne, Christopher: A History of the Parish of Standon, 1967
Plumb, Philip W., compiled by: The Archive Photographs Series: Buntingford, 1995
Rowe, Anne: Medieval Parks of Hertfordshire, 2009
Short, David, ed.: An Historical Atlas of Hertfordshire, 2011
Tott, Victor: A Braughing Countryman’s Diary, 2010
The Braughing of Victor Tott, 2010
The Way It Was: A Collection of Memories of Country Life in and around Standon and Puckeridge over the last 100 years, 1999
Hertfordshire Mercury, 26.6.1880: article entitled: “Hertfordshire Natural History and Field Club”

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