Yes, well, regulars here will know I can’t resist awful puns…but lurking beneath this one is some good news, which I can’t resist either.
Horse-chestnut trees here in Yorkshire are threatened by an alien moth, the chestnut leaf miner. This little perisher first arrived in Britain nine years ago and has steadily worked its way north to God’s Own County. It lays its eggs in its favourite trees, so its caterpillars can feast on the leaves, and their chomping damages the trees so much that they produce smaller nuts – in other words, they threaten the conker harvest. Shock horror – and the scientists have failed to find a cure for this pesky invasion.
Like everyone who played conkers as a child, I’ve a soft spot for horse-chestnuts still. Just last week, one of the friends I go dog-walking with had her young grandson with her, and he was hunting for conkers. The two trees on our route are, happily, undamaged so far; no tell-tale horrible brown patches on the leaves. His enthusiasm took me back to my schooldays, when at seven or eight or nine we kids used to throw sticks into trees to make the chestnuts fall down, and then extract them from their prickly green shells.
We usually did this at dinner-time, in the woods around our school, and pocketed our trophies till the end of afternoon lessons. Often the conkers were white when we first prized them out, but they’d always gone brown by the end of school. I still don’t know why that was…I suppose contact with the air changed their shells somehow; it couldn’t be light, because they were tucked away out of sight. There are few darker spots on the earth’s surface than the bottom of an eight-year-old’s pocket.
Oddly enough, I remember next to nothing about playing with the conkers. I do recall some of us baking them in the oven to harden them (others of us soaked them in vinegar, I think.) So we must have done battle with them. But it’s the fun of collecting them on sunny autumn days that I fondly remember now. And that’s why I was sad to think that this generation of schoolchildren might have to make do with inferior conkers.
But nature, as they say, is a wonderful thing. (Who did say that? Dunno, but it’s true all the same.) All’s not lost; the cavalry is flying to the rescue. Literally. Because it’s been found that blue-tits enjoy eating the invading caterpillars. So surely there’s a good chance that as the pests get more numerous, so will the blue-tit population, and the pests will eventually be controlled. Even if the caterpillars can’t be wiped out completely yet, (and if that were possible, presumably they’d never have managed to spread this far north,) the blue-tits will make sure they don’t have things all their own way, and buy time for science to come to the aid of nature. Science, after all, is another wonderful thing…mostly.
So more power to the blue-tits. I’ll make sure to put out winter feed for them, so they are fit and healthy and nest-building madly next spring, ready to wipe out the caterpillars. Autumn without big fat brown conkers for kids to play with would be a very sad season.