Sandy’s Garden

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Can Blue Tits Save Our Children’s Conkers?

When I was growing up in Perth, one of the delights of Autumn was to search in the grass beneath the chestnut trees in both the North Inch and the South Inch … and for people unfamiliar with Perth and its pleasures, these are large public parks … for the fallen fruit of these trees, the rich brown chestnuts peeking out of their spiky green cases, split by their fall. The North Inch was always the happier hunting ground, for it is larger and boasted a greater number of trees, in particular a greater number of horse-chestnut trees, the finest source of what we called conkers.

The biggest and best of these finds were taken home, usually in the pockets of our school blazers … no designer coats or jackets in these distant days … where a hammer and a nail were the preferred tools with which to punch a hole through them preparatory to their being hung on a string, ready to do combat with our friends’ conkers in the game of the same name; and for anyone unfamiliar with that game, each player took in turn to strike the other player’s suspended conker with his or her own conker, the aim being to break one of them. It was usually, but not always, the struck conker that shattered, although the striker sometimes came off worst. The winning conker was now a ‘one-er’ if it had not been used before and if the smashed chestnut had not won any previous battles either. If the loser had been in use before, its victories were added to the victor’s total so, if the broken chestnut had been a ‘five-er’, the winner was now a ‘six-er’. Various strategies were employed to harden chestnuts although, while we all believed in our preferred hardening techniques, the sorry truth is that the conkers became more brittle with each passing day and I don’t recall anyone ever having more that something like a ‘twenty-fiver’.

I read that some English schools have banned conkers from the playground on the alleged grounds that a shattered chestnut can be compared to shrapnel which might inflict facial injuries on the players or onlookers: but, while I don’t recall any of my friends suffering eye injuries from flying shards of chestnuts … mainly because our conkers very seldom shattered so spectacularly … I don’t see the local children running any risk of such an occurrence in or near Falkirk, for I don’t see them playing the game at all. And, while it may be that today’s youngsters are all far too sophisticated to play such basic games, there is no doubt that the number of horse-chestnut trees has declined markedly in recent years, largely due to the reaction of groundsmen and gardeners to the activities of the horse-chestnut leaf miner (Cameraria ohridella), a little charmer whose larvae feed in the leaves of the trees, causing brown patches which quickly spread to affect much of the tree, weakening it and hugely reducing its production of chestnuts. But, while the leaf miner weakens the tree, it seldom kills it; that privilege belongs to the tree’s human carers, who often fell it in a bid to eradicate the leaf miner problem from their policies.

But help may be at hand. The adult horse-chestnut leaf miner is a moth which is a recent immigrant to Scotland, having come originally from the Balkan states. As an immigrant, it found no natural enemies here: but blue tits … and, to a lesser extent, great tits … are showing increasing signs of finding the tree-damaging larvae rather tasty. At present, they probably eat less than 5% of the annual population of these caterpillars. But that proportion is thought to be increasing; and, while the tits will never eradicate the problem, they are lending arboriculturists a valuable helping hand in trying to control this unwelcome arrival from the Balkans. And as for the future of the game of conkers … well, who knows?

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society