Country diary: How crows make the rowan trees grow

Buxton, Derbyshire: Once you are attuned to the rowan-planting efforts of these often despised black creatures, you realise how much we owe them

The rowan trees opposite my office are now devoid of either leaf or fruit, but from August until recently they have been centres of intense activity for jackdaws, rooks, carrion crows and even magpies. The birds crowded the tops or chased each other through the foliage while they feasted daily on the red fruits. I had never previously noticed the connection between rowan berries and corvids.

These observations, in turn, helped me to understand an older puzzle, because on the slopes along the high moorland edge, the ground had been sown with 30 young rowans. I’d previously credited this habitat creation to another tree-planting group, the thrushes. In their wonderful book Birds and Berries, Barbara and David Snow suggest that blackbirds were the chief consumers and propagators of rowans in their Hertfordshire study area. Here, however, it’s a far less beloved black bird that is the creative force.

A third piece in the ecological jigsaw was a fragment of Aberdeenshire dialect once recounted to me by a farmer near Turiff. Saplings that spring up mysteriously in that area are known as “craa-sown”. Now I understand it.

Once you are attuned to the rowan-planting efforts of these often despised black creatures, you realise how much we owe them. It turns out that hawthorns are equally popular with members of the crow family, and often the only native trees growing in the infertile soils of the High Peak are these two fruit-bearing bushes. The other name for rowan is mountain ash, and of all trees it is the one most tolerant of high, wind-swept places. It is the crows that we should thank partly for the colour, complexity and texture in parts of our upland landscape. Without them some areas of Derbyshire would almost certainly have no trees at all.

If there had previously been doubt about who had sown the 30 young rowans, I am rather more certain about who chopped them down. Last spring it appears someone from a nearby driven-grouse moor took a chainsaw to them and felled the lot. I’m now putting my money on crows as the truer custodians of this landscape.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Mark Cocker

The GuardianTramp

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