Wednesday 21 March 2018

Danger lurks for hill walkers

HUNTERS' Moon, after Harvest Moon in October, and the Singing Moon in the previous month, draws out serious ramblers and casual hill-walkers at weekends. Gun club enthusiasts and dog exercisers have their own agendas.

If the day is crackling after rain and storm it can be exhilarating to plod along, ever onward and upward, with the satisfying crunch of dried twigs, leaves and bracken underfoot.

But take care with those deep intakes of mountain air. You never know what invisible dangers are about, especially near ferns. These plants are not easily avoided in some places. They are attractive and there are many species. They are sometimes gathered to enhance cut flower displays. But one, brake fern or bracken (pteridium aquilinum), has a sinister side.

Bracken spores are so minute they are barely visible. Indeed, our forebears thought they conveyed invisibility and had a supernatural quality. Shakespeare in Henry IV: "We have the receipt of fern seed -- we walk invisible." But if a sufficient quantity of spores was inhaled that indeed could be the tragic outcome.

Bracken spores have carcinogenic characteristics, as keen hillwalkers have regularly been warned by specialist publications. The toxic chemicals in the almost invisible clouds are benzene-related.

Not all ferns are so dangerous. Many are classified as herbs with medicinal uses which have benefited mankind for centuries.

There are more than 40 different kinds, the most common being the Male Fern (dryopteris filix-mas) that grows luxuriantly in woodlands and shady places and may remain green all through winter. It is easily recognisable from its large fronds of up to four feet tall, wide and spreading, erect and lance-shaped, the stalk covered in brown, scaly hairs.

Oil from the rhizome has been used as a vermifuge since the Romans. The 15th Century herbalist John Gerard wrote: "The roots of the Male Fern drivith forth long, flat worms, as Dioscorides writeth

being drunk in mede or honeyed water."

In the 20th Century, Mrs Grieve's Modern Herbal described the oil extract as "one of the best antithelmintics against tapeworm which it kills and expels."

As for the sinister bracken, one of the worst invaders of poor pasture land, Culpeper, a medieval medicine man, said it was only useful for burning to "drive away serpents, gnats and other noisome creatures." It once provided potash for glassmaking and leather working, which seemed to be its only useful purpose.

It is difficult to eliminate from hillsides. Neither animals nor insects like it and we should warily avoid it. Tread carefully and skirt that persisting dead looking, copper brown shortcut to the nearest style. The longest way round will be the safest way home.

Sunday Independent

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