Here you can post any ramblings about your land. Maybe you've had problems with water or foxes, or perhaps a new regime of cutting or grazing has worked rather well, fruit harvest was late, hornets have been a pain, or the orchids were wonderful. Although you may feel it is trivial, it might be very interesting and helpful for someone round the corner who has been puzzling about the same problem all year.
So, send me your ramblings and I will post them here. Just e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pollinators in general and bees in particular have declined catastrophically, except in favoured districts that have escaped modern, intensive agriculture. However, in recent years much has been done to research and publicise this decline, with the result that even the Government seems to be about to take it seriously.
One problem amongst many is the widespread thinning out of wild flowers that sustain base-level populations of pollinators. Or, turning it round, one way of trying to reverse the decline is to restore the diversity of wild plants in the countryside. But, how? What are the priorities?
A recent research article (Journal of Applied Ecology, 2017, 54, 1856-1864) gives some guidance. Ecologists kept a systematic watch on the bee species visiting wild flowers in the farmland of the central Swiss plateau. After a long summer watching the 69 bee species in the region, they had recorded 2277 visits by honeybees to 56 plant species and 925 visits by wild bee species to 64 plant species. The plant species that each group preferred (and the strength of their preference) is given in this table. They visited other plant species, but showed no special preference for them. Likewise, honey bees, for example, visited Red clover, but showed no species preference.
* As revealed by a statistical analysis that I trust, but dont understand.⤶
|Preferred* plant species
|Achillea millefolium, Yarrow ||xxxx ||x ||xx|
|Centaurea scabiosa, Greater knapweed||x|
|Centuarea jacea, Brown knapweed**||xxxx||xxxx|
|Cirsium arvense, Creeping thistle ||x|
|Crepis capillaris, Smooth hawk's-beard ||xx|
|Echium vulgare, Vipers bugloss ||x ||x|
|Epilobium hirsutum, Hairy willowherb ||x|
|Hypericum perforatum, Perforate St-John's-wort ||xx|
|Knautia arvensis, Field scabious ||xxx|| ||xx|
|Lotus corniculatus, Bird's-foot trefoil ||xxxx|
|Malva neglecta, Dwarf mallow ||x|
|Medicago sativa, Lucerne ||x ||x|
|Melilotus albus, White melilot ||xxxx|
|Origanum vulgare, Wild marjoram ||xxx ||xx ||x|
|Tanacetum vulgare, Tansy ||x|
|Trifolium pratense, Red clover ||xxxx ||xxxxx|
|Trifolium repens, White clover ||xxx|
** the Continental equivalent of our Common knapweed.⤶
For readers who come within the ambit of the PGP and who would like to do something for pollinators, I think the main lessons are:
- that a wide variety of wild flowers is needed to cater for all classes of pollinator, and
- some plant species are more widely useful than others. Yarrow, Knapweed and Red clover seem to be the most generally useful; and Bird's-foot trefoil is particularly favoured by wild bees in general. Also,
- if we want to look after any rare bee species that might be hereabouts, Red clover is a lot more useful that White clover.
Spreading the word
I've just had a lively three days talking about the Parish Grasslands Project. On Tuesday evening I popped in to the St Briavels Get Together. This is an event at the Pavilion where representatives of local organisations are invited to tell an audience of local people, many of them representing said organisations, about their activities. The brief was to talk about last year's achievements and this year's ambitions, and to do so in three minutes. Quite a tall order, as there was a bit to report from last year. However I tried to emphasise the inclusive aspects ("you don't need to own a meadow to be involved") of our current projects: the community orchard "feasibility study" and the wild flower survey. Because it was my choir rehearsal night I asked for and received an early slot, and so tantalisingly had to miss the fantastic buffet laid on by Deborah and Neil Flint of Cinderhill Farm.
Next day I was off to Cinderhill Farm myself, to talk about the PGP to visiting members of the Farmers Club. They were on a two-day visit to the area, and the party included members of the Dunning family, farmers in Cumbria and the founders of the original Tebay Services at the top end of the M6, and much more recently of the excellent Gloucester Services on the M5. The party were going on the following day to visit the M5 site, where Deborah and Neil's now legendary Foggies (giant sausage rolls) are a major attraction. After hulling a giant bowl of strawberries while waiting for the visitors to arrive, I had a very convivial time chatting with farmers from many parts of England and Wales. Many of us climbed to the top meadow to talk about meadow management and I gave a brief outline of the PGP's aims and activities. After another extraordinary spread laid on by Deborah and Neil - this time I was able to partake, and it was delicious - I set up my stall in the barn during desert and sold a few copies of our booklets. A highlight of the day for me was a very enjoyable chat with Mr Dunning Senior, recalling my Cumbrian fell-running days in the late 1970s in places like Wet Sleddale and the Howgill Fells, when his recently opened Tebay Services took motorway food in Britain to a whole new level, and provided very welcome hot meals for weary runners after races.
Another day and another PGP gig. And more food! This was a response to an invitation from the Monmouth Field and History Society to give their members a talk about the PGP after lunch at Lindors Hotel. Very generously they invited my wife Judy too. Frankly I was a little nervous about speaking after lunch. So much easier, I thought, to get the talk out of the way first and enjoy the lunch in a more relaxed state. I should not have worried. The Field and History Society are a very convivial bunch, and I thoroughly enjoyed the lively conversation at the table. Then to my talk. I hope I didn't ramble on excessively; it was well received and provoked some excellent questions (and a request to talk to a Women's Institute). Members seemed genuinely interested in our activities and some were surprised that they had not previously known about the PGP's existence. This left me wondering if we should try to raise our profile in the immediate area. Are we too parochial? That's something for us to consider. Again I sold a few of our booklets, and donated copies of both Flowers in their Fields and Our Fields to the society's chair, Sue Miles, to place in the Nelson Museum in Monmouth. So hopefully that will do something to raise the profile of the Parish Grassland Project beyond the parish boundaries.
Wild Boar and Deer on the Hudnalls
The sheep, cattle and horses in our fields have competition. Fallow deer are now common in the district and regularly emerge from cover in the woods to feed in the fields. Wild boar, having been released into the Forest of Dean, have spread to the fringes of the Hudnalls, and we can expect them shortly to be a factor in land management. Both formed the subject of the PGP's Spring Meeting in March 2012.
Both species are not-quite members of our native fauna. Fallow deer were introduced many hundreds of years ago, having been present in Britain in previous interglacials, and they have long been thoroughly naturalised. Wild boar were certainly native, but the native population was exterminated in the Middle Ages and the present population are hybrids with domestic pigs though, with each year that passes, they become ever more naturalised hereabouts.
Fallow deer have become far more abundant locally than they were 20 years ago. Then, when Phil Ratcliffe, the Forestry Commission's national deer expert, visited, he could find no sign of their presence in the woods overlooking the Wye, but now they are common. In fact, when the PGP mapped their distribution recently, using observations of residents throughout the Hudnalls, we found that they were seen most frequently about the fringes of the Hudnalls, but less often in the core, i.e., they use the woods for cover, but spread at dusk into the fields to graze. In the fields, they seem to take little herbage, though they do eat the flower heads of hogweed, but residents near the woods must have fences or conspicuous walls if they want to grow vegetables and flowers in their gardens.
Wild boar are a different matter entirely. As anyone who has driven through the Dean recently will have seen, they root up road verges and other grassland in search of food, much as they do in Continental forests. They are also heavy and sometimes aggressive animals that are less likely to run away than deer. They have been seen entering the Hudnalls area from the east, north and west, so there seems little chance that they will stay away permanently. Once established, they have the capacity to wreck fields and gardens, and embarrass local domestic pigs.
Should we be concerned? Leaving aside the pleasure and excitement of seeing large, wild animals close to home, its clear that large numbers of either deer or boar would be a serious nuisance. The deer would make woodland management, orchard establishment and gardening impossible and the boar would spoil pastures and meadows and tear up gardens. Both are good to eat, so the rational response should probably be to control populations by shooting, and ideally find some mechanism to making the meat available for local consumption.
I spent Sunday 13 June in a large field near Muchelney in the Somerset Levels at the annual Green Scythe Festival, mainly so that I could see scything done properly. The event attracted all ages to an arena of well-grown ley grassland, set amongst an extensive car park and a "street" of small marquees exhibiting not just scythe-related paraphernalia, but also numerous broadly green exhibits and a gipsy caravan, its horse and a tea kettle blackening over a wood fire. Whilst the Scouts, Wildlife Trusts and Soil Association joined the Hampshire woodworkers, green energy firms (or, in one case, "solutions"), a pressure group against nuclear expansion at Hinkley Point, a firm marketing organic dog-waste disposal bags, a demonstration of pit-sawing, numerous food stalls and much else, the actual scything was organised by the wildly enthusiastic black-bearded man who runs the scythe shop from a farm outbuilding elsewhere in Somerset.
All-comers could try the "all you can mow in a minute" competition, but the main events were a team of 4 race, a scythe v strimmer challenge, and an individual competition in rounds that ended with the title of champion scythes man or, indeed, woman. The best competitors could wield a large blade smoothly, without evident hurry, mostly men in the 30-50 age group. There was much sharpening of blades on the sidelines; scythes lying beside the arena; chaps doing running repairs on a scythe anvil, bashing out nicks; and people everywhere carrying scythes. Spectators like myself had to be wary of standing behind off-duty competitors carrying scythes over their shoulder, but there was no sign of health and safety officials, and one competitor scythed bare-foot. The whole lot was conducted in an informal light-hearted, bantering manner, except when actually scything. I left not entirely sure whether it was serious or a long, elaborate, tacit joke (probably the former), but it was certainly an enjoyable day, and some of the scything was every bit as good as I had seen from traditional farmers in Romania recently.
The crowds were also entertained by story-tellers and vigorous dance bands; a rabble-rouser on stilts; a hay-play den for children, lots of mostly vegetarian food; and only a few of the hippie persuasion. Most of the cars parked on the margins were not young.
Every year a few molehills appear in our fields, usually in clusters, which I'm told are due to single moles setting up runs and 'worm-traps'. For a year or two I recorded the distribution of the clusters and found that they were not concentrated in any particular area, so either moles move on or die, or else they stop once they have set up their runs. Our lawn, too, is mole-ridden and, although the molehills are raked out, the ground is actually a dense network of mole runs just below the surface.
This year the moles have surpassed themselves, turning most fields to a state that recalls the worst attacks of childhood chicken-pox. During the repeated snows on January and February, we were forcibly reminded of how many there were when we tried cross-country skiing - which is hard enough anyway, and doubly so when one hits frozen mole hills repeatedly. We were also treated to displays of molehill digging as we skied - fresh mounds appearing above the snow as we stood there.
The sheer number of hills moved me to work out how much ground they cover. Using a tape and random transects, I calculated that molehills occupy 24% of the ground in the densest clusters. They must depress grass productivity and they are a menace to haymaking, and so they will be scarified out shortly, but they help the flowers by providing fresh germination sites. As happens so often, the greatest biodiversity is associated with conditions that are not ideal for farming.
Meadows and Haymaking in Shirenewton
Last week I went to Shirenewton to talk to the local history society about meadows and traditional haymaking. It was arranged a year ago, but it turned out to be well timed, for Shirenewton village has just acquired land for a village meadow. The village has two centres, separated by small fields, and it is for these that the community raised a nearly-six-figure sum.
I did not see the field itself, but I understand that its a pleasantly flowery meadow with lots of colour but no great rarities, and that it is studded with 25 oaks - a meadow-parkland, in fact. The idea is that this will remain a public open space; that it will be treated as an ordinary meadow with grazing after the hay has been taken; and that it will be used for teaching by the local school. In the not-too-distant future, I hope to be invited to a village haymaking gathering, one of the lost traditions of rural Britain. An example for our own community?
A postscript on Shirenewton's parish meadow.
My lecture on traditional haymaking, which was given to Shirenewton's history society earlier this year, led yesterday to a unique experience - I called at the primary school to judge their frog-drawing competition. The group that now manages what will be the parish meadow wanted a logo for their notepaper, so they asked the village school to create one. In the event almost all the children of all ages entered, so we had a great pile of drawings to sift through. Some of the younger children produced what I would have to call 'primordial' or 'proto' frogs, but the oldest age group produced many fine and amusing designs. In the event, we chose one that had been fashioned from different-coloured plasticines, then photographed. All very encouraging: the children are now keen, and the teachers will be using the meadow (which is next door to the school) for teaching. The meadow itself has been neglected in recent years, but it will recover with the right management. It has marshes, a stream, and several large, spreading oaks, one of which supports a well-used swing. Altogether a fine village asset.