Wild food was the subject of our October meeting. In the afternoon forager Raoul Van Den Broucke took a party of 15 on a foray in the Hudnalls woods, and they returned with a splendid basket of edible fungi.
Our evening session at St Briavels Assembly Rooms began with tastings of the foraged fungi, cooked by Raoul. Next was a blind tasting of wines by Debbie Attrill from VQ Country Wines, Longhope, followed by a demonstration of cooking with nettles by Yvette Farrell, principal of Harts Barn Cookery School, who also judged our Wild Food and Drink Competition, won by Sally Secrett's perry pear compote.
It wasn't so much scenes on the television drama Poldark of a bare-chested hero in action that aroused the PGP's interest in scything. More the visit to our meeting last October of Simon Fairlie, who has done more than anyone else to maintain interest in this ancient method of cutting grass.
Simon's talk was truly inspirational, because we were inspired to lay on a one-day scything course of our own. This took place in the orchard meadow at Harthill Cottage early in July. Nine students - numbers were limited to allow plenty of individual tuition - were instructed by highly-experienced scything tutor Andrea Gilpin. She is national project manager for an organisation called Caring for God's Acre, which helps to look after country churchyards, where scything is a vital skill.
It is a measure of Andrea's skill that as a result of the course five of the course participants have bought scythes of their own. So don't be surprised if over the summer you see someone demonstrating this ancient skill in a local meadow - bare-chested or otherwise.
Oh, and the Poldark connection? It turns out the technique demonstrated by actor Aidan Turner left a great deal to be desired - in fact it was positively dangerous.
The sun shone for us on 4 June, the wildflowers bloomed and you came to Open Fields, when eight meadow sites were open to the public. On the day we measured success with coffee spoons, not to mention biscuits, Welshcakes and doughnuts.
When we had had a chance to crunch the numbers we found that there had been 166 visitors over the eight meadows, an average of more than 20 per site. One enterprising couple managed to walk round seven sites within the five-hour window. The ultimate hope? That all of us - visitors and visited - came away with a renewed sense of just how extraordinarily rich in biodiversity the landscape in and around the Hudnalls is and some pooled ideas about how best we can work together to maintain this.
Our thanks go to all those who participated, hosts and guests alike.
Fungi and Foraging
Foragers are a singular breed, they are saints and sinners both. For those concerned by the disconnect between what we eat and where it comes from, by factory farming, £2 chickens and sluicing the planet in pesticides, then foraging is food purism: principled and with a feather-light footprint.
But for those charged with recording and protecting our ancient habitats, foragers can seem more akin to biblical locusts - particularly so now 'wild food' has hopped aboard the on-trend bandwagon. There is money in mushrooms, with all the concomitant fears. Environmental Ethics was made for debates like this, so it was with interest/trepidation we invited a professional forager to March's AGM. But Raoul van den Broucke is as much diplomat as scavenger, alive to sustainable picking - why beggar your own larder? - and disarmingly funny. If there was a moment here to discuss the need for a foraging golden mean we overlooked it, choosing greed over virtue - Aristotle we ain't, but we do now know the source of the best cherry plums in the district...
Environmentalism is an evolving course, the helmsman's classic steer-and-correct, and if at times this felt like venturing back into the profane it was no less fascinating for it. Skill is still skilful, even if you do not plan to exercise it. How to find truffles without using a pig? It's all in the flies.
Earlier in the evening we heard from Jon Dunkelman of the Monmouthshire Meadows Group about the fungi of traditional grasslands, waxcaps, entolomas et al, in advance of the MMG's planned publication on the subject. This work will plug a significant gap in our understanding of grassland ecology. To date mycologists know waxcaps to be a critical part of this ecology but the actual role they play remains a mystery. As an illustration of just how little we know: by current assessment metrics there are several meadows in the Wye Valley of international importance. Cause for celebration? No, cause for more research. So congratulations to the MMG and we eagerly await their book next year.
Looking ahead, plans are now well underway for our Open Day on Saturday 4 June. More details can be found here.
Autumn Meeting 2015
Give Us the Tools - Working the Land by Hand
Blades were out at the Mackenzie Hall on Saturday 17th October, as were the rakes and the shovels, as the Parish Grasslands Project took on the topic of hand tools for its autumn meeting.
We picked our way between assorted sickle-wavers and billhook-brandishers, to learn more about churning butter, turning wood for handles and the proper application of a whetstone. The Usk Rural Life Museum had kindly lent part of its collection of artefacts for the day, providing hands-on experience of life before Edison. And George Peterken contributed a lively history of the Wye Valley in just one object, a 19th century barking tool, exploring how the lucrative tanning industry helped shape the woodlands we see around us.
The main draw, though, was guest speaker Simon Fairlie, author, journalist, ecologist and champion of the scythe, here to prove that managing grasslands by hand is neither recherché, nor the sole province of the masochist. Indeed, for anyone with a small amount of grassland to tend, a keen interest in wildlife conservation and a concern about a spreading midriff, scything could be a winning solution.
The key phrase here is "progressive haymaking". If you've stood in a meadow before and immediately after cutting, you'll understand Simon's point: one moment you have a thriving ecosystem, the next, it's insect Armageddon - dazed burnet moths search in vain for the last knapweed standing, the bees buzz off. Scything your meadows, on the other hand, allows for - indeed demands - a regime of "little and often": cutting small swathes of grass at a time, leaving plenty of "habitat". And if it's hay you're after, rather than just the wild flowers, this has the added bonus of making the most of the narrowest of weather windows.
More information on scythes and scything courses can be found on Simon's website thescytheshop.co.uk, where you can also pick up a copy of his book, Managing Grass in Britain with the Scythe, one of the best concise explanations of grassland on the market today. Our thanks to him, to Bill Howard and to the Usk Museum, in particular Rita, for giving so freely of their time, and to our own John Josephi, Phil Morgan and Phillip Powles for their valuable contributions.
Flower Hunt at Hollyside Farm
Once again members of the Parish Grasslands Project made arrangements for children from the St Briavels Play Group and St Briavels School to visit and see the variety of wild flowers growing at Hollyside Farm and to use sweep nets to catch and observe insects which feed on the flowers. On this beautiful sunny morning teachers and parents brought preschool children (25 or 26 - it was difficult to count them as they kept moving!)
As well as observing the wild flowers the children, with the aid of nets, soon scattered around the field catching grasshoppers, butterflies, spiders and other insects which were put into little pots and then transferred to a larger net enclosure for observation.
With smaller nets "pond dipping" in the spring water tank was also enjoyed, catching tadpoles and a baby newt. Also a small frog was found!
This happy group concluded their visit with a picnic lunch in the clover patch of the field. In the afternoon the school minibus brought teachers and children, smartly dressed in school uniform, from the reception (Bluebell) class. They enjoyed the same activities as the morning group (though some children were reluctant to release their "pot" catches into the observation net!) These children happily completed the afternoon with cooling drinks as they sat on hay bales in the shade of the barn and the captive insects were released in the field.
Once again this year's flower field visit was enjoyed by everyone, young and old.
Gadr Farm Visit
The evening of 15 May saw a 16 strong group of Grasslanders pay a visit to Gadr Farm, near Trelleck, home to Mr Alan Morgan and his family. The farm is a 160 acre holding of traditional livestock rearing pasture, now managed under the Glastir Scheme (Stewardship if you live east of Offa's Dyke ) which encourages landowners to manage along conservation lines, and which until recently paid grant for educational visits.
Our visit had been billed as a chance to view the fabled Great Crested Newt and, in the many ponds and scrapes which Alan has created on his lower ground, we were able to get close and personal with both the Crested and Common varieties. Sarah Sawyer and Jon Eckert had joined us, bringing pond dipping nets with which to explore the wonders of the deep.
On a reconnaissance visit earlier Ursula Williams and I were shown the difference between frogspawn (mounds of tapioca) and toadspawn (long thin strips of jelly with eggs dotted along them, looking like the ammunition some of us once used in cap pistols)
The Great Crested was a surprise. Large, dry and scaly like a miniature Komodo Dragon, lying up in a "newt hotel" which Alan had built for the purpose. This was simply a pile of short cordwood stacked on dry land which gradually disintegrates, making ideal habitat for amphibians.
Hedge planting and hedge laying were all part of the great plan. Coppicing and pollarding of willows as well as the provision of owl nestboxes which had recently been tenanted by Tawnies were all included. One field of poorer pasture had been converted to woodland by planting mainly ash, with aspen, rowan, spindle and shrubby plants at the ride-sides.
Part of the holding consists of ancient woodland on the steep hillside that overlooks the farm. Here we saw a wealth of early purple orchids and some patches of herb paris, which most take to be an indicator of ancient woodland.
Alan had cleared a "coupe" within the wood to encourage coppice growth, and to protect the young regrowth from deer browsing had constructed an impressive "dead hedge", a wall of dead branches and cut hazel which costs less than a 6ft deer fence but often fails to "do the business." Alan's Great Wall of China seemed to be very effective.
With Glastir grants and
livestock sales forming the staple of the farm's income, other sources are needed for a holding of this size, and Alan meets this need with a firewood business. Some timber is taken from the woodland but the bulk is brought in 20 tonne loads from a local timber merchant. This seasons for a while before being logged, split and delivered to local clients.
Ingenuity and enthusiasm seem to be the hallmarks of management at Gadr Farm. We were therefore not surprised to find the owner among the conservation award winners at the Monmouthshire Show this year.