Monday August 03 2020




Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Weeds and wilderness

Posted on August 21 2011 at 1:56:09 0 comments

Herb Robert

Mary Green finds unusual wildlife in the ‘unofficial countryside’.

It has been an interesting summer for wild life. Meadows and pastures have been subtly different from usual; some flowers have done better than others.

The intense gold that we usually see in the buttercup fields hasn’t come this year. The taller, paler meadow buttercup has done very well, but the strongly gold low-growing creeping buttercup has not. This is the one that usually appears in your lawn, so you might have been pleased! I don’t know if it’s the cold winter or the dry spring that caused this, but I guess farmers are pleased by it too, as buttercups are not a good addition to grass, silage or hay for animals.

In its place has come an explosion of clover, especially white clover – again in lawns as well as fields. The hay-and-grazing fields near Withybed have been full of heady fragrance from these flowers during late June and early July, and as this plant is a valuable animal foodstuff it is good news.

Apparently it has been a great year for all insects, too, including bees and butterflies. They like the combination of wet days and sunny days. We see them buzzing and flying around in the sunshine, but they also need the rain to help produce nectar-full flowers. Those clover fields certainly were full of meadow brown butterflies and plenty of bees and hover-flies.

If you have felt there were fewer birds in your gardens over the last month or so, don’t worry. It is quite usual for birds not to come to feeders at this time of year, as there is so much food available to them in the countryside. It is also a quiet time for them: they moult at this time of year, sing less and save up their energies.

Remember to fill up your feeders again later in the autumn when it gets colder and the food supplies start to run out.

My headline this month comes from a poem by Hopkins, Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet, and was originally about the wild Scottish highlands. However, when I hear it I think of the plants that grow in our forgotten places, what the great modern naturalist Richard Mabey calls the “unofficial countryside”. There are some superb examples in Alvechurch, proving you don’t have to travel to see interesting wildlife.

I have been watching the wildlife on the site alongside the canal between Alvechurch and Withybed, where the brickworks and then scrapyard used to be. Now it houses small enterprises. A few years ago the old scrapyard was cleared and in the process trees along the canal were cut down or shortened.

The site manager, John, and some of the narrow-boat residents have done a lot since then to restore the landscape. Nature has also played a part, bringing in the kinds of plants that thrive on cleared sites. And the toughness of the original trees is shown by their regrowth.

The site is at the bottom of the former quarry for the brickworks. Around the top edge is an old wood that crests the hill you can see from Withybed. This woodland is very wild and overgrown, but contains a good mix of trees, especially ash, oak, crab-apple, hawthorn and field maple. One of the field maples is unusual in that its leaves turn bright red in autumn instead of the usual yellow.

I visited the wood in spring. The ground was covered by dog’s mercury and bluebells, the signature plants of ancient woods, and on the edges were primroses and violets. The taller trees host a colony of rooks, and they were very noisy when I was there, being unused to human presence!

On the road leading to the site itself, you pass an old orchard, with some of the lovely old yellow egg-plums that are common in this immediate vicinity. There are also semi-wild plants naturalised from gardens, including lots of everlasting pea and purple toadflax – both plants that love neglected spots.
I visited the site in early and late summer and had a good look at what was growing. The alder trees which had been cut down along the canal have regrown, and are behaving like traditional coppiced trees, looking strong and healthy. Even the field maple, which was uprooted, has either seeded or suckered a young one which now looks well-established. John planted willow whips along the bank, and some of these have taken and will become good trees. There are also ash, elder, hawthorn and dogwood among the trees.
In June, flowers included red and white campion, wild rocket, bramble, elder, herb Robert, moon daisy, mugwort, gipsywort, hedge woundwort, figwort, yellow iris, dogwood, red clover, prickly sowthistle, woody nightshade, dandelion, daisy, feverfew and poppy. Many of these were still there in July.

In particular there is a patch along the canal of poppies, cornflower, feverfew, moon daisies, rocket and white campion, some of which have been helped by wild flower seed sowing. This makes a typical arable-field-edge flora – plants that love disturbed soil. They should seed themselves and persist here.

Further into the former scrapyard was lots of St John’s wort, a meadow and wayside plant which blooms around St John’s Day (midsummer), and is an old herb used to cure all kinds of ailments. Self heal, another herb, small and purple, covered the ground, along with the little yellow medick, one of the clover family.

Herb Robert had spread even further and loved the old tyres! Feverfew sprouted among the cars. There were big patches of rosebay willow-herb, the “fireweed” which grew all over bomb sites after the war. Common plants abounded – hedge woundwort, mugwort, ragwort, ground elder, hawkweed, thistle, nettles, bramble and dock – but had not taken over so much that the smaller plants were swamped.

If you are used to plant names, you’ll recognise that lots of these plants are ancient herbs, which love this sort of exposed ground. Nearer the canal, there are waterside plants. The beautiful tall purple loosestrife is thriving – this plant was thought to help calm conflicts.

Next to it is the equally lovely meadowsweet, with its heady scent and white frothy flowers – this one was a flavouring and sweetener for food and beer as well as being used to stuff mattresses. Figwort also grows here, with its strange little red nodular flowers.

All this wealth of flowers (augmented by some non-local native plants like thrift and rose-of-Sharon that have been planted in the little gardens of the narrow-boats) means that there are insects galore, and therefore (with the trees as well) birds galore. It’s one of the places where I listen out for the first chaffinches in spring and watch for redwings in the autumn. You can’t wander round a private site like this of course, but you can see some of it from the towpath side of the canal.

The other place that has knocked me for six this year is the platform bank on Alvechurch station! Usually they cut the vegetation several times during the year so it can’t thrive, but this year they left the top half of the main bank and it has been wonderful, especially through late June and early July. It is like a cross between a hedge-bank and a meadow.
In May it is full of wild strawberry flowers, and then in June the strawberries. Alongside these come masses of moon daisies, with poppies, yarrow, St John’s wort and birds foot trefoil. Later, by July, there are some plants less common round here: wild carrot, melilot, and musk mallow.

The first of these, wild carrot, usually grows by the sea, and I haven’t found it anywhere else round here except along Redditch ring road. It is an umbellifer (like cow parsley) but has very solid rounded white flower-heads which turn concave as they go to seed. The leaves are very feathery. It is profuse just here, and presumably spread along the railway or came in with stones or soil from elsewhere.

Melilot is a pretty, tall, bushy yellow flower of the same family as clover. It isn’t common round here, though I have seen it on disturbed land near the canal too. Musk mallow is much prettier than the common mallow, with feathery leaves and showy pink flowers, and is found in old meadows and undisturbed verges.

Later still you will find tansy all over the railside banks, flowering in August. This beautiful old herb is big, with fragrant feathery leaves and big flat heads of little button-like yellow flowers, like the middles of daisies. It can be used to flavour cakes and puddings, and has a preservative effect.

This usually grows along the canal near Scarfield dingle but has been mowed down by British Waterways contractors. However, another one has popped up along the canal the other side of Withybed, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

The station is surrounded by trees and shrubs. One of these is the dogwood, a rather insignificant bush most of the year, but having lovely red twigs in the early spring and beautiful starry white flowers in June. Again, the trees and the flowers with their insects lead to this being a great bird-watching spot. It’s never boring waiting for a train in Alvechurch.

Just after I wrote this, the mowers came and mowed everything down. It was a bit too early, but hopefully won’t do much harm. If only they would leave it a few more weeks till the flowers have finished and seeded!

My third waste place is the patch of land between the canal and the dead arm, part of the old Crown Meadow. I remember about twenty years ago there was a plan to turn it into a park, which never materialised. It is one of the few bits of really neglected land round here, and was also one of the few places you could walk during the foot-and-mouth closures ten years ago.

So what happens to forgotten land? It is now full of small trees, mostly hawthorn and alder, with some rough grass, dock and thistles, where it was at one time much more meadowy with flowers like moon daisies and campion. So, neglected land turns to scrub and loses much of its diversity.

However, a swathe of the field was cleared last year by the team working on the causeway across the dead arm, and that has changed things again. One change is that British Waterways planted a line of new trees along the new track. So now there will be oaks and rowans as well.

The other is that the cleared land has thrown up lots of fascinating flowers. They might be seeds that have been waiting underground, or they might be brought in by the works. They are the kind of flowers you find in untreated arable land. I found poppies, bistort, rocket, wild radish, weld, red bartsia and two kinds of camomile. There’s a lot of fool’s parsley as well as the hedge parsley that is common in late summer.

While there I had a good look at how the dead arm was doing. Parts of it are full of water lilies and a lot of duckweed, the common kind that clears in the winter and is already thinning. There’s no signs of the creeping alien weed that has been there is the past. There were lots of ducks, moorhens, and a pair of swans on it enjoying the weed.

Along the new causeway are some lovely bur marigold plants, a rather uncommon plant which occurs elsewhere in odd places along the canal. There is also marsh woundwort, bird’s foot trefoil, knot-grass, water forget-me-not, camomile and orange balsam. I don’t know if these were planted or have just arrived, but they look good either way. Well done British Waterways for this one.

Even little neglected spots can be fascinating. One I like is the little rough car park for boaters by the towpath in Alvechurch. It is full of weld, that ancient dye plant, and I have recently found a strange umbellifer that I have had to identify. I think it is the greater burnet saxifrage – something I have not noticed round here before.

As we move into autumn, there is a great harvest in waste places. I have already eaten wild strawberries, cherries and blackberries, and both red and yellow cherry plums. Wild plums, sloes, crab apples and wilding apples and pears, hips and haws and elderberries will be there by the time you read this. Beautiful flowers and delicious fruits, all within a mile!

My poem is an autumn one, written last year.


This year, the colours are yellower and redder and bronzer
And turned later and stay longer and fall gentlier
They tell me it is the early rains and then the mild nights.
Leaves are always yellow, but the chlorophyll greens them.
As winter comes, the tree wants to keep its nutrients
So sucks them back in, including the chlorophyll, de-greening
And the yellows and golds flame out. As they die
The reds and browns follow, all this colour they have saved up
Coming out in a joyful explosion of fireworks.
Maybe we can be like this. As we age we retract and retrench
But can wear red and yellow and sing, bonfiring together.

Next of course the trees become bare bones, monochrome
You can see their cheekbones and their wrinkles
Their hands brown-spotted by fungus. Beautiful and bare
This way they bear the winds better and wait for spring.
What would our spring be, like their loose lime green?
Some will say it is rebirth, as a mouse or a higher being
Others will say resurrection into the body of saints
Some a new life through children and grandchildren.
I see my bare bones becoming part of the earth
Of the weeds of the forest, the worms and the birds. 

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