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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Fields of dreams

Posted on May 16 2009 at 7:28:53 0 comments

Arable field flowers

Mary Green enjoys a walk through thriving meadows.

April and early May were wonderful for wildlife watchers. The sunny warm weather brought out flowers and their accompanying insects and birds, and of course opportunities to walk in the sun and see them.

This year there were lots of oaks in beautiful golden leaf by St George’s Day on April 23. I went to Peck Wood on that day and again a few days later to see the best display of bluebells I know of anywhere. This year they were fully out, in perfect timing with the open week, and you could smell their perfume as you walked. I was also pleased to see young trees planted all along the edge of the wood on the Holloway, forming a new hedge.

Blackthorn blossom was superb in early April, but all too soon over. It was followed by great cherry blossom – I’m always surprised how many wild cherries there are round here. Then came a wonderful display of apple blossom, which I saw at its best in the Old Orchard near Barnt Green.

Orange tip butterflies appeared on the plentiful lady’s smock flowers. Swallows, chiffchaffs, ducklings and moorhen chicks arrived. After the cold winter, nature had caught up well and truly! By May, the hawthorn blossom was out, and the ash leaves followed well after the oak.

May and June are the best months for meadows. There is a world of difference between true meadows, modern all-grass pasture, and neglected waste-land. As always, the way we manage the land determines the wildlife there.

True meadows are relatively low-  lying land, left to grow between March and September, without any digging or fertiliser. Then they are usually mown, and afterwards grazed over the winter by cattle or sheep which help to fertilise the land. This regime works especially well where cattle and sheep can be moved to higher rough pasture during the summer. It produces a wonderful range of flowering plants, insects and birds.

Many of us these days only see flower meadows when visiting places where they are common, such as mountainous areas of France and Spain. But you can see them within a few miles of here, and scattered throughout England, where traditional methods have been preserved or revived.

I have mentioned Eades meadows before, probably the best site round here. They are worth visiting throughout the spring and summer. They start with cowslips, bluebells and green-winged orchids, plentiful here but uncommon generally now. I visited on May 1 this year, and they were gorgeous. Cowslips were particularly good this year, and the green winged orchids always amaze me in the range of their colour.

After this in June come bird’s foot trefoil, spotted orchids, ragged robin, twayblade, bugle and yellow rattle. Ragged robin is a particularly noticeable flower which used to be common but isn’t now. It looks a bit like red campion, but more cut-up and raggedy.

Later on come knapweed, scabious, goat’s-beard, St Johns Wort, bedstraw and wild carrot, and finally the rare meadow saffron in late August. Bees, butterflies and moths love the flowers, and of course the range of grasses. Eades is the only place locally where I heard the cuckoo last year.

Eades is also an orchard, with old apples and pears that bloom in spring and bear fruit in good years. The blossom was very good this year. These trees have mistletoe, adding an extra magic. Old orchards often have meadow-type flowers and grasses, and at one time they would have been grazed.

You can see relics of this in the Barnt Green Old Orchard, which has bluebells, knapweed, harebells and betony. Some churchyards have also been managed like meadows, though I don’t know of any round here, but I have seen examples on the Isle of Wight and in Durham.

Near here there are other meadow fields near Romsley. Some are at Penorchard behind St Kenelm’s church, and others north of the Waseley Hills near Illey. These are later-flowering meadows so you have plenty of time to see them. Even some of the “ordinary” fields around there show evidence of meadow flowers, yellow rattle and knapweed being particular markers.

And of course the village green in Romsley is a great meadow patch. It starts with fritillaries in early spring, and then goes on to the range of meadow flowers with especially good patches of spotted orchids and bee orchids in summer.

Our farming methods since the Second World War have moved away from these flower-friendly meadows. Even modern pastures, though, have some good wildlife. In fields around here you can see lady’s smock in April and May, the pretty pink/white relative of bittercress, edible to us and a haunt of butterflies.

Many fields are covered with sunny dandelions and white daisies around St George’s Day: I’m sure if they were rare plants we would love them! In a field near the canal I also saw bedstraw, two kinds of speedwell, chickweed, ground ivy, bluebells, clover, campion and stitchwort. Cowslips are on the increase and I saw lots of beautiful examples in this “ordinary” field.

Then the buttercups come; first the goldilocks, then the meadow buttercup, then later the very common creeping buttercup which I wrote about last year. The meadow near me is already covered with the seven- or eight-petalled creeping buttercups that I found last year.
Sorrel is common (not the trefoil wood-sorrel, but the kind that looks like a small dock), an excellent leaf vegetable with a sharp tang to it. We used to suck the stems as kids, to refresh us on hot days. There will be rabbits in many of these fields, and buzzards circling overhead.

Cornfields and other arable crops are fewer round here. On the whole, arable farmers in the last few decades have not managed their land in a way that encourages biodiversity. Quite the opposite has been the aim: to kill off any plant that isn’t the grain or vegetable crop planted. But traditional arable fields had a set of flowers all their own, many of which have disappeared.

The one we all know is the poppy, which loves cornfields and used to stain the countryside red in June. Poppy is one of our oldest wild flowers and is thought to have been with us ever since we started farming grain. It has always had associations of death, even before the First World War.

It still survives in some places, especially at Blackstone near Bewdley where the Worcestershire Wildlife trust has taken over some fields.Here you can also see lesser bugloss (prickly and bright blue), wild radish (white), yellow rocket, dame’s violet (pinkish-white), weld (like a small mignonette) and corn chamomile (one of the big daisies), all the arable wild flowers that used to be common.

Some still exist in cornfields near here, though there are fields with absolutely no “weeds”. There is a good patch on the Tardebigge side of Shortwood. I’ve found the heartsease or wild pansy there, a beautiful little flower, along with scarlet pimpernel, black bindweed, corn chamomile, bistort and cranesbill.

The best time for these flowers is late summer. This year, that patch has not been sown with corn. It should have excellent flowers this year, but then may be taken over by others as it ceases to be an arable patch.

Fields as habitat come and go, of course. There was an old arable field between Barnt Green and Blackwell that had lovely weeds two years ago – scarlet pimpernel, heartsease and lots of pretty hempnettle, which is like a colourful cousin of white dead-nettle. By the next summer it had become just another grass pasture. The buttercup field near me, formerly a bit neglected and full of thistles, was grazed and mown at the right times and became full buttercups and lady’s smock.

Cornfields are the place to see two of the birds that are not very common round here. One is the skylark. I’ve heard and seen this between Alvechurch and Rowney Green, and also while walking along the Illey way near Romsley. Some farmers are now leaving patches round the edge of cornfields for skylarks and other birds.

The skylark’s song is unmistakable, delivered as it hangs in the sky, a real sound of spring and summer. The other is the lapwing, which is a sound of the autumn and winter. Its other name, the peewit, gives an idea of its slightly weird call. It’s a fascinating bird: the name lapwing refers to its habit of pretending to be injured and running along the ground with its wing down, to distract prey from its eggs or young.

Ironically, the best arable wildflowers are found in places where game birds are reared. Farmers here plant seed-rich edgings to their fields, which feed both the game birds and other wild birds. Goldfinches in particular love seeds of thistles and teasel and can descend en masse in a “charm”, as they are traditionally known.

Even uncared-for rough pasture will have wildlife interest. We may not like the look of it, with its nettles, thistles, dock and brambles, but the birds, bees and butterflies love it! And we can eat nettle soup in the spring and pick blackberries in the autumn. I don’t think I realised how much I missed being able to walk through fields until the foot-and–mouth epidemic in 2001 closed them. Take your chance this summer!

I heard the cuckoo in Alvechurch this year very early in the morning on May 13. I hope some of you are as lucky.

Meadowsense

The meadow skirts me in florals
Purple orchids, yellow rattle, white moon daisies.
Grass strokes my knees and I feel
The mud beneath my feet. I scent
The gentle mixture which will become hay
Wondering if the cows relish the taste.

I don’t realise something is missing till
Suddenly out of left field a cuckoo
Starts up its June song, a little stuttering
But clear and deep and unavoidable
Pulling me into the heart of sound.

 


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