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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

That WAS a summer!

Posted on August 21 2013 at 1:25:59 0 comments

Barley field

Mary Green reports on the season’s splendour.

Imust write about our lovely summer (mostly!) and its effect on wildlife. The very cold and wet winter and spring still had an effect, but the pleasant May and June, hot weather in July and sunshine and showers in August brought us a lovely traditional English summer.

The hot dry weather in July really brought to a head the debate about mowing verges and other green spaces. Where grass had been close-mowed, it was brown, dry and dead-looking.

Where it had been left to grow during the summer months, it was still green and lush. When the rains came, the growing areas absorbed it, but the mown areas let it run straight off, causing flooding.

Ever since May, I have kept thinking “it’s been a great year for…” Firstly, it’s been a great year for grass! Considering that at the start of April the grass was still brown from being under snow, it grew and grew and was tall and lovely by the end of June.

In parts of my garden the grass was as tall as me, and in fields and meadows the grass-flowers were stunning. Hay-making in the good weather and silage-making were more or less on time and successful.

In June, it was a great year for hawthorn – or may! It blossomed very late but very densely and lasted well in the mixed weather. It was a great year for moon daisies which grew huge and tall (except on Hopwood roundabout and Alvechurch station where they were all unnecessarily mown down. By the way, London Midland didn’t even grace me with a reply about this).

Elder flowers came in July rather than June, but they were gorgeous, lasting well in the dry weather and smelling wonderful in the sun. I cooked them as usual with gooseberries, which were also late.

Roses too were excellent: the wild pink dog roses and white field roses flowered through late June into July, alongside the garden roses which were especially long-lasting in the lack of rain during flowering time.

Poppies, though, didn’t thrive this year. I went down to the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust fields near Blackstone Edge as usual in June, but the poppies were small and thinly scattered. The other arable plants (wild radish, rocket, camomile), by contrast, were abundant.

So instead of red fields there were white fields with red spots. The corn which arable plants grow in, of course, was very late growing and ripening after being sown well into the spring.

Another strange experience was standing on a high hill in July and seeing fields of rape in full yellow flower. This usually happens in May. Many rape fields planted in autumn lost their crops and were replanted in spring.

With this and the corn, there will be a lot of late harvesting this year. We need a good corn harvest: many companies milling and selling English flour had to mix it with imported wheat last year.

I went to Eades Meadow several times. Everything grew beautifully, though late: by July the meadow was full of purple knapweed and saw-wort, yellow bedstraw and trefoil, and butterflies, bees and those dramatic red-and-black burnet moths.

Early in July about a quarter of the meadow was mown, while the seeds were still there on the early plants – green winged orchids and cowslips, for example – and the bales of hay were taken to a field in Castle Bromwich.

This derelict site with poor wildlife diversity then had the baled hay rolled out over it, so that next year the seed will come up and it will start to be a meadow. They now talk of “donor meadows” and “recipient meadows” as this becomes more common. By mid-August, the rest of the hay was mowed and removed, to get the later seeds.

This coincides with a national movement to encourage wildflower meadows as a celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of the Coronation. New meadows are being created all over the country.

Eades Meadow is used as a model – it has been described at the best lowland hay meadow in the country. Flowering plants are crucial to the survival of all species, including us.

I haven’t had to go that far afield to find meadow plants this year. Remarkably, I found a spotted orchid within half a mile of my house, by the roadside. The verge had, for once, not been mowed to death, and there among the moon daisies and fox-and-cubs was a beautiful spotted orchid.

I contacted the county council highways people about the verge. I do hope the plants come back next year, but they may not. During late July the patch was mown, despite my efforts, rather too early in my view.

The canalsides continue to thrive beautifully now they are not being cut inappropriately, with a glorious show of meadowsweet, purple loosestrife, marsh woundwort, figwort and purple and yellow vetch.

Unfortunately, the patch round the lower Bittell reservoir (where the bee orchids once were) is managed by a different agency, and is still being mowed down to nothing in summer. The stretch around Tardebigge reservoir is similarly brown and bare – such a shame as there used to be lovely flowers there.

I’d like to give a big thank you to the Canals and Rivers Trust for the well-managed towpaths.

Alongside Bittell Reservoir, Mick’s Wood has become a real wood and the trees are getting thick and strong. On the edge of it, in a damp patch, I found some ragged robin growing – a lovely old plant of wet meadows, not common round here.

There is already a patch in a protected meadow near Withybed. And then I found another – quite near the new Alvechurch allotments! So it’s obviously been a good year for ragged robin.

It is supposed to flower in May (its Latin name means cuckoo-flower), but it was lovely in late June this year. Sadly, the one by Mick’s Wood has just suffered from the Curse of Mary Green as the field with it in had all its vegetation cut right down as I was writing this!

The allotments themselves have been a joy to visit, and many people will be having the pleasure of eating “grown in Alvechurch” food for the first time. And the Hewell prison shop has had a fabulous selection of multicoloured peppers, aubergines, tomatoes, strawberries, peas and beans, all in bright summer colours.

While we’re on food, it looks like being a mixed year for fruit. Soft fruit like strawberries, both wild and cultivated, have done well. I have eaten lovely ripe red wild cherries (until the blackbirds had them all) and one of the native cherry trees in St Laurence churchyard was full of ripe fruit.

I’ve bought local cherries – a wonderful crop this year - blueberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, gooseberries and raspberries. My damson and apples trees are laden and look promising. But I have only a few plums set, and the wild cherry-plums, which flower early, haven’t set fruit at all.

There were gains and losses for insects this year. On some of the warm summer days the gardens, canalsides and meadows were full of butterflies – meadow browns, tortoiseshells, peacocks and speckled woods as well as whites.

In fact, it’s been described as the best butterfly year for decades. They love the hot sunny weather, but drought is not good for their offspring, so some of the earlier hot years (1976, 2006) have had lots of butterflies but only for one season.

This year the caterpillars should survive too (sorry, allotment holders!) But bees and flies seemed to be scarcer than usual – apart for horseflies which were prolific and biting. I carry a plantain leaf with me to rub on any bites: it has natural antihistamine. I haven’t seen many dragonflies at all this summer – a real loss.

There were lovely meadow flowers in two other places. One was the Wiggins Meadows. I was delighted to see the drainage of the sports pitches completed and the new grass growing. Alongside it the wildflower meadow patches get better every year, and were full of knapweed, trefoil and meadowsweet.

The other was the field on the Salt Way at the bottom of Scarfield Dingle, with lots of bedstraw, agrimony and even lady’s-mantle. I understand Sanders Park in Bromsgrove is to have a wildflower patch a bit like ours in the Wiggins Meadows.

On another verge which hadn’t been mown for a while I found some very different plants. These were chicory, white campion and wild carrot. None of these grow commonly round here, being more frequent by the coast or on chalk downs, and they must have been brought in with something on the road or the nearby railway.

Chicory is a most unusual beautiful light blue flower, which normally grows on chalky soils.

Wild carrot is one of those cow-parsley-type plants, with feathery leaves, and flowers which change dramatically from convex to concave. It grows near Alvechurch station too, when it’s not mowed out.

Please don’t be tempted to pick any of these rarer flowers. Let them seed for next year.

Close to this, in the old brickyard by the canal, I found a lot of pink centaury – another unusual flower – growing near a lovely patch of scarlet pimpernel. The pimpernel opens in the sun and closes when it rains, and used to be called the shepherd’s weather glass. It is usually a corn-field plant. Centaury usually grows on chalky or sandy soils.

So, I would like to thank Worcestershire County Council for not mowing our countryside to death this year, apart from in a few places. Cutting hedges at this time is bad for them too, and most have been left alone.

The Canal and Rivers Trust are surveying their hedgerows, and will try to cut them in the winter every two or three years. The worst hedge-cutting this summer has been done by private individuals, not the authorities, for a change.

Some canal-side residents have been cutting down their hedges to the bottom, obviously not liking the “untidiness” of the CRT’s approach. Life is untidy.

In mid-August some friends and I walked up the cut hayfields above Withybed at midnight on a moonless night, and watched the stars. There is always light spillage in Alvechurch, unfortunately, but we did see some shooting stars.

So, a lovely summer and some lovely wildlife. Now in September we move into the fruiting and harvesting season. One of the ancient festival days is Michaelmas on September 29.

This day celebrated St Michael, who drove Satan out of heaven into hell. It is one of the financial quarter-days and was a feast day too. Traditionally a goose was killed, along with other livestock, so that the number that had to be fed through the winter was reduced.

And it’s the last day to eat blackberries before the devil spits on them, to get his own back on St Michael.

They are fruiting late this year – I had my first in mid August – so I guess you can carry on picking them for another couple of weeks till Old Michaelmas, the date under the old calendar before it was changed in the 18th century.

Happy foraging!

This poem was written for a Withybed Poets session on the theme of strange things.

The strangest thing

I wake to blackbird song and morning sun
Make tea with electricity down all those wires
Drink it looking out at the sheep and the roses
My house stands around me, brick by brick
Dug from the hill above and hardened by coal
Mined from another hill not far away,
Black oak beamed and horsehair plastered
Weathering two centuries and more of storms.
I walk down the canal, swans with their young
In tight formation, tiny moorhens skittering.
Over to the new allotments, first fruits
Of unpromising clay and human hope
Beans, broccoli and borage, spuds
In flowering rows like formal gardens
I walk back with a bag of beans, present
For a poem, food for words. Elderflower hangs
Heavy and sweet, always on time to cook
With the gooseberries, and white bedstraw
Perfumes the daylight like a loving pillow
I cook and eat the beans, bittersweet and green
Tasting of sun after hard days digging
Despite the coldest spring the grass is high
Apples and damsons set, late barley waves,
Children swing on the gate watching buttercups.
It’s the strangest thing, this ordinary world
Working away around me, my net, my wings


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