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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

The beasts of the field

Posted on October 21 2012 at 11:40:56 0 comments

Horses grazing

Mary Green explains the importance of pastoral farming.

The leaves have stayed green on the trees for a long time this autumn, due to the wet weather and the cold start. They were also very thick and strong. This is leading to a good but late show of autumn colour.

One of the things that makes the landscape round here so characteristic is the wonderful native tree cover. We have proper woods and small dingles, hedges along fields, and mature trees in the villages.

The other is the type of farming. Mostly round here it is pastoral farming, in other words raising animals. There is only a small amount of arable land – cereals and oilseed rape – on the flatter parts, such as immediately round Alvechurch.

The rather heavy clay soil is the main reason for this, together with the hilly areas. Up on the flattish higher land near Tardebigge there is more arable land, with wheat, rapeseed and maize, as the soils are better there.

Pastoral farming is very good for wildlife. It can also be successful economically, though this can often be a struggle. The combination of being both environmentally and economically sustainable, however, makes this kind of farming doubly valuable. And it leads to that beautiful landscape of small fields in a network of trees.

Most of the livestock round here is sheep, though there are progressively more cattle and some old breed pigs. Cattle include a good dairy herd providing local milk, and heritage beef cattle (longhorn and Hereford) providing properly raised, properly hung meat.

There are also, of course, horses galore in parts of our area. In their effect on pasture land, cattle are the best. Ideally the pasture is allowed to grow as a meadow and cut for hay, then grazed by cattle through the autumn and winter. That’s what happens in protected meadows like Eades.

Even where the fields are grazed more lengthily, or where sheep or horses are the animals on them, they can be good pastures. They will carry a wide range of native wild flowers, and if you visit during the spring and summer you will see butterflies, bees and other insects all over them.

There are many such fields round here, “unimproved” pasture, which hasn’t been dug, weedkilled or artificially fertilised.

Two areas are even designated Sites of Special Wildlife Interest: a field near Foxhill and an area in Rowney Green. The field by the old “Salt Way” footpath, accessed through the little aqueduct in Scarfield Dingle, has a wonderful range of flowers. Local people, including farmers, have made a real effort to keep these pastures good for wildlife.

In farming terms, some of these areas, especially on higher ground, are considered marginal land and not of great use. But they are vital to the continuity of wildlife, keeping insects and birds alive, and helping to keep pollinators there for fruit and arable crops.

Fruit crops, of course, used to be very important round here. Tardebigge was the centre of apple and pear orchards, and the resulting cider and perry. Now there is one cider maker left (and very good it is too!). If you walk along the canal from Tardebigge towards Worcester you will pass many old plum and damson trees, the remnants of old orchards.

One of the emblems of Worcester-shire is the pear, and there are still some trees round here. In Eades Meadow are some wonderful old apple and pear trees, probably cider and perry varieties as they are very hard and never sweeten.

Fruit farming was a very sustainable way of using the land. Animals, especially pigs and sheep, were allowed to graze the orchards to keep the worst weeds down and contribute their manure. The flowers were perfect for bees.

Remnants of fruit-growing survive in our area. There is the Old Orchard between Barnt Green and Blackwell, through which I wrote about a walk a couple of years ago. It is full of apple blossom and bluebells in April and May, and later has some typical old meadow flowers in the grass, such as betony.

There is one superb large pear tree with dazzling white blossom. Other pear trees are dotted about, for example some in an orchard on Grange Lane, in the fields above Withybed Green, and along the canal by Bittell.

There are some very special plums in Withybed Green, a bit like the Pershore egg plum but different; sweet, with a reddish tinge on the yellow flesh. Some of these also grow along the canal near the Alvechurch marina, though they might not survive the widening of the railway line.

On the other side of the canal by the moorings off Station Road is another old orchard.

Damsons are common in the area, but are in danger of dying out as they are very difficult to grow and replace. There are some lovely ones on the old Cobley Lane, the “Salt Way” which runs behind the Lewkner Almshouses. The local ones are smallish but ripen up to be sweet enough to eat raw.

Sometimes the name gives it away: there are numerous Orchard Cottages and Apple Tree Cottages around. Fruit growing is part of our landscape and part of our heritage. It’s nice to see people replanting fruit trees in their gardens, as the old orchards will die out.

Cattle and pigs used to be routinely used to graze woodland. The best example round here of an old grazed woodland is Piper’s Hill near Hanbury. It doesn’t have great flower cover, though this is coming back now it’s no longer grazed.

But it is wonderfully open and free of the rough undergrowth you sometimes get in woods. The trees are pollarded rather than coppiced – cut off and allowed to sprout again at a height above the reach of livestock.

Cattle are being used in recent years as an aid to conservation and improvement of the countryside. Last year I saw this being done in two upland areas: Kinver Edge and Woodbury hills. Both were being grazed by Longhorns and other old British breeds.

My local farmer in Withybed, Adrian Bytom, lends his Longhorn cattle to the National Trust to graze areas like this.

I spoke to some of the National Trust volunteers working on Kinver Edge about the cattle. They said that they were being used to keep down the bracken and also the invasive Indian balsam. Cattle are good at trampling!

Recently on the North York Moors I saw a herd of belted Galloway cattle spread over a hillside. This is quite an unusual sight on open moorland, where sheep are more common. I found out that from next year the landowners were going to have to stop using the weedkiller they used on bracken.

It has now been banned because of its harmful effects. So, they were experimenting with using cattle to keep the bracken down. It’s an interesting reintroduction of an old practice.

Bracken of course was always common in forests and on moorland and other open ground. It was once considered valuable and deliberately cultivated.

It was used for bedding and packing, as a manure and mulch, as fuel; it was burnt and the ashes used for soap and glass – almost everything except food! It was kept in check by being used, and by cattle, and its growth managed.

Unfortunately, when these uses died out, it wasn’t controlled and became a nuisance. One estimate suggests that about two per cent of Britain is covered by bracken. It is an attractive plant early and late in its cycle.

The fronds in spring are lime green “fiddleheads” and the golden-brown foliage in late autumn and winter can colour a landscape. You can find it round here in old woods, and in road hedges, for example along Foxhill Lane.

If you want a walk on Kinver Edge, it is a good opportunity to see a different type of land. Most of the land around our villages is clay, and fairly alkaline. On the Lickeys and on Kinver it is acid in places.

Currently on the Lickeys you can’t pick bilberries (which only grow on acid soil) as usual, as they have been attacked by disease and are being cleared along with rhododendrons. So Kinver is a good bet.

There is a good walk from a car park with toilets and picnic tables, on Kingsford Lane at grid reference SO 823822 – you get to it from Wolverley near Kidderminster. Walk up the hill to the ridge – it’s steep but easy walking – then turn left and walk north-east along the ridge on the Staffordshire Way. The views are spectacular.

After a while the trees give way to open heathland, and you get the chance to see heather and bilberries. We found a lizard here while walking in summer. You should see the cattle grazing down the slope to the right, keeping down the bracken and thistles.

At the north end of the ridge is a wonderful viewpoint. You can choose various paths to get back to the start, going to the left or right of the ridge, but we liked the top so much we went back the same way.

While you’re there, have a look at the caves. The most famous are the National Trust-owned Rock Houses (car park on Compton Road, grid reference SO 836836), where people lived until well into the 20th century. But caves are common due to the nature of the rock.

Stop in Wolverley and have a look round. There is a beautiful little church built on and out of the local red rock, and caves in the hillside used for storage.

There is a small nature reserve in Wolverley (grid reference SO 829794), also worth a visit. It is a remnant of Wolverley Marsh, a one-extensive wetland. It has southern marsh orchids and other wetland plants. Most wetland, of course, has been drained and “improved” for farming, so it is good to find a piece left for us to see what it used to be like.

Our farming, landscape and wildlife are interdependent, and we owe gratitude to farmers who manage the landscape for us, as well as to the often pioneering work done by conservation groups like the National Trust and Wildlife Trusts.

These organisations no longer see their work as just “conservation,” but managing and developing the land for the future.

This is a poem I wrote for Remembrance Day a few years ago: unfortunately it is still relevant.

Poppies

It is eleven o’clock and silent
Except for the song of a robin
We stand with our buttonholes full
Of poppies, red blood splashes.
Here are the old soldiers
The young are far away
Among other poppy fields
Or carried home with flags
To puzzled, sad mothers.

We use strange words for them
“Fallen”, we say, “sacrifice.”
He did not “fall”, he was blown
Apart by invisible men who
Melted away into their desert.

He did not “sacrifice” himself
He wanted to lift a pint of lager
Hold his baby, cheer a goal.

We killed him, all of us
It is all of us who have fallen.

But poppies are not just blood
Not just the newsreader’s badge.
They lie on waste ground, seeds buried,
After years poisoned out of cornfields,
They come back, they come back
They will come back
They will.


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