The Curious Incidence of the Knapweed in the Meadow.

 

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It would seem that knapweed is almost synonymous with meadow in conservation. If you want to create a new meadow then it’s in just about every meadow mix of seed you can find – always recommended as being good for bees and other pollinators, and even if you collect seed from an ancient meadow it’s likely to be in that. So much so, that one of the National Vegetation Classification types is even named after it – ‘MG5 Cynosurus cristatusCentaurea nigra grassland’, or in common names/terms, ‘Lowland Meadow Crested dog’s-tail (a grass) – knapweed grassland’. Within this type of grassland (a national priority habitat) knapweed is pretty much a constant species…so wherever you stand in the meadow there’ll be some near you.

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But the famous Muker meadows in Upper Swaledale have none, or at least very little of it, and as I visit regularly this has always a puzzle to me. Okay, so they are classed as a slightly different meadow type (an Upland Hay-meadow or MG3, which is found almost exclusively in the Yorkshire Dales) but a quick look at the BSBI species maps shows that knapweed grows along the dale so it’s not like the climate is wrong for it.

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Perhaps it’s because the meadows are always cut around the middle of July to make hay and that’s when knapweed is just starting to flower in the north. If knapweed is cut before being able to set seed then over the years it will die out – makes sense, doesn’t it?

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But hang on…surely everywhere else in the country must have made hay in June or July so why is knapweed just about everywhere else in meadows? And not just knapweed, but all the other mid/late-summer flowering wildflowers?

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If we go back to our map of Long Newton in the mid Seventeenth Century and the survey of 1606 I think we get a clue. There was 10 times the amount of pasture to meadow (1121 acres pasture, 111 acres meadow) and we discover from a partial plan of c. 1616 that what there was of meadow at that time lay astride streams or damp ground or scattered through the arable fields in little patches (on the map designated ‘colcot’) with only a few larger areas subsequently divided into lots with different villagers owning different amounts.

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There is no information in the documents on the grasses and wildflowers that made up the ‘colcot’ meadows and now with agricultural improvement and change of the last 350 years almost all the vegetation has changed completely…perhaps I need to mark out where I think the ‘colcot’ land is on a modern map and go and have a look just to check.

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What of our knapweed? Well the biggest pieces of wildflower-rich grassland in Long Newton Parish would be the grazing land to the north and to the south, a pasture that was dotted with scattered gorse.

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It seems sensible to assume it was the same in similar parishes throughout the country and that the later flowering grassland wildflowers like knapweed, along with the rarer saw-wort and betony, could evade hungry cow and sheep mouths often enough to flower and set seed, perhaps whilst growing amongst the gorse.

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And then at the time of enclosure, when the wide open medieval fields were split and surrounded by hedges, maybe the farmer changed from grazing to hay-making and the knapweed hung on grimly growing, but not seeding, in the new regime it found itself in. Or maybe it seeded every 30 years or so in a wet year when the farmer was late cutting the hay or just maybe individual knapweed plants can live for hundreds of years under those conditions?

 

Blog on the need for an Ancient Grassland Inventory here 

Medieval plant communities on road verges here

 

Notes.

Cutting your meadow and making hay in June or early July gives the best fodder for your cattle or sheep over the winter. Leave it later and it’s too chewy with less nutrients and the animals don’t like it as much. I’m using ‘meadow’ in its original meaning of ‘grassland which is mown for hay’

Plants with heavy seeds that can’t be windblown far, and the plant communities they grow in, don’t just appear by magic; they must have been influenced by or been derived from the farming that happened on the land before today, and in the UK we have at least 6-7000 years of that. Rackham has things to say about the relative amounts of pasture and meadow in England in his “The History of the Countryside” but that’s for another blog I think…

I dimly recall, from tweets on social media, that there’s an early flowering and a late flowering devil’s-bit scabious? Selective pressure of hay-making? Quick internet search and I couldn’t find anything so I may be mistaken, but I wonder if it is the case with other species? Early and late flowering forms of knapweed?

Back in 2004, I went to a day course ‘Bringing Back the Meadows’ by Flora Locale which demonstrated brush-harvesting and hand collection of seed (surprisingly quick if there are enough of you). I remember being told of a single farm (probably in the dales) where the fields near the farm were filled with early flowering grassland plants and those further away with later flowering wildflowers. The reason was to do with manpower…it takes quite a while to cut and collect/store a field of hay by hand; so, you cut the field nearest the farm first and gradually work outwards and over the years that is a selective pressure on the species that grow in each field. I’ve just looked to see if I can find my notes for the day…I did…early flowering plants often grow on shallow soils, later flowering plants on deeper richer soils…maybe just an additional factor to take into account. Flora Locale have a very good page on meadows https://www.floralocale.org/page24057 .

Why do the Muker meadows (MG3 community) have very little knapweed in them? No idea really…unless they were created from the start especially to be meadows and not derived from pasture vegetation already there. Was it those burly bearded Scandinavian Invaders who later decided to settle there who did it? I wonder…

 

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Medieval grassland on road verges and where to find it.

One of the advantages of increasing age is that you get to see the same plants growing in the same places over the years, especially the unusual ones.  We don’t expect herbaceous plants to be long-lived but they can be.

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This week I went to visit some Saw-wort, a rare grassland plant in my area which grows in a short patch of road verge, with other locally scarce wildflowers, that I officially surveyed in 2008 whilst checking Local Wildlife Sites. Chris Lowe found Saw-wort on a wide road verge around the corner in the early 1990’s as part of his surveys for the Wildlife Trust – it was there too when I looked, but it was here also. I would have thought nothing much of where it was growing if it wasn’t for a project we carried out on surveying ancient hedgerows in 2005 when, researching enclosure dates, I discovered a book called The Durham Crown Lordships by D. S. Reid and published in 1990. This marvel of a book gives details of agriculture in the Parish of Long Newton in the 1600s.

Here’s a map – the purple dot is where you can find Saw-wort growing today.

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A survey of Long Newton in 1606 gave a total of approx. 3314 acres of which 1925 arable, 1121 pasture, 111 meadow and 155 town/roads etc. No woodland, and note a distinction is made between meadow and pasture. We are interested in the pasture, which is South Moor, West Moor and Ox-pasture and at the time was all open grazing land punctuated with gorse bushes. [There is written evidence of that gorse, for later in 1659 when enclosure occurred “The cottagers would be allowed to cut a maximum of 3 wagon loads of whins for fuel each year…” and “…all parties concerned could gather whins from the Ox Pasture and South Moor for “bearding” their fences up to 2nd February, 1660.” Whin = Gorse. I’m assuming, alongside the gorse, the pasture is rich in wildflowers, for what else would it be?].

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D.S. Reid also speculates that the Parish would have looked much the same in the 1300s.

The following map is how the parish looked after enclosure. The large communally farmed fields of the medieval period are split up into smaller individual farms (the area apportioned to the Lord of the Manor gets split up into individual farms too, but that’s a different matter). Note the purple dot.

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The position of the roads through the open pasture areas was also planned as part of the enclosure negotiations, as was their width. Where the road forked across Ox-pasture it was proposed that a new intermediate road should be substituted and, being less used, was created to be 3 poles wide – the width being defined by the planting of hedgerows, in this case by John Fowler and William Hobman (road now called Back Lane). The road running east-west across ox-pasture was wider at 4 poles because it was the busier road (now called Darlington Back Lane). Busier roads have more puddles and ruts because of the traffic they carry and so need to be wider so you can go around the puddles in your horse-drawn cart.

Eventually, a tarmac road is created and so the road-verges come into existence.

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Today, Saw-wort* grows on only one length of verge of Back Lane with Pepper-saxifrage and Betony – a bit higher than the surrounding land so water drains from it rather than onto it, thus making sure fertilizer from the surrounding arable fields doesn’t reach it and enable nettles to out-compete the wildflowers.

In the hedge opposite them (planted by William Hobman) grows some gorse (or should I say whin?).

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I’m pretty sure this situation is the same elsewhere in the English lowlands – straight sections of road with wide road verges were placed through the medieval (Ox)pasture of the parish at the time of enclosure and if they have not been damaged in all those years they will still have sections of wildflower-rich plant communities; as important a link to our past as medieval churches. Perhaps if we weren’t all so plant blind we would formally recognise them as relics of our cultural past.

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*Is Saw-wort distribution on road-verges strongly correlated with sites that were previously medieval grazing pasture? Anyone carried out a proper academic study, rather than me extrapolating from a very limited survey area?

 

Notes

If you don’t believe me, or just want to look for yourself, then the National Library of Scotland gives you a very handy side-by-side map http://maps.nls.uk/geo/explore/side-by-side/#zoom=15&lat=54.5564&lon=-1.4244&layers=171&right=BingHyb here set up to show the straight sections of the roads mentioned in the blog above – zoom out to see Long Newton village to the south. Always  park safely and take care if you are walking on roadsides; if in doubt, then don’t.

The Durham Crown Lordships by David S Reid, 1990 Durham County Local History Society.

My blog on the need for an ancient grassland inventory is here.

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Rural Road Verge Links

Whilst looking on the internet I found evidence for a lot of UK projects on management and on surveys of rural road verges. If you are interested in this happening in your local area, have a look to see if there is one ongoing that you can contribute too as they always need volunteers, or perhaps see if you can persuade your local council or wildlife trust/environmental charity to run one. [Do bear in mind that charities have virtually no money/time to do anything that they haven’t received a grant to do – same with councils frankly, as far as I can see.]

One thing that has been very clear to me from looking at all these links is the importance of surveying road verges first so what grows there is accurately recorded, and then maintaining an up-to-date and accessible GIS database of information on biodiverse road-verges; then the right management can be applied.

Here’s what I found (not an exhaustive list, merely one to give a ideas on what has worked plus some inspiration) and in no particular order: –

Plantlife show a number of initiatives on a map http://plantlife.love-wildflowers.org.uk/roadvergecampaign/whats-happening-near-you  with some inspiring stories http://plantlife.love-wildflowers.org.uk/roadvergecampaign/inspiring-stories and their document on how road verges can be managed http://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/our-work/publications/good-verge-guide-different-approach-managing-our-waysides-and-verges

Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust have carried out a very large set of road verge surveys that have resulted in the designation of 146 new Local Wildlife Sites on road verges http://www.lincstrust.org.uk/what-we-do/wildflower-meadows/life-on-the-verge and the maps of the results are very clear too. The main website on that project here http://www.lifeontheverge.org.uk/index.php . The County Council have been looking into harvesting verge biomass (link is to a text .pdf) https://lincolnshire.moderngov.co.uk/documents/s16218/Harvesting%20Verge%20Biomass.pdf  also more here on the same project http://www.peakhill-associates.co.uk/dt_portfolios/grass-to-biomass/

This is a great overview on the England road verge network for biodiversity with some facts and figures supported by science papers, including management and info about the above Biomass trial – all by Mark Schofield (5MB download with pics .pdf) https://www.cieem.net/data/files/Mark_Schofield_presentation.pdf

Kent Wildlife Trust have had a project identifying, protecting and managing their road verges since 1994 http://www.kentwildlifetrust.org.uk/what-we-do/roadside-nature-reserves

Northumberland Wildlife Trust don’t have a project running but are keen to hear from local people interested in protecting road verges http://www.nwt.org.uk/roadverges

A new project in Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council area in Northern Ireland http://dontmowletitgrow.com/ and the funders page https://www.hlf.org.uk/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/don%E2%80%99t-mow-let-it-grow

The University of Sheffield has a Living Highways Project https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/aps/research/ke/living-highways

Dorset Wildlife Trust are busy doing wildlife surveys of road verges https://www.dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk/roadside_verges.html and Dorset County Council are doing management trials https://www.dorsetforyou.gov.uk/conservation-verge-trials

Norfolk Wildlife Trust have information about roadside nature reserves in their area here https://www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk/wildlife-in-norfolk/roadside-nature-reserves

Life on the Verge – Biosphere Project is happening around Okehampton, Devon  http://www.tarkacountrytrust.org.uk/love-b.html

The Essex Biodiversity Project lists special road-verges in Essex http://www.essexbiodiversity.org.uk/species-and-habitats/roadside-verges

Hampshire County Council say in their county road verges are 3% of the land area! They manage their Road Verge of Ecological Importance (RVEI) according to a set of four designated codes which says when they are cut and there is a marker post inserted on site: there is a .pdf at the bottom of this page (updated 2013) which tells you what they do and where the sites are and who to contact https://www.hants.gov.uk/landplanningandenvironment/environment/biodiversity/informationcentre/roadverges

The North East Nature Partnership gives this list of species from which a road verge would need five present in a 20m stretch to be classed as of conservation importance  http://neenp.org.uk/natural-environment/road-verges-of-conservation-importance-habitat-definition/

The North York Moors National Park have 181 special road verges – a blog here about them https://northyorkmoorsnationalpark.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/living-on-the-edge/ with a cunning use of two wooden pegs to allow a single plant to set seed without getting mown. Nidderdale was also involved https://www.nidderdaleaonb.org.uk/roadside-verges-survey-project . North Duffield Conservation and Local History Society have an informal project going to survey their road verges http://www.ndchs.org.uk/verges.html

Cumbria have special verges amounting to 6% of the total – there’s a downloadable leaflet about  them here with map and details of who to contact about them  https://www.cumbria.gov.uk/eLibrary/Content/Internet/534/38749919.pdf  . This is a website about Orton Parish in Cumbria and Judy Dunford has written about the wildflowers there plus taken pics (I thought this was a great idea) http://www.orton.org.uk/flowers/index.htm

Oxfordshire County Council offer guidance on how to look after and designate road verge nature reserves https://www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/cms/content/road-verge-nature-reserves

Wiltshire County Council have this short text .pdf from 2006 with guidelines for selection of protected road verges http://www.wsbrc.org.uk/images/2013/4/PRVSELECTIONCRI.pdf  – not sure if it’s still current. And more information about it here from The Wiltshire and Swindon Biological Records Centre   http://www.wsbrc.org.uk/GetInvolved/LongTermProjects/RoadVergeMonitors/EmailForm.aspx  and also that volunteers monitor the road verges too.

Worcestershire County Council coordinate a roadside verge nature reserve project and special verges are marked with posts and an information plaque http://www.worcestershire.gov.uk/info/20014/planning/1025/worcestershire_local_sites_partnership/2

Shropshire Council don’t have a scheme as such, but you can get in touch if you want to highlight a road verge in particular and they will manage it as per the Plantlife guidelines https://new.shropshire.gov.uk/environment/biodiversity-ecology-and-planning/wildflower-rich-road-verges/

In 2014 the Borough of Poole changed the way it managed some of its road verges http://www.poole.gov.uk/newsroom/2014-news-archive/may-2014/wildlife-set-to-benefit-across-poole/

This page on the Wales Action Plan for Pollinators has some downloadable slides from talks from Road verge seminars in the bottom right corner (scroll down)  http://www.biodiversitywales.org.uk/Wales-Action-Plan-for-Pollinators Also from the Welsh Government is this short list of things a road verge is for  (not just biodiversity) http://gov.wales/topics/transport/roads/road-maintenance/road-verges/?lang=en

The North Wales Wildlife Trust has a page on their locally important road verges which they manage http://www.northwaleswildlifetrust.org.uk/what-we-do/living-landscapes/living-landscape-projects/road-verges/north-west-road-verges

Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust started a Living Highways project in 2001 which continued until 2014 and are now looking for volunteers to help survey. http://www.montwt.co.uk/what-we-do/living-landscapes/road-verge-nature-reserves

Monmouthshire have produced a handy booklet for highway managers about how to manage road verges for Pollinators (.pdf download with pics) http://www.monmouthshire.gov.uk/app/uploads/2017/01/Managing-Highway-Verges-for-Pollinators-An-introduction-for-highway-managers-final-draft-18.11.15.pdf  – I would add that pollinators are not the only reason to change verge management but it is very useful info. It does stress the importance of checking with the GIS database first.

Denbighshire County Council have been running management trials and surveys of their road verges http://www.denbighshirecountryside.org.uk/roadside-verges/

Caithness ran a small trial on leaving some road verges longer or giving them a later cut.  http://www.caithnessbiodiversity.org.uk/projects/road-verge-project/

Scottish Natural Heritage – big report on managing road verges for biodiversity (downloadable .pdf) http://www.snh.org.uk/pdfs/publications/commissioned_reports/551.pdf

The Suffolk Roadside Nature Reserves project  https://www.suffolk.gov.uk/planning-waste-and-environment/suffolks-countryside-and-wildlife/landscape-and-wildlife/ and also their page on general grass-cutting; from the look of their FAQ page more people complain about the grass not being cut than it being cut too often https://www.suffolk.gov.uk/roads-and-transport/roads-pavements-and-verges/trees-grass-and-weeds/grass-cutting/#tab1

Here’s an example of a Habitat Action Plan from 2003 (may be archived now…not sure whether the funding was continued for these Plans at a UK level – from memory I think not) West Sussex Road Verges Habitat Action Plan (it’s a .pdf download) https://www.biodiversitysussex.org.uk/file_download/61/

 

And finally, this is a large literature review commissioned by Natural England in 2014 about transport’s ‘soft estate’ (basically the biodiversity – I’ve had a quick look at the recommendations of the report and there’s a long list of papers cited) – you can download it from here http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/5752930789490688

A quote from the abstract of the above report  “This review investigates two research questions considering: i) how transport soft estate has been used to deliver biodiversity gain, ecological connectivity, and ecosystem services; and ii) how green infrastructure has been used to make the transport network more resilient towards climate change. The results suggest that transport soft estate can deliver biodiversity gains and ecological connectivity, but this is very species and context dependent, with success depending on the management regime. Ecosystem service delivery is very promising with soft estate already delivering a variety of services and with the potential to deliver considerably more.”

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I’m amazed anyone got this far…here’s a bonus photo of Saw-wort growing on a road verge 🙂

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Why is no-one sciencing urban road verges?

Those people who work high up in the hotel chain business will know that a refurbishment of a hotel is important not just for what it looks like but also for how long it takes to clean. Ongoing maintenance costs are frequently what makes or breaks a business. To this end then for each proposed refit style a model room is built, the cleaning of which is timed and this information can then be used to work out future hotel running costs – the larger the hotel chain the more important small savings in time per room become; small savings make a big difference on a large scale.

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Here yellow-flowered common bird’s-foot-trefoil grows on a mown verge near the Tees Barrage. The area used to be industrial and so it is likely to be growing in a thin layer of topsoil over free-draining calcareous slag (historic waste from the local iron-making industry).

We should apply these same principles to the public land that local councils manage in our urban and sub-urban areas. In particular I’m concerned with the grassy regularly-mown road verges where there is that same balance needed between visual appeal and cost of maintenance. Unfortunately, I can find no scientific vegetation community trials that investigate how different plant communities (both native and novel) might look on road verges, how much environmental benefit they might bring, how much it would cost to maintain them. Yes, there is information on how to make a meadow…but meadows require long grass to be removed from site at the end of the year and that is not always practical or the cheaper option.

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White clover flowering in abundance on a mown roundabout in early July, with the yellow of common bird’s-foot-trefoil by the path at the back of the photo.

Would it, for example, be possible to have a plant community of common bird’s-foot-trefoil, selfheal, white clover, red fescue, etc. by the sides and in the middle of a dual carriageway or motorway and perhaps just cut it once or twice a year? All plants grow low and would not affect sight-lines, are reasonably salt-tolerant, tough growers, cope with drought, and are more beneficial to some pollinators than just ryegrass. Perhaps we can think of the bird’s-foot-trefoil flowering over a set period, much as daffodils are used to decorate road verges in the spring, and then returning to mown green vegetation? Can it all be applied retrospectively by changing the soil and the plants just like town centre paving is changed to refresh the shopping area? Should it be intrinsic in any new road building or widening as part of the third dimension of sustainable development? – see guidance by UK Gov since 2012. What about new housing estates? Could the soil infill be specified as free-draining low-nutrient soil (or clay sub-soil if that’s locally appropriate) so everything grows lower and more slowly, rather than the standard infill of top soil over-sown with superquick germinating rye-grass?

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Detail of selfheal, common bird’s-foot-trefoil, and the leaves of autumn hawkbit on the suburban road verge below in early June.

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A relic plant community from when the road was created through farmland in the 1970’s or 80’s (can’t find a definitive date) as an entrance to a large housing estate,Hemlington, Middlesbrough. The roundish patch of grey-green colour is glaucous sedge.

And then what effect do different mowing regimes have on existing road verge vegetation? If we change the regime can we get wildflowers looking good straight away without any need to add new seeds? This is an issue at one of my local councils and one of the reasons why I started looking for information. They have looked into leaving the grass long then cutting and removing the grass like a hay meadow would be managed, but the removing of the hay is too expensive and problematic to dispose of: What they need is a compromise between short mown grass and long meadow flowers – a compromise that is relevant to the socio-economic constraints of the area. In places common bird’s-foot-trefoil and self-heal are already present, perhaps the remnants of semi-natural pasture disrupted when the housing estates were built. They’ve been mown regularly for 40 odd years with the cuttings left on top of them all the time and are still there. What if we leave them to flower and seed and then cut? Do they increase? Decline? Will the cut vegetation be too long and smother regrowth if left to decay naturally? What is best for pollinators? Cut a patch in May to delay flowering but leave a patch to flower normally? Alternate cutting so different patches flower at different times? How big a patch is best for pollinators? Or do we just raise the mower blades and does that allow flowering? How high? So many questions…and I can’t find any UK science on the internet that has properly investigated them…

 

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Daisies at Linthorpe Cemetery, Middlesbrough, flowering at the end of May.

 

Notes

*after publishing this blog it turns out someone is sciencing urban road verges for a PhD – article here http://www.sheffieldnewsroom.co.uk/living-highways/  and the lead researcher is Olivia Richardson @orichardson12 and they are using #livinghighways to discuss the project. See also http://www.wildsheffield.com/LivingHighways   *

*A really interesting just-published open-access paper suggested by Helen Hoyle @hehoyle1 and who is the lead author giving the point of view of the people in the council who manage the land and also people who live nearby  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1618866716305489 *

When I asked the Urban pollinator project ( @ReadingUrbPolls) they kindly suggested this paper as a start http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301479716310556  and it is a summary of urban road verges in relation to biodiversity and cost-effective management.

This study suggested by Dr Manu Saunders ( @ManuSaunders on Twitter) stresses the need for rotating areas of cutting in relation to preserving insects on sea wall grassland in the UK https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267644487_How_does_mowing_of_grassland_on_sea_wall_flood_defences_affect_insect_assemblages_in_Eastern_England

There has been a study on timing of grass cutting in a UK park  – paper here https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264461061_Public_approval_plus_more_wildlife_Twin_benefits_of_reduced_mowing_of_amenity_grass_in_a_suburban_public_park_in_Saltdean_UK and article with pics here https://phys.org/news/2014-09-unmown-win-win-wildlife-humans.html where it looks like the park was already unimproved grassland frankly, but I think they still create the long grass of a meadow rather than a lower growing plant community.

The subject seems to be discussed in ‘Environmental Horticulture: Science and Management of Green Landscapes’ by Ross Cameron and James Hitchmough where they give some suggested plants but I don’t have a copy the book and from what I can see of it on the internet their list of references doesn’t appear to give any UK urban examples.

On a more domestic scale, this website has examples of flowering lawns without using grass http://www.grassfreelawns.co.uk/  and has derived from a PhD study, and seems a step in the right mental direction but too labour intensive for extensive urban areas.

There is a project on Lawns happening in Sweden “Lawn as ecological and cultural phenomenon: Search for sustainable lawns in Sweden”  http://www.slu.se/en/departments/urban-rural-development/research/landscape-architecture/projects/lawn/

The UK Plantlife campaign is concerned with rural road verges see http://plantlife.love-wildflowers.org.uk/roadvergecampaign and their .pdf on the subject http://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/our-work/publications/good-verge-guide-different-approach-managing-our-waysides-and-verges references a paper on the effect of cutting on rural road verges – the results of an experiment spanning 1965 to 1982; a summary is here http://www.conservationevidence.com/individual-study/670 .

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We should talk of Ancient Grassland.

I’ve been thinking about how we describe ‘meadows’: Language changes over time and meanings shift depending on what most people see every day. A dictionary definition of a meadow is an area of grass that is cut to make hay; I might use the term meadow to make a more technical definition of wildflower-rich grassland (most often NVC communities MG5, MG4 and MG3) seem more palatable when giving a public talk; the ordinary person may praise the meadows being planted by the side of the road that look so pretty in the summer “you know, the ones with the lovely poppies” (which are in my reality hardy annual seed-mixes). As is often the case in English they are all correct, and within the Venn Diagram of ‘meadow’ are all these understandings; words mean whatever most people want them to mean. This being the case, what matters about the words we use to explain meadows of conservation and cultural importance is that the particular meaning intended by the explainer is clearly understood by the recipient of the explanation; preferably as quickly as is possible.

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Perhaps we should talk of ancient grassland – ancient meadows and ancient grazing pastures – in the same way that we talk about ancient woodland habitat. Adding ‘ancient’ to the term grassland or meadow would allow us to convey something that would be easily understood by most people; it has been used before and is now something readily accepted. ‘Ancient’ used here would signify ‘native wildflowers and grasses that have been growing at a particular site for a long time and the site where they grow is of as much importance as a relic of a particular historic farming system as their biodiversity contribution’; they shouldn’t be seen as a moveable biodiversity unit. These plant communities are just as much a part of our heritage, telling us about our socio-economic cultural past, as are listed buildings and should be recognised as such.

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Back to the present day, and at the cutting edge of horticultural research, new grassland and new flowering plant communities (sometimes made up with species from many different countries) are being created for urban areas, ones that are appropriate and useful to the present time and our current socio-economic climate, and these surely will also be termed meadows. In farming and land management there is a growing interest in producing plant communities of high biodiversity value which are relevant to present management systems rather than recreating historic meadow plant communities. You can see that we need to clearly differentiate the various understandings of what a meadow means, both now and into the future.

Instead of trying to get people to understand that a hardy annual seed-mix with poppies is technically not a meadow, we in conservation should change our own terms slightly and talk of ancient meadows and ancient grazing pastures and create a much-needed Ancient Grassland Inventory* just like we have an Ancient Woodland Inventory and an inventory of our protected historic buildings.

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*How difficult would it be to create an Ancient Grassland Inventory? As with everything, the answer is ‘it depends’. The Ancient Woodland Inventory started out as one-person tracing from old maps with a pen; it is still provisional, as far as I know, having never been comprehensively surveyed on the ground.

I think money would be available from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a five-year project to create an inventory (once created this could then be adopted by government) alongside public awareness raising/involvement and perhaps some PhDs. Are there specific indicator species for ancient meadows as there are for ancient woodland? or perhaps an investigation to see if individual species have a wider genetic diversity in older meadows than newer and is there a way of spotting that visually? Are ancient grasslands representative of natural vegetation for that area?

There are an obvious group of charities, working together with one as lead, who could undertake the work but charities have limited project capacity so such things are not always practical or timely. It may be more achievable as a series of smaller regional projects building up towards a whole? I’ve been involved in a small local Heritage Lottery project mapping semi-natural grassland in my area. Sadly, I think the recent cutbacks at Natural England would make it almost impossible for them to manage such a project, especially with the added burden of work that leaving the EU brings.

 

Notes: I’ve been thinking about writing this since a local conference in early 2016 (I’m slow) http://www.tvgreenplaces.co.uk/2016/04/21st-century-meadows-conference/  and I finally wrote up my ideas in early May this year after returning from a Floodplain Meadows conference in York.  I bought a book by Martin Hammond “Deep Meadows and Transparent Floods” in which he writes about historical references to the meadows we visited as part of the conference…starting in the 8th Century  https://rawcliffemeadows.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/deep-meadows-and-transparent-floods-the-story-of-the-ouse-ings/ . I also met Miles King and whilst we talked of other things, it occurred to me after writing the above blog that he might have written something on the subject…he did…in 2012 https://grasslandstrust.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/old-grasslands-need-an-equivalent-to-ancient-woodland-status/  Similarly the Wildlife Trusts have been calling for a national grassland Inventory, here in 2014 http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/grasslands and more recently Plantlife are running this project http://www.magnificentmeadows.org.uk/  and http://coronationmeadows.org.uk/ .

There’s a science paper from 2015 with good round up of other papers on the subject and what’s being lost. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351989415300184#f000015

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How fast do wood anemones grow?

One of the delights of English woodland in spring are the vast sheets of wood anemone that you can see. And they do grow in vast expanses, don’t they?

IMG_9064Except my friend Barry found some in a very small local suburban wood, where they grew in obvious clonal patches… which looked kind of odd.

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A wood is shown on this site in 1853 (checked on the First Ed. O.S. map), but it can’t have been there for that long before as there is ridge and furrow (a sign of medieval ploughing) present and it clearly forms a boundary for a local manor house built in 1824.

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The clonal patches thing reminded me of a local wildlife site on a beck valley side nearby (100m away) where wood anemones grow in greater profusion but still in patches (some patches in the photo above have very few flowers, some lots of flowers, some more petals than others, some slightly later flowering), which I hadn’t really thought that much about before. There is a tarmac path at the top of the slope, before the back gardens of the houses start, that runs along the length of the wood until meeting a road.

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This patch was easy to see because of the pinkish tinge to the petals.

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Further up the valley site they are in big expanses (on the right of the stream only – not on the left hand side at all) but it’s not as easy to see from the photograph because I was a bit early in the year (yes that is a shopping trolly in the middle – suburban innit?).

IMG_9054In local ancient woodland the clonal patches are not obvious and the plants form a continuous carpet (yes that is all wood anemone – on a sunny day it would be whiter with the flowers showing more as they open wider in the sun).

IMG_5163And so I wondered why, as you do.  It turns out that there are a surprising number of scientific papers on wood anemone on the internet, although most of us (me included) are restricted to reading the abstract. In the abstract of ‘Rhizome Growth and Clone Development in Anemone nemorosa L.’* by DEIRDRE A. SHIRREFFS & ADRIAN D. BELL (in Ann Bot (1984) 54 (3): 315-324.) it says “individual rhizomes elongate by an average of 2.5 cm per year” although not necessarily in a straight line year on year. So roughly speaking we can imagine a single seed germinating and growing outwards to give a maximum of 75cm growth from a single point in 30 years. The whole clonal patch would be twice that, as it would grow both sides of the germination point, so about 150cm in width. This was roughly the diameter of the bigger patches in the wood. Now the speed at which plants grow depends on how suited it is to the growing conditions, so let us just use that 150cm wide for a patch in 30 years to see where it gets us.

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A clonal patch that is probably not flowering much because there are some low tree branches just above it. Wood anemones flower much better when they get more light, for example in the years shortly after a wood has been coppiced and before the canopy closes overhead again.

So what happened roughly 30 years ago that may have increased the number of suitable micro-sites required for germination? What about dutch elm disease? Sure enough there are young wych elm trees in the wood and the remains of the rotting tree trunks of the dead elms.

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When the original trees died there would have been much more light reaching the wood floor – was this the point when those seeds germinated and the wood anemones started to colonize the wood?

IMG_5167But then how do the seeds get there in the first place? Wood anemone seeds have a small area of fatty tissue that entices ants to collect the seed to feed the fatty tissue to their larvae – the discarded seed then germinating near the ant nest. I didn’t look for ants. However, they also have a small hook at one end of the seed that could easily attach onto animal hair and be transported. In the mid-1980’s houses were built adjacent to the wood. With houses come dog owners and dogs go for walks and get all sorts of seed mixed up in their hair.

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It’s fun to speculate and set up a hypothesis – it’s another thing entirely to test it: But it is interesting to think about, and by thinking about it you start to look for clonal patches of wood anemone when you visit a wood…and then start to wonder how long the wood anemones have been growing there…

 

*Their study also used computer modelling and measurement of 27 morphological characters to determine that in ancient woodland a continuous stretch of wood anemone will be made up of several different clones, as the clones intermingle (imagine patches growing into each other and continually mixing) the longer they have been growing there. Wood anemones are one of the wildflowers used as an ancient woodland indicator and so when present in large sheets you can see they must have been continuously growing there for hundreds of years.

I rarely see seedlings in the wild, though have found wood anemone to germinate readily from fresh seed sown in the nursery.  I suspect it would be difficult to differentiate a seedling from a small clonal rhizome that hadn’t flowered, especially when just casually walking through the wood which may account for not seeing many seedlings when visiting woods.

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The I.Pot in March 2017

I cut back last year’s growth on the I.Pot the other day and so I thought it was time to do an update on what’s been happening.

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This year is the first time I have actually cut the grass (quaking-grass and meadow oat-grass) leaves back to the ground (scissors, for those wondering how, and yes, I did pretend I was a sheep when I was doing it. Come on, everybody does, right?), before I carefully only cut out all the dead leaves and flower stems. This year was much quicker.

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The grasses were growing a bit too strongly last year, and also were hiding the Fritillaria uvavulpis (not native but I wanted to include a bulb in the pot and I thought it would do nicely) which I’m hoping to see flower this year as last they mainly keeled over and died when in bud for some reason (just possibly because the person in charge of watering the pot forgot *sigh*).

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In other news, all three bee orchids are back and have been happily in leaf over the winter with no snails around to chomp them; and did I spot the seedling? Nope, not until I looked at the photos. To be fair, it is tiny at the moment, just under a centimetre long.

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I’m not sure how quickly bee orchid seedlings grow but I’m pretty certain I didn’t see any leaves there last year. The first possible seed produced from the bee orchids growing in the pot would have been at the end of summer 2014, but they also flowered in 2015, so it could have germinated from either season. From memory I think it spends a year below ground after germinating before sending up any leaves. One thing I can say for certain is that bee orchids are definitely not monocarpic.

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Comparing the I.Pot from March 2014 (left) to March 2017 (right) then, and you can see that there are a lot less species present now and in general it looks less full and the plants not as vigorous, as you would expect as I don’t feed it at all.

I finally cut back the thrift which died during the year – shame as I like that flower.

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On the plus side, those little tiny seedlings are the eyebright which has done spectacularly well in the last two years and is a possible solution to conservation situations where yellow-rattle fails, as it did here. The skinny grass seedlings are silver hair-grass which I do like very much though I notice there are less of them this year. The grass-leaved vetchling (left) returns after a year’s absence, ditto common centaury (centre right), and nice to see the spring vetch (right) back and it did actually seed itself at the base of my doorstep though I doubt it will flower there before the soil dries out over the summer.

Also the pot now has three different mosses – all common, but nevertheless very welcome.

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