Monday, 6 June 2016

Where there's muck there's grass (and nowt else)

A lot has changed in the couple of weeks I've been off-patch. My normal river loop walk has been disrupted by the presence of a large herd of bullocks at warbler corner. I'm a bit wary of cattle having been rushed a few times, so walked cautiously through the herd. However, it's completely put paid to me leaving a hide out - at best they would disrupt any perches and bait I set, but most likely would trample what is an expensive piece of equipment.

It's the first time I've seen cattle at this spot; it'll do no harm as the sward gets very long when not grazed and the lush grass smothers everything else. This is the state of everywhere in the parish that doesn't benefit from the light weakening effect of tree cover: waist high grass, cow parsley and other umbellifers with meadow buttercup as far as the eye can see. Occasionally common vetch climbs to the top and opens its even pinnate leaves to the sun, leaving a trail of messy purple flowers, but otherwise the area is a biodiversity disaster.

The reasons for this are manifold, but I'll speculate a few:

  1. Muck spreading and artificial fertilisers. The parish is chiefly managed for arable crops such as rape, barley and wheat. Aside from the organic farm at Langton these are farmed intensively, resulting in tonnes of manure and gallons of herbicides being spread over the fields. Inevitably this nitrogen rich mixture runs into the verges and encourages grass growth. Unfortunately, where grass grabs a hold it completely outcompetes all but the most hardy of plants, such as those mentioned above.
  2. Out of season mowing. The verges are maintained charitably by a syndicate of local farmers that regularly mow the verges. Unfortunately, years of mowing between May and August will have destroyed any chances of any wild-flowers setting seed.
  3. A lack of grazing. Though on occasion the number of rabbits can appear quite high, the area could support thousands more than are seen. Hare are as widespread but much fewer in number so barely make a dent. The collapsing milk industry has seen most of the cattle herds sold and the land turned to arable in recent years, exacerbating the problem.
So what can be done? Well... it's a difficult one. I don't like to preach about agricultural practices; it's not my field of expertise and I concede that economic pressures drive the intensity of farming.
Instead the parish benefits from miles of wide verges and perhaps this is where there should be some focus. A campaign to stop the mow during the summer months is sensible, but I know that aesthetics and road safety are behind the mowing so it would require a lot of effort to garner support from the wider community.

Equally, a conscious effort to remove nitrogen from the system would help. Removing mown grass from where it lays and disposing of it elsewhere would (over a number of years) reduce the grip that grass holds. Subsequent planting with grass suppressing species such as yellow rattle and seeding with hay from donor meadows would encourage wild-flowers back.

Rabbits are held in a dim-light in the parish so any suggestion to allow the population of rabbits to expand without resistance will be treated with disdain. Indeed the flood defences that line the river have previously been breached due to the burrowing of rabbits so there is an economic risk to farmers too (that said, if it were my land I would happily tear the defences down and let the river flood naturally every year, reinstating the leas and ings that once dotted the parish - that's another story).

In summary, the reverse of this decline in wild-flowers would take significant concerted effort across a great number of people with differing interests. The same must be true across much of the country and resistance to it is just so difficult. I think much of the problem is that most people don't know that it's broken; they see the rich green grasses and see a verdant healthy landscape. I wonder whether images like that below of a roadside verge in Sicily will remind people of what our roadsides should be like.

To raise awareness I could set up a local conservation group but really don't know where to start; I'm going to begin dropping it into conversation at the pub, on my wanderings and at the school and see if others feel the same.

I walked the length of the patch this week looking for suitable butterfly habitat (i.e. mixed sward and food plants such as trefoils, medick, restharrow, clover and brome) but found nothing. Common blue should be just that and the absence of large and small skippers is depressing. I just had to write about the sterility as the subject has weighed heavily on me. But... its not all bad news and the patch has sprung into life in many other ways. More of that next time...

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