Where have all the Flowers Gone…?

From Nigel Spring –

This is part 3 of a four-part article.  Since 2012 a team of volunteers and contractors working through EuCAN Community Interest Company and Butterfly Conservation has been working on the chalk downland sites between Lyons Gate and Godmanstone to remove the invading bushes and trees that are threatening to destroy the last vestiges of this incredibly biodiverse habitat in this area of Dorset. The plumes of smoke from the hillsides on Thursdays between September and March cannot have gone unnoticed…..

We are very fortunate to have a number of well-known and highly regarded chalk downland sites in this area of Dorset – good examples are Black Hill, Yelcombe and Giant Hill above Cerne Abbas; Lankham Bottom Butterfly Reserve above Cattistock and Hogcliff National Nature Reserve above Frampton and Maiden Newton.

But look at a map of Dorset and the UK and you will see that the chalk stretches from west Dorset at its SW corner to Yorkshire and Norfolk at the northern end and into Kent to the east. So why is this habitat such a rare commodity? In centuries past, the downs were grazed by large numbers of roving sheep flocks, while only steep flinty, less productive slopes would have been maintained as woodland (some of these ancient coppices still remain). Hawthorn, gorse and bramble would have been far less abundant, some it cropped as furze for fires, but most of it nipped off by the flocks as they passed through.

Hawthorn

hawthorn

Our ancestors would have cultivated some of the hilltops and the slopes but on a very small scale as the human populations were so low. You can still see relics of the celtic field systems in the Cerne, Sydling and Frome valleys, many of them pre-Roman. Chalk grassland and the butterflies and other wildlife it supports would have flourished from east Devon to Kent to Yorkshire.

gorse

gorse

 

Previously open stretches of chalk countryside were divided up by the 18th century enclosures but it was after the end of the second world war that the widespread arable cultivation of downland took  place, with the government encouraging farmers to ensure that we would never again be vulnerable to being starved into submission.

bramble-flowers1

Bramble

The scale of these operations has accelerated enormously during the last fifty years with the help of advances in technology which have not only given the farming industry larger more powerful machines to work on the steeper slopes, but also the chemicals to ensure that rivals for their growing space like insects and weeds (aka wildflowers) have become reduced to a minimum. Chalk soils drain very freely so fertilisers tend to get leached out of the ground by the rain. The free drainage and lack of organic matter in the soil mean that arable crops have to be treated continuously with fertilisers as well as pesticides and weedkillers.

The consequence of this arable revolution that began at the beginning of the 50’s is that chalk downland habitats have become reduced in Britain by over 90% , with the remaining sites now being restricted to steep slopes. Very few flat downland sites are to be found now – Martin Down on the Dorset/Hampshire border and large parts of Salisbury Plain still survive thanks to the involvement of the military.

Further information can be found on the EuCAN website http://www.eucan.org.uk/uk/dorset/cerne-valley-project/

Butterfly Cafe with a View

From Nigel Spring –

This is part 2 of a four-part article.  Since 2012 a team of volunteers and contractors working through EuCAN Community Interest Company and Butterfly Conservation has been working on the chalk downland sites between Lyons Gate and Godmanstone to remove the invading bushes and trees that are threatening to destroy the last vestiges of this incredibly biodiverse habitat in this area of Dorset. The plumes of smoke from the hillsides on Thursdays between September and March cannot have gone unnoticed.

Chalk downland is possibly the richest habitat in Dorset – one quick glance at the grassy sward on the slopes round the Cerne Giant will reveal perhaps a dozen obvious species of plants; if you look closely and count the species in a square metre you should be able to distinguish well over twenty, even thirty if you can identify the different grasses. They won’t all flower at once – the Cowslips, Early purple orchids and several violets tend to be first to bloom, while the vetches, Fragrant and Bee orchids and yellow dandelion-like flowers come out later and the Devilsbit scabious, Harebell, Clustered bellflower and Autumn hawkbit blooms signal the end of the summer.

Bee Orchids

Bee Orchids (Ken Dolbear)

Many of these plants are the caterpillar foodplants of the specialist butterfly and moth species that are so characteristic of this habitat. Blues like the Chalkhill and Adonis Blues need Horseshoe Vetch for their larvae; Birdsfoot Trefoil (sometimes called Eggs and Bacon) is the foodplant of the Common Blue, Dingy Skipper and the Burnet moths (those dayflying beetle look-alikes that buzz about the slopes in June and July)

.Adonis Blue butterfly                             Chalkhill blue

Adonis Blue (male)                                                       Chalkhill Blue (male)

Small Blues favour Kidney vetch and the Duke of Burgundy Cowslip or Primrose leaves. One of the scarcest butterflies to be seen on the slopes of Giant Hill in May and June is the Marsh Fritillary whose caterpillars need Devilsbit scabious: the female lays her eggs in batches of 50-200 and the larvae live in crowded clusters on the leaves of the plants. In recent years this species has done very well on some of its local sites.

Marsh Fritillary

Marsh Fritillary

As well as being important for butterflies and moths, the chalk downland on Giant Hill also supports good populations of Glow-worms, specialist bee and wasp species (not the stinging sorts!) – including the beautiful little bee, Osmia bicolor, which lays its eggs in the empty shells of downland snails (featured in 2014 in a wonderful short film on the One Show), not to mention the many species of ants (one of which, the Yellow Meadow Ant, lives in colonies in the grassy mounds that are a feature of our ‘warty’ downland slopes).

Osmia bicolor

Osmia bicolor

Further information can be found on the EuCAN website http://www.eucan.org.uk/uk/dorset/cerne-valley-project/

Mr and Mrs Badger

Almost a year ago I was walking one afternoon in the water meadow when the dogs suddenly shot off towards a boggy area thick with reeds.  The badger family galloped with surprising speed back under the fence and into  their sett – a row of holes not unlike terraced houses at a rise in the hedgerow.

I was surprised to see them and not a little worried.  About 2 years ago we had an adolescent badger take up residence in our paddock.  While it was amazing to meet one at such close proximity, we soon realised it was only because it was very unwell.  Bluebottles circled like vultures in the desert sun.  At one point it climbed up about 4 feet into a tree.  Every morning there were more mysterious ‘crop circle’ patterns in the grass – was it where the young badger was trying to get comfortable?  We tried contacting several ‘wildlife rescue’ groups and had no joy.  So I rang the vet, who said, “A badger out and about during the day?  It MUST have TB:  they are normally strictly nocturnal.”  She said she’d come and have a look but it died just before she arrived.

So was this a normal outing of a healthy family?  Given that the farm they were on is on the most high risk of TB list I was concerned.

Bovine TB has not been in badgers forever.  In fact, it was first observed in badgers in only about 65 years ago, in 1951 in Switzerland.  Badgers were believed to have contracted it from chamois (Rupicarpa rupicarpa) or roe deer(Capreolus capreolus). It was not detected in the United Kingdom until 1971 where it was linked to an outbreak of bovine TB in cows.

The story of bovine TB in the UK has been beset with bad judgement and wishful thinking from various directions.  Recent evidence indicates that the government’s decisions following the foot and mouth disease outbreak caused a quantum shift increase in the spread of bovine TB:  confident they had it under control and keen to help farmers get back on their feet, the government relaxed restrictions to enable restocking.

Meanwhile our local badger colony looks like it will soon be growing.  Walking through the meadow last week I saw a trail of reed-hay from the reed bed to one of the row of homes in Badger Terrace.  Wiki tells me that the young are born around January so it looks like Mr and Mrs are doing the badger version of decorating the Nursery.  Let us hope and pray that both parents are healthy, and that they rear healthy offspring, free of TB.

Mr Pygge

“The cottage is the thatched building on the right just before the corner as you go down the drive”, my friend said.

“Don’t you mean on the left just after the corner?”, I replied.

“No, it’s definitely that lovely long curved building on the right”, she responded.

I can understand why she thought it was the cottage, for it is truly beautiful, and very ‘twee’.  But it is not the cottage; it is the pig sty and horse box!  Such a gorgeous pig sty was crying out for a resident, and so when a local farmer had a spare weaner we couldn’t resist.  He became known as ‘Mr Pygge’.

Mr Pygge has connected us non-farmers with the total commitment required if one is going to rear animals for food.  He came at a good time of year; September, just as the cooking pears were dropping and littering the track in their hundreds (thousands?).  They were soon followed by apple windfalls, and then we discovered just after Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s food waste programme that the shop was delighted to give us wilted vegetables.  I once worried that Mr Pygge might be bored, but then someone commented, “on his diet of avocadoes, cauliflower, peppers and such he has enough food interest to keep him well-entertained!”  The local brewery provided bags of spent brewers’ grains – barley that had been malted so had lost its carbs but is still rich in other nutrients and fibre.  Meal made up mostly of grains grown on the farm augmented this, with slack periods being filled by pig nuts (a balanced pelletised feed).

Mr Pygge is now filling our freezer.  He ended his days at C&S Meats near Sherborne, a lovely little abattoir much used by smallholders in the area.  He was handed over to Dorset Charcuterie to butcher.  Within days we had a bag containing 2 kidneys and a large liver, and the reality of the food chain hit home.  The rest of Mr P has come home in dribs and drabs:  first the joints and sausages, then pancetta and bacon.  We are still waiting, several months on, for the deli type meats like coppa and it has hit home how time-consuming it is to make these semi-dried meat products….and helped us appreciate why they are so expensive!

He has been succeeded by ‘the pygges’- a male and a female weaner.  I am assured that they will too have gone to Holnest by the time hormones begin flowing and adolescent passions are raised.  They have picked up where Mr Pygge left off in turning windfalls into pork, and have done their bit (maybe) for international animal welfare by amazing a visiting Chinese postgrad student with their beauty and cleanliness!

Making Homes for Butterflies

from Nigel Spring –

Since 2012 a team of volunteers and contractors working through EuCAN Community Interest Company and Butterfly Conservation has been working on the chalk downland sites between Lyons Gate and Godmanstone to remove the invading bushes and trees that are threatening to destroy the last vestiges of this incredibly biodiverse habitat in this area of Dorset. The plumes of smoke from the hillsides on Thursdays between September and March cannot have gone unnoticed.

People taking a break whilst working on a hillside in Dorset

This work has been generously funded by the Patsy Wood Trust and the landowners themselves – these funds have enabled EuCAN to bring the mixed bunch of contractors with power tools, people from neighbouring towns with learning difficulties and in recovery from mental illness, as well the carers and a number of local EuCAN and Butterfly Conservation volunteers. It has all been great fun (especially the sausages and baked potatoes for lunch and the cakes for tea!) and we have been extremely pleased with the results.

To date, we have held over 50 sessions on 9 different sites and have involved 130 different people. Not only have we made a great impact on the ecology of the sites we have visited, but the participants have learned new skills, seen some wonderful wildlife and have had the benefit of the fresh air and exercise that probably they would not normally get (most of our sites are on 45˚ or 60 ˚ slopes, often very challenging!).

But why is this amount of effort necessary now? It has not always been the case and I shall try to explain why….

This is the first of four articles.  Keep an eye out for the rest of the story!

Further information can be found on the EuCAN website http://www.eucan.org.uk/uk/dorset/cerne-valley-project/

The Cerne Abbas Water Meadows

From John Staley, a retired estates manager who supervised the partial restoration of the water meadow –

Water meadows, constructed from the 16th to the early 20th centuries, were areas of grassland subject to controlled irrigation to increase agricultural productivity.  In Cerne Abbas we are fortunate to have a complex water meadow at Barton Farm.

The water meadow was fed by water from the River Cerne, diverted by a series of boards manually moved up and down in a channel which was called a carrier.  The first sluice controlled a series of four smaller hatches supplying a flow of water to the meadow.  Each section of the meadow was irrigated by a small channel called a main that carried the water to the crest of each ridge where it overflowed and trickled down the sides (the panes) to enter a ditch and so return the water to the river.

diagram of the channels dug to manage the water meadow

An irrigated water meadow accelerated the growth of grass as water warmed the land in the winter so as to encourage vegetation.  This was the result of a steady flow of water keeping frost at bay.  The early growth of grass enabled farmers to give their flocks, both cattle and sheep, “an early bite” some four to six weeks before normal pasture.

The water meadows were a remarkable feat of agricultural engineering constructed entirely with hand tools and over long hours of work.  The men who did the work were known as drowners and meadmen.

Visitors are welcome to walk through Barton Farm water meadow but are advised by the land’s owner, Cognatum Ltd, that they do so at their own risk.

HOW TO FIND BARTON FARM WATER MEADOW:  A public footpath and sign to the water meadow can be found at the entrance to the Tithe Barn in The Folly.  Please keep to the path as it crosses private property.  On passing through a gate turn left over a bridge to arrive at the water meadow.

 

Crafting a Hedge: What is a Laid Hedge?

Click here for the National Hedgelaying Society

In the last post Edward mentioned laying hedges.  Hedgelaying was the primary form of hedge management until the last war.  Sometimes on walks you might see evidence of ancient laid hedges.  This sycamore was laid many decades ago:  that is why its trunk is horizontal.  But you can also see why farmers laid hedges:  as long as the trunk is not cut all the way through, it will heal and then send up many new vertical shoots.  In this way the hedge slowly grows into a dense mesh.

old laid hedge WalesThere are many reasons why this form of hedge is good for both livestock and wildlife.  If it is left unmanaged, a hedgerow will continue to grow upwards and outwards and will eventually become a line of trees. A row of tree trunks does not provide shelter like a hedge, and neither does a wire fence.  As the bushes in the hedge grow upwards, it become possible for cattle and sheep to make gaps or push through:  that is what sadly happened to the young lamb that was killed on the A352 a few weeks ago.

Hedges are an important haven for wildlife. They give pleasure to humans as well, not only because they look lovely but also they divide up the landscape into the beautiful  patchwork characteristic of Albion.

brompton_hedgelaying_tA well-laid Shropshire hedge  A well-managed hedgerow is thick and bushy, an impenetrable barrier to sheep and cattle and a haven for wildlife.  When a hedge is laid, the cut stems are bent over at an angle.  In order to prevent the sheep pushing through, stakes driven into the hedge.  Binding along the top makes the fence strong to resist the weight of cattle. Laying the hedge also tidies it up and encourages the shrubs to regenerate keeping the hedge bushy and healthy. A laid hedge after a yearovergrown laid hedge

Once a hedge has been laid regular trimming will keep it in good order for up to 50 years when it may be appropriate to lay the hedge again, or even coppice it.

Making and Mending Hedges

from Edward, who is a landowner-farmer- conservationist in the valley….

One of my roles on the farm is to do the quirkier jobs, which are often those with an environmental angle, for that is my wont.

I am currently restoring stretches of hedgerow.  I like my hedges to be thick, from the base up to the top. Sometimes larger gaps (1metre+) develop, often as a result of elder (Sambucus nigra) or other overly competitive species getting too strong a foothold.

Nether Cerne new hedgeSo my current project involves physically planting baby hedge plants (which are about 2-3 foot tall) into gaps at 6 to the metre (in a double row – i.e. 3 in each metre of row).  These are then protected from rabbits with plastic (yuk) spirals, and from deer by pulling in material cut from elsewhere in the hedge.  I have over 1000 of these fellows to plant, so that should keep me busy for a while.

Nether Cerne laid hedge

There are stretches of hedge where I can “lay” neighbouring material to in-fill the gap.  This layed material will sprout up along its now-near-horizontal stem with amazing vigour.  All in all, it is a very satisfying job.  And one that I hope that small mammals and nesting birds will also approve of.