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.



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.




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.



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/

Lambs at Nether Cerne – ‘Are YOU my mummy?’

The first lambs I saw this year arrived in the first half of December.  Lambs can easily become separated from their mothers (human mothers have the same problem!) and so matching numbers are sprayed onto mother and babies.  Watch this lamb as it tries to find its mother, and see if you can see who she is before the lamb does!

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.


How can Humans Eat Grass?

Every summer I mark GCSE Biology examinations, and every year I end up really depressed when I mark the agriculture or food question.  In a nutshell, the average British 16 year old – if what they write in this national examination is to be believed – has learnt that livestock farming has nothing good to offer society.  According to the 1500 or so exams I have read in the last three years, the majority of British 16 year olds believe that

  • farmers rear animals indoors because they enjoy (or at best don’t care) making animals unhappy,
  • everyone, human and livestock, would be better off if we were all vegetarian because then food would not be wasted on animals:  humans could eat animal food and that would be much more efficient,
  • possibly best of all would be if we grew all our protein in large silos in the form of fungus (this is what makes Quorn) because it protects farmland and has a much higher protein content than meat.

As is so often the case, there are grains of truth in all these which have been grotesquely distorted.  Some may be put down to adolescent inattention or intellectual incapacity, but strikingly similar arguments crop up in batches and frequently, which implies that the teacher has at best a poor understanding of the topic and at worst an ‘agenda’.

Aberdeen Angus in the water meadow, Lleyn sheep on the hill

Aberdeen Angus in the water meadow, Lleyn sheep on the hill

This photograph would not be possible in a society where no one ate meat.  I have read exam scripts in which it appears young people are being encouraged to think that if no one ate meat then farm animals would be left to live to a ripe old age in bucolic bliss.  They are also being given the impression that all livestock are fed entirely on grains which could also feed humans.  This may be true of the great stockyards of the United States, but in this country a significant part of the nutrient intake of cows and sheep is grass.

Feeding livestock with grass is a way of using land which could not be used for anything else.  The water meadow could flood.  The hill in the background is rather steep.  So both would probably be unsuitable for arable crops.  And even arable fields periodically need a rest:  a grass ley provides this as part of a crop rotation.

There is a ‘grain’ of truth in the argument that feeding grain to livestock is not the most energy-efficient (in terms of calorific content) way of growing food.  Dairy cattle in particular need extra inputs to enable them to make the many litres of milk that they produce each day.  Maybe the best compromise would be to keep using these excellent converters of grass into human food, but moderate our meat and dairy product intake whilst doing a better job of consuming the ‘5 a day’ of fruit and veg!

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.

Life and Death in a Gale

marked lambs

Last night Tom said to me, “I’m on lamb checking duty tomorrow morning at 5am if you want to come, but if you do be sure you’re there at 5 sharp ‘cos I won’t hang around!”  The rising gale moaned around the eaves as the wind threw handfuls of raindrops against the window panes.  I thought of the balmy winter evening I had offered to accompany him on this duty, imagining pastoral scenes with glittering frost underfoot and glittering stars overhead, thought ‘sod’s law’, gulped, and said “I’ll be there”.

I awoke at 1am, 2am, 3am, and lay worrying about the washing left on the line which could well be adorning the overhead sycamore tree by now.  And worrying about whether the beautiful ash tree at the foot of our garden would stay rooted.  And considering whether to wimp out and stay in bed when the alarm went at 4:40am.

When the alarm went off the roar of the gale had sunk to a hum.  No rain pebbles beating the windows.  So off to meet Tom and go to the field which is currently the sheep maternity wing of the farm.  I don’t know about the name of this field but if you look at the old land use maps you will often see that the small field or sometimes orchard by the farmhouse is called Lambleaze for that reason.

Upon entering the field we flashed our torches around and Tom immediately said, “Look, one’s over there.  There’s the rest, there should be 27 altogether.”  He counted, somehow seeing distant sheep that were so much in the shadows I could barely see they were there at all.  After a couple counts he said “Yeh, there’s 26 there.  Let’s get this lamb and ewe into the trailer.”

So we went carefully but purposely up towards the ewe and suddenly Tom was walking beside me holding the lamb, with the ewe nuzzling it as he led her to the safe warmth of the straw-bedded trailer.  In they both went, Tom marked the lamb with a special spray so it would not be mixed up with the other lamb and ewe in the trailer, and we were on our way back out of the field ten minutes after arriving.sheep trailer

When the lambs are older they are put into another field separate from the one in which they were given birth.  Sheep are happiest outside:  it is after all ‘home’ to them.  When gales come they huddle into hedgerows for protection from the elements.

Last night, we think it must have been in the teeth of the gale, another lamb pushed deeper and deeper into the hedge….and out the other side.  On the other side is the A352.  The country lane ancestry of the A352 is unmissable.  Unfortunately those bends also meant that lamb was unmissable….

Days soon getting longer….time for Lambing!

The ewes are currently putting on weight, getting ready for lambing.   They were with the rams in August, and there is a gestation period of about 5 months so the lambs will start arriving at the end of this month.

The sheep which graze in our paddock are Lleyns.  They are “renowned for their hardiness, prolificacy, ease of lambing, strong mothering instinct, milkiness, and easy handling” according to the National Sheep Association.Ewe_with_pair_300px_x_200px

In order that the ewes are able to maintain condition at the same time as grow lambs, the sheep are receiving supplementary feeding.  As with the cows, the grass is growing too slowly at this time of the year so does not contain much energy or nutrition.  

The mix the sheep are given contains

  • rolled barley (grown on the farm) – carbohydrate for energy
  • dried seaweed (bought) – vitamins and minerals
  • ‘blend’ made of bought in soya and oilseed rape, for protein

When the lambing time approaches, they will be brought in only if it is wet.  Lleyns have evolved to lamb outside if it is dry and cold.  The sheep are regularly checked and any lambs are brought in with their mothers in order to check they are healthy, and that they are able to suckle with no problems.  Later when they are stronger they are taken back outside with their mothers.  When they are newborn they can be quite vulnerable, and this is the time that they are most likely to be taken off by a fox.  Sadly we lost one from our paddock overnight last spring.