Tag Archives: john clare

Magical midsummer meadows

Last summer, on one of the hottest days of the year, I joined a walk led by Nick Gray of the Dorset Wildlife Trust through some traditionally managed meadows in Dorset’s Marshwood Vale. We found fields filled with lush grasses, colourful wild flowers and a profusion of insects. This outpouring of joyous, exuberant growth seemed to embody the essence of high summer and the walk turned out to be one of my wildlife highlights of 2018.

Marshwood meadow 2
Lush grasses in the meadow

 

We started from Babers Farm below the village of Marshwood and, after a short walk across several fields clad only in a veneer of golden stubble, we crossed a field boundary to enter another world. Here a thick carpet of knee-high grasses dominated the sward, still green despite the long spell of hot weather. Richly coloured flowers were woven into the grassy fabric and many small brown butterflies danced among the seed heads. A transient flash of orange was probably a silver-washed fritillary butterfly. Grasshoppers leapt from the grass in broad arcs as we walked and brightly coloured insects fed from the flowers. As I looked up at the bowl of hills surrounding the Vale, a kestrel, pale brown in this brash light, swept silently across the field. It was the perfect summer moment.

Perhaps it was a reaction to all the doom and gloom I had been hearing about our treatment of the environment and the resulting loss of wildlife? Perhaps it was a deeply buried childhood memory of family picnics among flowers on Dorset hills? Perhaps it was simply all the natural beauty around me? Whatever the reason, it felt, for a few moments, as though this was the only place in the world I wanted to be.

These meadows are managed under a higher-level stewardship scheme which pays for the loss of income incurred through traditional, less intensive land cultivation. The meadow flowers and grasses grow during the warmth and wet of spring and summer and hay is cut and removed in mid-July when flowers have mostly set seed. The aftermath growth is grazed by animals in the autumn after which the land is left until the following spring. It was the last day of June when we visited and high summer sees these meadows liberally studded with the flattened white umbels of corky-fruited water dropwort, a member of the carrot family and a Dorset speciality but rare elsewhere. The flowers were very popular with insects, especially hoverflies which buzzed loudly in small groups while hovering by the flowers in a courtship display. A female would sit on a flower head while a male hovered above her; sometimes another male would hover above the first in a “stack”.

The bright yellow slipper-like flowers of bird’s foot trefoil were also very common in the meadows, sometimes growing so prolifically that the flowers merged into drifts of sunny colour. This is such a common flower that we tend to overlook it but perhaps its very familiarity leads to the many popular names attached to the plant such as eggs and bacon, hen and chickens or granny’s toenails. Nick also told us that the plant may have useful anti-worming properties if consumed by sheep.

Dotted around the meadows, sometimes in large clumps, were the unruly purple flowers of knapweed. These are popular with nectaring insects and I saw a colourful burnet moth and several marbled white butterflies. Knapweed is also one of the plants with the popular name of Bachelor’s Buttons and Nick told us how, in the past, young women played a love-divination game with the flower heads. A young woman wanting to know if her affections would be returned took a knapweed flower head and plucked off the open florets. She placed the flower head inside her blouse and if, after an hour, new florets had opened, then her love would be reciprocated.

Here is the story told by John Clare in his poem “May” from the Shepherd’s Calendar:

They pull the little blossom threads
From out the knapweeds button heads
And put the husk wi many a smile
In their white bosoms for awhile
Who if they guess aright the swain
That loves sweet fancys trys to gain
Tis said that ere its lain an hour
Twill blossom wi a second flower
And from her white breasts hankerchief
Bloom as they ne’er had lost a leaf

A short walk across open countryside took us southwards towards the centre of the Vale, where we found another large traditionally managed meadow. As before, a rich mixture of thick grasses and colourful flowers dominated but I was surprised to find drifts of yellow rattle and a few orchids, looking rather the worse for wear. I began to realise that each meadow has its own character, its own flora, its own colours reflecting the underlying geology and dampness.

Several recent studies have highlighted the decline of insect and bird life in the UK. Factors contributing to this decline include climate change, habitat loss, pollution and pesticide use. For example, the 97% loss of flower-rich hay meadows in the UK during the 20th century linked to agricultural intensification must have seriously affected insect populations as well as birds dependent on insects for food. Some have gone so far as to suggest that unless we modify farming methods, we shall face “Insect Armageddon”. This needs to be taken seriously owing to the important role insects play in, for example, maintaining soil health, digesting waste and pollinating our fruit and flowers.

The meadows that I visited last summer in the Marshwood Vale send a positive message showing that, with careful management, these important habitats can be restored to their former glory, supporting insects and providing food for birds. In more good news, the Magical Marshwood Vale Project (funded by National Grid and coordinated by Dorset AONB and Dorset Wildlife Trust) started in 2018 with the aim of enhancing traditional landscape features and helping to reinstate ecologically important wildlife habitats. This includes the restoration of more wildflower meadows.

I should like to thank Nick Gray for his advice and enthusiasm.

Black and yellow long-horn beetle on corky-fruited water dropwort, The beetle has lost nearly all of one antenna.
Black and yellow long-horn beetle on corky-fruited water dropwort, The beetle has lost nearly all of one antenna.

 

Swollen thighed beetle on corky-fruited water dropwort
Swollen thighed beetle on corky-fruited water dropwort

 

Birds foot trefoil
Bird’s foot trefoil (with a green insect on the upper right hand side of the picture)

 

Marbled white butterfly on knapweed
Marbled white butterfly on knapweed

 

Burnet moth on knapweed
Burnet moth on knapweed

 

Meadow Grasshopper
Meadow Grasshopper

 

This article appeared in the January 2019 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Hedgehogs, hyssop and strewing meadowsweet – looking back at the Garden in August

 

Beech nuts
beech nuts

 

August failed to deliver the holiday heat we expected and the unseasonable cool made us more conscious of the approach of autumn. Looking around, there was palpable change, particularly in the look of the trees. Some showed tantalising hints of autumn tints but, for many trees, the season changed their appearance in a different way. The fresh, bright green leaves that had signalled the headlong rush of spring growth now lacked lustre. Also, from our kitchen window I could see a lime tree that seemed to have been painted with impressionist-daubs of pale yellow-green giving the tree a lighter look. A closer examination revealed that the tree was covered with seeds and pale ribbon-like bracts; these will eventually fall together and the bracts will act as sails to aid seed dispersal. Another tree, a beech, exhibited a mass of fuzzy brown nuts, as if afflicted by a plague of small hedgehogs. Soon, however, the leaves will fall, the seeds will have their chance and the trees will await another spring.

Lime bracts and seeds
lime seeds and bracts

 

Leechwell herb garden
the herb garden

Down in the Leechwell Garden, there was still plenty of interest, especially in the herb garden. Several clumps of hyssop were in full flower and their colour, one sky-blue, the other pretty in pink, caught my eye. In the sunshine these new faces also delighted the bees.

Hyssop and bumblebee
hyssop and bumblebee

 

 

Echinacea
echinacea

 

Globe thistle
globe thistle and bumblebee

Bright pink echinacea and steel-blue globe thistle continued to flower valiantly providing welcome food for insects. I love the symmetry of these two flowers, a tribute to nature’s hidden plans. A tall mullein with a few residual yellow flowers overbalanced under its own weight like a drunk at the bar.

 

Artichoke
artichoke

Nearby, I found the massive flower heads of an artichoke topped with their punkish purple fuzz. The oversize blooms look like monster Scottish thistles and indeed artichokes are members of the thistle family cultivated for their edible buds. There is something primeval about the flower heads; fortunately the plants cannot move, otherwise we might have a prototype triffid. The blooms are also bee-favourites and I saw a red-tailed bumblebee seemingly drunk on the nectar.

 

water mint
water mint

The water flowing through the Garden from the Leechwell is very popular with visitors but it also attracts its own floral signature. Water mint, noticeable at this time of year for its many mauve flowers, dips its feet in the water and grows here prolifically. Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica tells the story of William Sole who, in 1798, wrote about the different kinds of mint and their particular smells. Sole likened the smell of water mint to “a ropy chimney in a wet summer where wood fires have been kept in winter”. This is too much for my nose and all I could detect was a strong minty smell.

 

meadowsweet
meadowsweet

The fragrant, frothy flowers and dark green foliage of the damp-loving meadowsweet were also in evidence growing near the stream. John Clare wrote about this plant in his poem, “Summer”:

The meadowsweet taunts high its showy wreath
And sweet the quaking grasses hide beneath

In the 16th century, meadowsweet was a popular strewing plant; its leaves were spread on floors to provide a crude carpet and a pleasant odour. The foliage of the plant emits a sharp aromatic scent and Gerard, in his herbal, extols the virtues of strewing meadowsweet: “the smell thereof makes the heart merrie, delighteth the senses”; it is said that meadowsweet was the favourite strewing plant of Elizabeth I. In contrast to the odour associated with the foliage, the creamy-white flowers have a different scent which, to me, is sickly sweet.

Meadowsweet has long been used in folk medicine to provide relief against mild pain. We now know that the plant contains chemicals similar to those in willow bark, another natural analgesic. These naturally occurring molecules were used to develop aspirin and the name of this widely consumed drug was derived from the old botanical name of meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria.

I wrote last month about the departure of the swifts. It turns out that this was slightly inaccurate as on the evening of August 10 two more appeared over the Garden; I suppose these swifts were on their way to the coast as we didn’t see them again. They were then replaced for a few days by a group of house martins. These are not as acrobatic or as quick as the swifts but it was good to see them swooping and twittering to one another as they harvested the insects.

The featured image at the top of this post shows a pollen-loaded honeybee on mullein.

This is the ninth of my diary entries for the Leechwell Garden;  to see the others please put “Leechwell” in the search box.