Grass grows vigorous and strong in a spring of regular rain, along with the host of plants that have taken over many areas and corners of the fields and hedgerows. The ongoing challenge of wilding – letting nature have space and place – is how to strike the right balance in terms of allowing unchecked growth; some plants like germander speedwell, meadow sweet, jack by the hedge, garlic mustard and now emerging cuckoo pint are given this sort of leeway.
The pasture in the fields had been nibbled to 2cm in height over 150 years or so with a mixture of sheep and some dairy cows. Old, layered hedge lines are visible in some places which were never layered again for 70 years, creating a huge challenge in reducing or removing creeping thistle, nettles, docks, dandelions and gallium that covered probably just short of a hectare. This year, the fourth year of removal or control of the ‘big five’ weeds, is being marked by an endless series of decisions as to whether to undertake manual removal or very controlled targeted spraying.
Eliminating ‘the big five’ weeds – an ongoing battle
The timing of each option is critical as the plants grow, flower and then within 48 hours the seed heads are ready to disperse themselves again! We are doing well on all fronts with docks, thistles and making some head way with nettles. The thistles currently occupy an area around 5% of their original numbers with manual removal happening before the flower buds appear.
Probably 20,000 thistles have been pulled over the last three years and in their very dense forests some have been sprayed out. The thistle heaps have been quite a size! The timing of the pulling is critical for effectiveness and, with the need to minimize spraying, it is an effective option. Pulling on the sunny days of June and July, sun hats on, works well.
Docks are 95% eliminated following a persistent and ongoing dig-out process. There are less than 100 left in the fields and they now await the ‘wet weather’ dig-out, easier than in rock hard dry clay. Then dandelions, a similar process of dig-out with over 1000 dandelions this year in a three-week period – a truly mindful experience twice a day, while listening to the emerging chorus of new arrivals of willow warblers, chiff chaffs, garden warblers and blackcaps, BBC Springwatch sound in reality!
Then the ongoing dilemma of gallium or goose grass, which emerges everywhere under hedges, in the grass, at the edges of scrapes, and worst of all in the brash hedge. It thrives on wet nutrient-rich soil and here it’s rich river valley clay. It will take over the whole hedge, grass for hay and more, so the battle is on to remove it by carefully timed spray and pulling out or strimming. It’s shrinking too but less than the other ‘big four’.
A desert now blooms
The white blossoms of spring of the blackthorn, hawthorn and field maple were in profusion and in the hedge rows for this first time, exciting new sights. Native bluebells were appearing where nettle, thistle and gallium had been in many places. Primroses have spread too, from just three last year to twelve this year. Cuckoo pint is across all the fields, red campion is popping up, too, and caraway is in profusion. All this in what had become a barren desert from such intense grazing and little thought for regeneration.
Work continues as in the wet areas the planted meadowsweet has trebled in size. The ‘snows’ created are a continuous process, from the blackthorn bushes that shed their blooms through April to dazzling white hawthorn blossoms that gradually turn pink and disperse their snow petals across the patch. The field maple flowers will shed their own showy snow soon.
Is it worth it? Nature has the answer!
An ongoing question: all the work, physical and tiring, often ten hours through the day under the bushes and trees coming into leaf, across the humid fields – is it worth it? As another patch of thistles is found in the long grass, the heart sinks and arms ache. Then a speckled wood butterfly just hatched passes as one bends down, with the fresh, intense colour of the wings, skipping down the hillside – a ‘wow’ moment that encourages the effort.
In the same day, five types of butterflies come flying, flitting, fluttering across the fields and garden: common blue, small white, orange tip, brimstone and last year’s ‘peacock’. The brimstone is clearly resident – seen daily for the past three weeks flitting through the copses and garden flower beds, never stopping and yet a guaranteed sight between eleven in the morning until three in the afternoon. If wilding, remember it has taken five years for the brimstone to be an endemic resident!
New species and welcome returners
So yes, the rewards are coming through. The damsel flies on bright still sunny days are all over the fields, overnighting in the long grass and emerging as the sunlight hits and warms the grass – three types of damsel fly to be exact! And then the beauty of the month, another first and long awaited, the ‘scarce chaser’ dragonfly. It emerged today, 3 June, the size of a large hornet and flitted around the pond area, pausing on a marsh cinquefoil water plant or dead woody stalk. An easily captured photo shows the blue colouring, beautiful and fresh.
There is a female too, murky yellow, slightly orange colouring, who shows up just twice keeping her distance from the ‘Blue Bomber’. The soft rush and irises in the pond and grasses alongside are just a perfect place to climb up and emerge from the larval state of two years’ duration. These two chasers are joined by the gently purposeful fluttering and fertility antics of over 40 damselflies, whose turquoise blue is only matched by the blue of a kingfisher. At least three types of these this magical noontime in June.
The work feels worth it now that the ‘magic snows and flights of spring’ have shown up. There is more to come as a reward to maintain enthusiasm. The adult pied wagtails arrive and take over the old shed roof and leap and jump to pick off the mayflies flying up and down above the pond water. The brood must be large, and it must be 8 pm again, their time. The four song thrushes have never failed to provide a sixteen chorus for the last two weeks in four spots – quadraphonic sound! And the goldfinches arrive to take a drink on the edge of the scrape. Be prepared to share your place and space and nature will bring unforgettable moments.
9.30 in the evening now as writing finishes, and the barn owl is quartering across the fields.