A Farm Like This

Agriculture.

Farmland TF 8 Jul 19

We define human epochs by it. Why is it in my blog? Because nothing – absolutely nothing – has more impact on the environment than how we produce food. We solve the dilemma of how to farm without wrecking nature, or conservationists may as well give up. In the UK, 70% of land is used for agriculture. That’s 70% of our potential wildlife habitat.

060408 yellowhammer

Once upon a time, British farms were small, and mixed crops and livestock. You can still see that style in Transylvania. This is an economically viable landscape that is home to bears, wildcats and shrikes. These hay meadows work for people and wildlife.

Meadows at Daia

It’s been a long time since anyone could say that about most British farms. Our farmers have been under decades of pressure from both UK governments and the EU to maximise production at the expense of all else. Hedgerows removed, crops planted to the field edges, herbicides and pesticides in full flow. All those corners where native flowers sparkled and cirl buntings sang have been sacrificed. Dormice, hedgehogs, lapwings, yellowhammers – they’re on their way out, not on purpose, but as collateral to our diets.

Is it hopeless? Of course not. Natural England’s podcasts give an insight into how farmers are supporting conservation in the Hampshire Downs.

One day, hopefully, all farms will include wildflower margins and healthy hedgerows as standard. In the here and now, our rarest species thrive in a few special places, and one of the best is Ranscombe – a working arable farm owned by the Plantlife charity. Enough words. Time to enjoy the show 🙂

Arable wildflowers

Ranscombe arable meadow Jul 19

Greater knapweed

Greater knapweed Ranscombe Jul 19

Toadflax

Toadflax Ranscombe Jul 19

Bugloss and poppies Ranscombe Jul 19

Of Flies, Bees and Men

That kind of title can only mean that it’s wild orchid season. Enchanting, bizarre, complicated – some of them are also very rare, but where the chalky fields of the North Downs have escaped modern agriculture, they host a strange and wonderful show.

Of wild men, for starters. This is a man orchid, an endangered species in the UK which acquired its name from the little long-armed figures dangling from each flower.

Man orchid 3 Jun 19

Then, there are the replica flies.

Fly orchid2 6 Jun 19

It’s hard not to wonder what the spider is concluding as it encounters a make-believe version of its traditional prey.

Fly orchid with spider 6 Jun 19

While fly orchids are rare, bee orchids are more widespread. But a single flower is the culmination of up to eight years of growth, so their appearance in specific sites is unpredictable.

Bee orchid S Tolls 31 May 2017.jpg

Our most familiar orchid, however, is the beautiful common spotted-orchid, which sprinkles old meadows with pink blooms.

Spotted orchids 6 Jun 19

Not that all orchids are bright; the twayblade is easily overlooked.

Common twayblade 7 Jun 19

Many do score high on the conspicuous scale, however. The rare green-winged orchid is another species typically found on chalk. And like all its relatives, it only survives because of fungi. Orchid seeds contain almost no energy and cannot germinate without forming symbiotic relationships with their less lauded partners.

Green-winged orchard North Solent NNR 13 May 19

Fungi are very sensitive to ‘improvements’ such as fertilisers, ploughing and reseeding. So orchids are more than just a pretty show: they also reveal where soils are still undisturbed.

We use flowers to symbolise so much human emotion. It is fair to say that these ones are symbols of our gentleness upon the land too.

Forty Winks

It’s easy to get distracted by meadows in spring. They are decked out in a shimmering cloak of buttercups and yellow-rattle, and birds are warbling from every bush. The contrast with the muddy vistas of November is as great as a caterpillar and a butterfly – and plenty of those are about too, come to think of it.

HV1 26 May 2019

But not to be outdone, the woods are changing too. Our rarest local mammal is awake – well, nearly.

Dormouse 25 May 19

Hazel dormouse, handled under licence at one of the local monitoring sites. Not quite out of torpor, the state of reduced activity that hibernating animals return to in conditions such as cold nights. In fact, this particular nesting box held two half-dozing dormice.

Dormouse2 25 May 19

A dormouse monitoring site consists of 50 nest boxes, which are very like bird boxes except they are set up with the entrance hole facing the tree. It is illegal to open them without a licence because dormice are given the highest level of protection under our laws, sadly for good reason – while no one would harm a dormouse on purpose, their numbers nationally continue to decline, mostly due to loss of habitat.

Setup DM3

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we’ve managed to retain that habitat in my part of the North Downs more by accident than intent. Dormice like woodland with a dense understorey, as well as hedgerows that are thick and tall and not cut every year.

For a variety of reasons, these simple conditions are now hard to come by in the wider UK countryside. We are changing the environment at a rate wholly out of pace with nature’s capacity to adapt. But just sometimes, you stumble across something which reminds you of the depth of years that are within our forests, and the antiquity that deserves respect.

Giant tree2 Mortimer Forest May 19

This is probably the largest tree that I’ve ever seen outside of the tropics. It is a beech in the wilds of Shropshire, with limbs as thick as a normal tree’s trunk.

Giant tree Mortimer Forest May 19

It is tempting to wonder how many dormice have hibernated in its shadow over the centuries.

Blue Carpet

You see it, smell it, hear it as it rustles in the spring breeze.

Bluebells woods 2019a

They’re so emphatic that they have an entire habitat named after them – bluebell woods – as if the year is defined by their show.

Bluebells woods 2019c

Woodland glades are theirs, but some surprise old meadows with their company.

Bluebells woods 2019d

And then they’re gone, and the flowers of early summer take their turn.

Red campion

Red campion 4 May 2019

Buttercup

Buttercup 4 May 2019

Bugle

Bugle 4 May 2019

The Second Frost

With the springtime wild world and a backdrop of Easter bells ringing. Not real frost, of course, although the Surrey Hills had a few flakes of snow a fortnight back – hard to remember in today’s sun.

It’s blackthorn, spring’s showy pioneer.

Spring blossom 19 Apr 19

The ground, too, is waking, and dewdrops brighten the flowers.

Bluebell dew drops 19 Apr 19

Bluebells are now at their peak, carpeting our oldest woods in shimmering sapphire.

Khamsin in bluebells 21 Apr 19

I must have seen a thousand cowslips on Saturday’s walk.

Cowslip dew drops2 19 Apr 19

Meanwhile, the mysterious toothwort sprouts flowers without leaves. Unlike almost all other flowers, it doesn’t photosynthesize, instead getting its nutrition from its host. That is usually hazel or alder.

Toothwort and little slug 19 Apr 19

Spring is beautiful, but there is an intrigue and depth to that beauty, and a lesson in how different strands of life support each other. I am grateful that there is always so much more to see and learn.

The Hills are Alive…

Remember the snow?

Snowy winter Jan 19

Now the hills are waking up, shaking off wintry lethargy with a sprinkle of early flowers. Wild primrose is amongst the first, brightening road verges and old meadows.

Wild primrose at Quarrydean1 Mar 2019

But mostly, this is the moment of the violet. We have a purple carpet this year, tiny exquisite flowers marking nearly every patch of undamaged grass.

Violet2 Mar 2019

Violet1 Mar 2019

‘Undamaged’ being the operative word, of course. Once, most of the UK had traditional meadows that supported abundant native plants and animals. Nearly all of them have been destroyed by modern agriculture, and while the laws have improved over time, things could still be better. 

Patches of old grassland also occur on private land – in particularly old mature gardens. If you have a mossy lawn, please be kind to it. It’s more interesting than a flat, bland bed of rye grass and supports far, far more life, including rare fungi. Avoiding fertilisers and unnecessary tilling is key.

Back on the hills, animals are also waking up. Roman snails are Britain’s largest species and are strictly protected. This one might have appreciated a little rain to wash its shell.

Roman snail Mar 2019

It won’t have long to wait. Sunshine and showers are April’s usual game.

Ray of Hope

Springtime is a tenuous thing. Hard to judge, if you’re a dormouse. Today there are blue skies and misty lanes; this time last year, we were being freeze-dried by bitter snow. To sleep or to wake? My guess is that some of our dormice are awake.

Dormouse photo2

Hazel dormice have a message about the British countryside: about woods and hedgerows, flowers and fruits. Do we want to hear what these exquisite little creatures are telling us?

Perhaps not. For all their gold-plated national and international legal protection, dormice continue to slide towards extinction in Britain. We’ve pulled the rug away by wrecking the hedgerows that support them, and isolating and ruining woodland. Flaying, over-cutting and removing hedgerows where dormice are present is dangerously close to a criminal offence – and there is no legal defence for killing a dormouse of ‘incidental result of a lawful operation’. To my local district council and everyone else who manages Surrey’s surviving hedges: please note.

But there is a ray of hope.

Dormice can survive us. My village proves it. We thought we were preserving our historic landscape by turning our wooded lanes into a conservation area, but we accidentally saved our dormice too. This road is home to dormice – and people.

Light beams lane 23 Feb 19

Thick, wide hedgerows, trees with branches that provide bridges over roads, ancient woodland with a jumbled understorey of hazel and bramble – they’re all things that dormice need.

I’ll be looking for them again in the spring. For nests like this, bound with hazel leaves and honeysuckle.

Dormouse nest 28 Nov 2017

And maybe – just maybe – some of these.

Dormouse6

Let’s keep hold of the hope. Surrey must always remain good enough for dormice.

All dormice in this post handled under licence. It is against the law to disturb, handle or harm dormice without a licence in the UK.