"Think Globally, Act Locally." - Do you remember this phrase? I recently discovered that it was first used in the early 20th century by a Scots town planner and naturalist, Patrick Geddes, but was made brought into common parlance by Friends of the Earth when they used it to launch the campaigning group in 1971. To me it has never felt more pertinent than over the last few months. We have all been making big sacrifices by staying at home to protect the wider community from the spread of Covid-19 and protect the more vulnerable members of society. Staying at home has meant that we have had more time to focus on our immediate surroundings and been given an opportunity to see it in more detail and perhaps even think about how we can improve it for our local wildlife. If you have read my last two blogs you will know that I have enthused on how we can improve our gardens to make them a wildlife oasis. Perhaps if everyone did this it could make a significant impact on the health of the whole environment.
Think Globally, Act Locally
Spending more time around our homes has also meant that many of us have had more time to explore our local areas
If like me, you live within easy reach of the countryside I am sure you will have been walking many of the lanes nearby and experienced how magnificent they look in spring and early summer. My regular walks have given me the chance to see the gradual changes in the floral composition as the weeks go by. Starting with the bright greens of the newly emerging grasses dotted with yellow from primroses and dandelions. Then as the days warm we get the first signs of the brilliant blue of the bluebells bursting out of the ground above the spikes of dark green leaves. Shortly after, the blue is joined by the vibrant pink of red campion and the picture completed by the airy white umbels of cow parsley. A perfect late spring day is completed by seeing some rich purple spikes rising out of a rosette of narrow, dark blotched leaves; the wonderful sight of the early purple orchid.
Interesting facts about early purple orchids:
These plants used to be so common that they would be dug to harvest the bi-lobed tubers (hence the name Orchis) and made into a drink called Saloop or Salep allegedly with aphrodisiac qualities. Also if you get close to them when the flowers first emerge they have a pleasant sweet smell but unfortunately as the flowers mature this turns into a more foetid odour reminiscent of tom cat.
As the days lengthen, a more diverse range of blooms join the early flowers and the verges take on a more relaxed look with the grasses adding a soft texture to set off the new entrants to the show like the orangey yellow of bird’s-foot trefoil, the pastel blues and purple of bush vetch and the more vivid bluey mauve of tufted vetch. The dandelions are replaced by the paler yellows of catsears and hawkbits and in damper parts, the creamy white of meadowsweet rises up from the ditches. In a few special places, pink spikes of spotted orchids appear amongst the grasses, almost invisible until the colour starts to show. All this drama unfolds in front of a backdrop of unfolding leaves and blossom from the hedgerows. First to show in early spring are the white stars of the blackthorn and damson flowers, and as these fade the hawthorn drapes the bright greens with blankets of white. An occasional wild or crab apple adds a pink punctuation and the first of the wild roses add dots of pale pink followed by the more creamy colour of the field rose whose flowers have yellow anthers ornamented by a prominent stigma sticking up in the centre. Occasionally on a warm calm day as you walk along the lanes you will suddenly be enveloped by the honey sweet smell of honeysuckle and realise how it got its common name.
Amongst all this green exuberance insects buzz around feeding on the flowers and searching out plants on which to lay their eggs. These in turn provide food to sustain all the fledgling birds eagerly awaiting the next bunch of grubs brought to them by their parents. If I look through a gateway most of the fields are an even sea of green only broken up occasionally by a few flowers of white clover and the odd clump of dock or thistle. It’s only then that I realise how important a nature sanctuary these lanes can be and how they provide a glimpse at what all the countryside used to look like. Outside of nature reserves and a small number of sympathetically manged tracts of land, many of these plants and animals only survive in the narrow corridors provided by these ancient routes.
Managing our Verges
A couple of weeks ago I awoke to the sound of the tractor mounted flail mower coming up the lane and realised that the beautiful verges were about to be chopped to the ground. I began my morning walk with trepidation knowing that the burgeoning verges of early summer would have been reduced to green mulch. I was not disappointed. Unfortunately the contractor this year had been extremely efficient and removed almost all the flowers. Not one of the common spotted or twayblade orchids had survived. The small colony of broad-leaved helleborines had been reduced to short stumps. Five spikes had survived but a week later the silage trailers had manged to run over the verge and flatten two more of them. Because the orchids come from underground tubers, most of them will have another go next year but the constant removal of the new growth will gradually weaken the plants and without the flowers being able to set seed, there is no chance for the colony to spread to new sites. A further issue is that late June and July is a peak time for butterflies. Removing all the nectar sources at this critical time is bound to have a negative impact. Additionally the thick thatch left by the flail in many places smothers many of the finer grasses and flowers and builds up nutrients in the soil allowing the coarser species like cocksfoot grass and hogweed to flourish gradually reducing the diversity of plants in the sward.
Living along one of these narrow lanes, I am the first to acknowledge that verges must be cut back where necessary, otherwise many of our small lanes would become virtually impassable or at least very dangerous to travel along. However on many parts of our local lanes, even though visibility is good, the contractor made three or even four passes with the flail. Not only was this unnecessary it also adds significantly to the time and fuel used compared with just mowing the first three feet, as this normally requires the driver to reverse back between each pass. i.e. four passes with the flail requires the driver to travel seven times as far as for a single pass.
Hope for our verges?
All is not doom and gloom for our verges as some more enlightened local authorities are aware of the value of verges and are exploring ways to better manage them for wildlife and biodiversity. In 2015 the Welsh Government passed the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act which amongst lots of other stuff, included a section on the environment and in particular Section 6 requires Public Authorities to seek to maintain and enhance biodiversity and promote the resilience of ecosystems. In addition in 2013 a Wales action plan for pollinators was created with regular taskforce meetings. Monmouthshire and in particular the town of Monmouth has taken a lead in trialling new approaches with a green infrastructure action plan. As well as different approaches to mowing to encourage wild flowers exploration has also taken place on options for removing cuttings which is essential to reduce nutrient levels and prevent vigorous grasses from dominating the sward at the expense of flowers. A training manual was produced for cutting and mowing crews outlining the benefits of less frequent mowing and the reasons behind not cutting until the end of the summer. Most of the activities have been focussed on larger open spaces and the roadside verges on major roads rather than small country lanes.
Specifically in Powys, a few years ago the Powys Wildlife Trusts in conjunction with Powys County Council initiated a trial to explore the cost-effectiveness of more wildlife friendly ways to manage verges including the removal of the clippings. Unfortunately funding has not been available to continue with this work. As part of this initiative a process was established to identify and create ‘Road Verge Nature Reserves’ (RVNRs) to highlight particularly florally rich section of verge and plan improved management regimes. Again pressure on local government budgets has resulted in no new sites being established but the RVNRs still exist.
A plea for action on our verges
So the knowledge and understanding is present and an obligation exists for the local authorities to seek to improve the biodiversity of our environment. It isn’t even always a cost issue as many activities require less work to be done rather than more. I am informed that the Powys Wildlife Trusts intend to re-open a dialogue with the PCC as part of proposals for the new Nature Recovery Network of joined-up-habitats. Let’s hope that some new actions can be initiated as a result and that we will see more flowers and insects on our local verges in the future, and that flower rich roadsides to become the norm rather than the exception.
Looking after your local wildlife will help globally
Getting off my hobby-horse back to my theme, I have really enjoyed the extra time I have had to look more closely at my local wildlife and I intend to continue to make small changes to benefit the environment around me. With all the problems that we face around us at the moment at a global level it can often seem so overwhelming that we can’t see how we can do anything to make a difference. I hope that as we all come out of over three months of lock-down, we don’t forget the places closest to us, where even by making small changes we can make a difference, and trust that if everyone else does the same, it will have an impact on a global scale. I often get so excited about the rare species when I see them in nature reserves that I forget that most wildlife lives outside them and without the rest of the environment being healthy the rare stuff can’t survive
I will have more stories about my wildlife gardening in next month’s blog