Talk notes: Managing the NT hillforts and chalk grasslands for both archaeology and nature conservation
Clive Whitbourn, National Trust Ranger, started his talk with a focus on Hambledon Hill, the 47 hectare hillfort which came to the National Trust in 2014. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a photo from 1940 showed how bare the hillfort was 80 years ago. Now the hillfort is managed lightly, with scrub kept low and any erosion kept at bay with terrace reshaping to preserve the profile of the ramparts.
Clive showed us the methods they use with wooden frameworks buried deep to support hessian bags full of chalk, which bulk out any damaged areas, with turf from the ditch placed on top. The chalkland grasses grow through and thrive. He mentioned that the south and south-west ramparts of Hambledon Hill are best for butterflies.
Cattle scraping for minerals – they can go on binges to self-medicate - and visitors wearing down paths, all play their part in erosion. Roboflail, a mechanical AI cutter, is being used on some of the NT sites to great effect to keep the scrub low and save the man hours for other tasks. The NT relies on volunteer help on many of their conservation projects.
Hod Hill is Dorset’s largest Iron Age hillfort and is unusual because it has a Roman fort nestled within, built at a time when the invaders needed to defend their capture of this Durotriges stronghold. Clive showed us how the framework and hessian bag method was also used to repair a bridleway here.
In terms of nature conservation, Texel sheep are good grazers and White Park cattle are brilliant for rough pastures. Yellow Rattle, which suppresses coarse grass growth, is doing well at Winn Green and there are plans this year to brush-harvest the seed from there and broadcast it to the newly purchased Clubmen’s Down, a 30 acre piece of arable.
Across Clive’s patch and the various Downs and hillforts, uncommon species are being noted: Bee and the Great Butterfly orchids, and the unusual Autumn Lady’s Tresses; Waxcap fungi; Marsh, Silver-spotted and Danville Fritillaries, Grizzled Skippers, Small Blue and Adonis Blue butterflies; Great Green Bush-crickets and Glow worms.
Clive’s talk gave us plenty of inspiration for visiting these places, particularly in the spring and summer!
Rebecca Twigg started her talk last week by stressing the relative unimportance of honey bees compared with wild pollinators such as solitary bees, bumblebees, moths, butterflies, hoverflies and beetles. She gave several examples of solitary bee species that are commonly found in gardens such as the Ashy and Tawny mining bees, as well as the recently arrived Ivy bees, and explained interesting details about their lifecycles and habitat requirements. Later, she gave us examples of the best garden flowers for pollinators, natives as well as exotics.
She stressed the importance of having flowers blooming all year round, with Heathers from late winter, Lungwort in early spring and continuing right through to early winter with Mahonia, for example. Rebecca explained how she restocks her garden by swapping plants, growing from cuttings and collecting seeds rather than buying from
Rebecca pointed out how planting in drifts is so important, so the bees don’t have to waste energy flying between individual flowers, making sure there’s a variety of flower types, e.g., Foxgloves for long-tongued bumblebees and daisies for short-tongued hover-flies.
Rebecca then spoke about creating different habitats in gardens, to provide for the diverse requirements of different pollinators. Drilling holes between 5 and 8mm and pencil length into wooden panels, logs or posts placed in warm, sunny situations can provide valuable nesting sites for solitary bees. The importance of having areas of short and longer (flower rich) grass in a lawn to cater for mining bees, which need warm soil to complete their lifecycle, was emphasised.
We recommend walking the Salisbury Bee Trail which Rebecca is responsible for laying out and for which she won an award.
by Peter Shallcross
This month we welcome Rebecca Twigg, founder of Salisbury's Secret Garden.
Rebecca is an organic gardener with a passion for the natural world who received a DEFRA award for the Salisbury Bee Trail project. She has now started a new community garden at the Five Rivers Health and Well-being Centre and an additional ‘green space kick start’ scheme for those wanting to take on a patch of ground themselves.
“Exploration outside is absolutely in my heart, there is something magical about immersing yourself in nature …these interactions shape our values and abilities to manage in an ever-changing world too.”
As last month, the Victoria Hall bar will be open from 7:00PM to serve wine, beer and soft drinks before the meeting.
We plan, as usual now, to live-stream Rebecca’s presentation over Zoom for anyone not able to attend in person; I’ll send out the Zoom link to members a few days before.
Attending our meetings is free for members and anyone under 21; adult visitors are asked for a £2 contribution. If you are not a member but would like to come along, please get in touch via the contact form. The Victoria Hall is on the High St, Tisbury, opposite the garage.
Leif Bersweden was brought up near here so visiting us last month was, appropriately enough, something of a return to his roots. A bright, engaging speaker, he was bursting with enthusiasm for his subject.
He set about the topic by describing how he became interested first in animals and then in plants and flowers as a boy, and went on to describe the journey he recently made across the whole of the British Isles, largely on bicycle, to explore the range of plants that grow here, their habits and their habitats. He travelled as far west as the lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, as far east as the South East corner of England, at Deal in Kent, via the Norfolk Broads and Scarborough in Yorkshire, as far north as the Shetland Isles, and across the island of Ireland to sites in both Derry in the north and Cork in the far south west.
Much of his talk was made up of descriptions of the sights and specimens he found most amazing; some that we may consider familiar such as the glorious spring-time carpets of bluebell woods on the South Downs or in Hampshire; or the unfamiliar characteristics of common plants such as the fact that Lords-and-ladies is capable of generating heat; or the truly unexpected carnivorous greater bladderwort, growing in the Norfolk Broads. Leif’s sheer delight at all of these was truly infectious; a delight to listen to.
The background, of course, which he did not shy away from, is that wildflower populations are threatened everywhere, by population growth, changes in agricultural practices and intensity, and by climate change. And the familiarity people used to have with wild plants in their locality, their names, their uses, has largely disappeared.
But there were light hearted touches, too, such as the anecdote he told of how embarrassed he was when apprehended, camera in hand, while taking pictures of a particular plant native to a coastal sand-dune, by a couple of members of the nudist colony that also occupied the area.
Overall Leif’s message was determinedly up-beat. Our wildflower heritage is something wonderful and to be cherished. He filled his audience with enthusiasm and pleasure that reflected his own – and sold a fair number of copies of his recently published book as a result!
by Richard Budden
Late summer is the time to gather blackberries. In doing so, we do something humans have done for thousands of years; archaeologists have found their remains in the stomach of a neolithic man. Given the right conditions, bushes can fruit prolifically and as long as you can get close enough without getting caught in the thorns, it is possible to collect enough for immediate consumption as well as bottling or freezing for future use. Blackberries have numerous health benefits being high in fibre and full of vitamins like C and K as well as manganese and antioxidants. Vitamin K helps your blood to clot which is useful given the number of scratches you might suffer while picking them.
We generally use the term bramble to refer to a tangled, prickly shrub, usually the plant Rubus fruticosus. Brambles grow abundantly throughout the British Isles coping with almost any environment and are particularly hardy plants. Bushes have long, thorny, arching shoots which root easily, and this helps them to spread forming dense clumps in neglected areas. In this respect they can be an important pioneer species. Dense clumps can supply shelter for young trees, allowing them to establish free from browsing by animals. Eventually, as shade from the tree’s spreading canopy increases, the bramble will die back as it cannot flourish in deep shade.
The young foliage is eaten by deer and there is concern that increased deer numbers are reducing the amount of bramble in some woodlands to the detriment of those species of birds that rely on such understorey scrub for nesting.
In mid-summer the bushes are clothed in abundant pink or white flowers, and these are particularly attractive to butterflies, bees and hoverflies. As well as humans, wildlife enjoys the berries including foxes, badgers and small birds all of which will distribute the seeds in their droppings. In late summer one can often see Red Admiral butterflies feeding on the sugars of overripe berries on a sunlit bush. All in all, although it can be a pest if it gets into our gardens, the lowly bramble is a very important for conservation and wildlife. Enjoy the fruits while you can; after Old Michaelmas Day – 29 September – the devil is reputed to have spat on blackberries so should be avoided. You have been warned…
by Andrew Graham
One feature of midsummer are the bright pink flowers of the willowherbs. More than ten species of this family – the Epilobiums – are found in this country and at least three will be commonly found hereabouts. All have spear-shaped leaves and flowers with four notched petals. Although the individual flowers are quite simple what makes the plants striking is the number of blooms held on each flower spike.
The most notable in this respect is the Rosebay willowherb. This is a tall, patch-forming plant with conical masses of flowers which, when in bloom supplies splashes of magenta pink in the countryside. They are found in dense stands in any open space such as woodland clearings, roadside verges and waste ground. It is a very successful coloniser and spread vigorously as a result of the two World Wars when cleared forests and bomb and fire sites provided ideal conditions for the plant to flourish. Indeed, the plant got the nicknames Fireweed and Bombweed as a result.
It is able to achieve this colonisation by virtue of its seeds which are tiny and fitted with a silky plume of hairs which act as a sail to catch the wind. As the long, red, seed pods, each filled with hundreds of seeds, split open, so the seeds are wafted away on the slightest breeze. As each plant can produce tens of thousands of seeds, a stand beside a road or railway, will send out a blizzard of seeds on the slipstream of passing cars and trains. These feather-light seeds can then travel for miles on the breeze.
Apparently, Rosebay willowherb has ninety times more vitamin A and four times more vitamin C than oranges and some wild food enthusiasts eat very young shoots and claim it tastes like asparagus. In Russia the plant was fermented to make herbal tea which gained the nickname “Ivan Chai” in Britain.
The tallest willowherb found in Britain is the Great willowherb. It prefers damper ground alongside rivers and ditches and is softly hairy. It has fewer flowers than its Rosebay cousin but they just as brightly coloured. Its seeds are just as numerous and easily dispersed.
A smaller, common willowherb is the Broad-Leaved which has much smaller paler pink flowers but again generates a profusion of seeds.
Without needing to name the species, it is quite easy to spot willowherb seedlings when they crop up in our flowerbeds. By virtue of their extremely successful seed dispersal mechanism, they do this even though the nearest mature plants may be miles away. Fortunately, they are easy to pull up when young, but you need to do so quickly as the creeping root structure means it can spread rapidly and out compete other plants.
by Andrew Graham
Breath-taking views were our reward at the top of a climb from the history barn at Tyneham last weekend, as Andrew Graham pointed out the geology and wildlife of this beautiful stretch of coast, towards Kimmeridge to the east and Lulworth to the west.
We had a pair of ravens circling above us for a while and admired Marbled White, Wall Brown and Grayling butterflies near the paths. Several in the group helped with pointing out flowers like wild marjoram, yellow wort and rest harrow which is so named because its leaf and stalk bundle is so strong it can cause hold back a harrow. One of the favourites of the day was the Duke of Argyll's tea tree, which has honeysuckle like tendrils with purple and yellow flowers.
A picnic near the beach, watching the kayakers and hardy swimmers finished off our morning before a stroll back and an exploration amongst the Tyneham ruins for some.
We have made a change to the listing for the 20th October 2022 talk due to diary conflicts and we are pleased to welcome back Leif Bersweden with a talk called "Where the Wild Flowers Grow: my botanical journey through Britain and Ireland".
Leif Bersweden (who talked to us in 2018 about his search for all the orchids native to these islands) will tell us about his latest botanical adventure as he botanised his way through another calendar year, the joy he finds in engaging with nature, the importance of plants for our climate and our unbelievable botanical diversity.
We look forward to hearing Peter Thompson's talk on the "Bats along the River Nadder" at a later date.
Dr. Peter Inness from the Meteorology Department of Reading University opened this fascinating talk, the last in our 2021/22 series of indoor meetings, with two images of the same patch of woodland near his Oxfordshire home taken two years apart to the day. In the first, the forest floor was carpeted with bluebells; in the second merely a green carpet with a few unopened bluebell buds visible. This was one of several illustrations he used to show how short term changes in weather can impact the natural world, as he sought to distinguish this variability from longer term trends.
In her recent PhD thesis a student at Reading had used data collected by volunteers across the British Isles (recorded on the Natures Calendar website managed by the Woodland Trust) to show that across the UK the mean first flower date for bluebells was 1st of May in 2013, but 8th April in 2017, fully three weeks earlier.
Dr Inness was able to explain this difference reflected short term climate impacts, rather than long term trends. Data for bluebell first-flowering dates and temperature records for January to April in successive years show that bluebell flowering dates respond to the weather and temperature conditions during March, February and January, as the plant stems emerge and the flower buds form, rather than during the flowering period itself. And, though invertebrates react rather more rapidly than plants, similar analyses for the first appearance of orange tip butterflies and for blue tits nesting reached similar conclusions.
In 2021, by contrast, hawthorn blossom appeared a whole month later than normal, reflecting an abnormally frosty April.
Looking at longer term trends and the impact of climate change, however, Dr Inness referred to the paper published recently by the Royal Society. This used records on 406 plant species, some dating from as far back as the 18th century, to show a marked shift that took place in the 1980s. Plants are now emerging on average a whole month earlier each year than seventy years ago.
He showed projections prepared by the Meteorological office to indicate that by 2050, in every other year we will experience summer temperatures similar to those we experienced in the very hot year of 2018. And, unless significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are achieved globally, these temperatures will be the annual norm by the end of the century. And he also showed projected rainfall maps clearly showing that our winters will be wetter and summers dryer, and warned that individual rainfall events will be 29% stronger. A new UK record for of 316mm rain in a 24 hour period, set as recently as 2009, was surpassed again only six years later in 2015 with a new record of 341mm. All of which suggests that nationally there are considerable tasks and costs ahead to prepare reservoirs and infrastructure to be able to cope.
From a wildlife perspective these climate trends are complex and deeply concerning. Dr Inness gave as examples the likely impact on the relatively shallow root systems of beech trees, less well adapted to cope with summer drought conditions than deeper rooted oaks. And the impact on populations of birds such as swallows whose northerly migrations are triggered by seasonal changes in daylight hours. They may arrive at European destinations too late to feed their young on invertebrates maturing earlier as a result of warmer Spring conditions.
Troubling as these issues are, the talk was hugely valuable and timely, providing us all with deeper insight into the impact weather and climate have on the natural world around us.
by Richard Budden
For those of you who missed it, Ian Dunn, Chief Executive of Plantlife gave a sobering talk in November on the climate and biodiversity crisis, the importance of plants, the work of Plantlife and how we all have a role to play in turning the tide.
The World Economic Forum recognises that four of the top five global risks are nature and climate relevant. Some parts of the world have already experienced a 7°c increase in temperature since 1981. Tangible water stress is being felt around the world. Some of the vast underground water wells in Central Africa have dropped by 80-100 metres in the last twenty years. Over extraction is a further problem despite rain falling in higher concentrations in more extreme weather in other parts of the world. Leaders around the world are lagging behind their people in wanting to take action for the climate. Global warming if unchecked will lead to a catastrophic future for hundreds of millions of people unless radical change is achieved.
Biodiversity is in crisis with 60% of global biodiversity lost since the 1970s. As the climate warms, species loss will accelerate. The UK is already one of the most nature depleted nations. 70% of the UK is agricultural land with massive post war industrialisation contributing to catastrophic loss in biodiversity. Biodiversity is critical to our future. Yet 80% of our major global crops come from just nine species.
Plants, which make up 90% of biomass on the planet, are vital for maintaining oxygen levels on the planet: 50% comes from plants; 50% from the oceans. Much more than that, plants are vital for food, medicines, climate control, water management, flood mitigation, clothing, art and culture. The UK despite being in a temperate zone is already seeing shifts in plant habitats northwards. Changing weather patterns are disrupting the symbiotic relationship between plants and insects. Change is already more radical in countries in the developing south with impacts such as desertification underscoring our need to address social justice and inequality issues elsewhere.
Plantlife operates at a global level as well as at national UK and local levels. It contributes to the global strategy for plant conservation and has helped to identify 2200 of the highest biodiverse plant areas across the globe. Alongside Planta Europe, it is working to ensure plants are recognised in every global strategic framework as an important part of addressing climate change and biodiversity.
In the UK Plantlife looks after around 18,000 hectares spanning 23 nature reserves, the largest in Scotland. It advocates for change at a policy level working in partnership with other conservation organisations. It offers extensive best practice advice from wildflower meadows, lawns and road verges to grasslands. At a local level, its No Mow May campaign promotes measures to increase pollinators and plant species.
Visit Plantlife’s website to benefit from its online resources and talks. Read their Strategy to 2030 For a World Rich in Plants and Fungi. Join their mailing list and lobby on their campaigns for road verges, grasslands and plantlife. Support Plantlife by joining as a member or making a donation to support their invaluable conservation work which is vital for our future.
For those of you who missed Ian's talk, he has kindly given us permission to share it with you here.
Photo: Barn owl
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