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.
Jemma Batten gave the talk which had been postponed from September. She explained how she was invited to work as a consultant by the Defence Estates Licensees and Tenants Association (DELTA). These tenant farmers of the MoD-owned Salisbury Plain have set up Plain Conservation https://plainconservation.co.uk/ to work together “to enhance habitats, and protect wildlife, historic and landscape features, water and soils.”
Jemma advises on how to deliver the key conservation objectives from the detailed plans drawn up by all the stakeholders. We saw examples on-screen of all the various mapping layers of Salisbury Plain. Areas are graded from low to high priority for land management reasons or the encouragement of native flora and wildlife. We were fascinated to see that there were also Super Plans which drilled down to field level detail where named plants such as horseshoe vetch and bastard toadflax on chalk downland and pheasant’s eye on arable fields were protected by sensitive management and where the wildflower field margins would stretch to 30 metres in places.
Fertilisers are no longer used and wilding practices of leaving mown areas for seed dropping have helped contribute to the increased appearance of Britain’s rarest butterflies like the marsh fritillary, adonis blue and brown hairstreak and the shrill carder bee, Britain’s rarest bumblebee. Birds such as the bittern, hen harrier and stone curlew are also being seen more widely as the marsh and grasslands improve in quality.
We learnt that staying on top of the fast-growing scrub needs to be actioned every two months, either by tractor or by mob grazing cattle. Grazing areas are marked out by erecting temporary electric fences that need moving every 2-3 days. A time-consuming task, so some farmers set up virtual fences and use radio activated collars on the cattle which bleep when they are within feet of a virtual fence and then administer a mild electric shock if they cross over the “line”. The cows soon learn! Being a military zone, not only are there pockets of dangerous or simply inaccessible places on Salisbury Plain, but farmers also have to respond immediately to commands to move their herds, often with zero notice.
We expressed awe in the face of what is obviously a complicated and heavily monitored way of farming on Salisbury Plain. There is no doubt that these chalk grasslands have benefited from the strict measures put in place over the last 20 years to bring a healthier bio-diversity to an area that, though never having had artificial fertilisers or pesticides, has in the past been neglected.
The passion for conservation runs deep with these farmers, so take a look at their DELTA website to learn more about their work https://plainconservation.co.uk/
Please refer to the Gov.UK website for guidance about the public access of Salisbury Plain and always ring 01980 674763 before a visit. An answer phone recording gives up to date information on areas open for public access.
Organiser: Andrew Graham
Hambledon Hill is the spectacular 192 metre (630 feet) high Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) owned and managed by the National Trust, southwest of Iwerne Minster. The chalk grassland here is really good for wildflowers and insects, especially butterflies. The view from the summit provides a real sense of this site’s prehistoric strategic importance and why it’s considered one of the finest Iron Age hillforts in Dorset.
For more on Hambledon Hill itself, go to the National Trust's pages.
This is Andrew's report on the day:
Twelve members spent a pleasant few hours scaling the heights of Hambledon Hill's iron age earthworks to look for butterflies and enjoy the flora.
We saw a total of 17 butterfly species. A small, sheltered quarry on the side of the hill held plenty of butterflies which, because it was not very warm, were not flying much but basking on flowerheads so making them relatively easy to look at and photograph. Several Chalkhill Blues were a highlight as this species is, unfortunately, becoming less common and isn't seen in the Tisbury area.
A welcome surprise sighting was a Clouded Yellow, a migrant species one or two of which are seen on Hambledon each year, but it is a matter of luck whether you bump into them. We were however disappointed not to see the Adonis Blue, but the second brood of this species doesn't seem to have emerged yet.
We also enjoyed looking at the very diverse chalkland flora. In places on the steep west-facing slopes, the herbs are so prolific that hardly any grass could be seen. The Carline Thistle, with its bronzy yellow blooms which look like dried flowers, was a particular hit. The full list of flora is here, with thanks to Debbie Carter and Jill Preston.
We gradually climbed the slopes of the hill, entered the fort through the banks and ditches of the entrance at the south-western end, then climbed to the neolithic long barrow on the summit. From here we could see across Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset, and could pick out various landmarks, towns and villages. The descent back to the base of the hill was perhaps the toughest part of the walk, the steep path being particularly challenging. Mercifully, although the breeze on the top was stiff, it stayed dry and the temperature made for a very pleasant walk.
The key concept that I took away from Neil's talk was that he has moved beyond 'sustainability' to 'regeneration'. We tended to look at the land and think that was how it always was and sustainability would keep it that way, but that's not enough.
This 'regenerative' approach was inspired by The Serengeti Rules, the book by Sean B Carrol subsequently made into a film, that explored the discovery that environmentalists today may be able to “upgrade” damaged ecosystems by understanding the rules that govern them. Nature was already doing everything that we needed and for a while we thought we knew better, but now it's becoming evident that's not the case.
And regenerative agriculture isn't just an attractive alternative to present methods. If we're to reduce or do without the chemicals which have been so damaging, we have to find substitutes and this may provide them.
The basic principle is that using metal to cultivate the soil is damaging (we already know of 'no dig' for our gardens and allotments).
One alternative is 'Mob grazing' cattle on a small area at a time, with roughly a third of the pasture eaten and the same proportions trampled and left untouched. Neil pointed out that cattle have 'a mower at the front and a muck spreader at the back,' which puts intense pressure on the pasture for a short time but it then dies back and returns carbon to the soil, significantly reducing greenhouse gases from agriculture. The lush green pasture we're used to seeing becomes instead a flower-rich meadow, with butterflies everywhere in summer and noisy with the buzzing of bees.
This is known as permaculture, an approach to land management that adopts arrangements observed in flourishing natural ecosystems. The pasture is sown to provide more diversity – the first herbal ley includes chicory with roots that penetrate 8-10 feet down and so help restructure the soil and improve drainage, so is particularly useful for marginal, poorly-draining land. As many as 12-14 different grasses are included, along with clover, sainfoin, horse-shoe vetch and other herbs. Click on the photos to enlarge and see the captions.
It is in contrast to monoculture farming, which we've been used to until recently, growing only one type of crop at a time on a specific field.
The other advantage of mob grazing is that better drainage means that cattle can often be out all year round instead of having to be brought in and fed on corn produced with a high level of carbon input. They are also much healthier so need fewer antibiotics, worming only for lungworm (and there are even alternatives for that) because the pasture includes the natural wormer plantain, and sainfoin which is an effective anti-asthmatic. Although the pasture is slightly less productive, because no artificial fertiliser or medications are needed costs are reduced so on balance it is financially beneficial. And that mass of insects we used to see on cow pats but which disappeared with increasing use particularly of wormers, will now be back – and re-joining the food chain!
Under the old system, calves would have been brought into the sheds at 7-10 months and fed artificially, becoming prone to disease so requiring antibiotics and vaccinations (although some are still legally required).
And what is the logic of growing wheat using fertilisers and other chemicals to feed cattle shut up in sheds, when all they actually need is good quality pasture out of doors?
The herds build up naturally - calves stay with their mothers until they are weaned a couple of months before the next birth, and females stay in the herd which now includes probably around five generations including aunts and uncles. After their second winter the steers will come to Tisbury for 'finishing' before slaughter. Some of the meat is sold through the website pastureforlife.org and it is also available at a London butcher. It obtains a premium price because this almost 'wild' beef is produced organically on a single farm (ie 'home bred') and is nearly as rich in eg Omega 3 as fish.
This regenerative approach can probably be used not just for beef cattle so some farmers are trying it out for dairy as well, milking just once a day and often selling through farm vending machines. It may also work for poultry and is becoming quite widespread in the US, as it makes good economical use of the land. One of the leaders there is Joel Salatin (polyfacefarms.com). (We have previously been referred to the films Kiss the ground and Living Soil, similarly encouraging as to what can be and is being done 'across the Pond'.)
Finally, asked how the new Environmental Land Management System (ELMS) of financial support for agriculture would work, Neil confirmed that regenerative farming complied with its requirements but it would just take time to build up.
Ever wondered why and how bindweed climbs one way and honeysuckle the other? Flanders & Swan had their own ideas of course in their classic 'Misalliance' song but to understand what's really going on, Andrew Graham has an explanation - go to our Field Trips page - something to watch out for in the hedgerows along our fields and lanes.
Photo: Barn owl
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