Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Rain boosts lush vegetation

The mix of sunshine and showers that has been a steady feature of the summer has benefited many plants. The meadows, woodland rides and patches of urban green-space have developed unchecked into thick swards, green and lush. In places, umbellifers have reached up beyond head height to stand sentinel over a sward dotted with the soft purple touches of thistle and the dusty grey smudges of flowering nettles.

Associated with those patches of rank grassland that sit on the dampest ground – everything seems damp underfoot at the moment – is a strong and sweetly bitter scent. It is a smell that I know well from my days of working in wet meadows but something I have never tied down to a particular plant. Curiously, on muggy summer mornings the scent was also associated with the voles that I used to handle as part of a project looking at small mammals and barn owls on a North Norfolk estate. The voles were caught in live traps and I often pondered how they picked the scent up from the vegetation – it was, after all, a very different smell from that which I would normally associate with a small mammal.

Many of the dense swards to have grown up over recent weeks have become impenetrable, a tangle of cleavers having grown through other vegetation and binding it together. This has created little patches to which we humans no longer have access. Areas where dogs were exercised earlier in the year are now left to the myriad of plant feeding insects, the foraging shrews and voles and the occasional nesting whitethroat.

While these areas are rich in wildlife I have heard complaints from some of the passers-by who suggest that they look untidy. The aesthetics of a manicured piece of amenity grassland seem, for many of us, to be more important than the wildlife value that comes with leaving the grass to develop into a richer and more varied sward. You see the same thing in the countryside, where intensive pasture with its fertilisers and other inputs becomes the definition of a green and pleasant land, while neighbouring rough grassland, less vividly coloured, is regarding as unkempt, weedy and of little value.

When I am passing one of the urban green-spaces and happen to see the council’s hired mower team nearby I shudder, wondering if today is the day that they will ‘tame’ the sward, cutting it back and cutting back the opportunities for the creatures that have made it their home over recent weeks. I don’t know, but maybe the council has become more enlightened, the locals more accepting and willing to give nature a chance under its own terms instead of ours.

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