I know a place where the wild thyme blows …
Where you can find it, chalk grassland is at its most romantic and sensual now. The short, springy turf is a riot of richly fragrant colour, alive with its associated butterflies, bees, other insects and birds.
The sward is necessarily low, chalk plants have adapted to an environment ‘stressed’ by dry conditions, thin nutrient-poor soils and close grazing animals; they tend to be low, mat-forming with rosettes of ground hugging leaves. Bird’s foot trefoil, kidney and horseshoe vetch, ladies and hedge bedstraws ramble fragrantly against a red, haze of sheep’s sorrel. There are pyramidal orchids, fine fairy flax, impossibly delicate quaking grass, squinancywort and chalk milkwort. And oh! The wild herbs and their smell that rise when you walk through them – or lie down and push your face into! Salad burnet gives off a cucumber-scent, and wild basil, marjoram, humped pillows of wild thyme and calamint evoke a kitchen garden. With skylarks. And skippers, and marbled whites … and, occasionally in the evenings, the haunting wail of a stone curlew.
Astonishingly, it is a habitat comparable with the diversity of a rainforest, albeit a low, calcareous one, with up to 40 plant species in one square metre. Of course, we’ve lost most of this habitat (more than 97%) because we do not seem to value or need it: but it is here in pockets, on some of our hills and in vast swathes across Salisbury Plain.
On my own hills, chalk grasslands are a hit and miss affair: all too often, the sheep are left on the walks too long, or folded on at the wrong time of year and what was a glorious carnival of colour, bees and butterflies last year, is a disappointment of yellow grasses, creeping thistle, carded wool and sheep poo.
Last week, I learnt about the recreation of this unique habitat and sharpened up my ID skills, learning from RSPB’s Wiltshire Reserves Manager, Patrick Cashman and Flora Locale’s renowned ecologist and writer for British Wildlife, Sue Everett. Little Idmiston’s village hall resembled a deranged flower arranging class. Wildflowers tumbled out of jam jars, catering-size teapots, pyrex glasses from the 1960’s and chipped, vintage china.
And then, we were out on the downs, the flowers jumping out at me with a new certainty as if I’d been shown a new colour. Most are familiars, but each year I forget names and confuse species. We spent a blissful afternoon among the bees, studying flowers with books, keys and hand lenses.
Here were clustered bellflower, centaury and hawkbits, wild mignonette and broomrape when, just 6yrs ago, there was just barley and its associated pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Meadow vetchling tangles the grasses with the curl of tendrils, the two halves of its sun-blackened seed pods joined like slim, earthly mussels, the empty grey-and-white insides satiny and striated where the pod held onto its peas, barred like a sparrowhawk’s breast, or tiny pairs of spotted woodpecker feathers.
Sandwiched between the MOD’s shelled and tank-tracked (but otherwise untouched) grasslands of Porton Down and Salisbury Plain, Winterbourne Downs was bought by the RSPB in 2006 to link the two landscapes and expand the habitat. Slowly, with a combination of stripping nutrients by cropping, grazing and then reseeding from local meadows using the ‘green hay’ method, or brush collecting and broadcasting, the meadows are returning. And it is a gradual transformation: year 1 & 2 will be bare, patchy and disappointing, before thickening, temporarily, with plants of ‘disturbed soils’. When these have progressed through, the chalk plants begin to settle and grow away; fungal rings return and with them, the orchids.
A single, isolated hectare of grassland trapped in a sea of cereal has become a tide of 160 colourful hectares, swelling the gap between two wild land masses: and the wildlife is coming back with it. You cannot put a price on that.