Nature Notes

Pulling Ragwort.

IMG_3858I love the ritual of pulling ragwort. We make a heap of it, slapping bites from horse flies with the clap of a flat palm and a smear of our own blood.

For a few weeks, I’ll wear an unscrubbable half-moon of dark juices beneath my fingernails and know its July stink and bitter-green taste on my fingers again.

Pulling ragwort like this probably produces more rosettes next year; but with the constant grazing of horses and rabbits in a small field, it’s all we’ve got. There is plenty of it on the other side of the fence, out of reach of the mare’s long neck. It’s a vital food source for many insects, exclusively 30, including the caterpillars of the stripy cinnabar and ruby tiger moth.

High summer and there is a brick-dust tinge on the purple sycamores. Together with the wine-stained leaves of the copper beech they make a canopy of blackcurrant cordial, a damson green light that filters like red wine through bottle green glass.

IMG_3846Underneath them, the hayfield is pale and shorn, the windrows drying, spread by the tedder. Kestrels hover, looking for exposed voles and mice. In the stiff wind, there is the seashore roar from the poplars and dust devils in the farmyard: white whirlwinds whipped into chalky spectres.

The beanfield lowers and bows repeatedly before the wind, the soft green leaves showing their pale undersides. When the field yields, it reveals white and purple-irised flowers like eyes and the ears of fallow deer. Somewhere in there too, are a brood of yellow wagtail.

Among the wheat ears a roe doe emerges with her white-spotted twins. They step out awkwardly on stilt legs they still haven’t got used to.

I scythe a path through nettles. I love the swing, swish and fall; a kinder collapse. Behind me, the tractor mower has ‘tidied’ a patch of grass, bedstraws, orchids, mice, moths, caterpillars and grass snakes and left a thick mulch of untedded, unintended hay that will rot and fertilise the ground for more docks and nettles to outcompete the flowers each year. I am not advocating scything it of course; but it didn’t need cutting. Further on, the flail and its angry arm of thrashing chains has shredded the hedge again, spilling bird nests down its newly shorn frontage. It is hard to tell whether they were in use, they are so utterly smashed.IMG_3856

I wonder what those desperate farm workers, rioting here 186 years ago, breaking farm machinery under the banner ‘Captain Swing’ would make of this mess? This diminishing, year on year, of all the species they watched to mark their year? The silver bells of the oats shiver in the evening light. In the wind what ghosts?

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5 thoughts on “Nature Notes

  1. Flailing the hedges seems so lazy and seems to do so much damage. I went to the Golden Cap Estate in Dorset last week where they still have traditional hedges and flower-rich hay meadows and the diversity of species was striking.

  2. How lovely Philip! I think what really gets me is that just a small part of hedgerow really needs doing and certainly not at this time of year! They are routinely flailed until they are just thin skeletons and then they are replanted!

  3. A very eerie ending with the link to the past of Captain Swing and the terrible decline of so many species. I live in some hope that there may be a stronger move to environmental stewardship especially if the public finally see farm subsidies as public money and the need for accountability as well as hardship payments.

    • Thank you – and so very well put. I did not vote for Brexit and do not want it at all, but I hope like you for a determined move to increase environmental stewardship and accountability – as well as making sure we look after the farmers who farm well!

      • Yes, I wrote about that as my response to the vote. It would seem to be a matter of importance for many people and just perhaps with some pressure this government might get this one on track. It’s a little daunting with whose in charge of the environment though.

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