Bridge

Nothing much to see

Pett Valley View. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Nothing much to see

Up on The Butts
one morning in mid-September
and what is there to see?

Nothing much
but the sun
and the waning visage of last night’s moon
a fleet of white cumuli drifting across the blue
and the shadows of them racing
like spectres over stubble fields
of corduroy and tweed

At the hedgerow
an audience of animated trees
jostles in the wind
applauding a restless sea of golden grass
that glistens and shimmers in the sunlight
as it rolls in wave on wave
towards a continent
of purple flowered marjoram

There on the distant hill
the Mansfield orchards
pattern the slope
with neat little rows of apricot
apple and plum
and the ancient trees of Whitehill Wood
define the far horizon

In the valley
a working party of rooks
has landed on the stubble
to glean spilled grain from the mud
and above them a buzzard
circles
watching their every move

Up here in the tall grass
at the style
a bank vole nibbles at a sloe
and a few heads of oxeye daisy
turn their faces to the sun
as if refuting the end of summer

No
there’s nothing much to see here
nothing much to see here at all.

*All content on this website is © Copyright Mike Burns-Stark 2017
for BridgeNature.org. All rights reserved.

Dog days and a harvest

Harvesting oats, Bridge 2017. (Picture copyright © BridgeNature.org 2017)

Historically, the term ‘dog days’ refers to the hot, sultry period of summer between early July and the beginning of September when plants have reached maturity, their growth is over and they begin to decline. This is the season of the grain harvest. In ancient times the period was recognised by the rising of Sirius the Dog Star.

Last weekend (19-20 August), the unpredictable ‘cloudy, sunny, cloudy, sunny’ dog days of summer 2017 did at least stay mainly dry, giving local farmers the opportunity to gather in the oat crop which has been ripening in recent weeks in the fields surrounding our village. The hum of the combine, the roar of tractors and the heavy thumping of empty trailers coming to be filled with the grain could be heard throughout the weekend, and sometimes late into the evening. These are the sounds of harvesting on the modern farm; and for all who do have “time to stand and stare”, as William Henry Davies put it, the modern ritual of gathering in the crop is a fascinating display of 21st century farming efficiency in our living, working landscape.

Yet it is worth pausing further, to see just who it is that may be overseeing these mighty, grunting, monster-machines that gobble up the golden harvest: when we look a little closer, we may be in for a surprise…

Zooming in on the picture reveals the surprising supervisor overseeing the harvest. (Picture copyright © BridgeNature.org 2017)

Dog star rising! Throughout the work, the little dog pictured watched attentively to all that was going on; and when there were any technical delays, he observed from the cab steps of the combine harvester, like a captain at the bridge, barking occasionally to indicate that progress should be made with all due haste.

Ah, this farming life: the great outdoors, the sunshine, the scent of the harvest and the warm summer breeze in your ears… (Picture copyright © BridgeNature.org 2017)

Throughout the pleasantly temperate weekend, local residents were out and about in the fields, often pausing on their walks to watch the work in progress and capture photographs. BridgeNature.org will present more of our own pictures from the harvest in due course. We express our thanks to the combine and tractor crews for their tolerance.

*Readers please note: the dog pictured remained in a place of safety during the harvesting operation and was not interfering with the controlling mechanisms of the machinery in movement.

At the end of the working day

End of the line. Simmentals on Great Pett Farm, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Few of us can say that in our working days’ toils we nurtured and maintained the very countryside which formed the backdrop to our village life; but such is the working life of the local farmer, and it leaves a legacy in landscape which will remain forever in the minds of all those who experienced it, as a place of childhood adventure, youthful rites of passage, happy times with family and tranquil contemplative walks in scenes of rural idyll through all the seasons of the passing years.

As our village farmer Brian Mummery opens the field gate to his herd of Simmental cattle for the final time and retires from his working days, the people of Bridge should be immensely grateful to a man who has contributed so much over so many years to our local landscape and ecology.

The fields, the hillsides, the grass and the greening hedgerows will of course live on (if we don’t build on them!) but they will not be the same. The rural landscape of the Nailbourne Valley is not some magically self-perpetuating garden, as people may like to assume. Our countryside is managed with planning and hard work, and where it appears beautiful to us, that aesthetic value has often been achieved with careful consideration, creative imagination and a certain love for the land. Things may be very different in the future. Farming is still, without question, the most important industry in this country and over the years Great Pett Farm, our local farm, has played its part in feeding the nation with pasture-fed beef, oats, wheat, barley, beans and other crops too; but as we lose more and more of our precious farmland to housing, our local fields may be subject to new initiatives in intensive agriculture in the years to come.

Masterpiece in a meadow. Wild flowers on chalk down at the Butts, June 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

In recent decades, an increasing awareness of the importance of biodiversity has been a new imperative for farming in the developed world, and nowhere is this more important than here in our own little sector of the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, an agricultural region with the same status as a National Park. Here Mr Mummery has maintained our local farmland to high modern ecological standards while creating and presenting a landscape of great visual charm. He has restored chalkstream water meadow, maintained lowland cattle pasture, planted hedges, provided wildlife havens, created wild flower meadows and revitalised the biodiversity of the grassy chalkland downs for which this area is famous. What is more, he has allowed us, the local people, free access to enjoy it all. It is a landscape of which many of us are very fond and very proud: we enjoy it, we treasure it, and, at the end of our farmer’s working days, the very least we can all do is say “thank you”.

 

The Common Oat, too base for Rome

Oats growing in the Bridge area, 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

This year several of the arable fields around Bridge, Bishopsbourne and Pett Bottom have been planted with Oats, which have grown rapidly over the last month or so and are now turning colour from green to the golden hue of the harvest.

While barley, wheat and rye can sometimes be difficult to differentiate in the field, the Oat plant has a very distinctive shape known as a ‘panicle’, it presents as an array of flower heads hanging on delicate branches coming from a single stem. The flower heads or ‘spikelets’ hanging from it may number fifty or so and are formed of a husk, shaped like an upturned V, with two or three seeds or ‘groats’ held underneath.

Oat spikelet showing the V shaped floret husk and groats within. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

The outer casings of these groats (without the V shaped husk) are known as ‘oat bran’: they are removed, ground up and used as a valued food ingredient. What remains of the groats is crushed or rolled, and referred to as ‘oatmeal’. While this is well known as the main ingredient of porridge (a dish first described by the Ancient Greeks), only about 5% of oats are grown for human consumption. Most are grown as an animal feed and feed additive, particularly for chickens, cattle and horses, and it was as animal fodder that Oats were first introduced to Britain by the conquering Romans who, apparently, regarded the plant as unfit for human consumption. This, much to the amusement of the Scots, who adopted the Oat for their porridge and, even today, like to remind us that those Roman fussy eaters never successfully invaded Scotland.

The oat panicle. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Unlike barley, which demands hot weather, Oats prefer a cooler, wetter climate. In long periods of hot sun the plants will go dormant, so early planting and milder summers with spells of rain are beneficial. This is one reason why Oats became a traditional and popular crop in Scotland and the rest of Northern Europe, but they have been less commonly grown in Africa and India, although new Oat varieties are now being developed to grow in these regions.

 

 

On Lady’s Bedstraw

Lady’s Bedstraw, The Butts, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

In the last few weeks, that bright and breezy stretch of the Kent Downs up beside the old railway known locally as ‘The Butts’ has been a colourful place, as yellow Lady’s Bedstraw lies across the hillside under a perfect blue of English summer sky.

The plant is so named because it retains a soft springiness after drying, which made it an ideal filling for mattresses, and it was used traditionally for that purpose before modern manufacturing. One might even argue that it was better suited than some of the materials that replaced it, because the pleasant honeyed scent of the flowers aids sleep and eradicates fleas.

Lady’s Bedstraw is a common plant of heathland and meadow across Europe, and it is perfect for the chalk grasslands of the Kent Downs. A wonderful plant for pollinators, it attracts bees, butterflies, caterpillars and all those who have an appreciation for the downs in their finest summer glory.

The lure of the Bee Orchid

Humble Bee Orchid, secret location, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Currently flowering in a secret location up on the downs are a few specimens of the astonishingly exotic and oddly named Humble Bee Orchid: ‘Humble’ being an alternative for ‘Bumble’, although this has now generally been dropped in favour of the more simple name Bee Orchid. Humble Bee Orchid is a more apt name though, because it gives us a clue about what this flower is, and isn’t, for all is not quite what it seems.

This is a flower which pretends to be a bee visiting another far less showy bloom. From the perspective of certain male bees, it looks like a female bee, it smells like a female bee and, if they snuggle up close, it even feels furry like a female bee; but of course it isn’t, it’s just a clever imposter flower tricking male bees into close contact so that its pollen will get attached to the visitor and passed on to other orchids of the same variety.

This is Nature and evolutionary adaptation being very clever, in fact so ingenious that it’s immensely disappointing to learn that the great deception is totally wasted in Britain because we don’t have the right kind of bees living here to make the pollination work, so British Bee Orchids have further adapted to be self-pollinating.

Nevertheless, the little wild Humble Bee Orchid is an intriguing and beautiful sight to see up on the downs, but, just like a bee, you need to get up close and personal in order to appreciate its finer details.

Humble Bee Orchid, secret location, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Summer and the Salsify

Salsify growing wild along Western Avenue. Summer 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

As the summer of 2017 arrives, residents of Western Avenue and the closes leading off may have noticed a number of tall purple flowers blooming in the communal gardens and verges right along the road. These are Purple Salsify. The flowers themselves closely resemble Goatsbeard, but its flowers are yellow: hence Salsify is sometimes referred to as Purple Goatsbeard. Here on BridgeNature.org, we prefer to use these common English or colloquial names rather than formal scientific classifications, but we can’t resist mentioning Salisfy’s distinctive Latin name, Tragopogon porrifolius, which means ‘Goat’s beard with the leaves of a leek’.

The plants along Western Avenue appear to be growing wild and may be naturalised, but Salsify is of European mainland origin and was brought here, probably in the 16th century, for its blooms, which make an attractive garden feature en masse. After flowering, the heads transform into rough fluff balls of seeds which are something like the familiar seed head of the dandelion, but less spherical and somewhat larger.

Salsify seed head, Western Avenue, June. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Historically Salsify has also been cultivated across Europe as a root vegetable. It is in the same family as the parsnip, but the Salsify root is much thinner and apparently tastes a little of oysters. Although this may sound tempting, we urge those who fancy trying to cook some not to attempt to pull them up: the roots are extremely difficult to retrieve from the ground and you will simply end up snapping the stem and spoiling the display for the rest of us. Let us all just enjoy this attractive and intriguing new feature of our avenue.

 

A journey on the Mayflower

Common Hawthorns in bloom, Bridge Meadows, May. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

The Hawthorn tree is one of our more familiar hedgerow trees, but we also see it growing locally alone in a field or on a riverbank, and when we do we can recognise it by its rugged, stunted shape and resilient attitude, its thorns, its bright red autumn berries and its white, or sometimes pink, spring blossom.

Common Hawthorn in flower, Bridge, May. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Those we see in the fields around Bridge are more generally the Common Hawthorn, but there is another less ubiquitous variety, the Midland Hawthorn, which is the true English species of this tree. I have been on a quest to find an example of it in our local area for about five years now, but, throughout that time, my search has been hampered by one small technical problem: I didn’t really know what made it discernibly different. Tree guides waffle on confusingly about leaf shape: the Midland’s leaves are less deeply cut than the Common, the Midland’s lobes are more forward pointing; but try looking at the leaves on just one Common Hawthorn and they are so variable throughout the tree that one could be looking at either species.

However, armed with a new differentiation strategy I have now identified one Midland Hawthorn(1) in a local meadow. From a distance of about three feet the tree is virtually impossible to tell apart from the Common Hawthorns in the same hedgerow, but get up close, examine a flower and the difference becomes apparent. Common Hawthorn has just one green style amidst the stamens in its flower, while Midland Hawthorn has two, or possibly three. On examination the leaf shape of this tree is as described in the tree guides, but it would be very difficult to identify the tree on that basis alone.

Midland Hawthorn flowers, Bridge Meadows, on an evening in May. Note the two green styles at the centre of the flower. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

So, to my great delight, after years searching, I have found my Midland Hawthorn, right here in a meadow behind my home. Why does it matter? Those who have to ask may never understand, but for the amateur naturalist such quests are the learning journeys which make life and the natural world that little bit more interesting. Furthermore, the Midland Hawthorn is hugely significant in our history: its flower is the Mayflower, for centuries the very emblem of May in rural England. It symbolises hope and new beginning. In the superstitious times of the 17th century, many ships were called Mayflower, but it turned out to be a wonderfully apt name for a little ship sailing out into the New World in 1620 with a group of pilgrims on their own journey of hope, personal development and new beginning.

(1) As with many trees, Midland and Common Hawthorns do hybridise, so this may not strictly be a genetically pure example of the Midland species.

 

Biodiversity on the bund

Spring 2017 and the bund along the Nailbourne has been strimmed; but is it necessary at this time of year? Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Those who regularly stroll in Bridge Meadows will have noticed that, in the last days of April, the flood prevention bund which runs along the bank of the Nailbourne between the ford on Mill Lane and Bridge Place was strimmed to bring the long grass and wild plants down to ground level. This was maintenance work done by the Environment Agency in what was set to become an annual spring cutting programme to prevent the growth on the bund becoming too high and too permanent. Access for regular inspection of the bund is important and it therefore needs to be kept in manageable condition.

However, BridgeNature.org has been in contact with the EA to see if the annual cutting of the wild plants on the bund can be rescheduled for autumn. This would preserve an important wild habitat for many riverside plants and creatures through the spring and summer, while there is minimal risk of flooding.

We are pleased to report that experts at the EA have been most open to the idea of rescheduling the maintenance to improve wildlife biodiversity through the summer. Strimming will now cease in the spring and become an annual event each September. The work will include a ‘preamble’ along the bund to inspect the area for wildlife and trigger escapes before the area is strimmed. The inspection will also provide an important pre-winter check for the bund itself.

As a further consequence of the initiative, BridgeNature.org has been invited to assist the EA by monitoring wildlife along the Nailbourne and the bund so that measures can be put in place to safeguard specific animals or rare plants should it be deemed necessary. If members of the public become aware of any particular issues of concern we would be grateful to hear about them.

 

Three Willows and a bridge

Willows near Bridge Tennis Club, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Canterbury City Council have recently granted permission for the pollarding of three Willow trees on the banks of the Nailbourne at the southern edge of Bridge Recreation Ground where it meets Patrixbourne Road.

BridgeNature.org is not generally keen on the pollarding of ‘amenity’ trees: amenity in this sense means trees which are planted to enhance the appearance of a particular public space rather than for timber producing purposes. Pollarding is an ancient procedure which strips a tree entirely of its branches, thereby leaving just the trunk standing as a stump, which, if the work has been done correctly on the right type of tree and at the right time of year, will grow new branches over the next few years. In olden times whole stretches of woodland were pollarded to provide a regular supply of young branches for fuel or fencing. Riverbank Willows were often pollarded for flexible ‘withies’ for basket making, furniture and other products.

It is sometimes argued that pollarding rejuvenates a tree by encouraging new growth, but the suggestion remains controversial. Another more certain consequence of this method, if practiced regularly, is that the subject tree is restricted in height and span so that it takes up less space. For this reason the procedure is often adopted as a method of controlling trees in urban landscapes where space is limited; but the results can look brutal and unnatural to those who love trees.

All this begs the question, why pollard Willows on the banks of the Nailbourne in Bridge in 2017? We think this may be more to do with tradition rather than anything else, but there is a technical argument in favour too. Left to their own devices Willows will grow into very large trees which cast a lot of shade. They grow thick upper limbs, but the wood is weak and liable to crack and fall, particularly on the Crack Willow, which is how that tree gets its name. This is obviously potentially dangerous and unsightly on an amenity tree. As a measure to reduce such risks, Willows are often pollarded and these trees tend to accept the procedure better than most.

Some may feel the Recreation Ground’s Willows are too big and cast too much shade. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.2017.

We have great faith in local tree surgeon Paul Davies, who will be supervising the work this year, as he did the same work to the same trees some 30 years ago. We understand the pollarding will be staggered so that all three Willows are not stripped at the same time. In his role as Parish Councilor, Paul Davies will also be overseeing shrub pruning and maintenance around Bridge Tennis Club, and he has  already stated that he is keen to ensure work does not progress while wild birds’ nests are in use in the area. We thank him for this considered and responsible approach.

In the same location, beside today’s dry Nailbourne, the old bridge to the Recreation Ground is under consideration for replacement. We don’t know what sort of bridge will be installed, but in olden times a new bridge would have been constructed from local timber or stone, and some ancient peoples created bridges out of saplings which would be trained to form a living tree across the water. Ironically the best tree for this kind of project is… Willow.