Conservation & Environment

The most important flower

A Common Ivy flower cluster growing at The Butts, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

If we were to try to consider which one of our native flowers was the most important, which would it be? It’s an impossible question to answer, because we would have to ask: most important for what, and for whom? The rose, with so much history attached to its symbolism, might be considered our most important flower culturally; yet the daisy family Asteraceae is by far the most significant numerically, with over 22,000 species in the clan; and what of the flowering trees, where would we be without them? But ask an apiologist which is our most important flower, and the answer may surprise you; for this ‘one who studies bees’ might say with some certainty that it is the flower of the Common Ivy.

Bees thrive in summer, gathering nectar from flowers of all kinds and incidentally taking with them pollen from the male anther of one flower to the female stigma of another in the process of pollination which, in turn, allows fertilisation for the reproduction of our plants. In this respect, bumblebees, honey bees, butterflies, hover flies and many other insects do an immensely important job in our countryside: every year, simply by going from flower to flower in search of nectar (their primary food) they cause nearly all of our plants, most of our trees and most of our crops to produce seeds for next year. But what happens in mid-September and October when all the pretty summer flowers have died?

A wild bee on a Common Ivy flower cluster, Mill Lane, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Common Ivy blooms later in the year than most other plants, so it is virtually the only source of autumn nectar for bees and other insects. And what a good source of nourishment it is: Ivy grows everywhere and its flowers, which are tiny, yellow-green, and grow in spherical clusters, are laden with a rich nectar with a very high sugar content: the main ingredient these insects need. Some scientists have suggested that, without a final feed up on Ivy, most of our bees and many of our insects simply could not survive from late summer through to the next spring; and with no bees to pollinate the plants in spring, our environment would face devastation.

Common Ivy is often regarded as a garden nuisance: no one buys it for its blooms; few people even realise that it bears flowers, and certainly no one puts them on show in a vase. But this unassuming little bloom, which forms the flower-balls of the Common Ivy, just might be our countryside’s most important flower of all.

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.

A pause, in the history of the Comma

Comma butterfly, The Butts, Bridge 2015. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

The photograph above shows one of our most beautiful butterflies, the Comma, pictured near the old railway at Bridge in 2015. Another has just been recorded near the same location in August 2017.

For hundreds of years at least, the Comma was one of the more common species of butterfly in Britain: its larvae fed on hop plants, and from the 15th to the 19th century, hops grown for brewing beer were a hugely significant crop in the British countryside. In those centuries, when sources of clean fresh drinking water were unreliable, beer, which is effectively water sterilised and flavoured by the brewing process, was the main source of daily fluid intake for the British population. In consequence the Comma butterfly would have had vast acreages of hop plantations on which to feed.

However, by the end of the 19th century, cheaply imported hops, increased taxation, changes in public tastes, and the indomitable popularity of tea (made with boiled water), meant that British hop growing went into massive decline: huge swathes of hop fields were pulled up, and the Comma butterfly, which relied on them, very nearly became extinct. It survived only in parts of Wales and in the remaining hop fields of Kent.

Yet astonishingly, just as the British people had changed their diet, the Comma seems to have gradually changed its diet too, and by adapting to eating nettles instead of hops it began to thrive again, right across the south of England. By the end of the 20th century the Comma had regained its place in the list of our most common butterflies: it was heralded by conservationists as one of the great comeback species of the natural world.

The 21st century has not been kind to British butterflies: huge areas of habitat have been lost and numbers have fallen. Yet once more the Comma appeared to defy decline, this time by increasing its geographical range across the country: it moved further north; the conservationists were thrilled. But in the annual national butterfly count of August 2016, run by the charity Butterfly Conservation, sightings of this beautiful butterfly suddenly fell by 46%*. Is this the beginning of the end, or just another pause in the history of the Comma? Only time will tell; so we too take a pause, as we wait for the results of this year’s count.

* In the same year a number of other butterfly species also saw huge declines.

Beauty confined

Goldfinch, Ford Close, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

We think the caged birds sing, when indeed they cry.”
John Webster

Although Goldfinches are quite rare in other parts of the country, they can be seen frequently in and around the village of Bridge, which is why one of these birds features in the logo of BridgeNature.org. Today we enjoy seeing them flying in family flocks out in the wild where they belong, but if ever we need a symbol of mankind’s yearning to possess that which has a right to be free, there is none better than the Goldfinch. Sadly its striking appearance and uniqueness have been its downfall: throughout history it has been treasured for its beauty and its song, and we know that in pursuit of treasure mankind is often at its most ruthless. Historically Goldfinches have been captured and caged in large numbers.

The poet and hymn writer William Cowper, who owned two caged Goldfinches which had been bred from captured wild birds, wrote of them thus:

“They sang as blithe as finches sing
That flutter loose on golden wing,
And frolic where they list;
Strangers to liberty, ’tis true,
But that delight they never knew,
And therefore never missed.” (1)

His verse demonstrates an attitude that still persists today: “If all an animal knows is cruelty, then you are quite justified in continuing to be cruel to it, because it doesn’t know any different”. This is an expedient excuse in defence of an irresponsible attitude. Of course the morality of what we do should be judged on what we know, not what we think our helpless victims know. That excuse was expressed here, ironically, by an intelligent, sensitive man who became a passionate advocate in the movements to end the human slave trade and cruelty to animals. How to tread the difficult moral ground of what constitutes cruelty is something William Cowper pondered a great deal; but it perhaps sums up the confusion and conflicting values of his time to note that he wrote some very thoughtful letters and poems reflecting on the plight of his imprisoned Goldfinches, and even put them in the same cage so that they would have company, yet he continued to keep them in captivity for the sake of his own entertainment (2).

By the later half of the 19th century the fashion for owning a caged bird, particularly a Goldfinch, reached a peak and thousands of wild birds were trapped annually. One common method of capture was to spread a glue called ‘birdlime’ onto branches near a food source. Birds would seek out the food and land in the glue.

Towards the end of that same century, ending these callous practices against Goldfinches became a primary objective of a newly formed group called The Society for the Protection of Birds, and their campaigns inspired the ‘Protection of Birds Act 1872’, the first law which imposed some concept of protection for wild birds upon an ignorant, disinterested British population. The group was later given a royal charter and became the RSPB as we still know it today.

Despite greater awareness of the issues in modern times, owning a caged bird, particularly a budgerigar, was still a very popular practice in 1960s Britain, almost a hundred years later. Today attitudes are much changed, but, astonishingly, it still goes on and the breeding and exporting of caged finches, including Goldfinches, is still perfectly legal. Capturing and selling wild birds is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but that still goes on too. Birdlime is still openly used to trap wild birds in Spain, despite EU efforts to ban it.

(1) William Cowper, ‘The faithful Bird’.
(2) Refers to: William Cowper, Letter to the Rev. William Lunwin. 1783.


 

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”.

 

Sweet summer bounty in a wild black berry

Wild Blackberries, Bishopsbourne. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

The wild Blackberries are fruiting early in the district this year. This familiar straggling plant has something of a love-hate relationship with most people who come across it: in late summer it provides sweet, black-bubbled berries which revitalise the parched palate of a rambler and sit well in an apple pie, but for the rest of the year it is a long stemmed unruly and viciously prickly menace which often bars our way on the footpath or forms an impenetrable cage around the wayward golf ball. Little wonder that the Ancient Britons planted it as an early form of barbed wire fencing.

Today we may see the wild Blackberry just about anywhere, from golf course to woodland, country footpath to urban waste ground. For city dwellers it is just a weed, but for those of us who love our native plants and their history, there is something very special about the wild Blackberry, otherwise known as the Bramble. The term Bramble was originally used to describe any unruly thorny plant, but the Blackberry has taken the name as its own, and appropriately so, for it is rebellious, untameable and quintessentially wild.

Blackberry flowers can be pink or white. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Throughout our history it has been common practice for local people to go out into the countryside and pick wild berries, particularly wild Blackberries, in ignorance of the wildlife which needs Nature’s summer bounty to survive through winter. In the days of yore there was perhaps a surplus in good years, and people didn’t care much for wildlife anyway: wild animals were a nuisance, a threat, or simply something to eat.

In fact an astonishingly wide range of animals rely on wild Blackberry plants for food, including caterpillars, which feed on the leaves, and butterflies and bees which take nectar from the flowers. When the berries ripen, all kinds of birds and insects, together with mammals like dormice, squirrels, hedgehogs and even badgers come to feed on them.

BridgeNature.org reiterates once more our view that in modern Britain, where wildlife is suffering massive decline through shortage of habitat and food supply, we should all buy cultivated fruits from farm shops or supermarkets and leave wild fruits and nuts out in the wild for those creatures who need them more than we do.

Picking from the wild is stealing from the wild!

 

 

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.

For a life less cruel

Fox. East Kent. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017

The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.
Genesis, ix 2-3. King James Bible.

Prime Minister Theresa May recently stated “personally I’ve always been in favour of fox hunting” (1) and, in an effort to repeal the current ban on hunting, her 2017 Conservative manifesto promised a free vote on the issue. We can today confirm that, following Mrs May’s disastrous election campaign, the plan to revive fox hunting has now been dropped, but why was it proposed in the first place?

The fact that an intelligent, well educated vicar’s daughter, now Prime Minister, admires the repulsive and barbaric ‘sport’ of fox hunting should come as a shock to all decent Britons living in the 21st century, but it doesn’t. Such has been the ambivalence of the Christian church towards cruelty to animals over centuries, and the political dominance of the landed gentry over generation after generation, that in fact the opposite is true: this wanton cruelty to wild animals is considered by the higher echelons of the British establishment to be a wholesome tradition within our national culture, one to be glorified and nurtured, not a vile and despicable wildlife crime which must be eradicated.

That foxes can do damage to livestock is not in dispute, although that nuisance is often exaggerated beyond the hard facts and what could be prevented by responsible measures of livestock protection. Nevertheless, there are valid reasons why the fox and other nuisance creatures may need to be controlled, but why should this control take the form of an amusement, a country ‘sport’?

The truth is, that killing wild animals has always been a sport, with roots embedded in the male bonding exercise of hunting for food; but the advent and dominance of farming, even well before Roman times, created a stable and readily available food supply without the need for hunting wild animals in Britain. Hunting increasingly became a practice for the would-be warrior, or a sporting pastime for the rich, sometimes with a prize of luxury meats like boar and venison (deer were often carefully fenced in so as to be easy to hunt). But often the sport of hunting needed an excuse to justify itself, and animals which threatened farming, or offered particular challenges in the chase, became the obvious ‘game’: targets for well fed people in search of amusement. Instead of supplying food, hunters envisioned themselves as the protectors of the farm, and, in heroically going out to slay the local ‘vermin’, they reasserted themselves as masters of the wild landscape and all that dwell therein.

No real animal threats to human or farm safety remain now in the British countryside, just a few wild boar, some deer, rabbits, hares and foxes; but many would kill them for the fun of it. For those of a vulgar, bullying mind, killing is the very affirmation of superiority, the irrefutable statement of that absolute supremacy of man over beast proclaimed in the Old Testament. Take that notion from our minds and human kind has some very different moral dilemmas to consider. It speaks volumes that the King James Bible has no answers to issues of animal cruelty: its much praised prose doesn’t even manage to ask the questions, perhaps because the issues can’t be resolved by sacrificing a goat. The Britain of the future needs scientific understanding and compassionate thinking, not obedience to discredited, outdated religious dogma sponsored by a king with a passion for torturing women.

With her failure to gain a majority in the general election and the subsequent collapse of her political authority, Prime Minister May’s support for blood sports now looks sickly ironic: she is the huntress become prey, while her former colleagues circle round her taking tactical positions like predators on the prowl. Clearly some of them are enjoying the sport. In her struggle to survive she has appointed Michael Gove as her new Environment Minister but, astonishingly, the appointment has only induced more contempt. Mr Gove is a man, according to Caroline Lucas MP of the Green Party “who is uniquely unqualified for the job” (2). iNews reports that he has previously voted against emissions targets, voted in favour of selling off our forests, voted in favour of fracking, and voted in favour of reducing building restrictions near environmentally sensitive areas (3). He supports badger culls (3) and fox hunting (4). However, in his role as Education Secretary, he sent thousands of copies of the King James Bible to schools across Britain. What can his message be?

We don’t know how long Mrs May will survive as Prime Minister, but in her preference for cruelty to wildlife over reasoned compassion, and her apparent support for archaic faith over scientific fact she represents an outdated vision of our environment which has no place in modern Britain. When her once trusted colleagues finally dispatch her from her post, we wish her a long and healthy retirement with time to contemplate and perhaps begin the search for a different set of values in a life less cruel.

(1) Interviewed by The Independent, Tues 9 May 2017
(2) Interviewed by Sky News, Mon 12 June 2017
(3)
https://inews.co.uk/essentials/news/politics/environment-secretary-michael-goves-voting-record-on-green-issues/
(4) http://www.getsurrey.co.uk/news/surrey-news/fox-hunting-surreys-mps-stand-9661746

 

 

In the meadow of the Moon Daisy

Oxeye Daisies, Bridge area, June 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Walkers who venture along the farm track extending from Mill Terrace in Bridge will, once again, see a swathe of flowers growing in a field near the old Elham Valley Railway. Currently in bloom are thousands of Oxeye Daisies (alternative spelling Ox-eye) planted by our local farmer a couple of years ago. We believe more have flowered this month than this time last summer. Sometimes these are called Moon Daisies, either because of the bright yellow disc of florets at their centre, or perhaps because the flowers seem to glow in the moonlight.

While, in the past, some formal gardeners and indeed farmers too, may have considered the Oxeye Daisy to be a weed, in these more enlightened times it is recognised as a true grassland flower to be valued for the biodiversity it brings to the Kentish chalk downlands. The yellow florets at the centre of the flower will provide nectar for a whole range of pollinating insects, particularly bees, butterflies and hoverflies. Farms need to be growing food, but it is now well understood that biodiversity assists in that cause and one of the ‘beauties’ of our Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is that it can, and should, be retained and enhanced as a preserve of biodiversity for the benefit of our entire countryside.

Also growing in the same area, though blooming at different times are chicory, cornflower, yarrow, wild carrot, buttercup, common mallow, herb robert, black horehound, herb bennet, knapweed, ragwort, selfheal, birdsfoot trefoil, field marigold, dandelion and scarlet pimpernel.

 

How green is my rally?

Green party logo, courtesy of the Green Party.

Four of our major political parties use symbols from the natural world for their logos: the Green Party use a globe, Labour a rose, the Liberal Democrats a flying bird and, rather bizarrely, the Conservative logo is a flag draped tree. All very evocative of environmental empathies, but how do environmental policies fare in the election manifestos of these parties?

The highly respected environmental group Friends of the Earth has published a league table of four of the major parties’ approaches to environmental issues in the forthcoming general election. They considered 16 environmental issues of major national concern and scored the parties a maximum of 3 points for each issue, based on their manifesto commitments and statements from their leaders. These are the results:

Green Party 46
Labour 34
Liberal Democrats 32
Conservatives 11

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Green Party, with its strong emphasis on environmental policies, comes out on top with 46 points. Labour comes second with 34, matching the Green Party’s strong commitment to maintaining the environmental laws established during our EU membership, but Labour are judged poor on dealing with waste.

The Liberal Democrats come third with 32 points. Along with the Greens, they intend to be hot on the current problem of air pollution over Britain and also state an intention to redirect farming subsidies towards flood prevention and countryside protection, so that environmentally responsible farmers will be rewarded as a priority rather than those owning most land.

The Green Party, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are all strong on supporting renewable energy, and all stand firmly against fracking.

Despite a previous manifesto promise to “leave the environment in a better state than we found it”, the Conservative Party trail far behind in the scores with just 11 points. They seem to believe that our air pollution problems can simply be solved by planting more trees, while still building new roads, and they were judged to have a very weak policy on litter and plastic waste pollution. According to Friends of the Earth, the Conservatives’ attitude to fracking is an “undemocratic and desperate set of policies to over-rule local communities and rig the planning system in favour of this dirty fossil fuel.” Furthermore, the Conservative Party still offers only vague concessions to maintain environmental protections established during our term in the EU. They plan a new ‘Agri-environment system’ (as yet unexplained) to be introduced in a following parliament (if they get in). While committing now to keeping our national forests in public ownership (after their previous attempt to sell them off), the Conservative manifesto also promises a free vote on repealing the hunting ban.

To read Friends of the Earth’s detailed report on the parties’ manifestos click on the link below:

https://www.foe.co.uk/general-election/election-manifestos-scores-are