Out of the woods

 

I have spent my career so far talking about the importance of managing woodlands well to yield beautiful materials and create biodiverse habitats. I have been absolutely thrilled to see species returning to our small woodland as a result of our coppicing and woodland management plan; this winter I spotted a dormouse nest in some brambles where we’d coppiced two winters ago and I literally jumped with joy - our small amount of work is having a positive effect.

This summer on a perfect and still day I took a walk through the field next to our woodland which previously I hadn’t given much thought to. It serves as the car park for our summer party and a place to throw sticks for the dogs. I have fun memories of playing in it as a child, but it’s unremarkable as anything more than a few acres of field lined with hedges surrounded by the crops and woodland of our neighbours. Thinking about how relatively little attention I’d paid to the place before while walking through it, I stopped to look down at my feet to see what might live there and realised I could’t see much life other than same agricultural clover and Italian ryegrass, with barely an insect on them. Of course, without insects and with only one seed type, birds and small mammals have little food in this field and without birds and small mammals, there are no predators, and so on. I got down on my knees to see what I could see under the hardy ryegrass and there was barely another plant able to grow in the soil under it. It seemed there was no chance of any natural regeneration of a diverse meadow under this aggressive, fast growing species.

This field is rented from my dad by a local farmer who bales it for silage, or food, for cattle. Years ago he planted this mix of grass and clover after it had served crops of oilseed rape which were harvested and ploughed when we moved onto the farm. It’s lush and green, but when you start to realise what it should be like, it becomes a little scary. Traditional meadows would contain scores of types of grass and wildflower, each offering a unique habitat or food source for insects and birds. We have lost 99% of our meadows in 70 years, many I would imagine became fields like ours which were ploughed and put into a cycle of fast-growing grass for animal feed. You don’t notice a field is not a meadow until you start to see how many types of grass you can (or can’t) see, and how few insects live there. Our field is (in a very small way) involved in the project of feeding the nation, and it seems this has reduced its potential richness to much of the wildlife that might inhabit it.

Typical grass mix.jpg

GRASS SEED

An example of typical agricultural seed that suits silage for cattle. Next time you’re in a field, have a look at what’s growing in it.

At this point I became rather ashamed that I’d never even really noticed the lack of wildlife. But how can you notice what’s not there? I’m realising that it’s important to begin to frame your mind to see the parts of our natural world that are missing. Having recently read up on the threats to British wildlife, I now look out at a view of rolling hills not as beautiful green or golden crops, but a series of industrial scale monocultures; land that has been made hostile to its potential inhabitants by modern agriculture. I imagine painting the crops or sheep pastures red to try to see the bits that are still truly green. It often doesn’t leave much.

Walking back from inspecting the field on my knees, I realised how imbalanced I have been in my focus of biodiversity. The woodland is indeed a space that needs our attention, but it seems the field needs it more. So we have begun, with baby steps, to try to change the field. Actually, my dad was a few years ahead of me, he asked the farmer not to put fertiliser or pesticides on the field years ago (which will reduce his income from the field) and gradually the soil is becoming poorer. This sounds strange I know, but wildflowers and meadow grasses don’t like too much nitrogen, which is applied to the ryegrass to increase yields. In fact, the agricultural clover that’s seeded with the ryegrass is a nitrogen-fixing plant to help the ryegrass grow which is why it’s mixed in. In an attempt to begin to extract nitrogen from the soil and make it more suitable for wildflowers, we have invested in some yellow rattle seed this winter. It’s a remarkable native yellow wildflower that’s parasitic and sucks the nitrogen from other plants. I’m hoping it will begin to latch on to the aggressive ryegrass and hold it at bay. We have also tested a wildflower seed mix in an area which we heavily scarified to see what will survive in the conditions on the ground as they are. We await with crossed fingers!

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Planting

My brother Guy and wife Brogan planting thorny scrub in our unremarkable field - note the intense and perfect green of the neighbours’ non-organic winter wheat in the background.

We have also planted scrub-type trees to thicken one of the hedges that borders a neighbour’s large arable field. While we don’t necessarily want a woodland here, a thorny scrub is a very important habitat for nesting birds. So this winter we’ve planted dog rose, hazel, birch, hawthorn, blackthorn, spindle and crab apple to make a shaw, which is a kind of very thick hedge and excellent habitat. We’d also welcome bramble here as it inevitably comes along too. Hopefully this thorny scrub will continue to spread into our field and blur the boundary further between habitats. We are doing the opposite of being tidy with our land, which is almost always best for wildlife.

Our field is small, but I believe we can have an impact here. And hopefully we can share our progress and encourage anyone else with a paddock or unremarkable field to do the same. I’m reading up on what more we can do to improve the place further; most current reading lists associated with protecting British wildlife lead you to books on rewilding, a subject I’ve become very interested in recently. As much as I’d love to, I’m not sure I’d be able to persuade my dear dad to have wild boar or English longhorn cattle out in the field, so we’ll have to continue with our small scale interventions and keeping nitrogen off the grass to see if we end up with a diverse and buzzing meadow. I’d also welcome any suggestions anyone may have, too. I hope to show you our progress over the next couple of years, but one thing’s for certain, this habitat now has my attention as well as woodland. I don’t just mean our field, but what our field represents. Three quarters of our land in the UK is dedicated to agriculture, and somehow we’ve nudged wildlife out of it. What can we do to invite it back in? I’m sure that’s a design brief calling…


 
Sebastian Cox