Although the wind is sharp the sun warms my face and there is a sprinkling of blossom on the ancient plum trees. The bank in front of me is bright with celandines and clumps of primroses. It looks like spring, although it doesn’t yet feel like it.
I am on a regular visit to a Victorian country house and estate near Brecon, now used as a retreat centre amongst other things. Recently the grounds have been ‘taken in hand’ and there has been a good deal of tidying up. Over the winter the tall hedge along the drive has been cut down. I remember the holly blue butterflies and hoards of other insects that fed on the ivy flowers last autumn, and the pink tinged hawthorn blossom in the spring. Perhaps they thought it looked untidy. The drifts of planted daffodils swaying along the side of the drive would gladden any heart but in a week or two they will be gone, replaced by mown grass for the other ten months of the year. The mowing here now extends to acres, having recently taken in some rough grassland rich in wild flowers and insects. These enormous lawns set the house off in a kind of stately monotony, which the management must find attractive.
Walking back towards the house I can hear a little grebe on the lake trilling melodramatically, as if in fear of its life. A pair of ravens are rolling and flipping over the tall trees above the drive – probably they are nesting there. Right in the top of a sycamore a chiffchaff is belting out its repetitive song. I heard the first one only two days ago and already the sound is fading from my attention back into the general soundscape. It does seem extraordinary that this little bird, whose weight would barely register in the palm of my hand, may have just flown 3000 miles from Senegal, or some other West African country. I doubt I could walk the 10 miles from here to Brecon.
This estate is, in many ways, rich in wildlife. It has the largest breeding colony of lesser horseshoe bats in Britain, there are otters on the river – I once saw one run across the lawn here. Sand martins nest in the riverbank and last autumn I saw hornets feeding on sap running down an old oak, they are an uncommon sight in Wales. I have also found the beautiful pink waxcap fungi – in the mown grass.
Beyond the house I come to a 500 year old sweet chestnut tree that I pay homage too each time I visit. All gnarls and goitres it emanates accumulated history. It was already here when Shakespeare was writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As a non-native species it was probably planted, no doubt by somebody of ‘wealth and taste’, long before the present mansion was built. If only that had half the elegance of this old tree. I notice there has been some careful pruning; this tree, along with other veterans here, is being carefully looked after.
Later in the afternoon I find myself tutting over some of the estate’s ‘derelict’ woodland: close spindly trees with a rampant understory of laurel and rhododendron. From there I go poking about amongst the crumbling buildings of the Home farm. Perversely I find this dereliction attractive and take photographs of a broken door and an old water wheel. There is also an enormous walled garden, except that it is now just a wall, enclosing the same field inside and out.
All of this got me thinking about how we like things to look a certain way. Most of my own concerns, based on values of naturalness and native species, would probably go unnoticed by the majority of people. Many will delight in the gracious lawns and banks of swaying daffodils. It seems we prefer nature tamed or even excluded around our houses and public spaces. Much of my own garden is given over to nature but I can’t quite bring myself to leave sections of the boundary hedge untrimmed for the benefit of birds and insects. It just looks too untidy! So I have some understanding for the managers of this estate.
Tidying up invariably leads to a subtle impoverishment of living organisms, most of them too small to get noticed. Variety is essential to any ecosystem. Without it the web of life gets hollowed out until, like the walled garden, it is little more than a ghost of what was originally there. Could we allow a little more tangle, rough grass and thicket in our private and public spaces? Such habitats are now in surprisingly short supply in the countryside.
As I leave a van from a pest control firm has pulled over on the side of the drive. A grim faced man is standing over a solitary molehill in a wide expanse of mown grass. It seems this small pile of brown earth is not acceptable and the mole will have to be destroyed. And this is in an establishment which is strictly vegetarian, where you may not even bring a hen’s egg onto the premises. It seems we will go a long way to achieve what ‘looks nice’.