In 1966 the well-known nature writer William Condry wrote the following, about a farm near here :
“ On these slopes you can find meadows and sheep pastures nearly as fragrant and colourful as meadows in the limestone Alps. In the wetter places there are marsh orchids. On the drier fields there is a scattering of frog orchids and also – but it is very rare and hard to find – the small white orchid, which characteristically shares these calcareous pastures with the frog orchid.… But many people would say that the glory of these slopes is the upright vetch (Vicia orobus) that makes splendid patches of purple–pink in some of the fields.”
This is the same place today:
For those not versed in these matters this is a commercial crop of Sitka spruce, which originate from North America. These trees, planted as a monoculture, shut out the light and acidify the soil. Almost nothing grows beneath them. On a recent visit with a group of botanists we found only the common acid loving species you would find on any local roadside, or bit of boggy ground.The beautiful flowers that Bill Condry describes depended on the alkaline soils found on a narrow band of lime-rich rock that runs under theses trees. They also required the unimproved, lightly grazed pastures that were still characteristic of farms 60 years ago. A few years after Condry wrote about Maes Meillion the Forestry Commission bought the land and planted a landscape of spruce. Today this is a profitable crop which will soon be harvested – and then replanted, so repeating a now familiar cycle in the Welsh uplands.
I find it tempting to look for somebody to blame for the loss of these “fragrant and colourful meadows” but in the 1960s places notified for nature conservation were few and far between and their protection virtually unenforceable. The Forestry Commission was being encouraged and financed by government to plant up land in an attempt to make us more self-sufficient in timber. The farmer was probably keen to sell the land for what seemed like a good price then. Perhaps neither he nor the Forestry Commission knew the flower rich meadows were there, and if they did they probably didn’t care – ‘there is always some more somewhere over the hill’. Similar things were happening in farming as old pastures were being ploughed and reseeded, then fertilized and heavily grazed. The upshot is that now none of the wonderful flowery meadows on our band of lime-rich rock are left. Gone and almost forgotten. In the end perhaps nobody was to blame, but unless we remember we can never learn.
As usual, interesting and thought provoking !
However all is not lost.
My brother Robin introduced me to Foxley Wood in Norfolk, which was also commercially planted by the Forestry Commission in the 1960’s. In 1998 it was taken over by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust who stripped out all the F.C. planting and allowed nature to take it’s course.
Without any replanting, it is now thickly wooded with indigenous trees, woodland plants, and with all the associated wildlife. What is interesting is that the seeds from the original woodland seemed to have survived almost 40 years of commercial management.
So there is hope for the future !
Thanks Adrian – I don’t know Foxley Wood but it sounds interesting. I wonder if when the FC planted it with conifers it was already a woodland? If so much of the flora might have survived on the margins and in the seedbank plus the fungal network that is so vital to woodlands. The trouble with the plantations here is that they were mostly planted on open pastures and sheep walk about 50 years ago and aren’t really woodlands at all. However they may become so given another thousand years or so!