Autumn Meeting 2014
We were a full house for the autumn meeting, with near 60 of us packed into the Mac and out of the hail and thunder (contrary to rumours circulating, the committee deny all responsibility for the apocalyptic weather so often accompanying our mini-symposiums… it does boost attendance though).
Ursula Williams began proceedings, describing how she and Jean Green have turned their respective wildflower meadows into a valuable educational resource for the pupils of St Briavels Playgroup and School; and Play Leader Jo George was on hand to explain both how the children themselves benefit and how this Forest School initiative helps raise a new generation of caretakers for our grasslands – an inspiring start.
Next, Ann Harris examined in lively fashion the pros and cons of conservation grazing with horses, drawing on independent research and her own experience as a smallholder – all useful knowledge for us field-owners. Deborah Flint of Cinderhill Farm kept us laughing as she outlined the challenges of making a living from your land – hers is a galvanising success story though perhaps its most memorable message is you’ll never be unhappy in the company of a duck. That’s Christmas sorted then.
There was just time for George Peterken to highlight how different management styles over the years have affected the fauna we see in our fields – offering us the intriguing proposition that the bilberries peeking out beneath our hedges might be among our oldest neighbours – before PGP chairman Mike Topp declared Our Fields well and truly launched and sent us off into the tea break. Part two provided food for thought as Helen Axe explored the principles of Forest Gardening, a sustainable method of expanding the range of edible plants we grow, from exotic Szechuan pepper to the dreaded ground elder – gardeners in the audience blossomed visibly at the idea of eating their enemy. Then Chris Parsons of Dean Meadows Group shared in entertaining style his recipe for composting field-grass – an enticing concept for those of us tired of haymaking in the rain.
The afternoon ended with a discussion between George Peterken, Chris Parsons, Stephanie Tyler of Monmouthshire Meadows Group and Andrew Nixon of Wye Valley AONB, giving us a chance to debate just what role the PGP might play in grassland preservation in the future. Thank you to all who took part.
Finally, the committee took the opportunity to express their gratitude to Tony Eggar for all his hard work, particularly in the production of Our Fields and other publications, and to present him with a specially commissioned shepherd’s crook. We will miss him and Jane hugely when they move to Somerset.
With the wonderful summer weather, the growth of bracken grasses and flowers in Jean Green's meadows has been enormous - so much so that the children from the Early Years (St Briavels Playgroup) and the Reception class (St Briavels School) disappeared almost completely as they ran, chasing butterflies and moths, catching grasshoppers and beetles on their annual trip to Holly Tree Farm on St Briavels Common.
We borrowed pond-dipping nets as well as butterfly nets this year so we were able to 'dip' in the water tank which is fed by a permanent spring. Thus, whilst the rich tapestry of wild flowers, the speckled wood and small tortoishell butterflies, the colourful burnet moths and the dragonflies were exciting, I think that the most popular discovery were the tiny newts (known as efts) that were scooped out of the tank together with some very fat tadpoles.
Both groups of children withdrew from the heat to picnic in Jean's barn sitting on hay bales with Jean's Dexter cow keeping a watchful eye from her stable close at hand which added another excitement as, having horns, many were determined that she was definitely a bull!
The PGP aims to raise awareness of the potential richness of meadows and Jean's illustrate exactly that. By now they will have been cut for hay, but not before the seed of all those flowers have set so that next year there should be another bumper crop of blooms which again will encourage a multitude of fauna. Advice on the management of land to encourage such a rich biodiversity is available from the PGP whether it is a small corner of a garden or, indeed, a field.
The staff who accompanied the children confirmed that this event is now firmly established in their calendar, as they wish to encourage the children to become familiar with their local area and to value this important part of our environment. Certainly, each year, the children show increased confidence and really relish the experience.
Saturday 1 October saw our autumn meeting, this year a mini-symposium on the subject of Water. It was a full house at the Mackenzie Hall with over 60 people packed in to hear the speakers. The PGP's George Peterken began proceedings, examining the geology and hydrology of the area and explaining that the Hudnalls is the wettest part of Gloucestershire. We nodded sagely as, outside, the heavens opened.
Rob Denny of the Monnow Rivers Association described his organisation's work to restore the biodiversity of the river and its tributaries, leaving his listeners with a powerful sense of just what a dedicated team of volunteers can achieve.Hudnalls resident Phil Morgan took us back in time to explore the folklore and history of our wells and watercourses; there are now plans afoot to help preserve these fascinating local features. Anyone interested should contact the committee.
After a short break to down tea and cake, pore over the many maps, models and exhibits, and cast a jaundiced eye at the now pouring rain, we reassembled for part two. Corinna Arnold of St Briavels Common led us through the options available to anyone seeking to cut their water consumption, with her entertaining talk on greywater systems. Then Ainsleigh Rice of Herefordshire Hydro outlined to us in vivid style the pros and cons of micro hydro electric systems; by this stage the water racing down Mill Hill could have powered a small generator.
The biggest fanfare, several loud thunderclaps, was reserved for our final speaker Peter Golding, a professional dowser who'd learned his skills in rather drier conditions, the Arabian Desert. And, as if by magic, the rain ceased. Long enough, that is, for us to grasp our wire coat hangers and follow him outside to have a go at dowsing ourselves. For anyone unsure where the Mac's main drain is, we found it. We finished with generous offers from Mr Rice to answer any queries anyone might have about micro hydro installation and from Mr Golding to run a one-day dowsing course for us next year. Both can be contacted via the committee or, in Mr Golding's case, through the Slimbridge Dowsing Group. During the afternoon Louise Russell provided a display explaining the work of the Busoga Trust, providing clean water in rural Uganda. Donations for the afternoon totalled £75 and have been passed on to the trust.
Flower Hunt 2013
Warm, cloudy but, happily dry, the 18th June was the day when 21 pre-school age children from the St Briavels Early Years and 17 from the School's reception class visited flower meadows at Hollyside Farm, Brockweir Common.
The meadows..permanent pasture which has not been artificially fertilised..support an amazing variety of flowering plants from the aptly-named ragged robin, through to yellow rattle, bright blue bugle and the pink and white spires of spotted orchid.
The younger children seemed completely at home ranging through the the meadow though they were so small that they virtually disappeared if they sat down in the long grasses.They collected samples of the different flowers, swept the grasses with nets to catch small grasshoppers and beetles, smelt the mint, tasted sorrel, watched a demonstration of how bees pollinate orchids, pushed their fingers into tunnels under molehills, watched two Dexter cows being fed and soaked up the scene as they ate their picnics.
The reception class followed in the afternoon and also seemed delighted with the experience. As well as the meadow they went into the deciduous woodland which would have been carpeted with bluebells a month before. The sweep nets again were very popular though I don't think anyone managed to catch the small butterflies, but I know that many saw an ant's nest with the workers frantically carrying eggs to safety, and most can discriminate between cow, rabbit and fox droppings! Before leaving, these children enjoyed snacks and drinks whilst sitting on hay bales in the barn.
Thanks are due to Jean Green for providing the venue for the day and for her welcoming hospitality, to the staff and parents for organising the transport and for supervising the children so effectively.
I believe we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves..as one of the Early Years children said very thoughtfully and distinctly as she looked over the meadow..'I LOVE this place'. Result!
Flowers and Nightjars walk
After a spell of dry weather, the Met. Office accurately forecast rain to start at 4.0 clock p.m.on Thursday 27th June in West Gloucestershire. The predicted drizzle intensified and by 6.0 p.m. when 20 stalwarts assembled in the car park on Tidenham Chase there were almost as many brollies as participants. The route for the evening included a walk over Poor's Allotment (SSSI) to Ridley Bottom (a nature reserve owned by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust ) and thence to the heathcovered Park ..a circuit of some 2 miles.
The aims were to see the flower meadows in the reserve and to experience the antics of the nightjars on the heath. Undaunted by the rain, we crossed the B4226 on to the Allotment. Watched by docile Longhorn and Gloucestershire cattle, whose grazing keeps the area from reverting to scrub,we wandered over the springy grassland with our guru, George Peterken ,enlightening us on matters botanical. Its floral display, however was totally outshone by that at Ridley Bottom where despite heavy rain the meadows were solid drifts of colour....spotted orchids, yellow rattle, knapweed ,twayblade, bird's foot trefoil, to name just very few - and in such abundance that some were inevitably squashed underfoot. Here Kevin Castor (Warden of the Wildlife Trust) and Gill Maher (a volunteer) joined George to guide us around the fields identifying species and explaining the history and management of this very special reserve.
Happily no-one got lost as we threaded our way up a winding path through the wood thence back over the road and into the west side of the Park to our sorely needed refreshments (both solids and liquids)!
It was only drizzling when our next 'teacher' joined us. Ivan Proctor, ornithologist extraordinaire, told us the story of these weird and fascinating birds - the nightjars. Due to lack of suitable habitat in this country they are rare but we are fortunate in the Forest to have five locations where they can be found in summer. They are 'a birder's bird,' he said, with a very individual lifestyle; a night flier whose two-tone churring call starts only at dusk and whose acrobatic flight as it patrols its territory feeding on moths thrills. We learnt a lot from Ivan's talk and then were privileged to both hear and see the birds themselves as they began their night shift. Though almost dark and certainly chilly the final curtain of the evening was taken by the appearance of a woodcock as it too began its night patrol over the heath.
I hope that those who braved the miserable midsummer evening felt well-rewarded for their effort. I certainly felt it was time well spent.
Sward to Sweater - Autumn meeting
Our autumn meeting on Saturday 29 October proved to be the most popular we have held in ten years, save only for an even more popular evening on bats a few years ago. With 56 people crammed into the loft of the Village shop we heard a succession of local speakers talk about keeping sheep: Tony Eggar, Sarah Sawyer, Mike Topp, Louise Frankel, Phil Morgan (in absentia), Brian Matt and myself. Apart from Tony, who employs his solely as lawnmowers, all are, or will be, 'utilising' their animals for wool, fleeces, meat and hides, so we heard about not just the pleasures and satisfactions of looking after sheep, but also some hard-nosed considerations relating to choice of abattoir and methods of butchering. Several have rare breed sheep, partly as a contribution to maintaining the breeds. And, for Sarah and Louise, sheep-keeping has become a whole-family concern. The only 'misfit' was myself, who merely provides herbage and grazing for Bill Creswick's sheep, though occasionally I have had to haul them out of fences or bramble patches.
What made this meeting different were the exhibitors. Following on from the brief talks by the 'shepherds' we were treated to a number of live demonstrations by local craftspeople who use wool. Whilst we drank tea and ate cake we wandered round the exhibits watching Ann Mills spinning wool from Jacob and Castlemilk Moorit sheep and Alpacas; Chrissy Birch demonstrated felting and embroidery; Yvonne Hoskins and friends showed carding, spinning and peg loom weaving. Finally we had a presentation by Anne and David Reid on dyeing wool using natural dyes from plants that they brought with them.
A questionnaire was circulated asking people to show their interest in further pursuit of a range of aspects from sheep husbandry through, lambing to the various craft skills shown. This may lead to specific workshops on popular subjects in the future. We all felt the gathering was a great success, which was due to the care and attention to detail of the organisers, Sarah, Tony and Mike, not to mention the cakes arranged by Jean Pitt. It demonstrated that maintaining the parish grasslands was neither a chore, nor just wildlife gardening, but is the sum of a whole chain of activities that combines the maintenance of flowery fields with the pleasures of small-scale stock keeping and the satisfaction of using what had been produced. And it brought in a wider range of interest to our meetings.
Food from our Fields
Autumn meeting of live sampling
The people who arrived to fuel the growth of settlements in the areas of Brockweir and Hewelsfield from around 1830 onwards would have been compelled to maximise the produce from the plots they, in most cases, 'appropriated' on the commons (known as 'encroachment') and from the natural environment around them. It was simply a matter of survival.
Those of us now inhabiting these old properties may grow fruit and veg, but safe in the knowledge that in case of emergency there is always a supermarket not far away.
By way of a novel idea for a meeting of the Parish Grasslands Project, it was decided to see what we could come up in the way of wild 'eats'. One of the first things we had to confront was the vagaries of the weather, meaning that there was a dearth of fungi, a core item that perhaps most people would associate with food from the fields. Undaunted, the Food from our Fields meeting on Saturday 2nd October was able to produce four trestle tables laden with food and drinks made with what we had culled from field and hedgerow.
The meeting, chaired by Sarah Sawyer, opened by serving to the audience a 'dose' of rosehip syrup, the old-fashioned vitamin-C rich protection against childhood colds. The various items of produce were then introduced by those who had prepared the dishes. John Josephi's account of trying to skin a squirrel with two pairs of pliers caused laughter. Nettle and mushroom soups featured along with game pate, rabbit and a dish a number of us were keen to sample for the first time - squirrel (a fairly chewy, gamey kind of flavour). Steve Orledge from St. Briavels made an offer we could not refuse, to bring a pheasant stew and some venison, which he sauteed freshly at the meeting. Among the vegetables, we were able at the last minute to source a platter of parasol mushrooms, together with wild green tartlets (made with nettle and ground elder), jellies of sloe and quince, and elderberry chutney. An interesting green salad combination included sorrel, clover, lamb's lettuce and dandelion. Desserts ranged from yogurt with cherry plum, apple with blackberry and apple with elderberry cakes, along with baskets of nuts and fresh rosy red apples to finish.
On the drinks table we sampled (well, 'sampled' is perhaps an understatment!), the wines of parsnip, blackberry, tayberry and plum (generously provided by Arthur and Andi Cale), elderflower champagne and elderflower cordial.
Mike Topp gave a short resume of the Slow Food Movement, which started in Italy, and of which our local producer of meat, John Childs, is a select member and keen supporter. This echoed the point of our meeting, that there are alternatives to the chemically-treated, processed and packaged food we are swamped with today.
In these credit-crunch straightened times, the cheapest option is also the healthiest.
Orchard Field Visit
Sunday May 23rd was a beautiful, hot, sunny day, perfect weather for a relaxed walk around John Josephi's orchard.
Around two dozen people turned up to hear John start by explaining that he had inherited the land from his father, and was continuing to manage it under DEFRA's Countryside Stewardship scheme. Under this scheme DEFRA offers payment per hectare, plus a tariff of payments for various aspects of that management, such as hedging, walling, planting etc.
John's first objective had been to reduce the fertility of the soil, in order to bring back the wild flowers, and started by removing the dung produced by animals that had previously grazed the land.
Turning to look at an adjacent patch of woodland, he pointed out where he had thinned out trees to maximize growth of native species (holly not being one of them!). He reminded us that it was the trunk of a stumpy-growing oak that he had felled from this woodland that was now a central pillar in the village shop.
Leading us to where a 90-year-old felled oak lay in sections on the ground, John then proceeded, despite the tropical temperature, to split and trim a length of lower trunk, to illustrate how he made gate posts, stakes etc. In a novel arrangement of lengths of the thinner timber corralled in a tall stack between stakes, he showed us, using a chainsaw, how to slice down the stack in one stroke, producing the maximum heap of logs for the minimum of effort.
We next moved to his individual fruit trees, wrapped, staked and netted for maximum protection against voles, rabbits, deer etc.
Finally we walked through the woodland to see at closer range the effects of thinning, and on to his neighbours' property where the grass management here had consisted of cutting it and leaving it in situ. The difference between this and John's land was clearly noticeable.
A professional grass management expert in the group said that research had shown that removing the cut grass was the preferable option, not least because leaving it in situ encourages slugs.
As we moved back up the orchard, John was able to show us where orchids were now appearing, after giving the patch of land a timely dose of Roundup, together with yellow rattle and lousewort.
To round off the visit, we retired to the welcome shade of an old pear tree for ginger beer and John's, now legendary, doughnuts.
Our thanks are due to John for such an interesting, informative and hospitable afternoon. We may have even recruited some new members in the process!
On the 4th of March, we held our meeting on field boundaries and their management with about 35 people present. We had invited two outside speakers, both of whom were none too well on the day, but came nonetheless, and we were most appreciative of their dedication.
George Peterken introduced the subject with a few slides about the history of the Hudnalls and the origins of the walls and hedges as structures thrown up during the colonisation of the common around 1800. There then followed a series of photos of field boundaries on the Hudnalls, showing the complete range from hedges to walls and the variety of hybrids between walls and hedges that are a peculiarity of our district.
Using George's photos as background, John Flower spoke about hedge management. He now lives in Kent, but he came from the Lower Wye and has a base on Howle Hill, from which he works part-time as a hedge layer in Herefordshire. He gave some general advice, but we thought afterwards that he had been mildly disconcerted by our hedges, which, unlike those in other parts of Britain, range from thin straggles of shrubs beside a fence to linear woodlands and tracts of mown scrub that have grown thicker than the average country lane. Chris Hodge, who is well known locally not just for repairing walls, but for running training sessions on behalf of the AONB, responded to our photos with some really interesting advice and personal experiences. Evidently, our walls and those of the Conglomerate/Sandstone outcrops elsewhere in the Lower Wye, are unlike the walls anywhere else, and he urged us to maintain them in the informal form in which they had been built. Sarah Sawyer showed a few photos of trainees rebuilding a wall under Chris's guidance.