Thursday, 24 April 2014

A Walk in the Woods with Spring Wildflowers

Richard Moyse
Ranscombe Farm Reserve Manager

There are some mighty mood-lifters in the natural world. There's always a kick in seeing an interesting plant or animal for the first time, and it doesn't even have to be something spectacular - I got quite excited by early meadow-grass a few weeks back, which is a diddy little plant and a bit anaemic-looking to boot. But the big pick-me-up, raising us all out of the winter gloom, is the arrival of spring. Robert Browning wrote "Oh, to be in England, now that April's there," as a hymn to the English spring, even though he was in Italy at the time. Or, if you're in the mood for a bit less poetry and a bit more outright enthusiasm, Johnny Mercer, who wrote the lyrics for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, gave us "Ma Nature's lyrical with her yearly miracle, Spring, Spring, Spring", accompanied by a troupe of dancing farmhands.

For myself, a walk in woods in April is a heart-filling joy, with the previously dull vegetation suddenly chucking a load of colour at us: white stitchwort, yellow celandines, pink cuckoo-flowers, purple orchids and, of course, bluebells.
Bluebells at our Ranscombe Farm reserve.
Why is it so exciting when the flowers open in spring? Yes, there's the contrast with what's gone before, but it's also the promise of a good, long season of flowers to come. The first flowers of spring are like the opening number at a concert by your favourite band: they are bright and familiar and you know you're in for plenty more good stuff before the show's over.

All our spring plants have different stories to tell. People have had such a long familiarity with woodland wild flowers that a they've all got their nicknames, mythologies and back-stories. Lesser celandine was "butter and cheese" or (less lovely) "pilewort". Greater stitchwort ("dead man's bones" - pictured on the left) was a cure for pains in the side for some, a plant of the devil for others. We know these plants because people have lived in and with woodlands for millennia: woods were where you gathered fuel, pastured pigs, obtained building materials.

Pretty much all the woodlands of England and Wales have been exploited by people for many centuries, and this exploitation shaped the woodland we see today. Particularly important in this respect has been coppicing of trees - cutting them down and allowing them to regrow, before cutting them again, all on a cycle of 15 to 25 years. It is this practice which has encouraged the diverse flora of many woodlands through the alternation of period of bright light and deep shade. At Ranscombe Farm Reserve, we are continuing the long practice of coppicing precisely because it works so well for wild flowers.

So get out in the woods right now. They are looking wonderful, and the curtain has only just gone up on what's going to be a great show.

Find out more about how Ranscombe Farm Reserve is managed as a farm and as a nature reserve on short, guided walks with our tenant farmer and the Reserve Warden, on Saturday 26 April. For more information go to our website.

1 comment:

  1. Great to see Ranscombe Farm and Richard looking so good.
    Keep up the great work. Barry O' Dowd