Tuesday, 10 June 2014

What happened when I said "No to the Mow"...

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

It was not a good start. I marked out a patch of lawn in early March, selecting an area that wasn’t particularly special but did at least have a few cowslips. I could see their rounded leaves poking through the turf and thought it’d be nice to spare them the mower and allow them to flower.

But a few weeks later they had gone – completely vanished – and the grass didn’t seem to have grown much either. I couldn’t work it out. Then, returning from work one day I found the culprits; three sheep had found their way through the fence and were having a very merry time munching away on the lawn. I’m amazed they were so selective, but they’d found each cowslip plant and eaten them right down to the roots.

My new campaign, “say no to the sheep”, started with a patch they’d thankfully not reached. The mower came out of hibernation in a grumbling, spluttering mood and over the next few weeks the patch began to take on its shape and texture as the grass grew. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that my lawn won’t win any prizes in the next series of “The Great British Lawn Off” or “Come Mow With Me”; it’s not seen any herbicides or fertilizers in the 18 years I’ve looked after it so it’s pretty full of things other than grass. But this doesn’t mean they get to flower. Most of the lawn is kept pretty tightly mown so it’s rare that anything taller than a daisy gets to raise its head above the blades.

It has therefore, frankly, been a joy therefore to see what has come up. While not a mad riot of wild flowers, the procession of species has been fascinating to watch over the last few weeks, starting with cuckoo flower, dandelions and thyme-leaved speedwell, moving on to creeping buttercup and a few glorious oxeye daisies at the moment, and with self heal and clovers to come. It’s been a delight to actually pause and look in detail at a small patch of grass, noticing that this is where the pheasants now like to linger and where banded snails are most frequent.

The grasses are also playing their part of course, with tiny spreading meadow-grass now dwarfed by Yorkshire fog with its soft, downy leaves and purple haze. Common sorrel is also there, looking rusted-red and hinting at the poor nature of the soil. In total, I’ve found eighteen species in a 2m x 2m square, not a spectacular haul but far better than your average rye-grass and bent-grass dominated lawn. It’s not a diversity of species that I’m looking for (although this will come in time) but giving an opportunity for plants to flower, provide nectar and pollen, set seed, be eaten by caterpillars and froghoppers and maybe even give a home to a grasshopper or two.

In a way, my patch of unmown lawn is like a little window on a real wildflower meadow or roadside verge. Around it, my lawn is green but bereft of any colour, just like many of the improved fields around our relict wildflower meadows and beside our verges. Many of the plants are still there: if we just give them a chance to grow and flower they grasp the opportunity and work wonders for our wildlife.

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