The meadows that were cut for hay in the middle of July are already green and lush after the August rains. The hay needs to be cut before the goodness goes out of it, but we leave it until the yellow rattle rattles in its seedpods and has dropped enough seed for next year. With the cut go a host of summer wildflowers which have already set seed. Those that mature later are lost with the cut. So in the fields that are put to grazing when the grass regenerates after the hay cut, we will not see the scabious or the knapweeds. If they are present at all, they will not get the chance to seed and, if we were to have orchids, (one day, hopefully) their cycle would also be curtailed as they are only now ripening.
Where the land is too steep for the tractor, we find ourselves with rougher ground and other habitats. The steep slopes dipping away and down from The Tump are left uncut and, with the sheep shaping their ecology, they have become tussocked and home to a host of wildlife that has made this protected place home. The marsh thistle likes it there and can compete, and slowly we are seeing the first signs of woodland, with hawthorn and ash sheltering in the creep of bramble. We will have to make a decision as to where we apply a hand in preventing the woody growth from encroaching upon the grassland, as all the habitats have their merit.
The field that climbs steeply immediately behind the house is raked off by hand after the farmer mows it for us. It is too steep to bale so it is cut late to allow an August flush of meadow life. It is a task raking the cuttings to keep the fertility down, but one that is getting easier each year with concerted efforts to colonise the grass with the semi-parasitic rattle. This field and the newly seeded banks that sweep up to the house are valuable for being late and, as I write on a breezy bright day in a wet August, it is alive with the latecomers and the host of wildlife that retreats to find sanctuary there.
The ‘between places’ that are formed by banks that are just too steep to manage occur along the contours and below the hedges that run along them. The precipitous slope (main image) between our two top fields (The Tynings) has been something of a revelation and, seven summers in, we are seeing the rewards of making an effort with its management. A neighbour told us that every twenty years or so the farmer before us would fell the ash seedlings that took the banks as their domain. This must have last happened five or six years before we arrived and, although it was then covered in young ash and bramble, it was clear that this south-facing slope had the potential to be more than just scrub, and provide a contrast to the grazed meadows. The second winter we were here, we cleared the bramble, cutting off great mats and rolling them down to the bottom of the slope like thorny fleeces.
That spring the newly exposed ground immediately gave way to cowslips and violets that had been sheltering amongst the brambles. In the summer they were followed by smatterings of wild marjoram, field scabious, common St. John’s Wort, crow garlic, hedge bedstraw and agrimony, indicating the limey ground and the south-facing position.
Why the field levels vary so dramatically to either side of the contour-running hedge is intriguing. The ground in the valley is prone to slipping and the twenty-foot slope between these two fields suggests the occurrence of something of that nature in the past. The steepness of the bank and the shale and the clay that has been exposed in the underlying strata make it incredibly free-draining and the plants that have colonised here are specific and a contrast to those found on flatter ground. If you walk along the bank on a hot day now it is full of marjoram and you can hear it hum with life and crack and pop as vetch pods scatter their seed.
We have given the bank a ‘year on, year off’ cut, strimming in the depths of winter when the thatch is at its least resistant. All the cuttings are roughly raked to the bottom of the slope (and then burned) so that there is plenty of light and air for regeneration. We leave the spindle bushes, the wild rose and a handful of ash seedlings, but the sycamore seedlings that proliferate from the large trees in the hedgerow are cut to the base to keep them from getting away. After three cuts over six years the bank is now thick with marjoram and scabious, hedge bedstraw, common and greater knapweeds and this year, wild carrot, one of my favourite umbellifers for late summer. It is abuzz with honeybees, bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies.
This bank has been the inspiration for the newly-seeded slopes around the house and last year I gathered seed from here to grow on as plugs to bulk up the St. Catherine’s seed mix that went down last September. The seed is sown fresh, as soon as it is gathered, into cells and left in a shady place for a year. I have not thinned the seedlings and have deliberately grown them tough so that they are able to cope with the competition. Last year’s batch was planted out not long after the banks were sown to add early interest, and some are visible and flowering already.
This year’s plugs, which are destined for the late meadow behind the house, will be put out in September, straight after the banks have been cut. We have already seen a difference in the wildlife since creating these wilder spaces up close to the buildings, with more swallows than before swooping low for insects, the increased presence of a pair of breeding kestrels, a red kite that formerly kept itself to the farther end of the valley, more bats and, a couple of weeks ago, an exciting moment when a barn owl came sweeping low over the banks as dusk fell. Every year, with careful management, we will see a successive layer of change, and one year in the not too distant future, a sure but certain enrichment.