Pleasures of Summer!

I hope you all enjoyed the solstice yesterday. Here are some of my favourite things of early summer, when the sun is warm and the evenings are long.

    Picking strawberries and raspberries for breakfast while listening to the evening birdsong.

    Making ice cream out of berries from the garden.

    Walking barefoot on the grass.

    Watching the sun set clear of any houses.

    Seeing all the different types of grasses in flower, waving gently in the breeze.

    Looking through an open doorway at torrential rain.

    The colours of the roses, campanulas, geraniums and foxgloves that fill my garden right now.

    Trees in full leaf with dappled shade below them.

    Morris dancing in the late evening sun, not to any audience but just because we want to.

A poor life this, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare. (WH Davies)

My garden in June

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A Return To Wildflower Surveying

A first view of Thorpe Cloud, as approached from Thorpe village.

Years ago I used to do the ‘Common Plants Survey’ for Plantlife; the final year of the scheme (in 2014) I wrote about here. I enjoyed it and learned quite a bit, but several things changed including the survey and it felt like time for a break. Then a few weeks ago I decided I would like to take part again, so I looked to see what squares a surveyor was still needed for – and there was nothing anywhere near me at all. The new National Plant Monitoring Survey which replaced the original scheme has tried to distribute squares evenly across the country rather than just near where people live, so there are currently many squares needing surveyors in Scotland with a scattering of empty spaces across the rest of the country, the majority of which are in the less populated areas… Then I thought why not choose a square I would like to visit?

Thorpe Cloud rising above the River Dove by the stepping stones.

Thorpe Cloud rising above the River Dove by the stepping stones.[/caption]My new square, which has the wonderfully palindromic number of 1551, is quite a long way from here, up to an hour’s drive depending on traffic, but what an amazing place I am getting to know! Derbyshire’s favourite rocky ‘mountain’, Thorpe Cloud, once a coral reef all of 287m high, rises above the river Dove where you can cross the stepping stones to Staffordshire if you wish. Ancient ash woodland lines the banks further along, and there is a stream that comes out of a cave at the foot of the Cloud.

Heath Bedstraw and wild Thyme

I don’t consider myself any kind of plant expert, I am simply a gardener who likes getting to know flowers, weeds… and now grasses. What I love the most is seeing how the same family adapts to surroundings. Galium for example, varies from the rather annoying Stickyweed / Cleavers / Goosegrass that invades my garden although makes a nice tea, to lady’s bedstraw that smelled sweet enough to be dried and used in the home, to the short, spreading Woodruff that carpets woodland floor, to truly tiny plants on top of mountains. Quite a lot of it grows on top of Thorpe Cloud along with wild thyme, saxifrages, sedums, tiny geraniums…

What I hadn’t anticipated was that surveying wildflowers would be any kind of spiritual experience or practice, yet it has proved to be so. I had planned to do the first visits with a friend who is an experienced and trained ecologist – who knows different plants from me and is more practiced in looking up oddities in a book. However, every time she was free, it rained. Plans were made, and cancelled repeatedly. I finally realised I should go for a reconnaissance visit by myself on a nearly-dry day, which proved very worthwhile in all sorts of ways.

Lin Spring emerging out of a cave at the foot of Thorpe Cloud

Lin Spring emerging out of a cave at the foot of Thorpe Cloud[/caption]Being by myself, I was able to do a blessing by the Spring and ask the mountain’s permission and support to survey this area of beautiful countryside. I then had a mini-pilgrimage to the top of the hill, where I had never been before, and had the summit to myself. It is a very beautiful ridge, and felt welcoming to me. Just as well after my sleepless night before – I seemed to know in advance this was going to be big for me.

I returned home, with a better idea of what plant groups to study in advance (my soil is acid clay so the flora is rather different) and see how unprepared I was the first time. I also had the oddest feeling that I was studying plants each night while I slept.

New plans were made with my friend, but no, I really was meant to do this by myself – the only day forecast to be dry was the only one she wasn’t free. However there were difficulties. I had to be back earlier than on the day we hoped to go, and there were roadworks and road closures, making for a longer route and busy roads getting there. I just had to trust I would be capable of doing the job, and that I had long enough there.

Thorpe Cloud summit looking North up Dovedale

I woke up early, not nervous this second time but excited and confident. On arrival I again asked the mountain’s permission and support. Remarkably I had whatever space I needed to carry out the survey, without winding a rope around anyone’s legs or lunch despite it being a much busier day, and somehow I got finished with just enough time to climb to the top again. Five areas surveyed, each exactly 25 square metres although some were square and some long, covering five different habitat types. I have a selection of photos to go through to complete more thorough plant identifications, not having time to look anything up and wanting eventually to know every plant that appears on my plots, but goodness I have a lot of work to do on grasses if I am ever to really understand and be able to identify them! As yet, knowing to the family name when they are in flower feels like an achievement, but it is apparently possible to know many of them even after the tops have been nibbled off by rabbits.

I look forward to many return visits.

Surveying Wildflowers

View of linear plot

View of linear plot

For eleven summers now, I have surveyed a tiny area of Derbyshire for Plantlife‘s Common Plants Survey. My randomly allocated square is not somewhere I would normally choose to walk, being the wrong side of a dual carriageway from here, but it has proved very interesting to return to the same small area over such a period of time, and chart the changes. I now think of it as ‘my’ square, so while I could swap to somewhere closer, as this year the survey undergoes massive changes, I decided to stay put. In its favour are well-kept footpaths which go through the exact centre of the square, and a small patch of woodland filled with bluebells in late spring.

The survey has changed twice since I started: originally there was a list of 65 plants, and I would check for their abundance within three specific areas – a square plot in the exact centre of the square, a linear plot nearby, and I chose to survey an additional linear plot that was along a particularly interesting bit of hedgerow. The list was then extended to 99 plants, and instead of the ‘habitat plot’, a footpath was followed North-South through the whole square to simply see what was present. I had the option of being a ‘super surveyor’ and listing all the plants, but 99 seemed to be a good number to get to know. Given that for several of these years I had health issues, or was pregnant, or had a baby in a sling, simple was good!

This year the survey is changing again, as a transition to relaunching next year to create something far more in depth, giving hopefully robust data that can be used to monitor how our wildflowers are changing over time. The list has been expanded to 400 plants, and includes common native species, those that are specific or indicative to particular types of habitat, and some invasive species. Habitats plots are back, centre plots are out (I suspect many were difficult to access), and the path idea remains.

One plot I am surveying this year remains in almost exactly the same location as the previous ten years – my original centre linear plot, which runs between the footpath and a stone wall. It is now 25m long not 20m which makes sense, and I have moved it up 2m to avoid a patch by the gate that has been mown since the nearby derelict farm buildings were converted into houses, but these seem like minor tweaks. The field the other side of the footpath was originally surveyed (or rather, a 5x5m patch in the corner was) and I have seen it change from clover in the first few years to arable crops, this year barley. However apart from occasional pruning of the overhanging oak trees, the linear plot gets very little attention and as a result it has become a riot of colour in early summer. Besides grasses, the main plants are stickyweed, cow parley and hogweed with occasional nettles and brambles, but to fill in the gaps there are poppies, chamomiles, speedwell, plantains, vetches, and this year for the first time I spotted Geranium dissectum.

Moving onto the path, this being a transition year there is an increased list of plants to spot but no booklet yet to confirm the identities, nor a simple list to tick off what I could see. So I took a different approach and wrote down every plant I could identify. Given that M’s concentration span wouldn’t allow me to look up plants in situ, I then took photographs of anything I wasn’t sure about and spent the next few days going through them and identifying as many of the remainder as I could. Some of course are not on the list for monitoring, and some will need the second visit for additional identification information, (either because there are similar plants that I didn’t get enough details to distinguish between them, or because they weren’t in flower yet) but how much more I learned by doing it this way! I have added at least half a dozen plants to my knowledge which I now feel I could recognise again, plus I am just starting to explore a whole new world of grasses – quite important on my path since around half of it is through fields that are only occasionally grazed by cows.

The middle section of my path runs through the woodland – which has just been taken over by a new owner who has removed alien invaders like Himalayan Balsam and planted many new trees. However, not all of them have plant labels, and from those that do there are some very interesting and unexpected additions, including 37 different native species according to the notice on the entry style so my identification skills here will be developing as well! Unfortunately the intensive management renders the woodland fairly useless for monitoring purposes, but how fascinating to watch!

And the remaining path? This runs along the side of an access track and has fairly different plants to the other sections, although by no means everything that I know is to be found within my square. However one new exciting find for this year was an pyramid orchid, just a solitary flower seen along this section and not yet open. I hope for some more by next year. So my list for the path is up to 63 flowering species, plus grasses, plus probably some sub-species of yellow flowers that I have lumped together (various sow thistles or hieraciums for example, not in the official list) giving me a starting point for future comparisons.