Why do our expensive seeds fail when weeds never seem to? Often it’s because conditions are not exactly suitable despite our best efforts. Sometimes though, when everything is just right, weed seeds will make a mockery of our efforts to destroy the countryside. Flower-rich haymeadows are one of the most endangered habitats anywhere threatened by modern farming practice, which sees wildflowers as ‘weeds’, and development alike.
Wild plants will quickly gain a foothold wherever the soil is left open after disturbance see how quickly. Flanders poppies covered the ground during the disruption of the First World War.
The same sort of thing happened in North Somerset when the Bristol to Portishead A369 road was diverted at St Georges Hill to accommodate the M5 motorway junction at the Gordano service area many years ago [c. 1971]. A half-mile stretch of new road was cut through a field to straighten and widen the old one. The highway authority may have originally sown some grass to cover the mess, but even if that was the case it’s doubtful that the mixture included any wildflowers. Unfortunately two local government reorganisations later records have been lost, and memory fades.
Gradually as the conditions settled weeds started to establish themselves amongst the grass on the verges. As with any such site dandelions, thistles and other windblown seeds would have been the first, followed by heavier ones like ash and sycamore. Later those carried by birds resulted with bramble and hawthorn being prominent. For 20 years the site was left virtually undisturbed. The whole area was gradually developing into a long and narrow woodland, as the trees grew taller and thicker. Apart from mowing the regulation metre-wide strip next to the tarmac and a swathe to provide sight-lines at junctions, no management has ever been undertaken by the councils. At other sites along the route to Bristol trees now meet overhead in a leafy tunnel!
About ten years ago I was excited to realise that some of the plants were primroses and cowslips common enough in South Devon perhaps, but now quite a rarity locally. What was also evident was that more robust plants were overrunning the flowers. To prevent this, small areas were cleared every year by hand. The flowers thrived. Spurred on by the success larger areas were mowed annually. A side effect of removing the debris was that conditions started to change as the nutrient levels dropped. More flowers began to establish as the conditions slowly altered. There are now all sorts of meadow plants gracing the banks after the spring flowers die back including several varieties of orchids.
All of the plants found have established themselves naturally, apart from some fruit trees that have obviously grown from discarded apple cores Royal Gala thrives here! As time passed more and more people began to notice the flowers and to appreciate them. Now a growing team of volunteers spends time every autumn and winter making sure that the wildflowers can continue to delight passers-by every spring and summer. Not all the trees and brambles are removed; some areas are left to mature, whilst the meadows are maintained between. This way as diverse and varied a range of habitats as possible is being conserved.
For the first time a complete survey was undertaken in 1991. Initial results are encouraging; despite being alongside a route that is daily brought to a standstill with commuter traffic the range of wildlife continues to increase. One 50-metre stretch holds at least 50 species of plant. By May 2005 increased expertise in identification had raised the total on the site to something like 270 [including fungi]! Badger, rabbit and smaller mammals are much in evidence though unfortunately more at risk from the traffic! A surprising variety of birds and insects [especially Marbled White butterfly and Cinnabar Moth] is regularly found, mostly unaffected by the lorries and cars thundering by. A thorough survey of invertebrates is planned for 2006.
What is most exciting is the realisation that, despite the destruction caused by the building of new roads and the increase in traffic, wild things will re-colonise. On a site like this the number of vehicles appears to have little effect, in fact it seems to have a positive side in that there are virtually no pedestrians and even fewer dogs to disturb the wildlife. The emissions from the traffic may not be totally beneficial to those working on the verge, though there are no indications that the plants are affected. The endangered wildflowers have been conserved.
With the encouragement and support of the District and Parish Councils, a Millennium Conservation award ** and a grant from YANSEC (from the Landfill Credit Tax), work continues and the site has expanded as much as possible, the potential is almost unlimited. Travellers will be able to enjoy the wonderful stands of flowers on their way to and fro, especially when stationary in a traffic jam [a regular occurrence]. Some may even be encouraged to undertake their own project when they realise that the weeds are in fact wonderful wildflowers.
None of the plants has been introduced artificially; they are ‘self-set’ and wild. The reason that they thrive is because the management ensures the conditions are suitable.
The area near the junction with the Welcome to Easton-in-Gordano and Pill sign was planted with some garden plants by the Pill and District Garden Club. Whilst we manage this now as part of the main wildflower site, these plants are still encouraged.
· Pearl’s Patch [Opposite the top of Rectory Road and the old Easton school] has indigenous trees funded by Ron Painton in memory of his wife.
· Non-native American Elm trees, which are totally resistant to Dutch Elm Disease, have been planted near to the junction of St. George’s Hill with the A369 as a memorial to Valerie Price, John Smales and ‘Jock’ Wilson. These trees replace native English Elms that now cannot survive more than a few years.