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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Preserving English Meadows

Air Date: Week of

The fabled pastoral English countryside is coming under pressure from increasingly aggressive agribusiness. San Francisco-based producer Robin White found this out on a recent visit to his parents' village home in England. He tells us that some people, including his own mother, are trying to preserve the meadow landscape for the sake of biodiversity. He reports from the hamlet of Huish Champflower.


CURWOOD: The story books that show a rural English landscape usually picture lush green fields bordered by winding hedgerows, flocks of sheep scattered on a hillside, and rabbits bounding across rolling meadow lands. From The Wind in The Willows to Watership Down, the English countryside is a familiar icon. San Francisco-based producer Robin White visited his parents' home in England recently and found the face of the landscape changing under pressure from commercial farming. And he tells us that some people, including his own mother, are trying to buck the tide.

(Church bells peal)

WHITE: The big excitement in Huish Champflower, the village where my folks live, is bell-ringing practice at the local church on Friday nights. The bells have been ringing here for almost 600 years, and the village itself has been in existence since the first millennium. Everything is old; even the landscape looks like it does because it's been farmed continuously for thousands of years. It's a patchwork of odd-shaped fields of grass bordered by hedges and trees.

(Bird song and footfalls)

WHITE: My mum owns one of those fields and she's showing me around.

MUM: This is really a very marshy bit, with water dropwork and a lot of angelica and iris. We've got all sorts of different habitats in this little field.

WHITE: My mum has been nurturing the habitats back after previous owners damaged the field by over-fertilizing. In the last 50 years, farmers using massive amounts of fertilizer have wreaked havoc across the English countryside, destroying the natural diversity of plant species that built up over centuries. In the past, each hayfield used to have its own character and even its own name. But now, farm owner Ian Davis says the fields are becoming more uniform with just 3 species of grass and maybe some clover.

DAVIS: All of the wildflowers are regarded as noxious weeds and got to be exterminated. So the field may look beautiful in the spring with its bright green color and what have you. But from the point of view of wildlife it's becoming a desert.

WHITE: Davis says birds which used to be common in English fields, like song thrushes and skylarks, are declining in numbers. The birds can no longer find the insects and seeds they need to live on, and ground-nesting birds have nowhere safe to build their homes. Out of concern with the destruction of hayfields, Ian Davis set up a network of small agricultural landowners pledged to using farming techniques which benefit wildlife. He's enlisted the aid of David Westbrook, a naturalist with the Somerset Wildlife Trust. Westbrook advises the nature reserve owners on how to use old-fashioned farming techniques.

WESTBROOK: Past farming techniques which use less chemicals, were less demanding of the land, enabled certain types of wildlife communities to develop. Old haymeadows, for example, which are full of wildflowers and depend on butterflies and so on, they're reliant on these traditional haycutting methods, and they've been lost.

WHITE: In commercial fields, farmers use fertilizer to grow more hay, which they then cut several times a season. This feeds more cattle. But each cut takes away flower seeds and insects. The nature reserve owners don't fertilize and let the fields grow so the wildflowers can bloom and go to seed. To prevent their fields from getting overgrown, they take only one late hay crop. When the grass grows up again, they bring in the grazing specialists.

(A woman shouts: "Come on! Come on!" Sheep bleat.)

WHITE: The sheep keep down tough grasses, which would out-compete the spring wildflowers. And they act as seed spreaders. Any seeds they eat pass right through and get deposited in a different place. With each passing year the range of plants growing in a restored meadow increases, although it can take up to 8 years to bring back a field that has been heavily fertilized.

(Cutting sounds)

WHITE: Long before barbed wires was invented, thick mixed hedges were used to divide the fields. The hedges also protected wildlife. Farmers now cut hedges small and tight by machine, making them less hospitable to birds and animals. And some farmers remove them to make way for farm machinery.

(Cutting sounds continue)

WHITE: The nature reserve owners try to leave hedges bigger and manage them by hand. Some critics say the preservationists are holding back agricultural progress. Farmers say they need larger tracts of land and fertilizers and farm machinery to compete in the global marketplace. Standing on the edge of a field, Mike James, a doctor and nature reserve owner, says the landscape is one of the things that makes England special.

JAMES: All the fields, there's little odd shapes and they're all little funny bits tucked in here and tucked in there, not great big square fields like you tend to see in Europe. You know, this is the result of a tradition, an unbroken tradition of a thousand years of farming. And it's going now, because it's not economic.

WHITE: But the economics are changing. Thirty-eight percent of English farms are now sold to non-farmers. And some realtors are starting to specialize in private nature reserves.

(Bird song)

WHITE: Back in Huish Champflower, which incidentally means "the house of the man named Flowery Field," my mum looks for the devil's bit scabious. It's the food plant of an endangered butterfly, the marsh fertillery, which breeds at a publicly-owned nature reserve a mile from my folks' cottage.

MUM: There's the devil's bit scabious. Now that's, that is a little patch which has seeded since we've been here, and it looks as if it is now more than 1 plant.

WHITE: So is that the only place that you have the devil's --

MUM: No, here we are, look. There's some -- ooh, what a lot! Well, this is great, this is spread all along here.

WHITE: It's lovely, isn't it?

MUM: Such a gorgeous color, isn't it?

WHITE: Mum hopes, if she can encourage the devil's bit scabious, eventually her meadow might become part of the breeding range of the endangered butterfly. For Living on Earth, I'm Robin White.



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