After a couple of weeks when we spent half our time catching up with old friends face to face – at last – and most of the rest preparing the campervan for a new season; we finally got out for a decent walk today on the Mendips, beginning at Charterhouse and walking down Velvet Bottom and then following the West Mendip way up and along the top of the Longwood valley – passing several nature reserves before completing the circuit back at Charterhouse.
It’s a bit early for any of the flowering plants to show themselves – there are some really quite rare plants up there – but we left the flat thinking about the implications of a recently published paper by Belgian scientists that demonstrated how dogs – and more particularly their faeces and urine – add potentially dangerous amounts of phosphates and nitrates which would be illegal if produced by farms. We’re very used to notices imploring dog owners to keep their animals on leads on farms, and it’s true that some careful owners pick up the poo and dispose of it properly, but the urine stays put. The point is that the finest shows of rare wildflowers need poor soil to flourish – that’s why we sow yellow rattle, a parasitic plant on grasses, on potential wildflower meadows, and remove the hay when they’re cut. The Mendips are rich in these sorts of habitats, and you have to wonder whether the sheer quantities of dog poo alongside and on the tracks, presents a threat to rare plants.
Apart from all that pooch flop (I thank the late Richard Boston for that one!) the absence of flowers focuses the eyes on much smaller targets; the bryophytes – mosses and liverworts and the lichens – none of which I know a great deal about. I did lash out on the ultimate field guide, published by the British Bryological Society a couple of years ago; but it’s so densely packed with identical looking plants, my heart sank and today it still smelt like a new book. We have a couple of real experts in the Bath Nats, and it’s always a pleasure to go on field trips with them, but bryophytes demand a bit of an apprenticeship. I should really try harder because unlike wildflowers, most of them are available for head scratching and book banging the year round. Occasionally the Google Lens app on my phone gives a useful steer for identifying all sorts of plants, but that’s my secret vice! I slipped in the wild thyme on the right because there’s a lot growing here and it’s a food plant, in a complicated sort of way, for the large blue butterfly which has been reintroduced in Somerset. The association is down to the fact that the larva are parasitic on the grubs of a species of red ant that associates with wild thyme. Who knows? the large blue may be breeding here already! The other photos show common polypody on the left, a thick mat of unidentified bryophytes in second place, and a lovely maidenhair spleenwort in third place. Honestly, the walk was brimming with interest
Further walking found a field full of what I think were either pure Lonk sheep or a crossbred variety; perfectly suited to this high country. They looked as if they were all in lamb, but there were a couple of tups still in the field and glowing with a liberal coating of luminous green spray. Later as we walked towards the road down away from Tynings Farm we saw someone making a lovely job of laying a hedge. Further along the way we saw he’d been busy in other places as well. I took several photographs of his work because hedge laying was one of my favourite jobs when I was working as a groundman and it’s a highly skilled and rewarding job; it’s brilliant for wildlife and it could provide work for many people who’d much rather lay hedges than work in call centres! Just to emphasise my point I also photographed a typical stretch of mechanically flailed hedge which offers none of those benefits; looks horrible and barely functions in keeping stock in the right place.