Which Wildflower Seed Do I Buy?

Where Should I Buy Wildflower Seed?

Here of course! It turns out there are relatively few suppliers of wildflower seed in the UK but a lot of resellers (more or less like us), and a lot of people claiming their mixes are UK wildflowers when they’re not. Be careful – it’s a very poorly regulated area.

Wildflower seedWhat is a wildflower here? I know this sounds like a daft question, but lots of seed packets are mislabelled. To my mind it’s a flower which occurs naturally in the UK and is grown from British seed, harvested in the UK. These are the first things to find out about your seed mix. You often find plants like Cosmos and Californian poppies in “wildflower” mixes sold on Amazon or Ebay.* They’re lovely and long living flowers, helpful to pollinators – but UK wildflowers they ain’t. One of the most attractive and nectar rich mixes we sell is made up of a really good mix of native and non-native species, but that’s what it says on the tin.

There are some very good suppliers out there though, most of whom we work with. Some are tiny, producing only 100kg of seed a year, so difficult to find online.

What Kind of Wildflower Seed Mix Should I Buy?

Essentially, you will find three different types of mixes available from reputable suppliers:

  • Cornfield Annuals: These are the wildflowers that used to be a common site in arable fields – cornflowers, poppies etc.. As they are annuals they need a different management technique and work to make sure they keep setting seed and producing flowers year after year. They have a relatively short flowering window and the assemblage of the standard mixes isn’t the sort of thing you’d see naturally, but they are incredibly easy and reliable and produce an amazing display of vibrant colour. They’re good for pollinators, but not for anything needing to over-winter.
  • Direct Harvest Mixes: These are seeds harvested from existing donor meadows. They’re a combination of grasses and perennial wildflowers. Experienced harvesters will take more than one sweep across a meadow during a season, usually using a brush harvester. Meadows aren’t harvested every year, and the process is fully sustainable. The mixes are cleaned up before sale. They are often only available in limited quantities or sometimes only to order. These are my favourite mixes; they usually have a high ratio of wildflowers to grasses at a sensible price, offer a massive diversity of species, and have precise provenance. If you can find a mix harvested in your area which will also do well on your site, bingo. There’s a case for buying a mix like this even if it is harvested a way away from you. Be wary of certain species, however! You don’t really want a significant rye grass element, for example, or high levels of aggressive grasses like cocksfoot and timothy. Some donor sites will have organic certification. All of them will have had either no pesticides at all used on them or very limited, targeted application of herbicide.
  • Generic Seed Mixes: These are mixes which have been artificially combined – put together species by species. You know exactly what you’re getting, and they can be constructed to give you the right species for your soil type or site. You will find a range of  these too on our website, which for larger projects can be produced to design. They’re really intended as a starting point; they have a relatively limited number of wildflower species included which occur naturally across the UK (at least from reputable suppliers!). This means you miss out on anything slightly unusual or particularly local. Generic mixes can be made up of wildflowers only or a meadow mix, which includes grasses. Usually the meadow mixes are supplied at a ratio of 80% grasses to 20% wildflowers. Don’t be tempted by cheaper mixes produced for agri-environmental schemes which only have 10% wildflowers; 10% is too low for most people. You might also find that the “wildflowers” in these mixes are in fact cultivars. Does this matter? You bet. “Wild red clover” is going to give pollinators better forage than “red clover”. Birdsfoot trefoil lasts much longer than its much bigger cultivars. The grass element should consist of certified meadow grasses. Suppliers may use herbicide in the preparation of seedbeds to produce this seed.

If you are buying meadow seed do please check it has been produced in the UK from UK stock. Knowing about where it’s from is a good way of guaranteeing how it has been produced – you might want to know about pesticide use or year of harvest, for example. There are other good ecological reasons for wanting UK seeds too, ideally the more local the better.

Do I Need Wildflower Seed At All?

To seed a wildflower area you need to clear the grasses and weeds from the area of your lawn / paddock / field before you start. Just a thought – do you really want to do this? If your lawn is anything like ours you’ve potentially got a mini-meadow in your garden already. I let areas of it get a bit higher in the summer to allow the daisies, self-heal, clovers, dandelions, black medick and ground ivy (etc!) to flower.

If you have a field or paddock the chances are it has aggressive modern grasses in it. If you’re very lucky and it doesn’t, you might be able just to add Yellow Rattle in the autumn. Sit back and see what comes up when it takes effect the following year, when the grasses get knocked back. You might not need any more seed at all.

*Some of this seed also has very low viability. Wildflower seed can have very limited shelf life if stored incorrectly.

 

 

Plantlife

Readers of this blog will probably be familiar with Plantlife, the plant conservation charity. They do significant work around the country managing land and raising awareness of the importance of wildflowers and the crisis they are in. I’m grateful for their work. The senior people I’ve heard and met from Plantlife know their potatoes and are good communicators, charismatic and impressive.

In terms of the UK conservation world they’re a relatively large, well funded charity. Their turnover is around £3.5 million and their income is largely from government agencies and organisations like the Heritage Lottery Fund. They have over 50 people in their head office and many other volunteers and outreach officers. Their PR is fabulous; as a charity with Prince Charles as patron they are regularly on Radio 4, for example, as they were this morning talking about their Wildflower Hunt (an interesting project). They have over 28 thousand Twitter followers and specialists running their social media feeds. Their website SEO is professional and the site ranks well in searches. This is all great for wildflowers.

But…*

Plantlife don’t seem to like the wildflower seed business. Last year this became apparent in the McMeadows fiasco. They attacked the industry in a pretty ill-informed and unhelpful way. People – including me – were very upset. Essentially they don’t like “off the shelf” wildflower seed mixes of any sort, regardless of quality, origin or provenance. All suppliers, good, bad and ugly were lumped in together.

Wildflower seed harvesting
Encourage Wildflower Seed Producers!

At the time I made the point that we should encourage the development of an economically viable and responsible wildflower seed business, not undermine it. There are very few folk scratching a living out of wildflower seed at the moment, battling people selling imported seed, non-native species and agricultural cultivars as “UK wildflowers”.

NGOs don’t have the resources or incentives to do what the commercial sector can potentially contribute. On a practical basis, if 97% if your wildflower meadows have disappeared then it’s difficult to source local plant material in the way that Plantlife would like us to, in anything like the volume required. They should engage with the good guys and we can all work together.

We pay farmers to let us harvest seed from their meadows, for example, and then sell it. Guess what? They then seed more meadows as they can see a return from them. We have set up a website to enable small specialists to sell their locally harvested meadow seed mixes. It’s to our advantage to encourage people to buy them. These are simple instances of aligning commercial and ecological interests.

I understood Plantlife’s views might have changed since, as they learnt more about the business. I’d heard some encouraging things from them. Out of curiosity I checked their website this morning to see if that was reflected there. In fairness, there was no recent McMeadows stuff. I did find this in their policy document, though:

Planting wildflower seed mixes doesn’t conserve wild flowers or restore fragmented habitats. Worse, it could threaten the distinctiveness and natural genetic variation of our local flora. Our challenge is to conserve wild flowers whilst maintaining their essential wildness. Rather than reaching for a packet of wildflower seed, the Plantlife to-do list looks like this…

Well – yes, sort of. The plant material is often not available to do what they would like us to – that’s the point. You can, however, buy packets of some direct harvest local wildflower seed mixes. The more people we encourage to buy them the more there would be available. Local provenance is something we very much promote, although even the arguments about that are complicated – far, far over my head!

Anyway, although you can disagree with the message at least it’s consistent. But then – just as I was about to close my browser – I noticed that Plantlife now have a shop. I couldn’t believe what they were selling.

Wildflower seed mixes in packets.+

You can understand why I was so gobsmacked. These are the very wildflower seed mixes they disapprove of when sold by other people. This isn’t just unfair, it’s utter humbug.

Plantlife have a huge and obvious competitive advantage over someone trying to make a living out of selling wildflower seed. In some ways this is a good thing, of course – much better to buy Plantlife seed from John Chambers than some cr@p off Amazon or Ebay. In other ways it’s clearly not.

The RHS commercial arm ran into similar accusations of unfair advantage, which they at least partly resolved by promoting good quality UK nurseries and growers, through their Plant Finder scheme and magazine, for example. It would be really, really helpful if Plantlife did something similar.

 

*You knew there would be a but.

+AND sourced from one of our competitors – doh!

 

 

 

 

 

Weed or Wildflower? Which is Which?

I always tell punters one man’s weed is another one’s wildflower. I’m not sure that’s strictly true in most cases. Problematic plants? I know dandelions and plantains can be a struggle for some in the garden, for example, despite their – to my mind – obvious allure.

Wildflower meadow
I see no weeds

Bittercress, dock and nettle – weed, I think, while acknowledging that “weed” isn’t all bad. I have a designated nettle patch that caterpillars much through. And – really – what’s the difference between Rumex obtusifolius (bad), Rumex acetosa (good) and – my favourite dock – Rumex hydrolapathum (fantastic).

I guess it’s a question of degree. We have a little video about making wildflower meadows, in which I made the mistake of saying weed out any thistles. Well, I say a mistake – it’s not; thistles are very efficient colonisers and a real pain in a new wildflower meadow. That’s not to say they aren’t good plants for pollinators and can be very pretty – as was pointed out to me in no uncertain terms (!) – but they can take over. Diversity is what you’re aiming for, and a field full of thistles isn’t that.

Anyway, Birdsfoot trefoil and Self-heal would not even hit my top 50 of “difficult” plants. We must have sold hundreds of kilos of BFT and Self-heal seed over the years, and thousands of plug plants. They are pretty, small wildflowers. Self-heal is in our flowering lawn mix and Birdsfoot trefoil looks like a native snapdragon. Good plants for a variety of pollinators, BFT particularly good for some bumbles.

I digress.

The point is, according to Farmer’s Weekly, that these two plants are on the naughty step. They are, apparently, “unwanted weeds”, albeit good weeds insofar as they improve fat levels in the lambs that eat them. Hurrah!

This is really irking, but an interesting insight into the psyche of Farmer’s Weekly readers. Many farmers still treat anything not the right sort of grass as a weed.

This has got to stop. I can understand farmers antipathy towards species like black grass and dock. But Birdsfoot trefoil and Self-heal? For starters, plants like this are good for livestock. You can buy grazing grass mixes which include them. They also have really important ecological value and their numbers are declining.

Perhaps Farmer’s Weekly should start to call them herbs, if they can’t bear “wildflowers”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

House Sparrows

For fellow baby boomers, the demise of house sparrows is an obvious and distressing sign of the crisis in nature around us. In a week when we celebrated World Sparrow Day, it was sad to also see a stunning survey from France, showing a collapse in bird numbers generally there.

House Sparrow
It’s cold out there…

Why have house sparrows, a ubiquitous and cheery part of my childhood, run into such hard times that they are now a “species of conservation concern” in the UK? Aspects of their story are entirely typical of many other species in trouble here.

The first common characteristic is that people don’t really know the answer. It’s difficult to research even house sparrows – a pretty charismatic and high profile species. There’s probably a combination of factors at work, so far as I can gather.

Maybe there are fewer nest sites. Availability of food seems to be a problem. It could be that pollution impacts on them, although numbers in town seem to be declining at the same rate as their country cousins. Maybe it’s rising numbers of predators. Disease might also be a factor.

I’ve heard the same answers as to why almost anything is disappearing- bees, bats, butterflies, hedgehogs, crickets…

There is rarely a smoking gun, that’s the point. The environment is much more complicated, to the irritation of many campaign groups. Even if you have a relatively clear cut case – like albatrosses and long line fishing – you won’t save them from extinction purely by banning it. There’s much more going wrong.

It’s impossible to weigh different factors or to isolate them, even if you had the funding to try to. In an area I know more about – honeybees – it’s tempting to point the finger exclusively at the ghastly neonicotinoids. However, honeybees are struggling for a variety of reasons, neonics among them. In no particular order and in combination there’s weather, climate change, varroa, habitat loss, monocultures, fungicide use, pesticide use…

Again typically, elements in the house sparrow story suggest we’re missing a key piece of interpretation. Numbers in the south east seem to be under more pressure than in the south west – why’s that?

As usual, when we don’t know, odder – and unproven – theories take hold. Apparently mobile phones – once held to be decimating honey bee populations – are now also potential culprits for falling sparrow numbers. Sigh.

So what can we do? What we can. Better and more plants, more seeds and bugs in our gardens. Nestboxes, nice thick hedges. Clean feeders. No pesticides. Cross our fingers.

Will We Get a Green Brexit?

Many years ago I failed Latin A Level. My friend Tim and I sat slumbering at the back of a set full of classicists who all – except for us – went on to Oxbridge and have had various and glittering careers. I still remember my sullen admiration at watching those big brains at work. How could they make this stuff seem so easy?

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I went to a conference on Green Brexit, organised by Prosperity UK. Sorry to use the B word – please do read on.

Prosperity UK seems like a very good idea. Remainer or Leaver, their idea is that we should all move on and work together in a post Brexit world to make the best of things. To this end they organised a Conference on “Green Brexit”, which featured a number of wildly impressive brains who would have more than graced my Classics Upper Sixth. It was absolutely fascinating.

Green BrexitMany of the great and good from the world I inhabit were there. Michael Gove, Sir Roger Scruton, Tony Juniper (WWT), Matt Ridley, Helen Browning  (Soil Association), Minette Batters (NFU), Tim Bonner (Countryside Alliance), Lord Glasman, Lord Hill, David Babbs (38 Degrees), Michael Liebreich (Bloomberg), the Goldsmith brothers, Dame Fiona Reynolds, Dieter Helm (Natural Capital Committee), George Freeman MP, Tim Breitmeyer (CLA), Alistair Driver (Rewilding UK). There are some people here whose views I generally don’t get on with, and some with whose I do.

My particular interest was farmland. On which they were all – pretty much – and somewhat to my surprise – singing off similar hymn sheets. There were, certainly, philosophical differences, but for such a Catholic Church there was a remarkable degree of agreement.

Everyone agreed the the Common Agricultural Policy has been hopeless, and that waving it goodbye will present us with some great opportunities. Everyone agreed that we needed to embrace the idea of using public money to pay for things that actually benefit the public – “ecosystem services”. This could include planting trees to reduce flooding, increase biodiversity and sequester carbon, seeding wildflower meadows, establishing wetlands, rotating crops to help soils, rewilding… A Green Brexit could include paying farmers not to use excessive fertilisers, which run off and pollute water courses. It could include managing landscapes for visitors. It might even go as far as including animal welfare. Some of these payments might even come from the private sector. You would think people might pay to stop their homes being flooded, for example.

Most people seemed to agree that this approach had to be based around the idea of Natural Capital. This places a notional value on natural assets – a complicated and somewhat arbitrary set of calculations.  The idea is that the cost to the environment of food production or development is compensated for, and that in the round we keep or add to the sum of natural capital, not diminish it. Natural Capital does hit the buffers in certain regards; how do you value ancient woodland or a medieval wildflower meadow?

An area of unequivocal agreement was that we need – as Michael Gove put it – “the highest environmental and ethical standards”. These would encapsulate some basic principles – such as polluter pays and the precautionary principle, for example – which require a regulator of some kind and legislative teeth. Guess what – in a room full of environmentalists there was ne’er a dissenting voice.

This all sounded pretty Utopian. It was enormously exciting to hear policy makers and movers and shakers talking in these terms. Bright Blue, the Conservative think tank, have already produced a detailed policy paper.

There are, however, obvious issues involved in translating these clever ideas into reality.

In theory the public will end up a massive winner from this kind of reform. The current system encourages waste and inefficiency. We’re largely just paying people to own farmland. Paying farmers to help stop flooding, improve water and soil quality, improve animal welfare, etc etc are all things that benefit the public. The problem is the electorate won’t understand “ecosystem services”, as they don’t translate into cheaper food prices in the shops.

In order for super duper new environmental controls to work, our trading partners importing food here would have to sign up to equivalent standards. Here’s where the politics comes in. One of the Brexit dividends was supposed to be cheaper food. Dropping import tariffs should lead to cheaper imported food, to the cost of our own farmers.

According to the brains, it seems unlikely. There will of course be individual examples where prices fall (like sugar), but overall the effect will be negligible compared to, for example, currency movements. We will not see cheaper food unless we relax regulation relating to things like animal welfare and pesticide use. There’s a real danger of a race to the bottom, featuring chlorinated chickens, beef stuffed with antibiotics, pigs in farrowing crates, cereals treated with neonicotinoids…. the list is endless.

What is going to happen to food production here if we start paying farmers to take tracts of land out of agricultural production? These will be more or less relatively unproductive, but output overall will still fall, even with technologically and ecologically driven improvements in yields in the areas which remain under plough and cow. This would mean higher dependence on food imports. Would we be happy with that?

If output falls, what effect is this going to have on food prices? Particularly in combination with higher environmental standards, it’s difficult to see them going down. This might seem like a great idea in a room full of economists, environmentalists and farmers. It’s difficult to see it going down so well in the House of Commons.

And how can any of the reforms of a Green Brexit not bring extra cost to administer? They will need regulation, guidance and monitoring. A system based on natural capital will be fiendishly difficult and complicated, as opposed to one which essentially consisted of lots of measuring. Who’s going to do this* and how much will it cost? This expense is – the economists will argue – a small price to pay for a much more cost effective and beneficial system. Will it seem that way to the politicians promising less red tape and more transparency after Brexit?

The electorate is wedded to its own idea of what constitutes an attractive and natural landscape. Ecologists might shudder at the denuded hillsides of the Lakes and the Yorkshire Dales, but tourists flock to them. Farmers have farmed these areas the same way for generations. They will all resist change.

To my mind these Green Brexit reforms should also be accompanied by reducing farmland’s tax breaks. Much of our farmland is owned by folk who are just using it as a way of avoiding IHT. Reduce this kind of tax break and farmland prices would fall to more sustainable levels, on which farmers could make commercial yields. They will also care more about qualifying for subsidies by doing the right thing for the environment.

Government intervention on this kind of scale in the countryside does not have a good track record. There always seem to be unintended consequences. Biogas seemed a great idea until we realised the consequences of growing tonnes and tonnes of maize – a terrible crop ecologically – to produce it.

There were many other discussions during the day, covering a variety of topics. They were remarkably amicable when they veered into areas where there was genuine and heartfelt disagreement. It’s going to take a lot more – and potentially less pleasant – labour to persuade politicians and the public to get behind some of the ideas behind Green Brexit, even if they are promoted by the big brains.

*Natural England, the obvious choice, has been gutted over the last few years.

 

Blacksmithing

I like a bit of craft. I’ve been on dry stone walling and hedge laying courses, and afterwards really enjoyed trying to impersonate someone who knew what they were doing. I suppose I had the same kind of idea in mind when I signed up to a blacksmithing course in Devon over the weekend.

Blacksmithing 2
Blacksmith Manns

Earlier Manns were blacksmiths in the East End for at least three generations in the 19th century. I wondered if it might be a genetic thing. It turns out it’s not. Even if they were twice as naturally talented as I am at it, they would still have been as hopelessly impoverished as they were.

Predictably, for someone whose last formal instruction in this kind of thing was being banned from doing O Level woodwork, I was pretty er… average. It turns out you don’t just heat lumps of metal up and give them a good bashing. There’s measuring and precision involved in blacksmithing, for a start. Then artistic interpretation. All things I am comfortably an E for.

Having said that, I had a lovely time, made some twirly and functional artefacts, and was made to feel like someone who could make a very good blacksmith if only I had the time. My delightful fellow students all looked like they would make very good blacksmiths.

BlacksmithingOur teacher was John Bellamy, a bluff but kind and patient Northerner. This makes sense; I always thought Moria was somewhere under Yorkshire. John wouldn’t mind me describing him as apparently completely physically square. He would be more embarrassed to be described as one of the country’s leading blacksmiths.

These crafts are fascinating – they are a real bridge to our common past. Medieval apprentices would have been taught to use the same tools as my great great grandfather used in Cable Street, and which I now have a passing acquaintance with. I’ve laid hedges in the style used hereabouts since – goodness knows – the Iron Age? We too often lose that sense of continuity .

 

 

 

Wildflower Meadows: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

We sell a fair amount of seed for wildflower meadows. You might say wildflower meadows are a bit of an obsession, in fact. We do everything we can to make sure they’re going to work for our clients. We know where the seed has come from, we do random germination tests, we know how old it is and how it has been stored. We post guides and videos about how to make wildflower meadows. Things still seem to go wrong though… here are the three biggest bloopers folk commit.

1. What Is Your Seed and What Will It Do?

Do you know what you want to create and will the seed mix you buy give you that? Do you know what a “traditional” hay meadow will look like? Is that what you want? IF yes then remember… good things come to those who wait. Wait until you’ve done your prep. Wait until the right window to sow. Most importantly, wait for your meadow flowers to develop. They are    s      l      o      w growing perennials, which won’t flower in year one. Many might not in year two. Take pleasure in watching it develop. This hints at the next question…

2. Would You Sow Carrot Seed Onto Your Lawn?
No no and thrice no! And wildflower seed is often equally small and much more slow growing. Don’t chuck it on an existing pasture or lawn. If soil fertility is anything but LOW and there are any aggressive grasses about (which there almost certainly will be), your wildflower seed will end up being a waste of £££. There are exceptions to this*, but this is true of well over 90% of the sites we deal with. Clear a little space to seed wildflowers and the grasses will take it over. Create a little strip to seed wildflowers and the grasses will take it over. Scarify some of the grass off to seed wildflowers and the grasses will take over. You get the picture.

3. Be Brutal
There are some plants you don’t want in your meadow. Thistles have great biodiversity value but get everywhere. Dock looks like Sorrel, but is much less retiring. Nettles are great food plants for caterpillars but a curse in wildflower meadows. No thanks; all these need to go, and BEFORE they have any chance of setting seed. Don’t leave those thistles flowering because they’re a great food source for bees. Have them out, unless you want a thistle plantation.
Cut the grass before September. Please, please don’t wait until the last Knapweed has finished flowering. The grass will collapse before then and be virtually uncuttable. If you don’t cut it promptly and over the winter I guarantee you will soon be looking at a field full of grass, not a wildflower in sight. And that would be a great shame.

If all this is too worrying and you are to horticulture what I am to blacksmithing, just get us to do the whole thing for you.

Wildflower meadow
What’s all the fuss about?

*I can hear you thinking you might be one. If you think you might, get in touch. I’d be interested to hear from you and we can cook up a strategy for your site.

 

Common Ground

Common Ground is a wonderfully slippery fish. It’s a charity founded by Sue Clifford and Angela King, which according to its unique website “seek(s) imaginative ways to engage people with their local environment”. We’ve supported it for many years, and I very much share its philosophy and aims. I guess finding Common Ground was one of the reasons I had my conversion from City bloke to whatever the hell it is I do now.

Common GroundWhat do they do? All sorts. Art installations, practical guides, events… I first bumped into them in the early 2000s, when we set up an Apple Day in an old cider orchard in our village. Everyone gathered and harvested the apples, tea was taken, then the apples pressed and bottled to support the village church and hall.

It was Common Ground who started Apple Day and the idea of community orchards. They also worked hard to revive local varieties of fruit trees, but particularly apple trees. This fell neatly into Sue and Angela’s central objective. They want to get communities to understand and promote “local distinctiveness” through art and custom, landscape and architecture, history and environment.
Common GroundBang on message for Habitat Aid. We promote exactly the same values. I wish I had the imagination to come up with the kind of innovative ways Common Ground have done to promote them.

These days, you might associate this kind of philosophy with a small island mentality. Not at all with Common Ground. Their message is absolutely inclusive, promoting localism within a global community. The two can co-exist. And Common Ground have got things done, rather than just talk about them. Books, projects, artwork, landscape work – over a 35 year history they have produced a really significant and eclectic body of work. You can see their influence across a whole range of apparently unconnected areas, in urban and rural settings.

I heard Sue speak yesterday evening. Although these days they have handed the running of the charity on, her and Angela’s enthusiasm and clarity of purpose is undimmed. Thanks both.

The Cricket Field Oak

In winter when I do the washing up I can see the Cricket Field Oak. It’s usually through Somerset rain which, as you can see, has left its mark over the last several hundred years. I had to dash out to take this photo when the sun appeared briefly! This wonderful English oak, Quercus robur, was there centuries before cricket was played next to it and will stand for centuries after the last ball was bowled there.

Ancient trees
The Cricket Field Oak

It’s officially an ancient tree, with its own reference in the ancient trees directory, 46732. A minor celebrity – not that the family of Little Owls who live there would know. And I didn’t know either. I had admired and wondered at this single oak, but I didn’t realise it had been officially recognised. I’m indebted to the Ancient Tree Forum for this. They record our ancient trees and advise on their upkeep – invaluable work.

Why are these trees important? They support extraordinary biodiversity – English oak trees support over 280 invertebrate species, together with lichens and fungi. The older it is, the more diverse a tree’s associated flora and fauna becomes.

I love their cultural significance. Many are named after people or events that happened in their shade. Last year I visited Windsor Great Park. There I saw the great Signing Oak (13623), whose 9.72m girth dwarfs our little Cricket Field Oak. South of us here is the equally enormous Wyndham Oak (6884), where Sir Hugh Wyndham took his ease in the 1650s. These trees are over 900 years old.

We are blessed with ancient oaks in this corner of Somerset. We live on what was the edge of the great royal Selwood forest, where Alfred gathered the fyrd before the battle of Edington*. Later, the land hereabouts was wood pasture, used in the middle ages for hunting deer, grazing domesticated animals and producing timber. This open environment is ideal for single oak trees, hungry for light, to flourish. Many of the oaks were managed carefully and pollarded, which has extended their lives.

It’s an accident of history that these trees weren’t felled. They would have been on mainland Europe. For this we can be grateful for the failure of the Commonwealth and – shortly after – John Evelyn’s Sylva. Deer parks were the preserve of the Crown and aristocracy, who came to appreciate the value of trees in the landscape.

Oaks are said to spend 300 years growing, 300 years maturing, and 300 years “veteranising”. There’s no hard and fast rule as to when a tree is a veteran and when it becomes “ancient”. Just down the road from us over the road from the pub is a fabulous ash tree (55789), which is officially a veteran; it’s a mere 5m round.

This ash is a big tree, but as it gets older, like an old man it will shrink. Its trunk will continue to thicken but its crown will reduce as a survival strategy to reduce the ravages of weather and decay.

These ancient trees are extraordinary. They are their own secret worlds, teeming with life. They have their own told and untold histories. Older and more mysterious than cathedrals or castles. Worth more pondering while doing the washing up.

*The night before the battle (in 878) Alfred stayed by the great Iley Oak, which was still used as a gathering point in the 1650s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tragedy of the Commons

To get a break from Donald Trump at Davos I’ve been learning about the “tragedy of the commons”. It’s an idea coined in the 19th century and revived by ecologist Garrett Hardin fifty years ago.

The concept originally referred to the over-grazing of common land. Farmers’ rational self-interest inevitably lead to their putting too much livestock on commons. Which were then trashed. The animals then starved. While society believes in the freedom of the commons, individuals will pursue their own best short term interests. These are contrary to the common good. In the long term, everyone loses.

Depressing stuff, and of course applicable in all sorts of areas.  There’s fossil fuels, deforestation, traffic congestion, antibiotic use in animals, over-fishing, etc etc etc. More recently, social media has, inevitably, faced the same problem.

The interesting thing is that now – for the first time in human history – we are beginning to understand this principle. And when we understand the environmental consequences of our actions we can change our own lifestyles to mitigate or negate them. We can vote for politicians who use stick and carrot to get people and corporates to act for the common good.

By definition, though, it’s a tough ask in a democracy. Mr Trump is living proof of that.