I spent a very happy time today on Salisbury Plain with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s Pippa Rayner and a group of enthusiasts learning about bumblebee identification. There are 14,000 Hectares of unimproved chalk downland – or 20% of Europe’s total – on the plain, which means it is bumblebee central. Although gardeners can do a lot, restoration of species rich grassland habitat is the key to restoring the fortunes of many bumblebees.
Pippa is particularly working on saving the Shrill Carder Bee, which looks as if it could be the next of our bumblebees to go extinct. It’s clinging on in pockets of the South West, including around us, and we’re hoping that our meadow projects might help save this once common bee. Thanks to Pippa’s tuition, now I think I ‘d be able to identify one if we are lucky enough to come across it.
Ern’s sheep have grazed our field and orchard forever but he’s found himself short of ewes and long of pasture this year, so it was a good opportunity for us to tentatively diversify by buying some new stock. Sheep are important to us as we need their tidy grazing to keep the grass under control, but they are also increasingly helpful to open up our meadow sward after mowing and before growth restarts in Spring. Wildflowers need help if they’re not to be overwhelmed by grasses.
For this reason Poll Dorsets suggested themselves; the breed is unusual in that they will lamb at any time of year, so if we get our timing right we will have have lambs ready to graze the meadow aftermath from September next year. Not only that but they’re a good looking quality local sheep known for their wool, and bred from the historic Dorset Horn.
Ern currently has 20 odd Mule ewes, so we thought we could add another 5 Poll Dorsets to the flock. First port of call was the Breeder’s Association, which led us to Graham Langford’s Blackdown Flock. We were smitten – and impressed by the economic potential of such immaculately bred sheep.
They’re now helping graze our existing meadow area and a new section of field, which has been chain harrowed and sown with seed we have collected. The plan is to have lambs for next Autumn, ready for market in early 2011 – once we’ve found a good quality ram. We’ll keep some to increase the flock size and, over time, maybe even persuade Ern to get into the pedigree sheep business.