Herbs on a Hillside

The secret valley close to where I live is encircled by hills.  The steeper slopes as well as the valley floor, which is subject to regular flooding, have not been ploughed in living memory and, quite probably, not at all.  As a consequence, providing the sheep or cattle haven’t grazed them too heavily, the grass sward is peppered with wild flowers.  In the spring there are cowslips and, as the year advances, orchids and the delicate, nodding flower heads of Quaking Grass can be found.

Wild Flower Meadow copyright

over 97% of old flower meadows have been destroyed since 1930

Although the orchids are a joy, the plants that excite me most are the wild, culinary herbs, the scarcest of which is wild thyme, for it grows only on the driest and steepest of the banks.  Thyme can, of course, be readily bought in supermarkets all year round, either dried or fresh, and it is easily grown at home in a pot or window box.  All it requires is sunny spot and a free-draining and not over-rich potting compost to thrive.

Wild thyme copyright

Shakespeare’s wild thyme

Whenever, I see the wild thyme I always think of Shakespeare’s immortal line, I know a bank where the wild thyme grows.  The secret valley is only about twenty-five miles as the crow flies from Stratford-upon-Avon and so there is a rather satisfying sense of connection across the centuries, as well as the miles, whenever the tiny flowerheads peep out from amongst the grass.  In fact, Shakespeare’s words and the secret valley’s meadows were inspiration for an early blog post of mine on creating wild flower meadows way back in 2009!  You’ll find that one by clicking on this link.

Thyme’s cousin, marjoram is nowhere near as diminutive in both its scent or its flowering.  Standing tall on wiry, strong stems it is a magnet for bees and butterflies.  Once again, it is a useful garden plant not just for kitchen use but also good as a front of border edging.  It spreads steadily but is never a nuisance.  In the wild, grasses and other plants prevent it from becoming too dominant but when you discover a good stand of it swaying in a warm, summer breeze the perfume is unforgettable.

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A Ringlet butterfly feeding on Marjoram

One plant that is often overlooked although it is quite tall is Salad Burnet.  Its dark red, tightly buttoned flowers can be used in floral arrangements but it is only the young leaves that are edible.  Used in salads and also added to sauces, they have a mild and slightly bitter cucumber flavour.  Sharp eyes are needed to find it growing amongst tall grasses for its rosette of pinnate leaves hug the ground.  Fortunately, once again, there is no need to forage from the wild for they grow happily in the garden.

Salad Burnet watermark

You need to look carefully amongst the taller grasses to spot Salad Burnet

Along the lane that leads out of the valley, and also somewhat surprisingly, growing amongst trees close to our house, chives can be found.  A common kitchen ingredient and native to Britain they have a remarkably widespread range over much of the northern hemisphere, growing across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North America.  Although they are plentiful, how much easier it is to pick them from a pot close to the kitchen door!

Chives at Sladhollow watermark

chives growing through the leaf litter of open woodland

It is one of the pleasures of summer to seek out these wild food plants for it is reassuring to know that, if ever the need arose, they are there to flavour my meals.  However, even under lockdown, there is never a real need to harvest a wild plant; how much better to leave it for the bees and butterflies?

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Marbled White butterflies thrive in old meadows

The Year in Review: January – June 2016

As always the year has flown by to leave us with much uncertainty and sadness in the world.  Fortunately, life in the secret valley continues pretty much the same – it is easy to find relief from everyday stresses when surrounded by unspoilt countryside.  Rarely does a day pass when I don’t count my blessings for having had a rural upbringing and the opportunity to continue to live and work in such beautiful surroundings.frost-4-copyright

However, I am no hermit and I enjoy visiting other places – even cities!  One city I loved when I visited it some years ago was Stockholm, the capital of Sweden and I began the blogging year with a post about the Skansen open air museum.  Skansen was the first tomove and preserve traditional, threatened buildings; it was founded as early as 1873.  As well as buildings it also houses a zoo, concentrating on breeding native wildlife for reintroduction schemes including the European Bison which had become extinct in the wild.  To see more of the buildings click on the link here.8  Sweden. Skansen   copyright13 Sweden.  Skansen   copyright

Exmoor is a second home to me and features regularly on my blog.  In March, with some misgivings – for why would I want to share such a magical place – I took readers on my favourite walk, one that wouldn’t be found in any guide book.  The walk encompasses all that is best on Exmoor: open heather moorland, deep wooded combes, rushing streams and traditional pubs.  It also passed the door of the hill farm where I turned up as a lad looking for work after leaving school.  I was taken in and cared for – and made to work hard – and, well read the story by clicking on the link here.Above Brendon Barton (2)   copyrightLil @ Brendon Barton 1968   copyright

April saw me back on the Continent (as we Brits call Europe).  This time in the south of France visiting the ancient town of Lombez.  It is far from the tourist routes and we discovered it quite by chance.  With its ancient, timbered buildings and wonderful, brick built cathedral it deserved a longer visit than we were able to give it.  An excuse for a return trip, perhaps?  In the meantime, you can visit it by clicking on this link here.Lombez (22)   copyrightLombez (4)   copyright

If April saw us travelling slowly through France, May saw us travel at an even slower pace – by longboat on the Oxford Canal.  Passing through traditional buttercup meadows – we were miles from the city of Oxford – and in glorious sunshine it was the perfect way to relax as well as to see the wildlife that seemed oblivious to our passing.    Click on the link here to see more.016   copyright076   copyright

Our native butterflies struggle to thrive but I have been fortunate in living in places where they prosper reasonably well.  As a gardener, (both my hobby and my profession), I probably see more than most and in June I wrote about the species that visit gardens.  See how many you can identify  in your own garden by clicking on the link here and don’t forget to record them with your local conservation trusts or online.Comma Butterfly (2)   copyright

2017 may well prove to be a year that none of us forget too easily.  Travel abroad or in the countryside – and the British countryside is second to none – always helps to refresh the spirits.  I have numerous plans for the year ahead and hope that you will be joining me month by month.  In the meantime, the review of the second half of this year will follow shortly and don’t forget that images of the Cotswolds and other places I visit are updated regularly on my Facebook page and on Flickr.  You can also find me on Twitter @johnshortlandwra typical Cotswold scene   copyright

 

Butterflies in the Garden

It is telling that when Richard South, the eminent entomologist, wrote The Butterflies of the British Isles in 1906 he stated that “half of our native butterflies are so widely distributed that the collector should secure nearly all of them in his first season.”  Today, that would almost certainly be impossible and, fortunately, the collecting of butterflies, along with the collecting of bird’s eggs, is largely a thing of the past.

Common Blue Butterfly   copyright

Common Blue Butterfly

 

Butterflies, as well as many other insects, have become increasingly scarce for the wildflower meadows that many rely upon for breeding success have been lost with changes in farming practice.  Since South’s day 97% of our meadows have disappeared either to the plough or by the use of fertilisers and chemicals to ‘improve’ the grassland.

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Pyramidal orchids flowering in a traditional meadow

 

Where wild flowers thrive – in protected meadows, organic farms and odd corners of the landscape – butterflies can still be found, although rarely in great profusion.  Gardeners can be of great help when it comes to conserving wildlife and by allowing some of our native species to grow in our gardens we are able to see a number of butterflies at close proximity.  I will shortly be writing an article on growing wild flowers in the garden so, as they say, watch this space…

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Gatekeeper Butterfly on Wild Scabious

 

In the secret valley, we are fortunate in having a number of unimproved meadows and banks, deserted drove roads and flower-rich roadside verges, all of which means that butterflies readily come into our garden.  Even in town gardens a limited number of species will gradually appear and increase in number.

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The wild Geranium pratense is common throughout the Cotswolds and readily available to buy as a garden plant too

 

One of the first butterflies to be seen on the wing in spring is the Brimstone.  Flying at the first hint of warmth, they lay their eggs on Buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, a spiny shrub that can be grown in the garden as a clipped hedge or allowed to grow freely.  Its citrus green flowers are followed by shiny black berries in the autumn.  In the image below the Brimstone is feeding from Ceonothus flowers, a popular garden shrub.

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A common butterfly seen from mid-summer onwards is the Peacock, collecting in numbers to feed from Buddleia flowers.  This is such a popular shrub with butterflies that it is often known as ‘the butterfly bush.’  This Peacock is visiting Dame’s Violet, a scented herbaceous plant.

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Another butterfly that visits buddleia is the Comma which has increased steadily in numbers in recent years.  The Comma can be readily identified by the shape of its jagged wings and the white comma mark that is visible on the underwing when the butterfly is at rest.  It lays its eggs on currants, hops, willows and nettles.

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Not all butterflies are brightly coloured as those above and the Meadow Brown, in comparison, is quite drab. As its name suggests, it is found in grassland often in relatively large numbers and flying up from beneath your feet as you walk.  Not restricted to the countryside, keep an eye out for it in parks, cemeteries and gardens.  The photo below shows a female Meadow Brown resting on lavender; it can be identified by the orange markings on its wing.  Compare it with the all brown male feeding on achillea.

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Meadow Brown Butterfly - male   copyright

All butterflies fly in daylight but not all moths fly at night.  Moths aren’t always dull either: the day fliers can be very bright.  One of the most spectacular to be found in gardens in the south and west of England is the Scarlet Tiger.  Its caterpillars feed on a variety of plants including comfrey, honeysuckle and nettles.Scarlet Tiger Moth (2)   copyright

Want to know more?  The excellent website of Butterfly Conservation, the UK’s leading charity, has good identification pages for both butterflies and moths as well as a host of other information.  Better still, get out into the garden or countryside armed with camera and ID sheets.  Good butterflying!

A Walk Over Dartmoor – part 1

All the best walks start and end at a pub and a popular place to aim for is the Warren House Inn.  Located in the heart of Dartmoor, a national park in the county of Devon in England’s West Country, it has been a stopping point for thirsty travellers since the mid eighteenth century.  The fire, according to tradition, has never been allowed to go out – probably out of necessity for the inn is isolated and exposed on a high windswept plateau.

Warren House Inn copyright

Two miles to the south-west of the inn is the village of Postbridge, famed for its ancient clapper bridge, first mentioned in 1380 and reached by a track opposite the pub.  It passes the remains of habitation for Dartmoor once had a tin mining community and these are just some of the signs of this now vanished industry throughout the moor.  The mining is thought to have predated the Romans, flourished during medieval times and also the nineteenth century before finally ending in the mid-1900s.

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Spring comes late to this harsh environment: the few trees grow slowly and stunted.  When the moor flowers many different species of butterflies can be seen.

Stunted and sheep grazed hawthorn

Stunted and sheep grazed hawthorn

Small Pearl-Bordered FritillaryButterfly

Small Pearl-Bordered Fritillary Butterfly

As with many parts of Britain where rock lies close to the surface, drystone walls are a feature.  Unlike the soft limestone walls of the Cotswolds which use small pieces of thin, flat stone, Dartmoor’s are granite and some of the stones massive.  It is hard to conceive how they were built but the huge slabs foreshadow those that are to be found at Postbridge.

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Crossing the East Dart River, the clapper bridge at Postbridge is perhaps the best known of all of these bridges in England although there are more than two hundred on Dartmoor alone.  Thought to have been built to allow carts to carry tin off the moor, the bridge is over four metres long and two metres wide.  Some of the stones weigh more than eight tons.  The village consists of a few houses, a pub and a post office and is a favouriteplace to stop  for a traditional Devon cream tea.

The clapper bridge with the 'new' bridge behind built in 1780

The clapper bridge with the ‘new’ bridge behind built in 1780

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A riverside path heading north from the village leads into the heart of the moor towards the next stopping point, the prehistoric Grey Wethers stone circle, featured in part two of this blog.

East Dart River   copyright