Sunday 18 June 2023

Arable weeds?

I hate the term 'weeds', just as much as I hate the words pests, vermin and nuisance. Seeing nature as something a bit inconvient, a bit of a nuisance, is so, so sad. All these plants and animals have evolved over millennia to be perfectly suited to their environment. They have adapted to conditions that we often inadvertently create during our day to day activities, which sometimes brings them into conflict with ourselves.

Weeds are described as plants that are not in the right place, growing where they are not wanted - dandelions growing on a formal lawn for instance, or poppies in a wheat field. But that is only our perception of the wrong place; these so-called weeds are just plants growing in the conditions to which they have naturally evolved to suit, over thousands and thousands of years. It is only because some people abhor their presence that they have been given this denigrating moniker. How narrow-minded (some members of) our species have become in the last few centuries! 

Plants suited to frequently disturbed soil flourished as humans learnt to cultivate crops. The regular tilling of soil, created the early successional conditions within which a whole group of plants called, somewhat ironically, arable weeds, thrive. As our agriculture became more sophisticated, commercial and ruthless, herbicides eradicated all of these 'unwanted' plants to the extent that the majority are now incredibly rare. What were once abundant plants have virtually been wiped from the face of our intensively agricultural landscape. Fluellens, poppies, Corn Marigolds, Cornflowers, Shepherd's-needle etc have all become very rare and some species only now occur where conservationists purposefully recreate the conditions these plants need to survive. On our recent trip to Weeting Heath Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve, the warden, a fantastic botanist, James Symonds, very kindly took us for a tour of the arable weed field. This is a small patch of land which is cultivated with a very old grain crop, using no artificial fertilisers or chemicals and the result is astonishing; a glimpse back into how farm fields would have looked a century or so ago. The crop was open, the crop plants were of varied height, and among the crop grew a range of arable plants. Many of these were staggeringly rare, although abundant in this one small field. Three types of endangered speedwell grew here: Fingered, Spring and Breckland. 


Fingered Speedwell, Weeting.

They all thrived in these conditions and virtually nowhere else in Britain. They would have once been common everywhere. Prickly Poppies, Field Pansies, Broad-fruited Corn-salad and Fine-leaved Sandwort grew on the bare earth. 

Many of these plants are annuals, and their tiny seeds are sought out by Turtle Doves and other farmland birds which are also struggling in our intensive agricultural world. Their blooms provide a good source of nectar and pollen for insects. The loss of our arable weeds has therefore devastated a whole ecosystem.

Smooth Cat's-ear, Weeting.

This was a real treat and we could have spent the whole day here. Our next stop was Cranwich Camp where we found a couple more rare plants, the Spanish Catchfly and Proliferous Pink, the latter only in bud. The calcareous influence of the grassland here was very apparent, with Salad Burnet, Bird's-foot Trefoil and Mouse-ear Hawkweed growing in profusion.

The Brecks are a truly astonishing area for rare plants, insects and wildlife. So little of it is left in its original state, so it is hard to imagine how amazing it must have been a century or two ago, when sand dunes swept the area engulfing whole villages, and Great Bustards strode about alongside the still-present Stone Curlews. Nevertheless, the efforts of the various conservation organisations and individuals have ensured this is still a remarkable place. 

Spanish Catchfly, Cranwich Camp

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