It’s time we stopped treating the soil like dirt..
Without efforts to rebuild soil health, we could lose our ability to grow enough nutritious food to feed the planet’s population. The world needs topsoil to grow most of its food – but it is rapidly disappearing and degrading.
Three years ago Michael Gove the then environment secretary in a landmark speech on the environment, considered it to be an emergency – “a country cannot withstand the loss of its soil fertility”. “if you drench soil in chemicals that improves yields … but ignore fertility, ultimately you are cutting the ground away from beneath your own feet. Farmers know that,” said Gove. The UK is thirty to forty years away from ‘eradication of soil fertility’ – in inherently poor soils the time frame may only be ten years.
Soil is pretty remarkable stuff. It provides 95% of our food , helps regulate the world’s atmosphere and is a bigger carbon sink than all the world’s forests combined. In fact it basically enables all life on land to exist. Made up of a mix of materials broken down from rocks and minerals with organic matter and water holding it together to support life – earth worms, insects, and thousands of micro-organisms. Something so vital to our life that we don’t even think about it is probably why we are doing such a bad job protecting it. We have been taking out more than we have been putting in – if year on year we don’t return 30% of organic matter to the topsoil we get soil degradation. The organic matter is the glue that holds together all of the soil ingredients stopping them blowing or washing away, and preventing the captured carbon escaping into the atmosphere.
Soil is alive but we are killing it
In terms of food farming – stop digging up the soil – no more ploughing. Hill Farm and Down Farm on the Ashridge estate both practice some form of no-till farming known as conservation agriculture. Ploughing has been around for a long time but it gradually destroys the soil structure by exposing the worm population which is responsible for the aeration of the soil, digesting organic matter making it available to the farm crop. It also brings weed seeds to the surface. Fallow fields are no longer a feature of the modern intensive farming landscape. The aim is to keep the land surface crop-covered at all times.
After a harvest the land is scarified to break up the surface matter and allow direct drilling of the next crop at the same time. With an ideal seed bed the new crop germinates and grows quickly and stifles any arable weeds – no need for herbicides, fewer pesticides and less chemical fertilizers – the soil becomes more fertile all the time from not being disturbed. A build up of organic matter at the surface hoovers up huge quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere helping to reduce climate change.
Conservation agriculture has been growing world-wide in the last decade but UK farmers have been slow to change from traditional methods – we can now look forward to fewer sterile fieldscapes!
A well known piece of the British landscape that had become depleted of flora and fauna because of years of intensive farming is alive with wildflowers, butterflies and birds this summer.
Since the National Trust acquired fields on the top of the white cliffs of Dover two and half years ago after a £1m national appeal championed by Dame Vera Lynn, it has worked to restore the area to rich grassland.
The charity is excited at the results, reporting an increase in birds including skylarks, corn buntings, partridges and meadow pipits. Peregrine falcons are benefiting from an increase in wild pigeons, a main source of prey.
Fields have been vivid with poppies, ox-eye daisies and buttercups, and staff hope the new habitat will in time support chalkland butterfly species such as the adonis blue and the dingy skipper, as well as continuing to provide a home for more common marbled whites and red admirals.
The fields are part of a 178-acre plot that the Trust bought in 2017. It immediately set about reversing the effect of seventy years of intensive agriculture that began after the second world war, which resulted in 97% of flower meadows being lost. In 2018, barley was sown to remove some of the nutrients from the well-fertilised soil, preparing it for a wildflower and grass mix. Wildflower meadows do need cutting, but conservationists usually advise to do so in the autumn, after flowers have seeded and invertebrates are hunkered down for the winter. The new site is an important link with existing holdings creating a continuous wildlife corridor.
Wildflower meadows are among our most culturally important and best loved habitats
At Ashridge there is nothing to match this vivid display as the meadows are self-seeded from the wild without management intervention. Meadleys meadow which is cut for silage in mid July is a carpet of yellow buttercups and the 70 acre permissive access field on the Aldbury road (SP955152) is awash with yellow ladies bedstraw. This arable acreage was set-aside some ten years ago for re-wilding and connects Pitstone Hill with Steps Hill, an important link in the wildlife corridor which now runs from Tring to Dunstable.
Known as B- lines these wide strips of meadow and pasture join up to create a network of habitat across the country established by the charity Bugline. allowing wildlife to repopulate isolated areas.
Flower rich grasslands need regular “aftercare” – important in restricting long grasses and scrub from stifling important arable weeds – fumitory, sanfoin, pimpernel, kidney vetch and bird’s foot trefoil.
Since the grazing cattle were removed two years ago, hawthorn, bramble and dog rose have started to proliferate. If it is left uncut and without cattle grazing it will develop by natural succession into secondary woodland – long live the flowering meadow!
Credit to Steven Morris
The National Trust is planning to plant twenty million trees over the next decade as part of its efforts to become a net zero carbon emitter by 2030, which it says will cost some £90m- £100m. The organisation made the announcement back in January, to mark its 125th anniversary.
By the end of the decade, it says the new trees and natural regeneration of woods will cover more than 44,000 acres, an area one and a half times the size of Manchester. It will mean that 17% of the land the National Trust looks after will be wooded, up from 10%. This is a big ask and the trees will take decades to bear fruit – thirty to fifty years of growth is realistic to achieve significant reductions of carbon.
The focus will be on planting on farmland – including in upland areas – that the Trust owns, rather than in country estates, but the director general, Hilary McGrady, said the National Trust would be working with farmers to deliver the targets. The use of cultivated farmland would seem counter productive unless it is surplus to requirements.
Keeping global warming below 1.5 °C to avoid dangerous climate change requires the removal of vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as well as drastic cuts in emissions. No one knows how to capture so much CO2. Forests must play a part – locking up carbon in ecosystems is proven, safe and very affordable if volunteers are involved. Increasing tree cover has the benefit of also increasing biodiversity, but there is a quicker method than traditional planting. The Trust need an innovative approach.
Quick – forests …………….
Tiny, dense forests are springing up around Europe as part of a movement aimed at restoring biodiversity and fighting the climate crisis – Miyawaki forests. Often sited around school playing fields or alongside roads, the forests can be as small as a tennis court. They are based on the work of the Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, who has planted more than one thousand such forests in Japan, Malaysia and elsewhere.
Advocates for the method say the miniature forests grow ten times faster and become thirty times denser and one hundred times more bio-diverse than those planted by conventional methods. This result is achieved by planting saplings close together, three per square metre, without plastic tree guards, using native varieties adapted to local conditions. A wide variety of species – ideally thirty or more – are planted to recreate the layers of a natural forest. Birds like the nightingale and partridge, abundant at Ashridge in the fifties and sixties require dense planting for nesting, something which is now sorely missing on the Estate.
Scientists say such ecosystems are key to meeting climate goals, estimating that natural forests can store forty times more carbon than single-species plantations. The Miyawaki forests are designed to regenerate land in far less time than the seventy-plus years it takes for a forest to mature on its own. The recent removal of the coniferous plantations in Rail Copse and Frithsden Little Copse are all very well but replanting will take decades to have any significant effect on carbon reduction – the soil preparation ready for replanting has released significant amounts of stored carbon! Re-planting with single-species like hornbeam does very little to boost biodiversity and store carbon compared with mixed planting.
There are currently some fifty acres of unused land in small patches around Frithsden and Ringshall which would be ideal for small-scale Miyawaki forests. Then there is the one hundred acres of Northchurch open common which is due for upgrading now that the planning restrictions have lapsed. The present twenty year Woodland Management plan has no provision for increasing the woodland cover at Ashridge! Something for the Executive Committee to consider.
John Wilson arrived at Ashridge in 1957 to take up the post of Head Ranger, and was to become the most influential National Trust manager during his thirty four years service. He was responsible for much of the new planting and was the man responsible for turning Frithsden Little Copse into a larch plantation – coniferous plantations were fashionable at that time – it has lain neglected for over fifty years. His team removed the scrub and scattered and degraded deciduous trees by hand using cross-cut saws and axes – before the arrival of the chain-saw. Frithsden Little Copse was originally part of the open common heathland considered as unproductive by the Bridgewaters, therefore enclosed and planted up with mixed deciduous trees in the early 1800’s.
Non native larch plantations are currently suffering a fungal disease attack which can quickly destroy all trees so the nineteen acres of conifers has now been clear-felled by Norfolk Contractors and removed for pulp, wood – chip bedding and fence posts – larch poles have very little commercial value. As part of the twenty year woodland management plan the copse will be reinstated with native broad-leaf trees, giving much more biodiversity.
nothing lasts forever
The village of Frithsden, first mentioned in 1291 as Frithesdene, has been a conservation area since 1968.
By the beginning of the C19th, the Ashridge Estate had acquired most of the holdings in the Frithsden valley and the farmers were all tenants – the Bridgewaters aspired to become landed gentry – living off rental income. The hamlet expanded and contracted according to the relative fortunes of the Estate. In the early C19th, work was plentiful and between 1821 and 1830 a total of eighty families lived in Frithsden. Farm buildings such as the yard formerly attached to Holly Bush Farm enshrine the ‘model farm’ principles adopted by estate landlords. Cottages also housed labourers who worked in the south facing walled kitchen gardens and orchards at the western end of the valley. This vast enterprise catered for more than just the needs of Ashridge House, with surplus produce being sent by train to Covent Garden in Victorian London. When the Estate was sold in the 1920’s the gardens became a prosperous family-run commercial nursery. The skills and expertise generated by the estate gardens no doubt spilt over into the rest of the hamlet. Relic fruit trees are reminders that Frithsden is reputedly the home of the cherry turnover, using only black cherries called caroon cherries – an important early agricultural product in this area of Hertfordshire. With the demise of the Estate in the C20th, the population of the hamlet dwindled drastically. Buildings now punctuate the valley bottom with generous spaces between them but the Tithe Map of 1840 shows as many as thirty six houses lining the road from the Alford Arms to Frithsden Gardens. These earlier cottages filled in many of the present gaps between Hollybush Farm and Bede Cottage where eight dwellings once stood – one of which was a beer-house. In the 1850’s three straw-thatched cottages burnt down. Other lost buildings include the group of cottages that stood on the strip of heath land known as Cherry Bounce, on the south side of the Green. Another building probably provided by the Estate but now lost, was a communal wash-house and a large brick oven, fired by gorse “fuzzen-sticks”, where housewives of the hamlet baked bread and cooked the Sunday joint at a cost of one penny. Wells for drinking water and an ice-house were also built by the Bridgewaters in the early days.
Many of the properties including the Alford Arms have now been gentrified to suit modern tastes with restrictions imposed by the conservation area status.
For those wishing to take the air, fear not for the rules on confinement have been clarified.
Driving to the countryside for a walk on the wild side – where more time is spent doing the latter than the former – is among a list of reasonable reasons for Britons leaving their home during the coronavirus lockdown, according to advice issued to police. It seems like a reward for good behaviour during confinement.
A document published by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and the professional standards body the College of Policing says public statements made soon after the adoption of the lockdown regulations suggested members of the public could leave their homes only if “essential” to do so. The document categorically states it is “lawful to drive for exercise”. However, driving for a prolonged period for only brief exercise would “not likely” be a reasonable excuse. Driving a distance to Ashridge for a short walk for the dog would not be permitted under the rules.
The Privations of Lockdown
Should you meet another walker on any trip, social distancing should be adhered to – you can always get up close and personal with the flowering trees and plants – smell the violets or wild garlic!
The blackthorn has been saturated in white blossom in the hedgerows, but is now gone over – so we await may. The hawthorn to be precise, which flowers after leafing in May, whereas the blackthorn flowers before leafing. The woodland bird cherries are still in bloom, and of course the gorse which lives with a pleasant hum of bees. There are rarities at Ashridge like the cherry-plum in Pitstone car park and the wild pear at the foot of the Beacon – both gone over now. We can look forward to the spring flowering of the wayfaring shrub and guilder rose on Steps Hill.
Down at ground level you have the ubiquitous bluebells, with snatches of wood anemone and primroses in the woods, then wood sorrel and yellow archangel to follow, while the chalk downs might throw up a rare pasque flower or an early gentian – certainly lots of cowslips.
There is a joy of noticing something new each time you take your daily state-sanctioned exercise.
The phrase was first coined by Rachel Carson in 1962 in her book of the same name, exposing the decline in songbirds through the indiscriminate use of chemicals in the countryside.
Today the shutdown of modern life as we know it is liberating British wildlife to enjoy newly depopulated landscapes, at the same time as we appreciate the gathering quietude.
When we move out, obviously nature moves in – when dog faeces and scent markings are gone, then the fox, stoat and weasel appear, and ground nesting birds prosper. Moles have been appearing above ground in increasing numbers! Northchurch Common could see record numbers of skylark and pipit this year. Maybe the arrival of the grey partridge or pheasant from nearby Hill Farm as they extend their good work on biodiversity.
When did you last see a pheasant at Ashridge?
Down Farm can boast a resident covey of grey partridge which should thrive without human disturbance and the regular larks, pipits, buntings and yellow hammers on Pitstone Hill will be in their element. Quail have been about for the last two years and they could be joined by such rarities as the wheatear or even the stone curlew. In the 18th century wheatear were so numerous on the Downs that they were trapped and sold as a delicacy to travellers at the coaching inns in Dunstable. The deer will roam abroad.
One of the positive things that could come out of our confinement is the realisation that machinery noise damages us and damages our minds. Without traffic and aeroplane noise – no holiday flights on the Luton flight path and road travel falling to levels last seen in the fifties – we hear the birds more clearly along with the wind.
Will we get to hear the throb of life itself in the dawn chorus? – not this year.
Will we get to see the bluebells in Dockey Wood or the wild daffodils at Webb’s Copse. Sadly no.
Credit to Matt
Since the events list for Spring/Summer published last month exhorting volunteers to “get-together”, the Trust has detailed twelve further events – some are now in doubt following the Government’s intervention over the coronavirus outbreak.
You will need to check on the event details at email@example.com
Monday 25th – Friday 29th May Ashridge Through the Ages 10.00am- 3.30pm
Head into the Visitor Centre to complete your craft for the history trail.
Sunday 31st May Canine Capers 10.00am- 12.30pm
Watch the ProDogs team demonstrate agility with their dogs – then join in!
Monday 1st June Ashridge Through the Ages 11.00am
Exhibition opening – All year display of past life at Ashridge.
Saturday 13th June Photography Workshop 10.00am- 4pm
A professionally led workshop for beginners – lunch provided.
Saturday 20th June Photography Workshop – intermediate stage 10.00am- 4pm
A professionally led workshop for non beginners – lunch provided.
Sunday 5th July The Dovecote 11.00am- 3pm
A rare chance to see inside the 18th century vernacular building.
Monday 6th July Chalkland Flower Walk 2.30pm – 4.30pm
A volunteer led walk to identify summer flowers.
Sunday 26th July The BioBlitz 10.00am – 4.00pm
Look for wildlife on Ivinghoe Beacon with the Rangers.
Every Tuesday and Thursday 28th July – 27th August Ashridge Adventurers 10.30am – 12.00pm and 1.30pm – 3pm
Children can learn more about Ashridge’s animals and plants from the experts.
Friday 31st July Totally Batty Walk 8.30pm – 10.00pm
A Ranger led walk to identify the local bat population.
Tuesday 4th August Hanging Coombe 2.30pm – 4.30pm
A volunteer led walk through this part of the Estate.
Saturday 22nd August Big Family Cycle 10.00am – 12.00pm
A guided cycle ride for the family through the woods.
Despite the recent appalling weather conditions the Trust has managed to start on the restoration of Rail Copse – with visitor cooperation. The public have been entrusted for the first time to help with planting trees on the Estate! This taps into the public urge to plant more trees to combat climate change – and visitors have turned out to meet the challenge.
The western half of Rail Copse, some thirteen acres, was planted up in 1966 with Scots pines after the area was clear-felled – but has been neglected over the years as a plantation – a commercial enterprise which did not materialise.
The overall twenty six acres of Rail Copse was enclosed woodland originally part of Aldbury common, planted up with hornbeam coppice in the early part of the 19th century by the Bridgewaters. Trees were traditionally cultivated as coppice and historically harvested for the hard, dense wood with a calorific value approaching anthracite. However, it appears the commoners were not allowed into the woodland to cut and coppice hornbeam for firewood or to allow their livestock to forage on hornbeam’s succulent spring foliage.
As part of the 20 year Ashridge Woodland Management Plan, Norfolk contractors moved in to clear-fell the Scots pine, with the larger logs harvested for agricultural use and the remainder chipped for livestock bedding – important that the wood is not used for biomass burning when it would release its stored carbon into the atmosphere. The wet conditions required the access track to be beefed up with a layer of chalk clunch.
The new wood is to be planted up with hundreds of Carpinus betulus which are only native in England as far north as Hertfordshire. Hertfordshire is hornbeam country.
Hertfordshire is hornbeam country
Time has been of the essence with Spring fast approaching putting a stop to tree planting. The forest floor has been prepared for the new “whips” – the small bare-rooted saplings – but any disturbance to the topsoil will inevitably lead to carbon leakage into the atmosphere, which has been absorbed by the soil over the last sixty years.
Despite its long-standing reputation as an under storey tree, hornbeam should be seriously considered for planting and culture as a standard high-forest tree, rather than coppicing. There are no identifiable potential disasters from insect pests and pathogens waiting in the wings for the hornbeam, apart from the deer.
Its credentials for combating climate change, including warmer and drier growing conditions, appear encouraging. Together with beech, hornbeam was one of the last tree species to cross the land bridge which once connected the British Isles with the rest of Europe. As such, it should be in a better position than most to withstand any future climate warming in the UK. This calculation is supported by the natural distribution of Carpinus betulus, which extends right across Europe, through the Balkans and well into western Asia.
At least our offspring can look forward to a fecund forest!
Next stop Frithsden Copse.