Thursday, 21 January 2021

Wow! Your riverside meadows are glorious and should be cherished

Wow! Your riverside meadows are glorious and should be cherished

WE take our daily morning walk through the winding paths of our sylvan back garden. This ritual involves our dear little rescue cat, which gives me great joy.

We are very surprised to come across three gold and black-banded caterpillars of the cinnabar moth feeding on, or rather stripping the life out of, a plant that is definitely not ragwort, the caterpillar’s preferred foodplant. Most odd.

It appears to have been a groundsel, a member of the same genus as the ragwort. There is not much evidence of the leaves left and, my word, these little beasts are munching away as if possessed.

They will soon bury themselves in the earth to hunker down over autumn and winter to then pupate and
re-emerge in spring as near-black and red flying beauties. We feel lucky — our small wilding project is running very well.

In the very dense depths of our garden a cormorant croaks. Almost surreal. What is the water-loving bird doing here? I feel as if I’ve been subsumed into the role of a major character in a dystopian novel by J G Ballard. The two of us look at each other and shrug shoulders as much unusual activity often occurs in our eccentric, evolving domain.

Later, we meet Catherine Notaras and Stefan Gawrysiak from Walkers are Welcome, Henley, in the car park of the Unicorn pub in Kingwood Common and take them on a walk to reveal the wonders that we now know having acquired extensive knowledge of the area through familiarity.

It proves to be a very fruitful day as I point out some treasures, giving great pleasure to our new friends. This makes me happy. It is quite something to be able to share nature’s beauty with and enthuse others. One odd thing is witnessing a hornet grasping the stem and tucking into a flower of a broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine). I am surprised. Normally these plants are pollinated by both the German and tree wasps, Vespula germanica and Dolichovespula sylvestris respectively. They often get drunk on the wild, yeast-fermented nectar in the flower’s hypochile. We move away with caution!

We retire for lunch in the Unicorn. Our food is excellent and we have some great conversation. We will meet up again for a repeat venture somewhere nearby.

Rosemary and I then decide to return to check on the health of a single violet helleborine (Epipactis purpurata) that I found weeks back near the pub.

There are now 10 more, all in full flower (how I missed them before I’ve no idea) along the banks of a nearby lane, one with five spikes. This is great news as the plant is scarce in Oxfordshire and limited to the South and South-East, although it sometimes also crops up in the Midlands.

The flowers are uncommonly beautiful. Normally pollinated by cuckoo wasps, one is visited by a buff-tailed bumblebee. A few others have been eaten by some animal, as are a few newly discovered broad-leaved cousins. Flowerless spikes bear testament.

A few days later, we meet up with Sally Rankin, a friend of many years standing, at the Mill Lane car park in Henley. Ever sprightly, she arrives on two wheels. Sally, leader of the Greener Henley Wildlife Group is taking us on a tour of Marsh and Mill Meadows.

This wonderful amenity sits between Marsh Lock and Henley town centre. Wow, what a glorious marvel this is. Henley residents should treasure this, it is stunning.

Sally has been leading a project to restore the meadows to how they might have looked some hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. The vegetation is remarkable. She provides me with a guide to the Mill Meadows Wildlife Trail which is very informative.

In between a lot of tall common reed, there is such biological variety that it is bewildering. I’m shown plants that I’ve not encountered before, in particular square-stalked St John’s-wort (Hypericum tetrapterum).

Sally shows me how to differentiate this species from other types of hypericum by performing a “twizzle test” on the plant’s stalks. I’m learning.

Other notable flowering plants include yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris), which grows quite tall with hairy stems and touchingly elegant flowers, water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides) bearing sky-blue flowers, water figwort (Scrophularia auriculata), water mint (Mentha aquatica), common valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense) with its attractive, deep blue petals.

A section of the grassland is only mown once a year, which is not only great for seed dispersal but for every other form of wildlife too. This patch of Marsh Meadow is also home to common comfrey and some graceful grasses, inlcuding marsh foxtail and Yorkshire fog.

Butterflies are all about. Meadow browns, small tortoiseshells, red admiral and small skippers. Grasshoppers make a pleasant, happy little din, dragonflies and damselflies zoom around.

As we are taking in all this wonder, we meet a lovely lady. Rosemary Barron (yes, another Rosemary) As the four of us chat, a peacock butterfly decides to take a rest on her Tilley hat. My Rosemary takes a lovely photo. We part company after a very pleasant conversation.

As Sally guides us into the interior of one of the conservation areas of Marsh Meadow, she seems to disappear within the lush foliage. Rosemary finds a single oxeye daisy. What is it doing here in marshland, I ponder?

Sally explains that what we are seeing is the result of 25 years of hard work. She then introduces us to three excavated ponds that were created thanks to the generosity of Urs Schwarzenbach, the Swiss financier. They look rather fitting and natural, another charming aspect of the area. Mare’s tail (Hippuris vulgaris) an uncommon plant, pokes out of the clean, clear water. We find the straggly, pink, five-petalled flowers of ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi).

We will have to explore these meadows come the spring to admire other plants that have already flowered, such as marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis) and fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris), so uncommon in the wild. It will prove a sight for sore eyes and one to look forward to.

It is almost unreal to wander into this special place with all its lovely scents. Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) fills the air with organic perfume as it sways between the foxtails and other grasses. Purple loosestrife adds to the colour and common comfrey finds its place, as would be expected in such a setting.

We step back a few paces and join part of the advertised trail that skirts the railway line and passes to the rear of the River & Rowing Museum. A train rattles past.

After a brief while, we meet the oddly-named Cold Bath Stream that runs alongside Meadow Road. Fool’s-water-cress (Apium nodiflorum) grows here. A boulder crossing has been installed. What a delight.

We walk further along towards Henley. Lining the way is a sensitively planted hedge comprised of field maple, hawthorn, dogwood, guelder rose and hazel.

We come across another boulder crossing and I stop to head back as I have forgotten my walking stick (I have a dodgy knee) and don’t want to fall in. We arrange to meet up again in 10 minutes time by an old hazel. Rosemary shoots me a glance as I’m sure she would have made the most of a photo opportunity of me prone in the stream.

There are some interesting trees along the path that leads back to the car park, including a midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) with its slightly lobed leaves. It is a lovely example and one of the first that I have encountered hereabouts. Other species of tree abound, fastigiate oak, various willows, alder, lime and horse chestnut. Wild hop clambers about with typical abandon.

On the way back to our vehicle we re-encounter the largest silver maple (Acer saccharinum) that I know of. I’ll need to get my friend Dave Kenny to measure its girth as it is truly massive.

Driving home from Henley along the A4155 we are appalled that the roadside verges have been mown. All the poppies, dark mullein and common mallow have been slaughtered. This act of environmental vandalism enrages me, it’s so unnecessary and a waste of money to the detriment of invertebrates and therefore birds. What a contrast with the meadows that we have so enjoyed.

When we arrive home we sit outside before supper and are assailed by a horde of flying ants. This seems a little early to me. Our jackdaws are having a hoot once again, swifts soar on high and the raven is back, croaking. Young blackbirds, robins and dunnocks hop about innocently almost within touching distance — so entertaining.

Recently acquired plants have settled in nicely. Apart from all the “worts”, Rosemary now wants to form a collection of all the broomrapes. Where will it all end?

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