Arable flora

The few weeks before the harvest are the best time to go out in search of a declining subset of our native flora – the arable ‘weeds’ for want of a better term. I find this term fascinating as it reflects their current status but ignores their origins – the majority of arable plants in the UK have been found by archaeologists to pre-date the commencement of agriculture in this country. The current catch-all term refers however to their ubiquity in our arable environment and many of the rarer species are now exclusively found on cultivated land.

The incredible midnight-blue cornflower against a backdrop of wheat
The incredible midnight-blue cornflower against a backdrop of wheat

Arable plants are a mixed bunch, but a number of characteristics tend to link them. The majority are annuals meaning that they can complete their life-cycle in a year. A small number are perennials, meaning the same plant survives from one year to the next. The annual life-cycle predisposes species towards success in an environment which, by the nature of modern agriculture, involves the wholesale destruction of the habitat on an annual or even bi-annual basis. The plants grow in spring, flower and rapidly set seed, often allowing a surprisingly stable annual population to persist in a particular location even though an individual plant will never survive from one year to the next. Taking these photographs, it was noticeable that particular species were prevalent within certain fields but absent from the majority of sites.

The yellow and white daisy-like flowers of mayweed in a parched, arable field
The yellow and white daisy-like flowers of mayweed in a parched, arable field

Another common characteristic of arable plants is that their seeds have a long dormancy period – this means that they can persist in the soil for long periods of time until conditions become suitable again. This is an obvious benefit for species which rely upon an outside influence to create the bare, open conditions they thrive in, or where frequent predictable disturbances make for a cyclical habitat suitability.

Corn marigold growing amongst the ears of wheat
Corn marigold growing amongst the ears of wheat

The original habitats of some of these species are probably lost from our current ecosystem dynamics, as many of our rarer species are now almost completely restricted to arable land where they find the conditions they require to persist. Many however can still be found in other modern habitats which receive frequent disturbance, such as coastal shingle or waste ground.

The small, subtle cream flowers of field pansy growing at the base of a wheat field
The small, subtle cream flowers of field pansy growing at the base of a wheat field

The eradication of competition on arable land is one of the stated objectives of modern agriculture and arable plants have decreased rapidly in the last century in response to the increased intensification of agriculture. Whilst their biology enabled them to deal well and indeed flourish in the conditions of annual disturbance, they are increasingly unable to deal with modern herbicides; with changes in the timing of cropping which prevents them from setting seed; with the superior ability of modern crops to respond to fertiliser enrichment and out-compete them; and with changes in drainage.

Field speedwell flowering in August, shortly before the harvest and the plough
Field speedwell flowering in August, shortly before the harvest

The common label of ‘arable weeds’ reflects not only their habitat, but their relationship to a particular group of people – the farmers who exploit the land. These widely-accepted terms always require consideration – one person’s weed is another person’s wildflower. These are ‘weeds’ in a similar way to the blase acceptance that foxes are ‘vermin’ – to label a fox as such is an understandable view if you keep poultry, raise pheasants or, at a stretch, farm sheep, but indefensible across arable swathes of the countryside or in semi-natural habitats. These arable plants are often beautiful examples of our native flora and many of the rarer species have little or no negative impact on the crops they share the fields with. So don’t be put off by the derogatory epithet – go out, seek and enjoy them! They are often the only flashes of wild nature left in an otherwise ecologically-inert arable landscape.

Poppy flowers which escaped the harvest in the arable margin and continued flowering into September
Poppy flowers which escaped the harvest and the plough in the arable margin and continued flowering into September

Tortoiseshell Wood

Tortoiseshell Wood is a wood with an associated wildlower meadow, just off the A1 around 10 miles to the south of Grantham. It is owned and managed by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust – I spotted it on the Wildlife Trust’s Nature Finder App which I can’t recommend strongly enough as the best way to find great spots for wildlife wherever in the country you find yourself. How I have lived so close to this site for so long and not visited, I do not know!

The woodland boasts an impressive array of native woodland flora – you can find out more about the site including a list of species highlights, locations and access on the Wildlife Trust website here.

Native bluebells at Tortoiseshell Wood
Native bluebells at Tortoiseshell Wood

We parked on the verge of the road which runs to the south and walked up through the meadow – this was low mown and well before it’s peak although there were still impressive numbers of cowslip and early purple orchid to be seen. The hedgerows on the approach hint at what is to come; greater stitchwort flowers fleck the green backdrop of arum lily and dog’s mercury.

Greater stitchwort flourished in the hedgerows around, as well as within Tortoiseshell Wood itself
Greater stitchwort flourished in the hedgerows around, as well as within Tortoiseshell Wood itself

Once into the woodland, we followed the long loop path around the woodland. Our native bluebells – Hyacinthoides non-scripta – are coming into their peak at the beginning of May, just as the earlier species such as wood anemone are starting to go over.

A particularly pink patch of wood anemones
A particularly pink patch of wood anemones

Lesser celendine with its bright, glossy yellow flowers attracted a range of pollinators whilst the early purple orchids flourished unobtrusively against the bluebells.

Early purple orchids amongst the bluebells
Early purple orchids amongst the bluebells

We found patches of water avens, with their gently nodding heads like an apricot-orange snakeshead fritillary.

The gently nodding heads of water avons
The gently nodding heads of water avons

Yellow archangel – another ancient woodland specialist – was just coming into flower, as was the deep purple spikes of bugle.

The orange-flecked, chick-yellow flowers of yellow archangel
The orange-flecked, chick-yellow flowers of yellow archangel

Sweet woodruff formed banks along the southern boundary with little white pebbles of expectant flower buds, whilst dog’s mercury held its green seeds aloft, the unobtrusive flowers of March and April already gone over. Soft yellow primroses, mauve violets and white greater stitchwort nestled in amongst sedges, rushes and grasses to create a truly special experience. If your only experience of woodlands is the recreational conifer plantations of monoculture pines with brambles and bracken below, you’re in for a treat!

Violets flowering low within the ground flora
Violets flowering low within the ground flora

The dappled rides of the woodland were buzzing with insects including hoverflies, bumblebees and solitary bees, as well as the first damselfly I have spotted this year. The woodland canopy is as alive with birdsong as the woodland floor is with our native flora and just to cap off the visit, we heard a cuckoo calling from the hedgerow on the way back to the car.

IMG_8867Take a look at the Lincs Wildlife Trust website and make the time for a visit in the springtime – this is what our native woodlands should be like!

Bluebells and celendines lining the path at Tortoiseshell Wood - a Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust site
Bluebells and celendines lining the path at Tortoiseshell Wood – a Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust site