A Few Years Ago The Grass Verge At Bowd Was A Species Poor And Impoverished Mown Grass Area. Other Than Grass, And A Few Brambles, Nothing Grew. It Was A Dismal Place, Devoid Of Flowers & Wildlife. It Was A Sad Place With No Biodiversity.
That’s now changed. Today the verges at Bowd are alive with flowers, the buzz of insects and it’s a delightful place.
Though its only a few years since change was made, it is now species rich and blooming with flowers, butterflies, pollinators, small mammals and more.The story of the verges at Bowd is one that demonstrates how just small changes can allow nature to return to our countryside, towns and cities. This article tells that story.
When I first visited the verges at Bowd I recorded a few species of rank grass, a few brambles and some trees. Litter was blowing over the site and the volume of traffic blowing out noxious fumes depressed me.
But there was a potential silver lining to the dark cloud that hung over this island of rank grasses on the A3052 near Sidmouth. And that silver lining only needed us to do less. It wasn’t an expensive strategy that was impossible to fund from the public purse. The answer was to cut the grass less frequently.
Do Less, Get More
The great thing with nature is it thrives on next to nothing. In fact the more we interfere the worse nature tends to do. If we cut the grass every week during their mowing season we “control” the weed in the lawn we produce. Of course some people would not use the word control, they’d say destroy. Because if we cut most herbaceous plants off at ground level week after week they tend to die! Grass is the exception as it grows from the base and not from the top. Cut grass invariably keeps growing, we’ve only to look at sportsturf to see that. Bowling and golf greens are a typical examples. They get cut every day but still keep growing. Cut most flowering plants like that and they soon die, or at least become more prostrate and fail to seed due to the flowers being cut off.
Where a grass verge is cut less frequently the flowers get pollinated and seed is produced. That seed falls to the ground and the cycle of growth starts again. In some cases the time from seed to seed is only a matter of weeks. In other cases it is a season or more. So if we cut every month or two we will get plants that live in the “fast lane” dominate. And if we cut just once out twice a year we get the flower growing, plants setting seed and being available for pollinators and people to appreciate.
Verge Cutting at Bowd
The verge at Bowd is the responsibility of Devon County Council but is managed for them by Sidmouth town council, and three years ago they agreed to cut it less frequently. Now it is given a tidying up cut in March and a main cut in September. The mown material, often referred to as arisings, are removed. The reason being that it reduces soil fertility which deceases grass growth and favours wildflowers. In year one a group of volunteers raked the site after it was mown in autumn and removed the arisings. It was a labour of love, but not one we would want to repeat every year. Unlike years ago today there are mowers that can collect the arisings and remove them to an agreed deposit area on the site. This can provide another win win because some wildlife then live, breed or hibernate in the arisings heap and biodiversity increases. Alternatively the arisings can be removed to bio-digesters where they are used to produce gas or electricity. Or they can be removed to provide a seed bank for other sites that want to become species rich.
Safety is however a high priority in the site management. It’s vital that road users and walkers have good visibility. To maintain visibility and protect the public a mown strip is cut around the site. And interestingly this benefits the wildlife. The site now has a good population of two species of grasshopper, the Meadow grasshopper and Common field grasshopper. Both species love the longer vegetation, but also like to sun themselves in the mown strip when the sun shines. Cutting a mower width perimeter is a win win for people and wildlife.
Clearly we don’t want the site to become a refuge for invasive species. We are fortunate we do not have any Japanese Knotweed on the site and the 3-4 plants of Himalayan Balsam that were seen starting to flower a few years ago were swiftly removed. They were quite likely stowaways that reached the site on the wind or, more likely, as passenger in mud on the underside of a vehicle. Since those first few plants were sighted and removed we’ve seen no others, but we keep a close eye out for these thugs of the plant world.
Butterflies at Bowd
A few years ago very few butterflies ever visited the site. Those that did quickly moved on because there were no plants on which to feed. Today it’s a different story.
Birds-foot trefoil has established on the site. That’s excellent news as it is the food plant of three butterflies.
Common bird’s-foot-trefoil is an important food plant for the caterpillars of the common blue, silver-studded blue and wood white butterflies; the latter two species are both classified as Priority Species under the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework. Its flowers are a good nectar source for bees.https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/wildflowers/common-birds-foot-trefoil
Common blues now live up to the name and have become much more common on site.
In addition we often see red admirals, peacocks, gatekeepers, large whites, large skippers, meadow browns, speckled woods and other species
Plant Diversity At Bowd
A quick count on May 22nd 2023 saw no fewer than 45 herbaceous species either in flower or about to flower. The list included …
Achillea millefolium, yarrow, Anthoxanthum odoratum, sweet vernal grass, Arctium minus , lesser burdock, Bellis perennis, common daisy, Calystegia sepium, hedge bindweed , Cardamine pratensis, Cuckooflower, Centaurea nigra, Common Knapweed, Cerastium fontanum, common mouse-ear,Chaerophyllum temulum, Rough chervil, Cirsium arvense, creeping thistle, Cirsium palustre, Marsh Thistle, Dactylis glomerata, cock’s-foot, Elymus repens, Common Couch, Galium aparine, Cleavers, Geranium sp., geraniums and cranesbills, Geranium lucidum, Shining Crane’s-bill, Geranium robertianum, herb Robert, Glechoma hederacea, ground-ivy, Heracleum sphondylium, hogweed , Hyacinthoides non-scripta, bluebell, Hypericum perforatum, perforate St John’s-wort, Hypochaeris radicata, Common Cat’s-ear, Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort, Lathyrus pratensis, meadow vetchling , Leucanthemum vulgare, oxeye daisy, Lotus corniculatus, common bird’s-foot trefoil, Lotus pedunculatus, greater bird’s-foot-trefoil, Luzula campestris, Field woodrush, Plantago lanceolata, ribwort plantain, Poa annua, Annual Meadow-grass, Poa pratensis, Smooth Meadow-grass, Ranunculus acris, meadow buttercup, Ranunculus bulbosus, bulbous buttercup, Ranunculus repens, Creeping buttercup, Rhinanthus minor, Yellow Rattle, Rumex acetosa, Common Sorrel, Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock, Sanguisorba minor, Salad Burnet, Silene dioica, red campion, Stellaria graminea, lesser stitchwort, Trifolium dubium, Lesser Trefoil, Trifolium pratense, Red Clover, Trifolium repens, white clover, Vicia sativa, Common Vetch, Vicia sepium, Bush Vetch,
But that is only a snapshot of what is there. It excluded the Broad-leaved helleborine, Epipactis helleborine, which is a terrestrial orchid known for its ability you intoxicate bees and wasps. It appears that the flowers can contain a kind of alcohol as a result of a fungus! The bees like it so much, they come back for more, ensuring the flower is pollinated. We can find no records of Broad-leaved helleborine on the site previously and, being a tall upright plant, it certainly wouldn’t have survived to flowering stage with constant mowing. So its discovery on the site is a milestone in the recovery of this wonderful site.
It is interesting to note historical use of the site and the road network before the A3052 followed its current route. A map showing both is provided below. The island site opposite the pub was an orchard in the early 1800s and no A road existed! Part of the site had a road crossing it as an extension of the road to Ottery.
Fungi At Bowd
A full survey of all the fungi at Bowd is yet to be carried out. But several are apparent to the casual observer.
The most obvious fungi recorded so far is the fairy ring, Marasimus oreades. Pestle puffballs have also been recorded, as have those of the genus Lycoperdon and the Agaricomycetes class. Undoubtedly the more astute mycologists would find many more species.
Mammals At Bowd
I’ve yet to see the most obvious mammal on the site. It’s because it spends much of its time underground. It’s the mole.
We know moles are common here because we see so many molehills. And the great thing about them is that they bring soil to the surface, soil that contains seed that will have been shed before the mowing commenced. Though some seeds are short lived, many live decades in the soil and only need to be brought to the surface to start growing. A perfect example of this is the way poppies will quickly re-colonise areas that have been disturbed. Flanders field is the example we all know about. Poppy seed can survive at least 50 years in the soil and quickly repopulate and area if given the chance. The fact it hasn’t at Bowd is probably down to the fact it was never an arable field and/or never grew here before.
Other mammals include shrews and mice which I occasional see skitter through the grass.
Larger mammals include badger which occasionally wander through the area and I’ve seen a few bats fly over at dusk, but have yet to identify the species.
The Bowd Site
The Bowd project area consists of two island sites, surrounded by roads. The main one is directly opposite the Bowd pub. The second site is adjacent and has a bus shelter on its northern boundary.
The project site does NOT include the closed lay-by on the A3052, on the Sidmouth side of Bowd.
Bowd project showing road and field network, ancient and modern!
Image courtesy of National Library of Scotland, for education purposes only.
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