#PatchChat: Augustinian Agroforests in South Somerset’s July

WIlowherbPortraits of local ‘patches’ are powerful because they are expressions of personal connections with landscapes. As landscapes change so do our connections with the places and species within them and today the changes are such that people’s patches can be anything from gardens and urban brownfield fragments to ancient forest or wetland reserves.

Regardless of the patch type, the presence and persistence of life within it remains equally enthralling and, for those who take the time to study it, there is always much to be learned of natural systems. The eager pursuit of understanding of local landscapes which characterises the concept of ‘PatchChat’ is a pursuit which, at varying scales, has directed human behaviour throughout history. Fundamentally it allowed us to identify and safely forage useful, edible or medicinal organisms. But it equally underpins the search for meaning of our religions, philosophies and sciences, which share in common the desire to understand the processes which govern our landscapes and universe, and to know or experience their manifestation in the physical world.

For this reason a patch in my locale is of particular personal importance. It covers a part of the grounds of a now lost 12th century Augustinian abbey located at an outskirt of the small Somerset town of Bruton in which I grew up. Despite the changing land-use history of the patch under the regimes of 16th century aristocrats, farmers, and contemporary conservationists it still bears the imprint of the friars and monks who once occupied it. Their interaction with the land is evident in the remaining fishponds, dovecote and descendant hazel copses, all of which are now accompanied by an abundance of wild flora and fauna which emerge, arrive or disappear with the seasons. They left their imprint whilst pursuing understanding of the processes governing the world around them and because of it, and the subsequent response of wildlife, I have joyously observed many natural processes and have been able to study many interesting species.

The various phases of ownership and management of this patch demonstrate a changing connection to the local landscape of the people who have lived in my town. In 1127 it was part of a larger expanse of land kept as a deerpark and managed by a small order of priests to obtain food from and solace in nature. In 1539 Sir Maurice Berkeley, a nobleman of the Tudor court, took ownership of the patch (and the Abbey) after the dissolution of the monasteries and used it as an ornamental garden, symbolic of power over the town’s lower classes and also over nature. At this time the patch would have been part of an open fragment of grassland at the border of the great Selwood Forest, but over the following 450 years the view of local landscapes as something to have power over increased and, with an abundance of agricultural and industrial revolutions, the patch is now surrounded by a matrix of fields under small-scale cereal production and cattle grazing.

Today the dominant approach to the patch is one of conservation management, a perception of landscapes which is increasingly prevalent. It is owned and managed by the national trust and its management is influenced by various local and national environmental policies. A railway embankment runs through the patch which, across much of the town, is designated a SSSI for its abundance of fossils of notable ammonite faunas. Some 900 metres from the patch stands Cogley Wood, a SSSI designated for its many ancient woodland species. And also in close proximity are equally intriguing patches of ‘deciduous woodlands’, ‘semi-improved grasslands’, ‘lowland calcareous grasslands’ and ‘wood pasture & parkland’, many of which are ‘priority habitat’ and contain ‘priority’ and ‘red list’ species.

Evidently my patch is considered very differently by today’s managers, but it has been under some form of management for nearly a millennium and many of this season’s enthralling species’ ancestors have been cycling through the site throughout this time, protected to some degree from the persistent change of the surrounding habitat matrix.

Entering through the gate at the patch’s northernmost point, returning in July at the height of summer just after the bee orchids have gone over, I am confronted by an angular explosion of Common Bulrush and pink & white flowered Great Willowherb, both erupting from the largest of the three now shallow, marshy and fishless fishponds. A swarm of Swallows and House Martins playfully circle overhead with a tuneful chatter to which hidden bees and a stream add harmonics. A Swallow dives, gracefully skimming a grassy verge ahead with its long tail streamers, and is soon followed by stubbier and seemingly clumsy Martins.

Stepping to the right of the pond to follow a small trail around its perimeter I am nearly engulfed by the tall vegetation. Here I begin to notice in the air around my head bees and butterflies moving amongst flowers. A Red-tailed Bumblebee settles on a Marsh thistle. Meadow Browns, Ringlets and Small Whites enjoy the Willowherb and white flowers of the Hedge Bindweed. I notice a small cluster of purple flowers – Cow Vetch – creeping alongside the bindweed. To my right a Common Red Soldier beetle feeds on a tiny white flower in the large umbel of a Common Hogweed plant. And as I reach a slight opening a Small Skipper bounces before me and briefly settles.

Having rounded the pond I am suddenly in the shade of a dense canopy. I look up to reacquaint myself with the tree species present and see familiar mature hawthorns and tall hazels, as well as elder and an Ash. A Chiffchaff calls from somewhere above me. The sight of recently emerged haws and hazel nuts leave a desirous taste upon my palate, but there will still be a fair wait for them to ripen. Nonetheless, viewing the species in this patch from the perspective of a forager, I can’t help but feel my connection to the landscape increase knowing that so many of its parts would elicit specific chemical and biological responses in my body. And many plants in this patch really are of edible and medicinal value.

Selfheal is spread throughout the grassy areas of the patch and, with its high concentration of vitamins A, C and K, has been used effectively for centuries in the treatment of sore throats and ulcers. A sweet smelling water mint forms a shrub layer beneath the willowherb around the pond. The common hogweed I passed produces tender and famously delicious shoots, as well as broccoli-like florets and cardamom-flavoured seeds. The roots and stems of the Bulrush formed an important food source for foraging cultures. Even the abundant willowherb is in possession of Myricetin, a bioflavonoid with demonstrable antioxidant activity.

I exit the understorey between two tall and healthy Ash trees and head away from the ponds, towards an open area of tall grasses and small enclaves of trees with dense bramble thickets. Here, in previous years, I have been lucky to see a young Fox in its dark grey fur darting in and out of the deep vegetation of the railway verge and the captivating white of a disturbed Barn Owl taking flight at twilight. Today, as I round the corner with these memories in mind, I see instead three cows which have kept even the rabbits hidden. The cows are occasionally brought into the patch from a nearby farm and efficiently maintain a diverse and open sward.

GatekeeperLeaving them to their calm grazing, I walk up a steep hill and follow a path back towards the fishponds, passing a Greenfinch twittering atop a large beech tree on my way. Looking back I see two Buzzards soaring. And as I follow a hedgerow a Royal Admiral and a Gatekeeper rise with my disturbance. The summer heat is so pleasant that I sit in the grass to savour it. More Selfheal, some emergent clover flowers and Ribwort Plantain amongst the grasses constitute a comfortable seat. As I look up I see yellow ragwort and, further still, large whites dancing over the ponds.

The initial intention of the patch’s fishponds and groves of hazelnuts and haws was of course functional. They were methods of food production known now as aquaculture and agroforestry. Accordingly this patch is in part a symbol of the necessity and inevitability of human manipulations of landscapes, but it also exemplifies how wild systems respond to these manipulations and how wildlife can flourish in relation to them. It shows humans to be integral but not dominant ecosystem components that both rely on and influence other components of the ecosystem, just as all organisms inherently do. Over recent years this patch has allowed me to familiarise myself with many captivating species. It is a valuable and preserved patch amidst an ever changing landscape. But it is also a place, as any patch is, where people really can develop a personal connection with their local landscape. Through observation of wildlife’s response to an eclectic selection of historic land management I have become familiar with the same sense of connection of humans to a larger order of wild and natural processes that was sought by the blacked robed monks of my town’s monastery, expressed now in the languages of the natural sciences rather than that of St. Augustine’s disciples.

As the seasons change and the patch continues its cycle through its many species I will continue to record those which I encounter here, intending that this might contribute to the sense of connection to local landscapes that PatchChat represents.

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Oliver Henry

Oliver Henry

Ecology graduate, agroecologist and writer. @OliverHCarroll
Oliver Henry

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