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The Water Meadows Chronicles, part 14

As we slide into autumn I walked the dog on a wonderful sunny morning (01/09/20) and enjoyed the dew on the grass and the smell of decomposing leaves. It was one of those “good to be alive” mornings and almost all of the people I met along the way had a greeting. What a welcome sight; we had had a mixed bag of late. One thing was for sure. I had just decided that I needed to change my wardrobe from short sleeves and shorts to something a little more cosy and suddenly I was not so sure that the shorts needed to be mothballed until next year just yet.

The Abbots Bridge on a crisp morning (photo ICJ)

We were all very frustrated earlier in the year when the lockdown restrictions put a halt to the volunteers’ working parties. It came at a time when we all recognised how much work there was going to be and the working party organisers (Jillian Macready, Julian Case and Ian Campbell) had picked activity dates and were marshalling the volunteers. There was huge frustration but the regulations were very clear. When the embargo was loosened we were very eager to get going again and there was a flurry of activity right across the Water Meadows. Scythes were sharpened and, after appropriate safety training, wielded. Waders were donned and there was a lot of activity in and around the Scrape in Ram Meadow. All the volunteers were glad to get out and get involved again.

One of the earliest records of Ram Meadow related to the gift of the land by Edward the Confessor to the Abbey in Saxon Times. Even in the 12th century there was a controversy about the use of the land. Some people who used the land, probably for grazing sheep, were outraged when Abbott Samson planned to flood the land to extend his fishpond. At a time when the abbots saw themselves as the equal of kings, it must have been quite a tussle.

In mid September I had the most extraordinary experience. I was returning from a walk out Rougham way when I saw a short stick by my front door. Only this dark coloured stick moved. It was more than three inches long. When I poked it gently with a piece of paper, it turned over and looked at me. It had hunched up a bit and it looked quite like a small lizard or a short snake. I was amazed and certainly had little intention of touching it or picking it up.

The eyes, with eyebrows, looked relatively large and realistic. However, the eyes were not really eyes; it was a caterpillar with terrific camouflage. The best I have ever seen. Research was needed and it was soon identified. Hopefully it will survive the winter and next year we will see an Elephant Hawk Moth. I was thrilled.

Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillar (photo ICJ)

Time has moved on and we are well into autumn. We have had an enormous mix of weather and happily we are in a period of less windy weather. For the last few days it has started out misty and overcast but as the day proceeds the sun comes out. Very pleasant. People walking, often with their dogs, through the Water Meadows and the Abbey Gardens comment on the weather’s clemency and the lovely golden and red colours of the fallen leaves. Given this pleasant weather, which follows on from some very wet and miserable days, this has become a bumper year for fungus. In walking in the area, although not necessarily in the Water Meadows themselves, I have seen fungi previously unknown to me. My Collins Guide has come in very handy.. One of the more spectacular came from the family Agaricaceae. It was a firm white ball the size of a football; some call it a puffball. It was seen in the Great Churchyard on October 11th. Two days later it was gone – probably a prize for a forager because it is edible. Fried in butter in slices it has the taste of apples.

Puffball (photo ICJ)

Other sightings included Amanitacceae and Craterellus Cornucopioides. These were seen at the beginning of November. The former is red capped and the latter ( known as well as Horn of Plenty or Trumpet of the Dead) is completely black. Both are poisonous.

Regarding the South Crankles. mammals seen in our survey include muntjac deer. I am ambivalent about them, I must admit, since they eat saplings and can be very noisy. Hedgehogs , on the other hand, are welcome. There have been numerous sightings. We suspect that several hoglets have been born this year.

We have had lots of bees, as well. Some in the hives in the South Crankles obviously but also at least two ground nesting sites. We steered clear because they seem to have an “angry gene” and have been inclined to sting. They seem to be enjoying a long season since I saw one early in the afternoon of 22/11/2020 on a pane of glass in my summerhouse.

We recorded butterflies and moths.Since we missed Q2, because of COVID, the haul of sightings was less than we had hoped. There’s only so many (cabbage ) whites that I can be excited about when I am hoping for Peacocks, Red Admirals and Commas. Hopefully we will see more next year if we are allowed out and about in Q2.

So, back to plants. In the South Crankles we recorded, at least, 32 different types of plant; in the North Crankles it was at least 45. Some were the “to be expected” such as teasel, mugwort, comfrey and nettles. What I have learnt this year is that while some of these plants are relatively unexciting they have their place in the pollination cycle and as hosts to caterpillars. They are, therefore, to be valued.

We didn’t see any indian balsam in the Water Meadows but we did see hemlock. In fact, in one or two places we saw a lot of hemlock. Especially on the Lark Path, towards the south end where the path reaches the A134, hemlock seemed to dominate other plants sometimes growing to more than two meters in height. It was almost intimidating; it was rather worrying, as well, given its poisonous nature. Now we’re left with the skeletal remains which echo the pylons and put me in mind of Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids.

What was I pleased to see during the survey period? Certainly the plants that were noted and used in herbals dating back hundreds of years. Perhaps some are not overly pretty but their healing properties have been recorded and perhaps we can imagine them being used by the monks to heal the sick. Any list must include pink ladies ( oenothera speciosa), black mullein (verbascum nigrum), lady’s bedstraw (galium verum), common self heal (prunella vulgaris ), hedge woundwort (stachys sylvatica) and common sorrel (rumex acetosa). In the North Crankles we saw black horehound ( ballota nigra), fleabane ( pulicaria dysenterica), hemp agrimony ( agrimonia eupatoria and also known as sweet joe pie) and spreading parsley ( sison amomum and also known as sock destroyer). Perhaps they are not glamorous to look at but they have a pedigree and I ask myself how their healing properties came to be recognised in the first place.

Those of us who were involved in the biodiversity survey (Libby Ranzetta, Sue Russell, Jillian Macready, Anna Saltmarsh and myself) all felt that it was an opportunity to take a careful and almost scientific look at the Water Meadows. Obviously the survey feels incomplete in relation to what had been planned. Nonetheless it gives a benchmark and a source of information which can be used in planning our conservation work. It gave us, as well, an enormous sense of pleasure and satisfaction. We are looking forward to 2021’s survey.

Iain Carruthers-Jones.

A frosty morning on the South Crankles (photo ICJ)