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The Water Meadows Chronicles, part 18

Several people have said to me that they have become more attuned with and appreciative of our natural world this year. They “blame” the pandemic and say that, along with their appreciation of the commitment, care and effort that NHS staff have shown and the quick rollout of the vaccination programme, this may be one of the few positives to have emerged in the last year. Well, as spring at last begins to hit its stride, I think we can all agree that green comes in many shades and all are beautiful.

Our moods were lifted by the early flowers, including snowdrops, crocus and daffodils. Nearby there were lots of bluebells and within the Water Meadows we have seen plenty of common comfrey, wood anemone, greater stitchwort, spotted dead nettle, buttercups and ragwort as well as the aroma and brilliance of the blackthorn. More recently we have been almost swamped with daisies, dandelions, primrose, cowslips, alexanders, cuckoo pint, evergreen bugloss, white dead nettle, purple dead nettle, three cornered garlic, greater stitchwort, ground ivy, garden yellowrocket, garlic mustard, greater celandine, and kenilworth ivy. There is even a pink varietal of comfrey growing along the bank of the Lark near to the Abbey Gardens bridge. And then there is the cow parsley. There are patches along the banks of both the Linnet and the Lark but the crowning glory is in the Great Churchyard where we are set to enjoy a sea of waist high froth of white flowers for a couple of weeks. It is all simply stunning and uplifting.

Some might think that these flowers are weeds and yet many have been around for a long time. Taking Greater Stitchwort, for example, we know its botanical name is stellaria holostea and a little extra research tells us that it has a number of common names such as adders meat, daddy’s shirt buttons and starwort. The common names suggest that they have been known to have medicinal or homeopathic qualities. Comfrey (symphytum officinale) is known to have anti-inflammatory qualities which are effective in treating burns, sprains, swelling and bruising. Common names of comfrey include bruisewort, knitbone and bone set. Garlic mustard (alloria petiolata), also known as jack in the bush, poor man’s mustard and sauce alone is known to have antiseptic qualities. Hemlock (conium maculatum) has been called devil’s bread and is known to be poisonous. Socrates is reputed to have been given tincture of hemlock as a form of assisted suicide. However, it has also been used in the treatment of cervix carcinoma.

One of the most controversial plants that we have in the water meadows is the nettle (urtica dioica). We are encouraged by many to get the volunteers to eradicate nettles and, indeed our scything expert volunteers have cut some of them. However when you walk through the water meadows you will see that areas of nettles have been cordoned off and left untouched. This is not simply because they are used by birds and duck for nesting and chick rearing but because they are wonderful for pollinators such as bees, wasps and butterflies as well as an important food source for around thirty species of invertebrates. From a human health point of view, nettles have been found to be useful in the treatment of urinary tract infections, arthritis, pain and blood sugar management. They contain high levels of polyphenols which may play a role in the prevention and management of some chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, cancer and heart disease.

Wonderful, as well, is the amount of bird life we enjoy. Most mornings, when it is not cold, grey and wet, the sheer volume of bird call is astounding. Whether the calls are to give warning (human with dog approaching!), territorial (this is my patch) or “seeking a partner” (see what a handsome chap I am and see what a pretty courtship dance I can do!), there is a lot of noise. It is a bit like being at the market with all the stall holders setting out and “bigging up” their wares. The blackbirds, robins, thrushes and chiffchaffs have been very vigorous. Even the wrens have been getting in on the act.

Three or four weeks ago the nest boxes were getting inspected. There was so much inspection activity that it seemed like a (fairly) orderly queue was in operation. Eventually a decision was made; a pair of blue tits moved in and repelled competitors. Now we are seeing a constant effort to bring sufficient tasty morsels. It seems unrelenting; probably we will see some little ones plucking up the courage to take to the wing soon. I hope there won’t be too many casualties. However, the dangers are many and there are some big bruisers about. Corvids, pigeons and magpies patrol the Water Meadows and I have seen a few broken eggshells on the ground when I walk the Meadows. Open nesters and ground nesters seem to be most vulnerable; for the moment the nest boxes are safe but the carnage will come when the little ones attempt to take to the wing.

Bigger birds can be vulnerable as well. For three weeks I have enjoyed the hammering of a Great Spotted Woodpecker. It was usually hammering most of the morning and sometimes into the afternoon. The situation was frustrating in a way because while I could hear the bird I could not see it. For several days I would race out of the house and peer up knowing that it couldn’t be more than a few yards away. At last, after two days, I spotted it and I was delighted. That soon turned to anxiety when I realised that eight magpies had moved in on the woodpecker; it promptly flew away. The magpies were strutting around in the tree top which was about thirty feet above the ground. If I was anthropomorphising, I would say they looked pretty pleased with themselves. It was not to last. A jackdaw appeared out of nowhere and scattered the magpies who promptly all flew away squawking apart from two who stood their ground. The jackdaw sailed into those two with lots of noise and aggressive pecking movements. Effectively it drove them away, too. Make of it what you will but it seemed to me that the jackdaw was “the masked avenger” and I cheered.

In all of this joy and beauty there have been two disappointments. Sad to say both are “people related”. Seemingly oblivious to all that is said and written about caring for nature there are far too many who seem to feel that it is fine to leave their cans and litter on the grass or in the rivers rather than put it in rubbish bins or take it home. Inexplicable and inexcusable.

The second disappointment is linked with the Lark bridge on the east side of the Crankles. Last year the information board next to the bridge was torn down; some of it was stolen and some was thrown in the river. Some months ago barriers were placed along the sides of the bridge. Some were of heavy red plastic and some were of grey metal. All were anchored in concrete blocks. The purpose was to protect people from accident until funds were found to replace the bridge or repair it. Several weeks ago the red plastic barriers were thrown into the river along with some of the concrete footings. They were eventually removed from the river. Two weeks ago the metal railings and remaining concrete footings were all thrown into the river.

It is probable that these activities have been the work of the same person/people. Probably male because the railings and blocks are heavy and it would have taken some effort to get them over the wooden railings. And so this mindless and thoughtless behaviour has created a safety and health hazard. Let us hope that there are no accidents; let us hope, as well, that the perpetrator(s) are identified and dealt with.

The volunteer programme has been active. Scything and the arisings collection has transformed the Crankles. Areas of both the North and the South Crankles have been left untouched, as I mentioned earlier, but there was enough cleared space for a very unexpected visitor on 17th May. In the late morning, a very noisy Air Ambulance helicopter landed on the south side of the path that links the two rivers. Two crew jumped out and headed off to deal with an incident nearby.

The northwest corner of No Mans Meadow has also had a makeover. The non-native saplings growing in the corner of the field were cleared by a group of volunteers. It must have been hard work but what a transformation.

And just as I begin to send this edition of the Chronicle to our web editor/master, I have heard that the railings have been removed from the river and restored to the bridge. Good news.!

Iain Carruthers-Jones