On a frosty morning, in the strange “limbo” week between Christmas and New Year, I extracted myself from the slumber of a cosy, over-stuffed and peaceful household and made the decision to blow away the cobwebs by taking a walk across my local chalk downs in Wiltshire.
It’s a walk that’s renowned in the spring for the sheer quantities of Cowslips that form a yellow haze across the steep fields, as well as some lovely specialties such as Burnt Tip Orchid, the county flower. The pathway also weaves across the farmland of a local estate. In summer the surrounding fields are blue with Flaxseed or home to grazing dairy herds that amble across the dusty road at milking time, staring at the traffic, which waits patiently.
But this morning the scene was quiet, the colours more subdued with little evidence of wildlife – on the harsh surface at least. A few crows swooped overhead and a Heron returned to the heronry. The frost was veiled across vegetation and caused a crunch underfoot. I’m not sure how a botanist can deduce a species in its withered, wintry state but the skeletal remains of species hugging the margins of the fields remained, whatever they might have been in a previous life.
I’d been told to keep an eye out for wildlife residing in the fields, apparently they rely on the winter stubble of those crops, purposefully left behind to provide a refuge and much needed food over these challenging months. It’s an idea I had never heard of before, but makes total sense that the fields continue to provide for resident wildlife – a lack of winter food is a key factor in the decline of reliant farmland birds and can support threatened species such as Skylarks, Linnets and Corn Buntings.
Winter stubbles are also important for Brown Hares! Alas, I didn’t spot one that day... But I did begin to appreciate, on such a cold day, with winter in hold, how important the covering of “stubble” could be.
The other benefit of retaining a covering of stubble is that it allows arable plants to set seed – meaning these beautiful wildflowers are given a chance to grow alongside the crop and in turn provide shelter and food for spring wildlife, not to mention colour and diversity in the arable landscape. By spring the local fields will be a resplendent blue, but hopefully dotted with other colours too as the arable weeds will have been allowed to grow and provide a continued haven for the field’s hidden residents.
Plantlife - Colour in the Margins
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