It’s a cool blustery day at the end of September and whilst there’s still no immediate sign of colour change in the trees, there is an autumnal feel in the air. We’ve had a good long season of surveying this year, as we started early with such a dry and bright spring.
I’m standing in one of the top fields at Langley Vale First World War Memorial Wood in north Surrey. It’s up on the North Downs and I’ve got my back to Epsom racecourse and I’m looking at the spire of Headley Heath church. Hard to believe that the M25 motorway is between me and it, today you can’t hear the traffic but most days you can. Generally speaking, you’ve no idea it’s there but it borders one side of this convoluted 640 acre site. It’s a wonderful view and laid out in front of me is my beloved Langley Vale Wood.
To my right is the field where we had 4 Lapwing nests and dozens of Skylarks, those birds are associated with arable farming but have suffered so much with modern farming methods. Up on the horizon I’ve got ancient woodland. Between me and those mature trees there is a mixture of what will one day be coppice woodland and rows and rows of new saplings. However, what I’ve got in front of me right now is a large open field. Down at my feet I can see amongst other common plants the sprawling tendrils of Sharp Leaved Fluellen. Its delicate little yellow and purple flowers still merrily peeping out. I can see it again and again across this field. I reflect on the surveying year and I excitedly look forward to the report we will be writing in the coming weeks.
Lapwings (c) RSPB Images
So, what am I doing here? Well I run a project that is looking at the rare arable plants we have growing here in Langley Vale Wood. Back in 2014 I volunteered to help at this new Woodland Trust site, little knowing what plant gems were hiding here. I signed up to create a wood, knowing that there was something special about this place, but not realising that what I was about to get involved with would change my life.
This site has 40% of its 640 acres set aside as open space that will not be planted with trees. Here at Langley Vale we have some of the rarest arable plants in the country. Yes, we will have chalk grassland eventually in certain areas but right now we have the most amazing tapestry of arable plants that you are likely to see. We have a target list that me and my volunteers go out and look for each week. There are approximately 40 plants on the list all with an IAPA score. I don’t think there’s a field on site where there isn’t Field Madder and the Small Toadflax isn’t far behind. Poppies, Speedwells, Deadnettles, we have some of the rarities of the county. Back in the first years of our surveying I remember we searched for the elusive Night-flowering Catchfly. I can still remember the joy at finding it, penny numbers then but this year its numbers are in the 1000’s. It’s good to know we play some small part in its survival but I’m here today to see something even rarer.
I turn and head across the field to a patch of Red-hemp Nettle. It’s probably our rarest and most precious plant on site with just 30 or so plants spreading across the margin in this field. We sow no crop across this site now, we do still plough and manage the site so that we can give these beautiful plants the best chance in life that they can get. I am so proud of the work that the Woodland Trust are doing here and the way they have embraced these rare plants and have taken on the task of ensuring their survival. These plants are on a knife edge and what we do here will affect whether you and I can go out and see them in their natural habitat, in the fields where they belong.
Red-hemp Nettle (c) Cath Shellswell, Plantlife
So, today’s task is to do a species population survey for Plantlife. We’d taken tissue samples of the Red-hemp Nettle a few weeks earlier for Kew to analyse but hadn’t done the quadrat bit as we’d had no takers from the volunteers to crawl on hands and knees! It’s the end of our surveying season, we’ve found all we think we’re going to find for this year but still we see Fluellens and Dwarf Spurge in our squares! Just as we are finishing up and heading back to the car the first few raindrops fall. We make it just in time. I look at our notes and check I’ve filled in all the boxes I’m supposed to. Suddenly I remember that I haven’t reported to our survey group the exciting news that today we found another Ground Pine. That makes 4 this year. The numbers may be small but it’s there again this year and that is down to the success of our little project, we are doing the right thing by these plants and we hope we will see it there again next year.
I knew so little about these plants when we started our walks through the fields back in 2014. Today I am fighting for their survival and with the help of a merry band of dedicated volunteers and the support of the Woodland Trust and Plantlife we will ensure they are here to stay.
I will be here at Langley Vale over the winter planting trees as we have 50,000 hedgerow plants to go in now that we have the planning permission for footpaths and the car park. We volunteers will continue to take out the miles of redundant old barbed wire fencing, the remains from when this site was a working farm. I will even be here leading guided walks for the Woodland Trust. Come and see for yourselves the work we are doing here but tread lightly, who knows what little plant may be under your feet.