Saturday, 14 June 2014

Wiltshire Living Churchyard Annual Seminar 2014

This year's seminar was held in the beautiful village of Chilmark. We all gathered in the village hall for a short introduction to the day we all wandered up to the church for a session on identifying some of the common grasses.

Grass Identification
This session was run by Dominic Price of the Species Recovery Trust, a charity run in nearby Salisbury. Grasses are often viewed as being difficult to identify, but like any plant once you get your eye in it becomes much easier. The session was a lot of fun, with phrases like 'stripy pyjamas' being repeated throughout the session as we all found yorkshire fog! We soon popped into the field next door to look at a few more species, before being let loose to find all the species Dominic had mentioned - luckily I had Lucy with me as she quickly got to grips with which grass was which!

Our grass-filled playground
Dominic showed us 7 grasses and a wood rush. Here's a list of them along with the notes were what I managed to scribble down (any errors will be mine) :
1. Oat grass - which looks like oats! It has orange roots and the most common (and dominant) is the false oat grass (Arrhenatherum elatius). Oat grass is big and droopy with corkscrew leaves.
2. Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus) - which looks like a haze over the ground. It has a velvety feel due to a fine hairy coating. The base of the stems are white with pink stripes, which led to the phrase of the day: "stripy pyjamas".
3. Fescue (Festuca spp.) - needle-like grasses with a whip-like flower head. They like free draining soil and especially like growing on ant hills. As soon as Dominic mentioned this grass, I knew instantly that it was the grass that grows on our ant hills at St. Giles. There are two common species:
Red - where the leaf looks like an actual leaf rather than a needle.
Sheeps - where the leaf on the stem looks like a needle.
4. Meadowgrass (Poa spp.) - which has a strong central groove (mid-rib) on the leaf. The three common species are:
Annual (Poa annua) - which is small.
Rough (Poa trivialis) - which is tall with a rough sheath and ragged ligule. The ligule is a weather-proof sheath to stop the introduction of water which would lead to rot.
Smooth (Poa pratensis) - leaf sheaths are smooth.
5. Cocks-foot (Dactylis glomerata) - which has a very clumpy head and a flattened base. It also has grey-green leaves.
6. Perennial Rye Grass (Lolium perenne) - a grass of agricultural land and likes high nutrient levels. Our farmer, Peter Shallcross, advised us that he can get 4-5 silage cuts a year from this grass, making it a very productive species. If grass isn't mown, Dominic advises, this will become the dominant grass.
7. Meadow Foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis) - a very tall grass with a big inflorescence. Different to Timothy grass in that Foxtail has single awns, whereas Timothy has 2 awns which look like horns.

Some of the grasses. Can you ID them!?



Bonus: Field Wood-rush - has very long hairs on the leaf and like a low nutrient environment (which is good news for our churchyard as it's managed as an unimproved grassland).






The Church
The church of Chilmark was gifted by Henry VIII to the sister and brother-in-law of his last wife, Catherine Parr. It is cruciform in shape and, as you can see in the photo below, has a wonderfully impressive spire. It was stone from Chilmark that was used to build Salibury Cathedral in the 1200s, this same stone was later used to add the main part of the church of Chilmark.

Church of St Margaret of Antioch
Farming for Wildlife
The next session was an interesting talk by local farmer, Peter Shallcross, on the topic of farming for wildlife. I found Peter to be a very interesting speaker, who obviously has a real interest in wildlife. He acknowledges that it is very difficult to keep wildlife when using modern farming techniques. But saying that, he has used areas of his farm under the Countryside Stewardship scheme to ensure that he can do his best to keep wildlife. He has even added a dew pond, as his own expense, to encourage wildlife - especially lapwings. Interestingly, Peter has a solar powered fox fence to ensure that the lapwings that nest on his fields are safe from predation.

He mentioned that it's a sad state of affairs when we have to get used to a degraded landscape. Something that I think has been going on for generations, with each generation seeing less wildlife than the generation before. With this observation each successive generation has a lower expectation of the numbers and variety they will see. And so on.

But thanks to the way that Peter uses the land on his farm, there is a lot of encouragement for birds with a bird seed mix grown in a field and field margins, as well as a legume mix for the bees. This is along with lots of hedging that Peter has planted over the years.
A wild area in the churchyard.
Lunch and Discussion
Next was the most important session of the day - lunch! A lovely spread was provided and the informal layout allowed everyone to chat and get to know each other. It was interesting to talk to others that are running similar projects, to share ideas and to feel rejuvenated in our mission of looking after these special places with wildlife in mind.

Nice to see ant hills at another church. Churchyards are a habitat of permanent pasture
that the yellow meadow ant require for nesting sites.

The final session was an informal chat about the problems that we all face in running these projects, from how to deal with grave spoil and grass clippings, to getting people interested. Something I took from the discussion was that we really need to know what we've got in our churchyards, otherwise we won't know if the impact we're having is truly improving the situation for wildlife, increasing biodiversity on our plots, for instance; or just allowing the species we like to flourish, or which the English bluebell is a good example.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable day. Onwards and upwards until the 2015 seminar!

References:
http://www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk/index.php/resources-and-publications/a-z-of-churchyard-conservation.html
http://www.nadderfocus.co.uk/village-pages/chilmark.html
Rose, Francis. Colour Identification Guide to the Grasses, Sedges, Rushes and Ferns of the British Isles and North Western Europe. London; New York: Viking, 1989.

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