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Let the ancient meadows flourish again with flowers threatened by modern times; Native plants are a living link between the earliest farmers and the present, according to Carmarthenshire farmer Ruth Watkins.

Byline: RuthWatkins

IN OCTOBER 2000 I bought a 70-acre farm in the second year of organic conversion and the seventh year of the agri-environment scheme Tir Cymen.

Penygraig Goch, Llanddeusant, is at 600ft at the western end of the Brecon Beacons National Park with a southerly aspect facing the Black Mountain across a valley where the Sawdde Fechan river forms the longest border of my farm.

After spending most of my working life in London hospitals I wanted to practise nature conservation.

I grew up in Norfolk at a time when the hedges, trees, ponds or clay pits and ditches were all cleared away to make arable prairie.

The cornfields were full of red poppies and other wild flowers, the hedges full of yellowhammers, and the din of skylarks had vanished.

An agricultural revolution just as profound was applied to pasture farmland, where modern seed, herbicides and mineral fertiliser cleared away the native plants, insects and other life of ancient pasture.

Penygraig Goch is a typical traditional farm for this area. There are wet pastures including fen meadow and wet heath, dry pasture for hay, and mixed woodland, hedges and oaks on raised field boundaries.

The fields have existed for several hundred years and I believe native wild plants have been present in our landscape from Mesolithic times, maintained by grazing in a regular pattern.

I chose to get Welsh Black cattle and the local sheep, a small hefted flock I purchased at the farm sale.

Modern cattle breeds must be fed hybrid and cultivar grasses and clovers in a mineral-fertilised sward to achieve supermarket size and financial return. Old unimproved pastures are of no value to the modern farmer.

The fen meadow is a hauntingly beautiful place. It consists of mire vegetation, and is defined by the presence of meadow thistle and Molinia, or purple moor grass. It is waterlogged - 70% water by weight in the soil in July - and there is much sphagnum moss..

Plants include bog asphodel, lesser butterfly orchid, petty whin, seawort, bog pimpernel and many sedges and rushes, including two types of cotton grass.

There is a succession of flowers from mid-May to mid-September.

Also there is wet heath on soil, not peat, characterised by deer grass and cross-leaved heather, where heath milkwort and heath spotted orchids grow. Altogether the area comprises about 12 acres and about seven abandoned fields, with old oaks on the boundary mounds and wet alder and willow woodland encroaching onto the fields.

The birdsong in late May and June is a joyful racket of pied flycatchers, warblers, tits, finches and pipits, perhaps because of the many insects in these old meadows, including the small pearl bordered fritillary butterfly.

The fen meadow is a well preserved fragment of hundreds of acres once present in this part of

South-West Wales. These meadows must be grazed by cattle to keep them open as the plants of the fen and heath disappear in scrub or woodland. I vary the times of grazing each year for a total of about six weeks from the beginning of June to the end of September and aim for roughly 50% of the Molinia to be removed.

Graham Motley of the Countryside Council for Wales checked the fen meadow and wet heath in 2003, ten years after he had originally surveyed it, and found that all the plants were still there 10 years later.

I was also thrilled by the five wet meadows with their succession of flowers all summer and the large numbers of butterflies and day flying moths, such as the five-spotted burnet moth.

Unfortunately I have observed that overgrazing is the condition of most similar meadows even in the Tir Gofal agri-environment scheme. One of the magic mo- ments during the first hot dry summer was a haze of fine white umbellifers at the beginning of July - the locally common whorled caraway. Other flowers include heath spotted orchids in June, greater bird's foot trefoil and black knapweed in July and fleabane, great burnet and devil's bit scabious in August. Among the tall rushes are marsh bedstraw and ragged robin. There are semi-parasitic plants like field lousewort, yellow rattle, red bartsia, eyebright and common cow-wheat. There are no agricultural weeds.

The Tir Cymen agreement recommended excluding sheep from these fields completely. I grazed the cattle from mid-July to the end of September for some three weeks on each of the wet meadow fields. The cattle thrived, putting on weight even in a hot dry summer, and the vegetation is deep and lush. In the winter they are put in the barn as all my fields are so wet they are susceptible to poaching.

Over-wintering snipe love these fields.

Some local farmers were shocked by my management. They said: "Soft rush will claim the whole field," or "how untidy".

But the soft rush is no more extensive now than eight years ago.

The great diversity of flowering plants was important to farmers in the past. It provided forage for their grazing animals, nectar and pollen for bees, and was a source of herbal medicine for themselves and their animals - the only medicine until the 20th century.

The Physicians of Myddfai originated in my parish. Their meadows are now a monoculture of matt grass created by sheep grazing on the neighbouring Myddfai mountain and their well is enclosed by conifers.

The County Botanic Recorder says the unimproved fields, the fen and wet meadows and wet heath at Penygraig Goch are some of the finest in Carmarthenshire. At least 95% of all similar meadows have been lost to modern agriculture and sheep grazing. It is luck that those at my farm survive.

The old farmers who chose not to modernise their farms since World War Two are the heroes of conservation.

To conserve ancient meadows and enable them to flourish, flower, set seed and spread, farming should put the native wild flora first.

Ruth Watkins is a retired doctor of medicine and a clinical virologist. Anyone who would like to see the wildlife on her farm is warmly welcomed.

She can be contacted by email at ruthwatkins@supanet.com Seed can be collected by hand for those with a suitable site to restore. You can also contact Ivy Berkshire of Flora Locale at wildmeadows.ivy@googlemail.com

This is an edited version of an article which appears in the Spring edition of the quarterly magazine Natur Cymru - Nature of Wales.

Annual subscriptions cost pounds 14, or pounds 13 by direct debit: single copies of the latest issue are pounds 4. Please send cheques (payable to Natur Cymru Ltd) quoting WM to: Natur Cymru, Maes y Ffynnon, Penrhosgarnedd, Bangor, LL57 2DW or visit www.naturcymru.org.uk

CAPTION(S):

ANCIENT: The wet heath at Penygraig Goch THRILLED: Ruth Watkins with two of her lambs NATURAL: Welsh Black cattle wait for the gate to be opened so they can graze the flower-rich meadow.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 7, 2009
Words:1151
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