Thursday, 19 December 2013

Look out, there's a monster coming

Last night, at precisely 18:30, a ravening monster could be seen ascending the narrow road beyond the Aigronne opposite our kitchen windows. It was full dark on one of the longest nights of the year, and the creature was lighting its way by its own blaze. It let out a terrible roaring. With shaking hands I held up the camera.

Aiee! A Balrog! A Balrog is come!

The maize harvester had come at last, to finish the crop ahead of the first of a series of storms that threaten an unpleasant Christmas for us. Tim saw three half-tracked harvesters on the local roads in "convoi agricole" yesterday, one with clearly new tracks. This swarm of toothy monsters reinforces our feeling that it's the lack of machinery suitable for soft ground that is delaying the maize harvest.

Half-track maize harvester, behind the trees that border the Aigronne, running ahead of the storm

The loss of water meadow to highly profitable maize monoculture is heartbreaking to lovers of wildlife. Formerly, the waterside fields were used as grazing and to provide hay for livestock. The maize provides cover and gleanings for game birds such as red-legged partridge but little else. The habitat used to support wetland birds such as snipe and flowers like the snakeshead fritillary, but they are increasingly hard to find.

The heavy machinery is compacting the soil, making it less able to absorb heavy rain and increasing the flood risk all along the valley. Pools of standing water saturate the crop after every rainfall, causing great patches to rot and die. In the large meadow next to the bridge, the attempted maize crop was such a spectacular failure that the owner, a dairy farmer, re-seeded with rye grass and has gone back to hay and silage. Unfortunately the wild flowers are gone.

Ravening monster by daylight - note the caterpillar track around the front wheel
Yet there are still wet water meadows with a more positive future. There is what is being done in Yorkshire at Wheldrake Ings, more details see here and here. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust bought Wheldrake Ings in 1973. It forms part of the Lower Derwent Valley national nature reserve, which is a RAMSAR site of international importance for wetland birds. The method of land use, once the norm, has all but died out in the British Isles.

The hay meadows of Wheldrake Ings are managed as they have been for hundreds of years. The meadows are cut in July and stock turned out to graze the aftermath until October. Nature then takes over, and the winter floods enrich the meadows with sediment washed down from the moors.

In keeping with tradition, the graziers used by the Trust are local farmers, who live close to the meadows.. 

Wheldrake Ings Floodplain Meadows - Credit Kirsty Brown
These meadows have up to 25 plant species per square metre - better than a field of maize any day!

Again, along the banks of the Indre between Loches and Beaulieu lès-Loches, the water meadows of les Prairies du Roy are now an attractive and educational piece of ecotourism, and a valuable flood defence, albeit at a price of over 1 million euros. Here, the hay/grazing/flood annual cycle had given way to poplar plantations, overgrown scrub and fly-tipping, rather than maize, but the effect was the same - biodiversity was shrinking all the time while species loss accelerated. Now those species at least have a chance to return.

Les Prairies du Roy - the hay meadows return


Colin and Elizabeth said...

Interestingly I spent much of my childhood just outside Wheldrake. My grandfather was the gamekeeper there. Will blog about it when I can get some photos... C

Pollygarter said...

C. - I used to cycle to Wheldrake when I lived in York. Love to see your photos!

Niall & Antoinette said...

We used to live in Thorganby :-)