A Year in the Life of an English Meadow Andy Garnett and Polly Devlin with Chris Smith Frances Lincoln, UK, £20.00
IN RECENT YEARS, biodiversity and the threats to it have been shunted aside by climate change in the popular list of eco-horrors. The steady erosion of species and the destruction of habitats present less apocalyptic images than rises in sea level, floods, hurricanes and drought; an altogether less creepy fear than the weather going weird on us. Yet the protection of biodiversity was at the core of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, since when little real progress has been made.
While each day twenty-five square miles of Brazilian rainforest crackle and burn, it is perhaps little consolation that deep in rural Somerset a small meadow lies abloom with dozens of wild flowers and grasses, where drainage channels have never been dug, pesticides have not seeped into the soil, and the blind credo of monoculture has been resisted. Yet it is precisely local initiatives like that at Cannwood – where Andy Garnett and Polly Devlin have lovingly protected an acre or so of ancient grassland and now publicise it in this beautiful book – that can help motivate public opinion against wider-scale devastation.
Devlin grew up in Ireland. With great charm, she recalls the summers of her youth, the hay-carts hung with “a litany of grasses, herbs and flowers, an astonishing cascade of plants”. In the space of a generation such sights – in Britain and Ireland – have vanished. Year by year, hay has lost its flecks of colour, its diverse textures. The kaleidoscope of hopping butterflies has been reduced to a uniform flutter of meadow browns. The symphonic hum of birdsong has been depleted in many places to lone voices, or silence. Older visitors to Cannwood Meadow, Devlin notes, stand amidst its botanic splendour and “are suddenly back within the countryside of their youth”. At first they experience a nostalgic wonder – then anger, as they realise that what had once seemed ageless is now rare; that something taken for granted has been destroyed, not selfishly or surreptitiously, but through ham-fisted agricultural policy.
At Cannwood Meadow, a total of 130 species of plant have been identified. Images of pressed specimens make up a large part of the book, arranged by month, with notes written by botanist Chris Smith (who also took most of the wonderful photographs). Included are rarities like the delicate sneezewort, purple-flowered saw-wort and pepper saxifrage. More common flowers – betony, vetch and orchids – grow with astonishing exuberance, while in April the number of once-common cowslips is testament to the damaging effects of intensive farming elsewhere.
The reason for such variety is, paradoxically, the poor nutrient levels. It is an “axiom of ecology”, writes Smith, that “low nutrient status promotes the greatest degree of diversity”. We destroy Nature not just by poisoning or starvation, but by over-feeding.
While there is a serious botanic element to the book, it is also a personal story. Devlin and Garnett bought Cannwood as a family home in the early 1980s. It had been an old-style farm and the agricultural land was sold separately. The house was almost a ruin. When they came back to live in the house just six months later, they found a “desert”. All around them, the hedges had been ripped out, drainage installed and the soil filled with fertilisers. The meadow, though, remained intact. Walking down a track one day, Devlin saw by chance a slurry wagon heading towards it. Slurry would have destroyed the delicate soil balance. She stopped the wagon, urging the farmer back. Her persuasion worked and at once she and Garnett set about buying the meadow. Since then, it has been managed to prevent it reverting to scrub. It is mown late, in August, and sheep graze it in autumn – but otherwise it is left and in spring begins the long, ever-shifting display of growth and colour. When, one February, Smith first cast his botanical eye over the field, he felt he was “in a concert hall hearing the instruments being tuned in preparation for a tremendous concert”.
The book ends with a wonderfully poignant scene. It is evening in late summer and, with their five dogs, the two authors take camp beds and sleeping bags down to the meadow to spend the night out beneath the stars. They do not get much sleep – the dew falls on their faces, the dogs bark. At dawn they return cold and exhausted to the house. But it is a gesture full of reverence. They have not created
Cannwood Meadow; they have merely allowed it naturally to regenerate each year. Its colours and diversity, the rare fritillaries that now visit it – and this delightful book – are a living reminder of the rewards of good stewardship.