Monday, 18 February 2013

Home-grown Rampagers


'Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.

This corner of the farmyard I like most:
As well as any bloom upon a flower
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.'
Thus Edward Thomas in the lovely short poem Tall Nettles. Even in Thomas's time nettles were spreading across the land, invigorated by the nitrogen-rich fertilisers that were coming into heavy use, and by the breaking of ground for building development. Nettles were one of the subjects of an interesting edition of Radio 4's Costing the Earth that I caught the other day. Its thesis was that, while we've been obsessed with the threat from alien invasive plants - Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed and the like - our own home-grown rampagers have been quietly engulfing more and more land, and at an accelerating rate. Nettles, brambles, ivy and other long-established invasive species are spreading as never before, encouraged by the decline in grazing and in woodland management. Ever increasing areas of land are 'scrubbing up' as they are taken over by birch and thorn, alder and elder. 
Seeing photographs or paintings of familiar landscapes a century and more ago, it is often striking how relatively bare and orderly they are, compared to the scrub-covered present. In my own lifetime I have seen large areas of local chalk downland revert to scrub.  It's a reminder of how important human intervention is to the creation and maintenance of habitats, and what would happen if we were not around - what might yet happen across much of the land as we increasingly retreat from it. It will not be pretty - but it might have a certain primeval beauty, and it might still be possible to trace the human past through the covering of vegetation. A ghost of the railway network, for example, would subsist in great closed-over avenues of buddleia, from Penzance to Inverness. But buddleia is an alien invader, and that's another subject...
The butterflies would enjoy it though.

4 comments:

  1. you've startled me out of the undergrowth...you humans are the "invasive" species here, with your cows, glyphosate and "forest management"...we invertibrates and amphibians were here long before you came, so please do as little gardening as possible...greetings from the undergrowth...crick!

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