In a lane between perfectly ordinary stretches of countryside we found a sliver of forgotten ground. A footpath bounded on either side by overgrowth: burdock, shoulder high nettles, hogweed and a few hemlock plants growing half as high again as I am. The rank green teemed with wonderful common insects, among them an orange dotted moth that feeds on hogweed seeds, a female stag beetle and the wondrous Heterotoma planicornis, a plant bug with a blue sheen, bright green legs and absurdly chunky ever-waving antennae.
As enchanting as the hedgerow was, we were in search of a nature reserve. Hurley Chalk Pit, to be precise, one of BBOWTs* smallest. It’s the merest fragment of chalk grassland, a suggestion of what could spread across this landscape. Whilst most of the surrounding land is either intensive pasture, product of much management, or beech woodland, product of very little current management at all, the careful intervention of a few dedicated people ensures this place persists as a wonderful paradox: wholly the product of human intervention – first chalk extraction, now conservation work – but possessing a beauty that is wholly, improbably wild.
It feels as though we need both kinds of wild: the common and exuberant that bursts forth at every opportunity, as in the overgrown lanes and untended field corners, and the rare and delicate that is all too easy to snuff out. Much of the current debate in conservation is about seeking to find and maintain the ‘correct’ balance of these visions of nature. Is there a third way? Can we have dynamic, ever-changing places, largely left to their own devices that boast an abundance of common species and give refuge to species that are declining or extinguished elsewhere? Well, I’ve just got back Knepp: perhaps I found some answers!
Hurley Chalk Pit
Hurley Chalk Pit
Meanwhile, amidst the turmoil and news headlines, there’s another England. Think this is a country bereft of untamed and unchecked wilderness? Think again. But think smaller. Picture a railway embankment, the bulk of it lost under brambles, tall grasses bent and brown with the sun, the track ablaze with flaming pink willowherb. Picture a quiet corner of an otherwise busy university campus, an unmown woodland clearing turned hogweed forest. Each flower-head is a seething metropolis of cumin-seed sized black beetles, visited now and again by bumblebees or fat hoverflies that mimic the bees’ drone and pollen-tangled fur coats.
These are the places that have given me hope this past week. Not nature reserves, with their visitor’s car-parks, rarefied atmosphere and pressure to see something rare or unusual. Not ‘true’ wilderness with its illusion of complete human abandonment. Just peaceful, nothingy spaces, popularly known as edgelands in the annals of contemporary nature writing, dismissed elsewhere as weed patches. Close to our homes yet with a spirit that seems beamed in from another dimension, these tiny oases are in many ways the frontlines of day-to-day nature conservation.
For whilst the prospect of a closely monitored wolf somewhere out there – lurking amongst arguments over the latest conservation fad or buzzword* – might prompt excitement, or fear, isn’t the hogweed patch next door more urgent, more crucial to our everyday wildness? It’s a practical vision, too, or so I like to think. The seeds of hope really are sown in all corners of our countryside, our villages, our towns and cities, insubstantial as they seem. They just need a bit of space and time to grow: even the most perfect wild orchid starts out as nothing more than a speck of dust.
Forgotten wild on the fringes of the Great Western mainline near Twyford in Berkshire, electrification works in progress
Cheilosia illustrata, a bee mimicing hoverfly fairly that’s fairly common on hogweed
Hogweed jungle in Whiteknights Park, the University of Reading’s main campus
A single common spotted orchid on the University of Reading campus: small sign of wild hope
*For effect I sound more dismissive of the rewilding debate than is fair: for thoughtful commentary on what exactly rewilding may or may not be, and why that may not be the right question anyway, see Peter Cooper’s blog. I’m going to return to this subject soon.
May is the season of white. Cow parsley and hawthorn revel in it, dressing every roadside. Horse chestnuts put up great candelabras of elaborate off-white blossoms. Wild garlic also chooses white, and its underrated blooms can produce as startling a drift of colour on a woodland floor as bluebells do, if not in such an original shade. In Whiteknights Park ramsons are generally scarce, but there’s an incredible swathe in the small wooded area on the north side of campus. Perhaps the densest patch of all is in the fringes of the Catholic chaplaincy garden, from where it finds its way into many a summer term soup lunch. It’s almost as though it grows here by design, a plant that is both beautiful and delicious: clearly this is a holy place.
Besides hungry students and staff, there’s a small beast that is even fonder of eating wild garlic. I love niche-specific species like this and the targeted searches their choosiness facilitates, so once I became aware of the connection I resolved to determine whether or not it occurred in Reading. I started by setting four traps, nestled within the garlic patch and surrounding by developing flower shoots. None caught the animal I was looking for, but whilst collecting them I finally saw it. At least, I think I did. A squat, dark hoverfly with square grey markings on its abdomen. Ponderous for a hover, it slowly descended to a flower about 15 inches from my left hand. With my right hand I made to grab either hand-net or camera, but the second of indecision over which I should pick up first was all the time the fly needed to vanish.
The fly I saw met the description of the one I was searching for, which goes by the name Portevinia maculata. Nonetheless, without a photo or a specimen I couldn’t prove to anybody that it was anything more than a figment of my sun-baked imagination, and despite extensive searching the following day no further individuals were found. The fly is and remains a Whiteknights Park enigma, a fantastic beast that in a Schrödinger-esque sort of way may – or may not – be out there even now, resting among the ramsons. As wildlife mysteries go it’s not exactly the Lord God Bird, not even the Lord God fly; plenty of rarer and objectively more striking hoverflies are out there. But it does add a satisfying kind of depth to an otherwise anonymous, overlooked corner of campus.
Wild garlic or Ramsons (Allium ursinum) growing on the north edge of Whiteknights Park.
Hoverfly expert Steven Falk’s excellent Flickr album illustrates what I was looking for. He describes Portevinia maculata as “a widespread but localised fly, often present at good stands of the food-plant in woods but sometimes absent for reasons that are unclear”. Sounds about right!