I’m not a botanist but……. (part one)

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………….. I do love a good wild flower.

As mentioned in a previous post I spent a week touring southern England last month. The main attractions were the great bustards of Salisbury Plain but my first stop was actually a little north of there, at Cricklade, near Swindon. Here, at North Meadow, on the floodplain of the Upper Thames, is an ancient hay meadow. Unlike many other similar sites it has not been ploughed or dug up for gravel extraction. It has retained its ancient system of management and is now a National Nature Reserve. It is alive with wild flowers, including 80% of the UK’s snakeshead fritillaries. Its crop of hay is taken off in late summer after the wild flowers have set seed. 

A small proportion of the flowers are white.

I arrived at North Meadow at dawn on a cold May day to find a wisp of freezing fog in the air and countless thousands of fritillaries in bloom. Good timing? Possibly …….. but the sheer number of flowers was overwhelming. My first reaction was to try to photograph them en masse before the fog and frost dispersed. I was like a headless chicken! However the long telephoto lens needed to do a mass of flowers justice has a very narrow depth of field and most individual blooms were out of focus. I eventually settled down to photographing small groups of flowers or individuals, and even then a long focal length was required to reach photogenic specimens from the safety of the footpath. My first intention was to show flowers complete with ice crystals but they soon melted into tiny water droplets which proved to be more attractive. I moved on later that day to Salisbury Plain.

I have always found orchids fascinating. With only roughly fifty species in the UK it is a plant family which the non-botanist can get to grips relatively easily. My parents were great wild orchid lovers, and there’s no doubt there’s something special about orchids, something exotic, and exciting. The extreme rarity of some species only adds to their appeal. I had long harboured the desire to see the lady’s slipper orchid in the wild in the UK. This species with its extraordinary flowers was found in and around woodland on limestone in various parts of northern England. Its looks were its downfall, though; it was picked and collected to extinction by 1917. Then, in 1930, one single plant was found somewhere in the Yorkshire Dales. It has remained there ever since, its location only known to a select few. It is legally protected, fenced off and under close surveillance 24/7 to deter thieves and photographers.

Over a period of decades, however, a programme to reintroduce the lady’s slipper orchid to its former haunts has been under way. With great difficulty plants have been grown from seed at Kew Gardens and replanted in suitable locations across northern England. At one National Nature Reserve in Lancashire, Gait Barrows, the plants in the limestone pavement are made available for public viewing every year, and it was in this area that I made some inquiries. When would they be flowering this year after such a cold spring?

Part Two follows……..

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