Some of you may have noticed the lack of blog post last week. This was because I had steroids injected into my shoulder on Saturday, and by Sunday the codeine required for the shoulder was doing funny things to my brain. I made a start on the post I had planned, but quickly realised that not only was I making an absolute hash of it, but that no one in their right mind was going to want to read it either. I abandoned the blog post, and instead politely requested (demanded) that my husband take me out for a walk to take my mind off my shoulder.
I was given membership to the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust for Christmas last year, and was sent a lovely pack with maps of all their reserves. As I had only managed to visit a couple, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to explore another one, so we went to Blakehill Farm Nature Reserve.
Blakehill Farm is a former military airfield, which is now (as the name suggests) managed as a farmland reserve. Wiltshire Wildlife Trust bought the land in 2000, and set about restoring the meadows to their former glory. Meadows are a habitat which has declined massively in the UK in the last century, and they are essential to the survival of many iconic species, such as the skylark, linnet and brown hare.
And essential to the management of meadows are the livestock that graze them. At Blakehill Farm, the hay meadows are cut in July (after the nesting season for skylarks is over), and are then grazed with cattle and sheep throughout the summer. Cattle and sheep graze down to different levels, and sheep will often follow cattle on a pasture, as they can graze the grass closer to the ground. This grazing allows the meadow flower species, such as Oxeye daisies and rare orchids, to flourish, as the livestock graze down the grass species which would otherwise outcompete them. The livestock are also used as a seed dispersal mechanism – they are fed hay from Clattinger’s Farm (another Wiltshire Wildlife Trust reserve) which is rich in wildflower seeds, and will increase the diversity of meadow flowers found at Blakehill.
We had a lovely walk around Blakehill Farm. It is a reserve that is managed for wildlife, not for the people who come to see it, and as such can seem a little bleak, and a little uncompromising – a little wild, in fact. And that is the beauty of it. There are paths, there are signposts, there is a map, but as a visitor you are not pandered to, the wildlife is not presented on a plate, and the habitat for wildlife is not compromised for the visitor’s benefit. Nonetheless, this ‘wild’-feeling reserve is the opposite of a wilderness. To maintain a true wildflower meadow requires careful and exacting management. It is not a ‘natural’ habitat, but a man-made one. If left untended, the more vigorous plants and grasses would take over, shrubs and trees would grow, and in a couple of decades there would be a forest instead of a meadow, and far fewer species living there.
The meadow species we love have evolved alongside us – as we learnt to farm, they adapted to live in farmland. As we made meadows for livestock to graze, new species took advantage of new niches in the habitat. And so to keep these species flourishing, we rely on responsible farming, and the thousands of farmers who care about the wildlife of our country, and the work of far-sighted charities like the Wildlife Trusts and their diligent volunteers.
Blakehill Farm is a flagship for farming and conservation – it ticks all the boxes. It is host to a huge diversity of species, it is restoring meadows to Wiltshire, it is a prime example of sustainable farming – and of course, it’s a lovely place for a walk!
Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s Blakehill Farm Reserve – http://www.wiltshirewildlife.org/Reserves/blakehillfarm