Sunday, September 7, 2014

Wenvoe orchards: Sat 6 September 2014

Bruce McDonald led this fascinating walk in the Wenvoe area, attended by around ten CNS members, which took in four newly-planted orchards, a community nature reserve, two churchyards and an ancient burial chamber.

Orchards are a priority habitat and relatively easy to create, so the Wenvoe Wildlife Group is currently focusing on them to promote local biodiversity. The trees in commercial orchards are regularly replaced, often within a decade of planting, and are subject to numerous agrochemical sprays every year; so they have become a very poor habitat for wildlife. The Wenvoe group planted traditional tree varieties in four diverse locations last year that should provide a haven for wildlife for many years to come. These orchards are being primarily managed for wildlife biodiversity and not intensive fruit production; although they should eventually yield abundant fruit for community picking.

The first stop was the Community Orchard, on the edge of the playing field to the east of Wenvoe. A mixture of trees has been planted here, including traditional varieties of apples (e.g. Bardsley Grenadier, Ribston Pippin, and also crab apples), pears and plums (including greengage), along with medlar, quince, mulberry and hazel. The orchard has an impressive bee hotel, with a noticeboard on the back. Bruce mentioned that it would make a good research project for someone, investigating the species using it. Bumble bee nests are also being created, using buried flower pots, and Bruce is on the lookout for mouse droppings (so they can better mimic the abandoned mouse nests favoured by bumble bees). A pond has been dug, which in its second year is supporting a range of aquatic flora and fauna.

Taking the underpass, the next stop was St Mary’s churchyard in Wenvoe. Here we saw the old yew tree and a Balm-of-Gilead.

The tour continued along Pound Lane and through Wenvoe Woods to the farmland beyond, where the Elizabethan Orchard is located, in a fenced-off corner of a field. This was part-funded through the Glastir programme, whereby farmers get paid to increase biodiversity on farms. Using a National Trust listing of fruit trees in an Elizabethan orchard, the Wenvoe Wildlife Group planted medlar, quince, and apple and pear varieties that would have been familiar to the Elizabethans. Trees are widely spaced, up to 10m apart, based on old orchard records. The group is also constructing a Shakespearean garden here, with herbs that are mentioned in the Bard’s plays. A log pile and a pond are among the other habitats being created.

The walk continued along the golf course, through more woods and up to the St Lythans burial chamber - an ideal spot for a picnic lunch. This megalithic dolmen was built around 6,000 years ago, as part of a chambered long barrow (so it’s significantly older than Stonehenge). Current thinking suggests that corpses where put into a cave in nearby Goldsland Wood, and the skeletons moved to the St Lythans burial chamber (and the nearby and larger Tinkinswood burial chamber that is of a similar age).

The third orchard – the Welsh Orchard – is just around the corner from here on a triangular area surrounded by farmland. All the 28 trees planted in this area last year have Welsh connections, either having their origins in Wales or being varieties popular over long periods in Wales. They include the Nant Gwrtheryn Golden Russet variety, which has just been put on the market after its rediscovery on the Llŷn Peninsula. Two flower beds are being created here with medicinal herbs described by the Physicians of Myddfai, who were influential herbalists who lived in the twelfth century in the Carmarthenshire settlement of Myddfai. At least 40 plants they used were noted in the literature; and a selection is being planted here, including wormwood, tansy, angelica, marsh mallow, agrimony, henbane and others that you won’t find in the Cowbridge Physic Garden because of Health and Safety concerns! Beehives are also present in the Welsh Orchard and a new pond will be put in place this winter. The numerous insects (including grasshoppers and crickets of note), birds (e.g. willow warbler) and scuttling small mammals seen attest to the site’s value to wildlife.

A walk along the road took us to St Lythans village and its churchyard. From here it’s a short walk to the fourth and final orchard: the linear Wild Orchard. Here, trees have been planted along a field edge to enhance the existing trees and shrubs, which includes crab apples and other wild-type fruits. Among the trees planted last year were hazel, wild cherry, bird cherry and plum.

We continued towards Twyn-yr-Odyn. By the quarry monument we took a path, which had only been opened a few weeks previously, and soon found ourselves in the Upper Orchid Field. This 5-acre Community Nature Reserve is, like the new orchards, managed by Wenvoe Wildlife Group. The sloping meadow contains over 300 species of flowers, grasses, insects and birds. The seven orchid species recorded here are best viewed in June. There is one annual mowing to encourage meadow wildflowers. This is a habitat type fast disappearing in the UK. The field is surrounded by woodlands and hedgerows. Here you can explore and find Molluscopolis, a secluded area with information boards, where snails and slugs are positively encouraged.

The path at the bottom of the field continues down into Wenvoe.

Text and photos: Stephen Nottingham

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