On the green
Striding across the meadow looking as if he’s stepped out of Hardy’s fictional Wessex landscape, Steven McCulloch is wearing a wide-brimmed white hat, a billowing shirt that looks for all the world like a smock and the grin of someone who loves what they do. It’s 4pm on an August midweek afternoon, a sharp burst of summer returning like a glitching screen coming to resolution, a season remembering itself.
It’s baling day for the meadow, half an acre of grassland, retired dairy pasture, at the heart of a community green space in Sandford, mid Devon. Under the grass the soil remains damp throughout the year, owing to the little stream, an inlet of the River Creedy, running alongside it and the old leat dissecting it, carrying the memory of water to the disappeared mills in a nearby lane. Each autumn volunteers pull Hemlock water dropwort, nettles and brambles from the stream’s slow moving waters.
Creating a space for wildlife
In 1995, a determined group of villagers saw an opportunity to create a space for wildlife at the heart of their community in the middle of an agricultural heartland. Their protracted wranglings with planners, landowners and grant applications were eventually rewarded with funding from the Countryside Commission’s Millenium Greens Project. A booklet about the green, for sale in the village shop (Sandford still has one of these along with two pubs, a post office and a school), is dotted with photos of intergenerational working parties, gloved and clutching spades, beaming at the camera. The green opened, to great ceremony, in July 2000. Today a small band of volunteers, including Steven, helps to manage its sections; a herb and forest garden, an orchard and copse, a pond, coppiced fringes and traditionally laid hedges, and a meadow.
Providing homes for invertebrates, insects and wildlife
Today the meadow smells green and yellow; a sweet sort of damp. A sign at the gate asks dog walkers to stay out, from April when it begins to flower, until the hay is cut at the end of summer, to protect wildlife and avoid contaminating the hay. During the growing season it’s home to a mix of wildflowers; yellow rattle, wild carrot, oxeye daisy and knapweed; to cuckoo flower, or lady’s smock, and a mix of clovers. Under Steven’s stewardship southern marsh orchids have appeared, their seeds, as fine as dust, drifting for miles on the wind to find their way here. Their number has increased from one to fourteen and is a source of pride and excitement for Steven, the volunteers and the community who use the space. Steven’s approach of letting wildflowers live out their life cycle has helped the meadow to provide homes for invertebrates, insects and wildlife throughout the year. ‘Wildflower meadows aren’t really a thing,’ Steven says, ‘whereas this’, he gestures to the meadow, ‘is a tall grass habitat with wildflowers in it; a healthy grassland is one that supports all life’.
The sun is pale, the wind warm, but when the wind settles, the smell is of hay barns and childhood. A wasp buzzes over the fronds of softly-turned hay, loose, like a rippled body of water. I run my hand over it, feeling its crunchy top, burying my hand into its soft underneath where the light hasn’t reached. Across the green I can hear children and their parents counting off scarecrows on the trail, the rattle and thump of a passing trailer, gulls calling to each other in the blue clouded sky. I hear the crunch of women’s feet behind me as they walk and talk on the path; I catch the smell of suncream.
The meadow is fringed by wispy willows, spindly elder bushes bowed by the thick purple weight of berries, and the desiccated architectural stems of hogweed and hemlock. It’s been a good year for nuts and fruits; the hazel bushes are full of cob, the pear trees, which nobody can remember fruiting before, hang heavy with fruit. The orchard looks like an illustration from a children’s picture book. But for the steady hum of traffic, the click of a trailer, the rumble of tractors on the nearby road, it could be 1723 as much as 2023.
Making hay while the sun shines
It feels like a festival day, one of homecoming. For the last fortnight, Steven has come down after work to turn the ribbons’ damp underbellies to dry in the sun and wind. Now I watch the tractor loop the meadow, pulling the ribbons in, performing the slow and delicately mechanised dance of turning a season’s flowering into sweet-smelling cylinders of silvers, greens and golds, like Rumpelstiltskin spinning gold from straw.
An hour later and there are 13 bales of green and silver hay ready to be sold to help pay for the meadow’s management. It’s full of flowers and seedheads, “Full of old weeds”, as the farmers have it, making buyers wary. ‘But livestock love it,’ Steven tells me, as he loads them onto the trailer ‘and it’s probably more nutrient-rich than if it was a single species.’
Supporting biodiversity by working with nature
It turns out that Steven’s appearance isn’t where his affinity with Hardy ends. He shares Hardy’s regret at the switch from nature as partner to subject. ‘Historically we worked with the land,’ he says, ‘but with developments in technology and chemicals, now we can make it do what we want.’ As a gardener and hedge-layer he’s a passionate believer in the importance of working with what is. It’s a principle he brings to bear in the way that he works, one forged through his relationship with his grandmother. As a lively youngster on visits to her farm, she encouraged him to sit still and take notice. ‘She’d take an apple and a knife, and we’d sit under an oak tree. She’d slice it up and say, “Oh, look, there’s the little wren; there’s little Robin over there.” It opened my eyes to seeing what really is. I think that everyone should give themselves time to sit outside, close enough to see what lives there and what it’s doing, how it’s living, because it helps us to understand what we can do to help.’
‘It’s the intangible, unquantifiable stuff that we do that really counts.’
In their recently released State of Nature Report, conservation organisations have detailed a deepening countrywide nature-loss crisis and an urgent need for more investment in wildlife-friendly farming and fishing. Its findings make Steven’s approach an increasingly vital shift in our approach to land management. The report details the UK’s significant loss of biodiversity and identifies our position as one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth. With an estimated 70% of our land devoted to agriculture, recent studies suggesting that farming with wildlife in mind can increase yields and help mitigate the effects of the climate crisis provides reason for hope. ‘It’s the intangible, unquantifiable stuff that we do that really counts,’ Steven says.
He’s discovered that his hands-off approach has encouraged a thriving population of shiny green dock beetles on the green, helping to keep the docks in check. ‘To begin with I’d go around digging them all out, but then I noticed larvae eating the leaves. And I thought, if I dig them all out, they won’t survive because I’ll be removing their food source.’ He’s discovered that the beetles eat the tricksy hogweed too. ‘I’m finding that invariably there’s something which will eat something else and that if you make space for nature – for whatever wants to live there – it will come.’