Until the cows came home
Nick Churchill reports on the rebirth of an important area of unimproved meadow in the heart of Verwood
Published in April ’11
Since the end of World War 2, the population of Verwood has exploded from around 2000 to nearly 15,000. As development has swallowed up brown-field sites, Bugdens Copse and Meadow has continued to provide the promise of a small haven of tranquility, right in the middle of the modern town.
Lying between the main Ringwood Road and Morrisons supermarket, it is not the obvious picture of rural Dorset, and nature may not be allowed to run entirely free in this refuge, but sympathetic management affords the flora and fauna here much more freedom than in the surrounding area. Bugdens Copse was once part of much larger woodland, the last link to the ancient Beau Bois, or Fayre Wood, from which Verwood derives its name. Last summer, another connection with the town’s past was re-established when, for the first time in a coupe of decades, cattle grazed on Bugdens Meadow.
‘This is like a green lung in the heart of Verwood,’ says Andy Fale, Urban and East Dorset Warden at Dorset Wildlife Trust. ‘The Copse is classic hazel understorey with an oak canopy, and it is being traditionally managed, so it made perfect sense to bring in four Shetland cattle last July, to graze on the scrub in the meadow.’
Designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1990, Bugdens Meadow nature reserve was acquired by Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT) in May 2009, and is a nationally-rare example of unimproved meadow habitat, which provides a home for wild flowers including devil’s bit scabious, common- and heath-spotted orchids, ragged robin, knapweed, Dyer’s greenweed and marsh thistle. ‘The Shetland is a rare breed and very tough as you might expect,’ explains Andy, ‘they do well on poor pasture, which makes them ideal for conservation grazing. If you just leave it, the scrub grows up and suppresses the grass, which is what had happened over the last twenty years. That continuous growth means the grass becomes matted and doesn’t break up. The cows are brilliant at breaking up the matted layer, as well as the sallow regrowth, which opens the sward and allows the wild flowers to come through.’
Local interest in the Bugdens Meadow project was galvanized when one of the Shetland cows gave birth to a calf, the day after they arrived, as Andy recalls: ‘It wasn’t a total surprise to us as we knew the cow was pregnant, but the speed with which the calf arrived did surprise us. The locals were very excited as they’d been volunteering to come down and keep an eye on the cattle, and then, all of a sudden, they had a calf to see as well.’
So as not to ‘over-improve’ the ground, the cattle are not a full-time fixture. ‘You have to use cattle in the right way, and they can only graze at the right time of year, so we had them for six weeks or so last year but,’ says Andy, ‘we hope to get them back for longer this year.’
Major restoration work by Dorset Wildlife Trust, thanks to teams of volunteers, has already reinstated large sections of Bugdens Meadow, but it is an on-going project. ‘We’ve got an aerial photograph from 1946 that shows the meadow as two fields separated by a central hedgeway. They would have been traditional hay meadows, quite damp, but not fed by a water source, so not water meadows,’ says Andy’s fellow warden, Nigel Brooks. As well as photographic evidence, there is also local anecdotal evidence of the meadow’s use, as he explains: ‘Some of the older residents remember cattle grazing and, in more recent years, there has been the occasional horse left in here, but that would have been tethered, so it was very limited grazing. The first thing we had to do was reinstate the fence around the site, then clear the scrub and now we’re starting to work on the hedges. The central hedgerow has some well-established oak trees, which will be retained as they provide a great habitat for insects and birds. The sallow has fallen, branched out and then sprouted upwards again, so that has to be cut back; we’ll plant some new hazel and fruit trees as well, wild pear and crab apple.’
For centuries, Verwood was a small, scattered settlement of people who eked a living from the surrounding heathland: cutting peat, besom making and providing fodder. The clay soil and ample firing material gave rise to potteries that may date back to Roman times, but were certainly established by the 13th century and, in the early 20th century, sustained a thriving pottery and brick-making industry that exported all over the world. The boom years were short-lived, though, and the last kiln closed in 1952; the industry fell victim to mass-production methods. Duly marked for housing development, Verwood has expanded rapidly since the 1980s.
‘Not much of old Verwood survives,’ says Andy, ‘and the links with its history of the potteries and brickworks are pretty few. There are the heathland SSSIs at Stephens Castle and Dewlands Common, but it’s important to have this site in the centre of Verwood as well. Stephens Castle, to the north of Verwood, was used as a mineral quarry, primarily for the extraction of sand, and helped support the potteries and brickmaking industry around Verwood. Today it is a heathland SSSI managed by East Dorset District Council, as is Dewlands Common to the south.
But in the centre of town Bugdens Meadow provides a vital connection to the town’s past by engaging head-on with its present. ‘It is,’ says Nigel, ‘an open space for use by, and the enjoyment of, the community – it is not intended to be a cut-through to the shops. There will be an interpretation board by the gate by main road that explains what we’re doing here. The idea is to keep the community informed about, and make them feel part of, the project. The Verwood Opportunity Centre, which helps people with physical and learning disabilities, has been very helpful with scrub-management and in checking on the cows.
‘We want to involve the local schools as well,’ Nigel says, ‘because there are so many green issues being talked about in classrooms; we can bring the schools down here and they can take part in something on their doorstep.’ This makes a welcome change in the area’s usage as Bugdens Meadow had acquired a reputation, in recent years, as a focus for anti-social behavior and illicit gatherings. It is a perception that Dorset Wildlife Trust is keen to reverse, as local engagement is far from inviting a free-for-all. ‘We don’t want to turn it into a dog walking track and there is some concern locally that the meadow had previously been used to hold anti-social parties, but now that the meadow’s fringes have been cleared out, anyone up to no-good can be seen from the road, which,’ he observes, ‘tends to put them off.
Nigel clarifies that, ‘this is not to say that we don’t want people in here, because we do. This is where the educational side of what we do comes in; we feel that if people know what we’re trying to do, they will be more supportive and understanding.’
As well as the proliferation of wild flowers, the Bugdens Meadows nature reserve supports a range of animals, from grass snakes, common lizards and slow worms, to a variety of small mammals, as well as stag beetles, wasp spiders, long-winged coneheads, crickets and many birds, including the enigmatic yaffle, or green woodpecker.
‘We’re hoping to find dormice although they haven’t shown themselves yet,’ says Andy. ‘We get roe deer down here as well, which is really surprising as they have to come through a fairly built-up area to get here; contrary to popular belief, barbed wire fences present no barrier to a deer. What we have noticed, though, is that the deer have a good browse on the scrub as well. The big idea at Bugdens Meadows is that we didn’t want to come in and make drastic changes, we prefer to take less dramatic action, so that change is gradual. We’ve still got some work to do clearing scrub, but that should be gone by the end of March. Obviously in an attempt to keep the meadow dry someone has dug a herringbone system of shallow ditches here at some point and we’ll be opening those up again to offer some drainage.’
Although DWT only acquired the site under two years ago, Andy reveals his interest extends further back: ‘I’ve had my eye on this site for years. I used to work for East Dorset District Council in the copse, and it was always so tantalising seeing the orchids come through over here and thinking what could be done with it. We’ve now got a water supply on the site, which came about thanks to the developers who built the care home adjacent to the meadows; they recognised the benefit of the site to the residents and happily laid us on a pipe. It is a good example of how good relations can get things done for the benefit of old, and new, Verwood.’