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Saturday, June 22, 2024
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NatureNature Studies

Nature Studies

One of the things I miss most about nature today, compared to my childhood more than half a century ago, is the phenomenon of abundance. In the 1950s and 1960s there was teeming wildlife all around us, there was just much more of everything, especially birds. Last month the British Trust for Ornithology put figures on this development which are remarkable: they calculated that we now have 73 million fewer birds in Britain than we did in 1970. No longer does every country churchyard hold a pair of spotted flycatchers; and no longer, for that matter, is every buddleia bush covered in butterflies. When I was a boy there were clouds of moths and other insects which bespattered car windscreens on summer nights: they have long gone. There seemed to be hares in every field, there were meadows bristling with grasshoppers—these are sights which I never seem to see anymore.
Abundance gives a thrilling sense of the richness of the natural world in its unspoiled state, and I think many people of my generation feel its loss. But since coming to Dorset I have encountered it again, where I never expected to find it: in the spring wild flowers. Take primroses. In the part of the world where I grew up, the Wirral, primroses are as rare as hen’s teeth; a patch of them (and I found a few) is to be treasured. But there are parts of Dorset where primrose profusion is quite astonishing. From February to May the lemon-yellow flowers wallpaper the vertical green banks of the three lanes leading up and out of our village; I think I would almost pay to see it, and they are there on the doorstep. Celandines offer similar spectacles. They are not quite the primrose equivalent in terms of elegance, and they close their petals when the sun goes in, but there is a lane at the bottom of one of the adjoining hills where, to echo Wordsworth on daffodils, you can see ten thousand at a glance; the sight is breathtaking.
So is the sight of the ramsons, the wild garlic, covering woodland floors in white, and often doing the same for roadside verges: if in early May you take the road up from Milton Abbas to the top of Bulbarrow, what must be millions of the flowers line the whole route as if it has been decorated for a procession. And the bluebells, of course, cap it all—in the woodlands an incredible swirling intense lilac at the foot of the trees which is almost hallucinatory.
To my delight all this is readily visible in many places, although there is one spring flower spectacle I have had to work harder to find in Dorset, and that is wood anemones. I love them for their very individual beauty, the white flower-stars scattered over the background of their dark green leaves as if across the night sky. But I have seen none near at hand. There is a major bluebell wood less than a mile due west of us, and another just over a mile to the south-east, and if you climb the hill above the village you pass through sheets of cowslips interspersed with groups of early purple orchids to find a copse at the top where the bluebells are like blue smoke under the beech trees, in a sight so stunning as to be almost indescribable; but in these woodlands, of Anemone nemorosa there is no sign. However I have looked hard, and eventually found my white stars in a wood ten miles to the east, as you can see from Robin Mills’ photo.
All these displays are so striking because they combine the beauty of the individual blooms with an overwhelming sense of plenty, of prospering, that feeling which elsewhere in nature has been lost; and there is another sort of wild flower abundance which offers this in Dorset, that of the mixture. One lovely morning this spring I was shown a lane on a hillside north of Bridport where the side bank held not only primroses and celandines and wild garlic and bluebells, all together, but also dusky-pink red campions, and the white buttons of greater stitchwort, while over it all fluttered orange-tip butterflies. It seemed like perfection, and I gave thanks to the Good Lord for it; it seemed to have everything you could wish for, in an exhibition of spring wild flowers (except, of course, for the wood anemones; you tend to need a wood for them.)

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