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Time to bring back the cowslip and the bulrush

Friday 11 March 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard pushes aside the winter blues to ponder on the possibility of ordinary folk saving our wild flower heritage

SITTING down to write this, I was planning another outpouring of vitriol at the stupidity of the EU officials who want to stop country folk shooting magpies - one of the most vicious killers in the countryside (see News).

But the sun came out, briefly but happily, and I could get into my allotment for the first time for yonks. Then a magazine came through my door which reminded me of the first "dirty" joke I can ever remember.

I was perhaps seven, playing in a meadow next to a stream full of frogspawn and sticklebacks, with a group of other children, one of whom was a village lass of perhaps nine. I fancied her to death because, according to the older boys, she was a bit "frisky."

She sat down besides me and asked: "Why did the bulrush?" I had no idea. She punched me hard on the shoulder and laughed in my face: "Because the cow slipped, silly" and off she skipped to play with the older boys.

It took me some years to realise that there was some vague sexual innuendo here but at the time I was quite baffled. For the meadow which was our playground was gleaming yellow with cowslips and, at its centre, was a duck pond surrounded by bulrushes taller than me. Why they should be part of a joke was a complete mystery.

I have not been to that meadow for many years for, sadly, it soon became the site of a council housing estate. The cowslips and the bulrushes are long gone - as they are in most parts of Olde England, according to an article in the latest issue of Countryside Voice, the magazine of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

In it, writer Peter Marren urges anyone interested in saving our wonderful heritage of wildflowers - whether they be small gardeners, farmers, or the owners of country estates - to sow wildflower seeds this spring and summer as a mark of some welcome and fundamental changes in British farming practice.

As we reported last week, country stewardship grants will soon be offered to all farmers who are prepared to set aside some of their land for hedgerows and uncultivated boundary strips around fields to provide a new habitat for birds, mammals, insects and "rare" plants.

The latter category, says Countryside Voice, now includes many varieties which, only a couple of decades ago, grew all around us: not just cowslips and bulrushes, but buttercups and mayweed, forget-me-nots and violets, vetches and campions, bluebells and marsh marigolds.

The list is pretty long and I confess I cannot picture many of them in my mind: it is so long since I have seen many of them. But to have them back in our now green monotone landscape would be a treat for everyone - not mention species like butterflies, moths and other insects.

Many of these plants can now be bought at garden centres but beware: digging up wild flowers to take them back to your garden is now a criminal offence. So what to do?

Peter Marren has an idea which will appeal to most gardeners who are, at heart, always on the lookout for a floral bargain. It's dead simple, really: wait until the wild flowers dear to you have just passed their best and collect their seed heads.

Store them over winter in somewhere dry but cool and sow them next spring. Many will fail - my wife has been doing this for years and only a small number survive. But then, there are often hundreds, even thousands, of seeds and they are free! So give it a go this summer - and help restore some of the wonders of nature to our landscape.

Anyone interested in buying wildflower seeds can check out www.wildflowers.co.uk

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