Richard Lofthouse discusses the future of two very special Cherwell-flanked meadows with Merton Head Gardener Lucille Savin.
Merton has decided to start work at Music Meadow and the Great Meadow to improve biodiversity on its land and improve wildlife habitats
By Dr Richard Lofthouse
When earlier this year Merton said it would enact a three-hundred year biodiversity plan in Music Meadow and Great Meadow, we jumped at the story and went to have a stroll with the college’s Head Gardener, Lucille Savin.
The story itself is simple enough at first glance. Meadows currently covered in grass get flowers: it almost falls into the ‘Man eats Dog’ category of news stories. But this is Oxford so, naturally, it turns out to be far more intricate and wonderful. Merton's land, next to St Catherine's, will be planted with wildflowers, as well as a small copse
For starters, locating the two meadows in question totally defeats Apple maps, Google maps or even HERE (formerly Nokia) maps, the latter is very good on buildings but, as it turns out, lousy at meadows. The best map is still the paper City of Oxford A-Z. Music Meadow lies immediately south of Parson’s Pleasure, if you remember where that is. Easier: go to St Catherine’s College lodge and behind it the large expanse of grass is Great Meadow. The two meadows connect but have a different feel, Music Meadow being smaller and more intimate, more tree-hugged, and bounded by watercourses on three sides.
The day we meet Lucille is pure sunshine, an autumnal throwback to high summer, but with such a heavy dew that the sun beams seem to carve lines in the moist air. The students are not back yet and everything hangs in suspense. It is hoped that the trees will attract birds who will use them as a source of food
We go over from Catz to Music Meadow and within moments my tobacco suede shoes are darkened to chocolate by the soaking grass. To the untutored eye it is already a very special meadow, a bit of a secret, peeping across from one channel of the Cherwell to that narrow island nicknamed Mesopotamia. An annual hay cut keeps it under control, while nature does the rest, with winter flooding common – no surprise there given that Holywell Mill Stream flows down the western side while the Cherwell pauses and collects around the top before welling down the eastern edge.
‘We want flowers that will be beautiful but also flowers that will augment biodiversity and provide food for bees and other insects and wildlife,’ says Savin. ‘The plan will be to plant large numbers of Persicaria affinis– that’s the family name for bistort, an archetypal hardy pink perennial that notably does not like dry soil, so perfect for a tree-shaded flood plain meadow.’ In successive years Savin and her team will add another species, such as Rhinanthus minor, or yellow rattle, and then another and another, perhaps as many as five in total. The results will be colourful, but also hardy. The haycut in late July will continue. It prevents saplings from springing up and keeps nutrient levels down, helping the flowers to self-seed in a natural manner and stopping the grass from choking them off.The soil in the meadows is of low nutrient level, which will prevent the perennial flower species being out-competed by grasses
Lucille says that she has seen Munjack and Roe deer here, badgers, bats and foxes. There are owls and there are butterflies. The only real decimation in recent decades has been frogs and toads, ‘eaten to pieces by non-native mink.’
The banks are stuffed with sloe, dog rose, bramble, sycamore, ash and willow. It already feels very special, but the real highlight is the willow carr that we skirt the edge of to get across to Great Meadow. Savin explains that a ‘carr’ is a waterlogged, wooded land form. In this case it is dense with mature willow trees and that is apparently quite unusual. In most cases the land is either drained or cleared, or both. Groups of recreational arboriculturists have made special pilgrimage to this willow carr.Head Gardener Lucille Savin
Coming back out into the larger expanse of grass that defines Great Meadow, Savin explains that a handful of antique almond trees will be taken down, being at the very end of their lives; and in the centre of the meadow ‘we are planning to plant a small copse of Pinus sylvestris.’ [Scots Pine]
‘Birds such as siskins, great spotted woodpeckers and crested tits use them as a food source, and the horizontal branches make excellent nesting places. Lichens grow in the cracks on the trunk, which are also home to many insects. Over the course of its 300-year lifespan the copse will enhance the meadow with its distinctive silhouette of straight trunks topped by wind-moulded horizontal branches, typical of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown's landscape style.’By now the sun is higher and the heat more insistent. The earlier drowsy haze has dissipated and the light is bright and the grass drier. I can entirely see how a stand of pines would bring a focal point and a character to a meadow that otherwise looks rather like an extension of Catz. It is the less successful of the two meadows despite being larger. A tarmac drive occupies one perimeter and ends in cars and waste bins. It somehow needs to be sculpted with trees, to come into itself for the future. A three-hundred year plan! What a marvel and how totally Oxford, to think in centuries instead of days or weeks.
Dr Richard Lofthouse is the editor of Oxford Today