Note: A dyke is the name used for a drainage ditch in the east of England.
The Patch is a 5.3 acre field near Spalding. 4 acres have been planted as native woodland, half an acre contains a small, ornamental arboretum, and the rest consists of a farm building, greenhouses, an experimental vegetable plot and raised beds, and an orchard, all surrounded by a deciduous shelterbelt.
Since Daphne and John bought the field in late 1990, their main aim has been to attract wildlife to an area which, largely owing to intensive farming methods and the removal of trees and hedges, has become somewhat of a biodiversity desert. Their scheme is now bearing some fruit in the number of different species of birds that have been attracted to the shelterbelts as they have grown up in the last two decades.
Surrounding The Patch on three sides, as with most agricultural fields in the area, are around 500m of drainage dykes . The two shallower ones are cut every year in autumn by adjoining farmers, but John and Daphne have themselves maintained the wide, deeper dyke on the side of the field adjacent to a country lane since acquiring The Patch.
Because of trees and hedges on the roadside verge and on the roadside boundary, it is not now possible to tidy this dyke annually using farm machinery, so John has used a petrol trimmer once or twice a season, until about three years ago, when owing to pressure of work, the dyke banks and bottom were left uncut. Then John sustained an injury to his shoulder which made this kind of work extremely painful, so the dyke was left again to its own devices.
Fenland dykes can be a rich wildlife habitat if managed properly. Unfortunately, management often consists of either scalping the sides and bottom with an excavator, or flailing the banks when they start to look untidy. In addition, the acquisition of isolated properties with land by new country dwellers has led to some of the shallower dykes being mowed regularly to eliminate most of the wildlife food plants and create a grassy monoculture.
It is clear that since the roadside dyke at The Patch has become 'neglected' the amount of wildlife, including birds, insects, frogs and a water vole, has increased significantly. This year, Daphne had the idea that it could be possible to maintain the dyke to retain the habitat, while keeping it tidy enough to fit in with the rest of the local landscape. In consultation with the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, the Patch Dyke Project was devised.
Because of the amount of labour involved, Daphne decided to engage the local Community Payback Service. This will involve up to eight minor offenders, sentenced by the Courts to community service rather than custodial sentences, under supervision by a trained member of the probation service and instruction by Daphne, who will carry out remedial work on the dyke vegetation as recommended by the Wildlife Trust. The object of the exercise is threefold - to provide useful work for the offenders, create a beneficial habitat for appropriate flora and fauna, and, hopefully, create an awareness of and interest in the subject in at least one or two of the payback team. Unfortunately, because of drainage regulations, it will not be possible to go a step further and create small pools and similar features as recommended by the wildlife trusts, but as there is a stagnant pond where the other two dykes join at the far side of the field, there are some facilities in the immediate vicinity for wildlife requiring still water sometime during the life cycle.
The project is due to start on 4th April 2009. Watch this space for the story as it unfolds.
Day 1, Saturday April 4
Eight Community Payback gentlemen, plus their supervisor, arrived this morning. They set to work with gusto, ‘encouraged’ by supervisor Jane, and by the time they left during the afternoon, they had made substantial inroads into the mess that was the neglected dyke. It is now possible to see the bottom, some of which is totally dry, some of it boggy. There were no interesting discoveries other than a substantial fence post that someone had thrown in (“That will come in useful,” says John, bearing it away to his hidey hole behind the Shed) and a lot of plastic litter, some bearing a sell-by date of two or three years ago.
So enthusiastic were their labours that not only did they remove the dead rubbish, but most of the live vegetation as well. Although this was not part of the plan, this will now be an opportunity to reseed with a more interesting selection of native grasses and wildflowers. Unfortunately, many of the daffodils we naturalised many years ago along the bank tops also succumbed to the strimmer, but hopefully they will recover in time.
Day 2 Sunday April 5
A different team of five young men plus Jane arrived mid morning and put in another 3 hours’ work, at the end of which about half the dyke had been cleared, plus a substantial number of daffodils and narcissi in full flower (oh well, can’t be helped).
The rubbish is loaded onto a trailer and taken to the local recycling depot run by Lincolnshire County Council, where it is transported, along with all other green waste in the area, to a composting firm a few miles away. The compost produced there is bagged and returned to the recycling depot, where it can be obtained free by anyone taking garden rubbish there for recycling after they have collected five stamps on a card – a very good arrangement, methinks.
Day 3 Monday April 6
My main job today was to find a suitable supplier of native seed to restore the banks. An Internet search produced a firm called Boston Seeds, which is only about 12 miles away from the project. I e-mailed for a catalogue and preliminary advice, to discover that the person I was dealing with and I knew each other many years ago when he worked for Johnsons Seeds, which was at that time a family-owned company in Boston and I worked with them at weekends, giving advice at garden centres (being well known in the gardening world then because of my national radio and TV appearances, it was somehow considered I would bring in the crowds – sometimes I did, at others.......................). This personal contact will no doubt prove very useful in the months to come.
His initial recommendation was a wetland mixture, but wet conditions only exist at or near the bottom of the dyke, and generally only during the winter months. It is clear that the establishment of a natural environment is going to take more thought; maybe even using different mixtures at different levels of the banks. As it is only early April, there is plenty of time before we need to seed; in the meantime getting the rest of the dyke cleared out is the most important thing.
The Payback people return on April 18, unfortunately the day before the Patch is open for St. John Ambulance in Lincolnshire, but it can’t be helped.
Day 4, 18 April
A total of 11 Payback people arrived this morning. This meant that by the time they left after lunch, about two-thirds of the dyke had been cleared and the ecology was becoming more apparent; for instance, the bottom varies from totally dry in some parts to standing water in others, even though we have had no appreciable rain for several weeks. This is excellent news, because it means that the ultimate variety of flora and fauna is likely to be much more varied than we had originally envisaged. One worker even found a large grass snake; sadly it was dead and appeared to have been attacked, but by what it was difficult to see.
Once the initial clearing of the dyke has been completed, the organisers of Community Payback are keen to continue working at The Patch, so next week some of them will be making a start, along with John, on Project 2, which is to construct a small outside WC and hand washing facilities. On our open days, we have to hire portable toilets, and this inevitably means overheads of well in excess of £100, a cost which would be unnecessary if there were a permanent loo on site, so next week John and four of the team, including a builder and a roofer (how lucky is that?) will be making a start on this. It is to be located within the shelterbelt so it will not make an adverse impact on The Patch as it matures. The rest of the team will be finishing the dyke clearing, after which we will have to find something else to occupy them while the building work takes place, but that will not be difficult.
One of the good things to come out of the project as far as the payback people are concerned is that there is a nucleus of regulars, so the more you see them, the better you get to know them. This makes for a more relaxed atmosphere, so relaxed, in fact, that Paul forgot that with 5 greyhounds supervising and assisting, it is not advisable to leave food lying about. Muffin, our slightly disabled thiefhound, seized the opportunity to help himself to a large part of Paul’s ham sandwiches. Paul graciously said he didn’t mind because he had had enough, Muffin settled down for a nap with a satisfied expression on his face, and a salutary lesson was learned by the team in general.
Day 5, 20 April
Having discovered our local wildflower seed company, Boston Seeds, on the Internet, the next job was to meet the owner and discuss the dyke project and our needs. Over a cup of tea this afternoon, we described in detail how the undertaking began, how it had changed and developed as the work progressed and where we are to go from here. The outcome was the owner, Andrew Wallis, is to meet us on site on 8th May to advise on what seed mixtures to use, and when.
Day 6, 25 April
The Payback team finished the initial clearing of the dyke this morning. One or two who have worked on it from the start were rather dismayed to see how much of what vegetation is left has grown up. This, of course, is likely to be a problem when reseeding has to be done – it may be that a second clearing in a week or two will be necessary.
The team will now be divided between Paul and his helpers, who will work on the outside loo, and the rest, who are going to clip the vegetation growing up beneath the young hedge round the outside of the field to make it easier to spray with glyphosate once there is new growth, prior to seeding with a hedge bottom wildflower mix.
Day 7, 9 May
Because I was unable to be with the team, and John was heavily involved with those working on the outside toilet, it was considered best if decisions regarding what should be done next with the dyke were deferred until I could be there. In the meantime, the people who would have been working on the dyke started clearing the vegetation at the base of the new hedge to prevent its choking the establishing native bushes, which are still struggling with periods of prolonged drought and virtually non-stop, destructive drying winds.
It seemed my absence caused inconvenience in more ways than one. At coffee time the milk had turned sour, and a wood pigeon with a remarkable aim added a certain ingredient to Les’s coffee which he would much preferred to have done without.
Day 8, 16 May
Two of our most enthusiastic team members volunteered to make a start on cutting back the re-grown vegetation in the dyke. Now I can see more clearly where we go from here, I have decided to reseed (or over-seed) the first stretch, leading from the main entrance to the field to a little used farm gate about two-thirds of the way along. The rest is quite densely covered with thick, coarse grass and very little else, and would be difficult to get into a state for introducing wildflowers at this stage, although if regularly cut back, the coarse vegetation will possibly start to mow out.
Cutting back the first part has exposed bare earth again, making reseeding a possibility. The two workers also managed to cut the long grass leading from the roadside to the front dyke bank; if this is done on a regular basis, it will make established wildflowers on the bank sides better able to spread by seed onto the verge itself.
Day 9, 23 May
The dyke and verge has now been thoroughly cleared up to the middle gate, and is ready for discussion with Andrew Wallis of Boston Seeds next Wednesday. The outside loo is up to roof height, and the rest of the team have started clearing a shelter belt between the Patch and the next-door property. This was originally planted by the previous owner of the Patch, and consisted of a lot of non-native shrubs such as flowering currant, shrub roses, Cotoneaster simonsii and Cornus alba, underneath what is now a canopy of ash, wild white cherry, mountain ash, alder and silver birch. The shrubs have deteriorated as the canopy has thickened, and the only way forward now is to cut them all back hard and see what reappears, if nothing worthwhile re-grows, the most environmentally beneficial way forward may be to under-seed with a native woodland grass/wildflower mix.
Day 10, 27 May: The seed man cometh
This afternoon, Andrew Wallis, proprietor of Boston Seeds of Langrick, near Boston, visited the Patch to advise on the way forward with the introduction of wildflowers and native grasses. Like me, he felt that any re-seeding should wait until the autumn. In the meantime, it was essential to keep cutting the couch grass and nettles back to stunt regrowth, while raking periodically to remove cut debris and bring soil to the surface.
Andrew felt that the most suitable mixture for reseeding when the time came was 50% Olde English Country Meadow and 50% Hedgerow and Light Shade mixture, to be used where the banks are open or shaded with trees respectively. To this could be added a selection from the Cornflower Annuals mix for the open areas so there would be flowering interest in the first year after seeding, and some species from the Woodland and Heavy Shade mixture, for example, bluebells and stitchwort, where the ground is shaded, to increase the number of species present.
Andrew is to visit again at the end of August to firm up arrangements for seeding in September.
Visit www.bostonseeds.co.uk or telephone 0800 883 0169 for further information on wildflower seeds and other items of similar interest.
Above are two pictures of the dyke, taken on a sunny day in mid - June.
Update, 3 Sept 09
Although the weather this summer has largely been undesirable, every Saturday that the Community Payback team came to work on the dyke and the visitors’ toilet was fine, with the result that by the date of our charity Open Day, all projects had gone as far as they could go for the time being. The part of the dyke due to be reseeded had been fully cleared and although much of the vegetation had recovered, constant cutting had killed out most of the nettles, which were the weeds most likely to interfere with the reseeding. The toilet was to all intents and purposes finished, and much praised by the open day visitors. Other jobs undertaken by the team, such as clearing patches of ragwort in the establishing wood and restoring the original shelterbelt on the western boundary of the Patch, were also complete.
If there is a drawback with the Community Payback Scheme, it is the fact that even though most of the team members remain the same for several weeks, as individuals’ hours are completed, they leave the team. This means it is impossible for the beneficiary to develop too much of a rapport with the members, and also any interest they may be developing in projects which are supposed to be as rewarding and informative as they are punitive is cut off before the end – very few community service people get the chance to follow a project such as this one through from beginning to completion.
Therefore by the time the team made its last appearance on August 15th, most of the people who had worked on the dyke project and the construction of the toilet had left and a virtually new team had been put together. Additionally, this current team was to work fortnightly on our project rather than weekly because of other demands on the Payback service and this would not be ideal for the final preparation and seeding of the dyke banks. In these circumstances, after consideration I felt that we were at a stage where we could manage the project ourselves as all that is required is a final strimming and raking prior to introducing the wildflower/grass mix, and the payback team will not be coming again routinely, although I told the Probation Service that should they need work in the future, there could be winter projects in the wood, like coppicing the faster growing understorey of willow and other shrubs, and removing the bottom branches of some of the maturing hardwoods.
The introduction of new wildflowers and grasses on the dyke banks may, however, need to be adapted, as when the banks are allowed to grow up, there is much more grass regrowth than I originally thought would be the case after the first big clear-out. Before reseeding, therefore, the actual mixture needs to be discussed again with Boston Seeds. It may be more practical to clear and reseed individual areas and keep the rest regularly cut, in the hope that the wildflowers will spread from the seeded into the non-seeded parts of the dyke. This, of course, will also have the advantage of making the project considerably less expensive at this initial stage.
25 Sept 09
In the light of certain circumstances, I have decided to postpone reseeding the dyke banks until this time next year.
First, more of the original plant material has regrown than I originally expected, so I think it needs another twelve months work on it to make it suitable for introducing the wildflower/grass species that we originally talked about.
Second, John is going into hospital on 30th September for a rotator cuff repair on his shoulder, hopefully to put right an injury incurred about eighteen months ago when he had three dogs on leads in one hand, and they all decided to take off after a bunch of rabbits at the same time. This will put him out of commission for about six months as far as heavy work is concerned, which means I shall have to concentrate on the jobs at home and at the Patch that I usually rely on him to do.
There was also a problem with the Community Payback service that I had originally not envisaged. About half-way through their time with us, the organiser at the Probation Office in Boston began hinting that we should be making a financial contribution towards the work we were receiving to cover expenditure such as petrol and supervision. This was not mentioned at the outset, either by the voluntary organisation that introduced us to them, or by the organiser himself. He suggested that we could have some kind of fund raising effort, either as a stall at our Open day, or as an individual event. I told him I was not averse to this, but they would have to provide the stall and staff it, and also produce the necessary publicity material. This was never forthcoming. After our Open Weekend, a tongue in cheek hint was made that a donation should be made out of the profits - this would have been entirely out of order as the event was advertised as benefitting the Fen Bank Greyhound Sanctuary - some of the visitors would, I am sure, have been unhappy at having their donations redirected to the Probation Service.
Maybe I did not make it clear that all our open events are all for specific charities, not for our own benefit!
In the circumstances, I decided it would be better if we dispensed with the services of the Community Payback scheme and soldiered on ourselves. Should we need to engage help, I would be happier employing a suitable person or persons myself, but the indirect financial results of the Lincoln incident are such that this is expenditure I just cannot afford at the present time. Gee, thanks, BBC!
Another reason to postpone seeding is that the hedge and trees at that side have grown up considerably this summer, in spite of the long periods of drought. This means that long runs of the part of the dyke we were considering for the project are now in total, dense shade particularly on the side furthest away from the road, affecting the regrowth of any vegetation. Because of this, I think the best course of action, would be for Andrew Wallis of Boston Seeds to make a further visit, possibly during July or early August 2010. In the meantime, I will endeavour to keep the long growth down as much as possible throughout the spring and summer.The constant cutting this year has resulted in a substantial decline in the number of nettles, so possibly another season's work on it wouldn't go amiss.