Oxhill News

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South Warwickshire, England.

The Oxhill News

July 2007

This months News



Nature Notes

Anglo-Saxon names for this month include Haymonath or Maedmonath, referring respectively to haymaking and the flowering of the meadows.  The modern word July was formerly pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, as in duly or truly.  The change in pronunciation took place in the 18th century, probably to make the name sound less like June.  As the month progresses, the crops ripen and the fields start to turn from green to gold.  There was little if any respite between the end of haymaking and harvest, and it was considered unlucky to marry at this time – “They that wive between sickle and scythe shall never thrive”!

Talking of hay meadows, we now only have two or three in or around Oxhill.  Not long ago the hay meadow was the most common type of field in the lowlands.  I read that of those, a mere 5% have escaped agricultural intensification.  The 1980s were probably the worst decade of escalating loss; in just six years Dorset lost 60% of its best flower meadows.  Graham Harvey wrote “The flower-rich hay meadow is a masterpiece of the pastoral arts.  Like the great cathedrals, its construction has taken a century or more.  Like them it is the handiwork of generations of unknown craftspeople.”

A traditional hay meadow could have as many as 150 different grasses and flowers just in the one field.  It would be cut after mid-July giving the grasses and flowers time to set seed and also giving time for the ground nesting birds to fledge and a myriad of insects to go through their life cycle.  These types of meadows are traditional or “unimproved”; they receive only an occasional light dressing of farmyard manure or lime.  “Improved” grassland receives artificial fertiliser which encourages the stronger grasses that out-compete and severely reduce the abundance of flowering plants.  Sadly a lot of the Oxhill hay meadows are “improved”.  Some of the meadow grasses have wonderful names.  In just a few minutes I picked nine different grasses from Mrs Rodwell’s bank: perennial rye grass, red fescue, sheep’s fescue, cock’s foot, crested dog’s tail, Yorkshire fog, false oat grass, timothy, and wall barley.  Of course a hay meadow is wonderful for wildlife.  I was recently working in Lower Tysoe and behind the house is an old orchard and meadow of about an acre, rich in wildflowers and grasses.  For about ten minutes I watched a pair of greenfinches burrow their way through the grass tussocks feeding on seed heads.  I could hear the “snapping” of the seeds and see the small casings flying out from their beaks as they extracted the seeds.  Other birds and animals will also frequent this field; goldfinches search for thistle and knapweed seeds; linnets will eat the seeds of sorrel and dandelion; kestrels and barn owls will hunt for long-tailed field mice, bank voles, field voles, and shrews; burnet moths, meadow brown, small copper, skipper and orange tip butterflies will visit their food plants; grasshoppers, crickets, meadow ants, beetles, crane flies, rabbits, hares, foxes, and the occasional deer will also visit or be present.

These wonderful, almost vanished, places should be preserved.  I think a movement should be started so every parish in the country has at least one traditional hay meadow.

Did you know that in Warwickshire those delightful triangular islands of grass at the junctions of two or three old country lanes are known as “jam puffs” or “god cakes”?

                Here lye two poor lovers, who had the mishap
                Tho’ very chaste people, to die of a Clap

Epitaph at Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire, allegedly by Alexander Pope, on “John Hewett and Margaret Drew, an Industrious young man and Virtuous Maiden of this Parish, Contracted in Marriage; who being at Harvest-Work were in one instant killed by Lightning, the last day of July 1718”.

Grenville Moore

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Last modified: July 02, 2007