By Shirley Clerkin.
There is something innately satisfying about a good field. Maybe it is the sense of enclosure, or a golden ratio of open pasture to hedge or stone wall. Perhaps it is the clatter of the gate as you climb up and over and the decent feeling of arrival as you land with a distancing thud on the ground. It’s the freedom too, freedom to walk and think and observe. I think my very essence or molecules like it. The name “Shirley”, from the shire, means productive or white meadow. Maybe I was destined for fields, always.
There is an actual heritage to being in a field. The Céide fields in Mayo are fields of the first farmers in Ireland; hidden by blanket bog during a climatic cooling but now a heritage site and visitor attraction. Fields are the essence of farming. The enclosures domesticated animals, stopped them roaming; and the cultivation of grasses allowed grazing animals to dominate. We changed from hunting to pastoralism as Neolithic people started to clear woodlands and practice agriculture. Now, over 60% of Ireland is covered by grassland, not including the swathes of sterile golf courses, arable crops (which are of course grasses too) or groomed domestic lawns. We get a lot of our nutrition from grasses too: wheat, barley, corn and rice.
Grasses are angiosperms or flowering plants. Their flowers are the little spikelets on top and they rely on wind not insects for pollination. Fond of rhizomes, grass species can spread under the soil to cover large areas. They grow from the base not the tip, which is why they can be grazed, munched and mowed successfully. The improved grassland on which agriculture predominantly relies, is usually a monoculture of rye-grass and white clover; not the semi-natural grassland of your ‘little house on the prairie’ childhood imaginings. Predominantly grassy, these fields do away with the need for those little buzzing batteries of production, the bees and butterflies.
Running downhill through a proper meadow of sweet smelling grasses and flowers with butterflies lifting up as you go is energising, and childish. I can hear the damned theme tune and see Laura Ingalls Wilder. Or you can try something less energetic. The late gardener and writer Christoper Lloyd summed it up to a tee: “Perhaps the best way of discovering the living nature of grass is to lie on it, in quite early Spring when the ground has dried. You need nothing but the grass underneath you to discover that it has a very strong and agreeable smell, all its own”.
A fox fable
Torrential rain spilled unmitigated into my anorak as I walked through a field searching for access to get to a bog. It was one of those ‘adverse weather’ days with round raindrops, Old Testament in proportion and force. Out of the grey, a magnificent dog fox strolled straight across my path just two feet away, completely un-fazed by the downpour and me. He approached a stone wall, climbed up and over, and vanished through a gap. Thrilled to bits, I made off after him, less gracefully. I clambered down from the wall, eyes fixed down towards my feet to control the incessant drops running down my nose, and as time stood still beheld a field aflush with orchids, thousands and thousands of them. Fantastic Mr Fox had led me. And was gone.
The orchids were not in the field by chance. Special conditions allowed them to flourish amongst the fine grasses, black knapweed and yellow rattle. Species-rich or flower-rich meadows like these need low-nutrient conditions and the old-fashioned cutting of hay late in the season after the flowers seeds have set. Orchids are an old symbol of fertility; they have double tubers under the ground, which mature over a number of years before they flower and whose appearance explains their greek name orchis, which memorably means testicle. Known as dogs’ stones in some places, they were used to make love potions before the advent of tinder. Even Shakespeare had a go at them in Hamlet when he referred to the Early Purple Orchid as Long Purples. “Long Purples, That liberal shepherds give a grosser name, but our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them”. The poor cold maids hoped that the love potions might result in a bit of warmth. In Irish too, the name for Early Purple Orchid, Magairlín means testicle.
The grassland Mr Fox steered me to what ecologists call a semi-natural habitat. This means that although the plant communities are natural, they need some sort of activity, like low-intensity farming or late hay-cutting to maintain them. Improved grassland is the habitat in most agricultural fields: all the same colour and strength dominated usually by one species of rye-grass boosted by high nitrogen fertilisers. These are productive agriculturally, but not for nature. High nature value farming promotes species-rich grasslands with all the attendant productive bonuses of bees, butterflies and other insects. A real shire.
The relationship between the yellow rattle and the orchids is very important. Yellow rattle is a semi-parasitic plant, and it reduces the vigour of meadow grasses by essentially sucking the life out of them. It has haustoria, minuscule root-like appendages that can absorb water and minerals from nearby grasses by locking onto their roots. All this, and it looks so innocent and sweet, with its little yellow poddy heads nodding in the breeze, named because it rattles when its seed pods dry out. Yellow rattle is a great mixer, and deals with grassy bullies effectively allowing space for other plants like the orchids. Orchids also rely on a symbiotic fungus for their early germination and development. Their tiny seeds spread on the wind but they will not germinate without this fungus, and this fungus is very susceptible to fertiliser and fungicide. So, if the species-rich grassland is fertilised it won’t take long before all these relationships wane and its tapestry composition is changed to something less interesting.
The thirty native Irish orchids are small and unspectacular in comparison to the large potted ones available for sale for Mother’s day in supermarkets. Nevertheless, they will repay you if you get down for a close inspection, for the variety of their little flowers is perfection and the way they in some cases imitate the very insect they want to attract to ensure pollination is one of nature’s cleverest tricks. Common names like bee orchid, fly orchid, butterfly orchid describe their showy clothes – their hearts are on their sleeves. On that very wet fox day, the butterfly orchids and other flowers were drenched but still held their heads high unlike, I would say, some grass species in the same circumstances. These tend to flatten with heavy rain. It was not lying down weather for me either. However, I did go back to record the meadow in all its dry glory a few days later. In the interests of science I did partake in a lie down, as recommended by Christopher Lloyd.
It felt exactly right. •