Grasses, grasses everywhere

Last Wednesday a group of keen volunteers where guests of the NT rangers at Swan Barn Farm in Haslemere. I have to admit until recently I had no idea this lovely place was basically tucked away behind the High Street.

Head Ranger David Elliott had kindly offered to teach us and some of his volunteers about carrying out botanical surveys. We were starting with meadow grasses and after some class room work we went to a couple of beautiful meadows on the lower slopes of Black Down. We had learnt to tell a couple of grass species apart in the class room but when you are confronted with half a dozen at varying stages of flowering it seems overwhelming at first. But after not too long we could (mostly) tell our Yorkshire Fog from our Crested Dog’s Tail, appreciate the delicate structure of the Red Fescue against the coarser Cock’s Foot. Was this Timothy or Meadow Foxtail? Is it Common bent, Creeping bent or Smooth meadow grass?

Basically practice makes perfect and this is definitely a good example of that mantra. But it has to be said that once you had your eyes opened to the sort of detail that separates one species from another you actually SEE more.

And then there are the flowers – we turned a corner and were confronted by a sea of spotted orchids (Heath and Common as well as hybrids if you really want to know). Amazing sight of hundreds of them.

And the rest – two sorts of buttercup, mouse ear, pignut, various birds-foot trefoils, cat’s ear and Hawkbit etc – the names alone are amazing. We did not only start learning how to use keys to identify the various plants but also how to record the respective prevalence of each species. This will give us a picture if and how the composition of the plant community changes.

For a finale we were taken up onto Black Down and learnt the three heathers present locally and how to judge what stage of development they are in and thus how to record the overall condition of the heath. We even found a Sundew (carnivorous plant) near one of the bogs.

By 4 o’clock we all suffered information overload but I think we all real enjoyed it and thanks go to Dave and his crew for their time, expertise and patience. 

So in a couple of weeks time we will hope that we remember enough to start and survey Barn Field to start off with. We will build on the work carried out by our own thoroughbred botanist Laura Ponsonby over the years and we will certainly do our best.