Wildflowers on St Martin's Vineyard
The Isles of Scilly are home to a unique flora and fauna and St Martin's vineyard is no exception. James used to work as an ecologist on the mainland and so watching the wildflowers appear as the season progresses is almost as exciting as seeing the vines coming into flower!
Scilly has a long history of bulb farming, often on a small scale, and the traditional management of these fields favoured a wide range of species which have seen serious declines on the mainland. The extensive use of herbicides in modern agriculture has resulted in the loss of many wildflowers which were typically associated with crops - often these are low-growing annuals which don't compete and so can't really be called an arable weed, but they get swept aside by the indiscriminate actions of the herbicides. Think of the poppies which used to turn wheat fields red in the summertime - sadly a rare sight these days.
The vineyard has a good representation of these rare arable wildflowers, especially immediately beneath the vines - the small-flowered catchfly is a beautiful diminutive member of the campion family which has had an excellent year on the vineyard - it is a red-list endangered species in the UK and popular with the bumblebees. Scarlet pimpernel - the flower rather than the folk hero! - took advantage of a lost polytunnel cover over the winter to flood the avenues with a sea of orange which is now giving way to sharp-leaved fluellen - a small scrambling plant with tiny flowers like snapdragons. Another rarity found here is Jersey cudweed - a downy member of the daisy family which presents little clusters of plants in amongst the grass - the colony here appears to be the first record of this species on the island! These wildflowers are mostly annuals - they pop up, grow fast, set seed and die off. This life cycle means they are perfectly adapted to take advantage of bare ground, but not so good at competing once a sward develops - we are regularly creating new areas of bare ground by hoeing to keep the vegetation down beneath the vines and providing perfect conditions for the next generation of arable wildflowers.
The grassland between the rows is similarly diverse and presents a colourful display of flowers; from the commonplace such as daisy through to rarities such as the hairy bird's foot trefoil with its tiny yellow flowers. Pinks and purples abound too with geraniums such as dove's foot cranesbill and musk storksbill whilst mounds of clovers form islands within the greenery. We are careful with the mowing of these avenues to keep their wildflower interest. Firstly, we stagger the cuts so that different fields are cut on different days meaning that there is always somewhere with a week or more's growth. Secondly we use a high cut - this reduces the dominant grasses but many of the low-growing wildflowers are spared beneath the cut line. Thirdly - we are removing the arisings to reduce nutrient levels in the grassland which means less cutting in the future and favours the wildflowers rather than the grasses. Arisings are composted and returned directly to the vines in the spring to ensure that the vines are healthy and well-fed. Finally we leave any areas which don't need to be cut for viticulture reasons - this includes hedgerow bases or patches of open grassland within the fields themselves.
Wild honeysuckle grows abundantly in the wilder areas at the edges of the vine fields and perfumes the evening air in the summertime, along with gorse which gives off it's distinctive coconut fragrance when the sun hits it on a spring morning. Under the elm copse is our little fragment of woodland magic with native bluebells, red campion and foxgloves flowering in springtime before the canopy closes and shades them out for another year. We will be managing these areas to maintain a diversity of habitats including shady woodland, scrub and open patches for grassland to develop with the aim of maximising the diversity. Creating some paths to let people explore this wilder side of the vineyard is one of our winter plans after the bird nesting season is over - watch this space!
If you'd like to find out more about the wildflowers on the vineyard, you can follow James on Twitter (@StMartinsEcologist) or Instagram (@StMartinsEcologist) - there will be lots of updates on the flora and fauna of the vineyard through the year!