With the world shut down around us the uplifting role that wildlife plays in our lives becomes more vital than ever. So, for my own sanity as much as anything, I’m going to keep a daily diary of what I find around my garden. Photograph the wildlife you can see from your window or in your garden and post your pictures on the ‘Sussex Wildlife Trust Nature Table’ page.
I thought I’d start the week with a quick update on the front lawn. On Day 27 of my diary (here) I talked about how we had destroyed the bungalow’s neatly manicured front lawn and turned it into a mini wildflower about six years ago.
Well, the lawn has been looking great so far this year. Each year there is something different about it, and in 2020 I’ve been really pleased to see how many Cowslips have sprung up.
(It’s 6:45am and I just stopped writing this blog so I could pop outside to count the Cowslips. There are 37 out there – we’ve never had so many before. After I had counted them, I looked up to see a neighbour from down the street dragging her recycling bin out staring at me, so I gave her a wave. Then I remembered I was standing there in just my pants and slippers, so I scurried back indoors).
It seems Cowslips used to be a much more common sight around the English countryside. In his poem The Cowslips John Clare (1793-1864) wrote:
“They hurry from the world, and leave the cold; And all the meadows turn from green to gold”
I love a bit of John Clare. His evocative poetry of the English countryside and its wildlife has me yearning for a time centuries ago when the English countryside was more alive.
It seems John Clare loves a Cowslip. In another of his poems he described them as ‘freckle-faced’ in reference to the orange patches on their petals…
And in another (‘Clock-a-clay’) Clare imagines that he is a ladybird sitting inside a Cowslip. He must have been on the extra strong cider when he thought up that one.
In his poem The Tell-tale Flowers Clare wrote:
The cowslips on the meadow lea,
How have I run for them!
I looked with wild and childish glee
Upon each golden gem:
And when they bowed their heads so shy
I laughed, and thought they danced for joy.
I wouldn’t exactly claim that I have looked upon my front lawn’s Cowslips with ‘wild and childish glee’ (especially while wearing just my pants and slippers) but I can’t deny I’m really pleased that I have so many Cowslips in the garden this spring.
With the decline of wildflower meadows, Cowslips have vanished from large swathes of the English countryside. Changes in agricultural practices and the use of chemical herbicides took away the Cowslips from our fields and roadside verges between the 1950s and 1980s. This is just one reason that I often find John Clare’s charming poems so depressing to read. They remind me of what we have lost in the English countryside. I find images of wildflower meadows turning “from green to gold” hard to relate to.
But these beautiful yellow flowers made a bit of a comeback at the end of the last century. I’ve seen loads of Cowslips in certain areas of the South Downs in recent years, especially at Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Southerham Nature Reserve near Lewes and on Graffham Down, south of Petworth. I’m just glad my front lawn is doing its bit to assist their comeback.
Despite being romanticised in John Clare’s poetry the Cowslip’s name has a less than delightful origin. It is thought the flower is named after cow pats – or cow-slops as they were once called.
I’d would have liked to have seen John Clare try to write a touching poem about a ladybird sat in a pile of cow dung.
Then again, considering the situation we’re currently in, it would probably be a poem we could all relate to right now.