What to do in the garden this week: September 15

On a November evening, 51 years ago, a public meeting took place in a school hall in central Oxford. In the chair was Air Marshal Sir Robert Saundby MC; speaking were Bruce Campbell of the BBC Natural History Unit, and Max Walters the great Cambridge botanist (his Wild & Garden Plants
in ‘The New Naturalists’ series is a must). Other voices soon joined theirs. A grim prospect was painted, of three of our most beautiful counties despoiled by development and modern farming.

The landscape itself was endangered by ‘progress’, and, with it, the very existence of scores of species of scientific, ecological and cultural value. Various measures were proposed: to identify and catalogue the most vulnerable sites and species; to buy the land where possible and, where not, at least to assist in its protection; to speak in defence of these habitats at local and national levels; to educate the public about their irreplaceable value. This was the inaugural meeting of the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Naturalists’ Trust (BBONT).

A half-century later, BBOWT (the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, as it is called today) has succeeded valiantly in its aims. The trust now protects 80 nature reserves, which represent all the ecosystems found in the three counties, from Chiltern chalkland to Berkshire downs and Oxfordshire water meadow. That school hall full of concerned professionals and amateurs has grown to a membership of more than 50,000, many of whom are active volunteers.

Thanks to them, the snakeshead fritillary not only survives, but increases around Oxford, and the Monkey orchids of Hartslock (one of only three populations in England) have grown in number from eight plants in 1977 to 500 today.

Unlike some so-called Green thinkers, these expert conservationists understand that man and beast have long played roles in maintaining biodiversity. They keep Chinnor Hill grazed, ensuring the prosperity of the exquisite Chiltern gentian.

At Inkpen Common, they use foraging ponies and brushwood clearance to preserve the glade habitat of the rare pale dog-violet. Where farming occurs, as it must, they advocate a live-and let-live approach, which has given us back the crimson corn cockle. Many of our loveliest landscapes survive due to their efforts: the cachet and cash value of the three counties stand vastly indebted to the trust.

For these reasons, I don’t hesitate to sing its praises in a gardening column. Their aim is the preservation of wild Nature, but their discipline is that of the cultivator: identify what matters, whether an individual species or the character of an entire habitat, and do whatever is necessary to sustain it.

BBOWT began in a school, and that’s where its most important work continues. It has educated generations of new naturalists, a task at which English schools used to excel, but where the State curriculum has failed deplorably just as it becomes most urgent. We have much to thank the trust for, likewise its counterparts in other counties.

The miracle, or perhaps the lesson, of it is that this all began with volunteer experts and dedicated amateurs-no whiff of Government. Indeed, they were revolutionaries and dissenters in their day, these Luddites, as some called them, who could see the shape of things to come. Their success is celebratedin a new book, Fifty: 50 years, 50 species, in which a half-century of animals, plants and fungi is illustrated and described by a variety of photographers and writers.

This volume deserves reflection, not just for its beauty, but for its demonstration of an important principle. ‘Nimbyism’, a term we began to hear again a year or so ago, is the very opposite of selfish. The preservation of my extended backyard-Oxford’s meadows and the Chiltern escarpment-is nothing less than the preservation of the environment itself. Its motivation is every
bit as altruistic and scientific as it is self-interested and aesthetic.

For politicians to argue otherwise is incompatible with the environmentalism they’re so fond of spouting. As plans advance to run an unnecessary train line through the heart of BBOWT territory, the time may have come to book another school hall and put another seasoned fighter in the chair. Meanwhile, one could always simply join them, on 01865 775476 or at www.bbowt.org.uk.

Horticultural aide memoire

No.36: Harvest flower seeds

Now is a good time to collect seeds from desirable garden plants. The seed cases should be fully ripe: plump, dry and about to burst. Take a paper bag and a pair of secateurs, carefully snip off the relevant stems and put the seed heads into the bag. Label it straight away. Take the bag to a quiet area and tip the contents onto a tray. Separate the seeds from the chaff, blowing gently to finish the job, then put the seeds into labelled envelopes. This is a task requiring patience, observation and care, but the rewards can be considerable.

by Steven Desmond

* Gardening calendar: See more September jobs, tips and tasks