Of all the plants I have always found grasses the least enchanting.
Garden lawns, roadside verges, the turfs of sports fields and bowling greens. Amenity grasslands where the diverse species are reduced to ‘grass’.
I’ve disliked grasses when they’re tame and when they’re wild and misbehave.
I’ve hated the grass on the green in Greencroft Valley more than the weeds for taking over the wildflower meadow, reducing floral diversity to the homogenous greenery beloved of local councils and small-minded humans.
I’m allergic to grass. It makes me itch and its pollen triggers my hay fever.
Yet the grass family, the Poaceae, the fifth largest plant family on this planet, is an essential food source for humans and for a variety of other mammals including the animal I am closest to, the horse, who evolved along with grasses 55 million years ago, its long teeth evolving as it moved away from fruit.
In my new job as a Graduate Ecologist I have been training to carry out Extended Phase One Habitat Surveys and this involves learning to assess whether a grassland is neutral, acid, or calcareous; unimproved, semi-improved, improved or poor, based upon the species present.
To tell individual grasses from grass you need to get familiar with their structure: roots, rhizomes or stolons, sheath and blade, nodes, culm, the inflorescence and its spikelets, awned and unawned, the number of florets and, within each floret, the glumes, anthers, stigma, lemma, and palea. Then, importantly, there’s the ligule, where the blade meets the sheath, which can be long and pointed, short and blunt, a ring of hairs, and sometimes has auricles.
It’s difficult but not impossible. And, fortunately, I have an eye for detail and am quick to pick up on the general feeling, often called the ‘jizz’ of another being.
As I’ve learnt the names and distinguishing features of the different grasses: Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus) with its ‘striped pyjamas’ at the base of the stems, common couch (Elymus repens) with its spikelets broadside like fairy couches, perennial rye grass (Lolium perenne) with its silvery underside, cock’s foot (Dactylus glomerata) named for the shape of its inflorescences and a huge plant with flat stems growing in tussocks, contrasting with the fine wiry leaves of the delicate red fescue (Fesca rubra) and the unforgettable creeping soft grass (Holcus mollis) with its ‘hairy knees’ I have come to see them as individuals and not as the antagonistic homogenous mass I called grass.
I have a long way to go until I know grasses but, at least, I’m taking the first steps.
Since my last post (1) I have walked the proposed stretch that will join the newly proposed route of Penwortham By-pass to a new bridge over the river Ribble.
Whether this will be built is open to conjecture at the moment. However what makes it significant is that the completion of Penwortham by the new route will only work if it is built. There are many flaws with this.
It needs to pass Howick Cross electrical substation.
Seen in the background, far left.
It will destroy an area of natural coastline.
It will run through Lea Marsh, which is a Biological Heritage Site. I have learnt through LERN (2) that this is a grazing marsh composed of salt marsh grasses and rushes. It is the home of two rare species; long-stalked orache and meadow barley.
Through the Lancashire Wildlife Trust I have found out downstream lies The Ribble and Alt Estuary Special Protection Area. Unfortunately Biological Heritage sites are nowhere near as well protected. In this case, if a bridge was built it would be acceptable for saltmarsh and mudflat to be restored elsewhere.
Personally I don’t agree with the argument that it’s acceptable to destroy a piece of land so long as a similar habitat is created somewhere else. It won’t be the same. In fact this is an insipid cover for the fact a unique piece of land will be ruined, its grasses gone for good, its birds and wildlife dehomed.
I’ve been in touch with the RSPB but they haven’t got back to me about the different birds who live in the area yet. However a walk down the river reveals this is the habitat of herons, cormorants, oyster-catchers, lapwings and a variety of gulls.
Is the destruction of this natural coastline, its vegetation and the homes of many birds worth an extra ten minutes off travel time to the industrial sector at Warton, for those privileged enough to be able to afford to own cars? My answer is no.