Butterfly sandwiches

Rain this week has interfered with taking the hay from the fields at St George’s Farm.  We were lucky to have fine weather though on Sunday for the Butterfly Picnic, the third in our series of public events at Ruskin Land.  Chloe, along with her butterfly-shaped sandwiches and biscuits joined over 4o local people, including an enthusiastic group of guides who were staying at nearby Cooper’s Mill.


The group met at the car park off Dry Mill Lane, the start of the official butterfly trail through the Wyre Forest.  Under the expert guidance of Scott Martin from the  West Midlands Butterfly Conservation Society we walked along the old railway track and then down to Knowles Mill, one of at least five water driven corn mills which once operated along Dowles Brook.  The mill which retains much of its machinery is now owned by the National Trust and cared for by volunteers who are part of the Midland Wind and Water Mills Group.

At this point, the weather was a little grey and threatening rain so there were few butterflies to be seen apart from some Ringlets and Large Whites.  By the time we reached the field just beyond Cooper’s Mill, however, the sun was breaking through and the meadow came alive.  We were fortunate to be able to study close up three types of skipper (Large, Essex and Small), a Speckled Wood, and a Green-veined White butterfly.  Some fritillaries, including a Silver-washed and a possibly a Dark Green, were also spotted on the wing.  Scott’s enthusiasm was infectious.

The group ended up at St George’s Farm for sandwiches, tea and cake donated by participants (Marion’s Balinese Carrot Cake was a personal favourite).   Depending on age and inclination, food was followed by art activities or an informative talk by Scott on the butterflies of the Wyre Forest. The young people made beautiful butterflies, had their faces painted and created creatures of the forest with clay.

Amazingly, the Wyre Forest is home to 34 of the 59 species of butterfly found in Britain. It was pleasing to learn that the Wyre Community Land Trust’s grazing herd of Dexter cattle are vital to the good management of the meadows which provide essential food sources for many of the species found here.  The maintenance of wide, open rides also helps, along with the creation of new coppice areas.  While butterfly populations in the Wyre are doing relatively well, across the country many species have seen a significant decline over the past 40 years.   The national Butterfly Count, taking place right now and ending on 7 August, is helping to monitor the situation.   Overall, these worrying trends appear to be slowing but continued improvements depend on the kind of environmental grant schemes available as part of the European Union’s farming policy. Following the recent referendum, it is vital that such schemes are maintained at the UK level if our wildlife is to flourish.

Traditional hay-making also has a part to play.  With help from the girl guides, staff and volunteers at the Wyre CLT managed to get all of the grass cut, turned, baled and undercover, from the wildflower meadow at St George’s Farm and the orchard at Uncllys before the rain arrived a few days ago.  We hope to bale the grass from St George’s orchard before the end of the week but, as I write, we are waiting for a decent spell of dry weather. Let’s hope it comes soon.







Ruskin and the environment

Earlier this week we experienced the hottest day of the year so far, after the hottest June on record globally.  The outside temperature was a stupefying 30 degrees in the shade and I was pleased not to be sweltering in the middle of a city.    But we were delighted to be in London last week for what is the latest in the series of ‘consultation seminars’ we have organised to inform our work here at Ruskin Land.

The event was kindly hosted by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) – my former employers – at their offices near the Tate Modern in vibrant Bankside.  In attendance were more than thirty of the country’s leading environmental campaigners and arts organisers who were invited to consider the relevance of John Ruskin’s ideas for their work today.     Among them were representatives of the Woodland Trust, Open Spaces Society, Sylva Foundation, the Big Draw,  the Black Environment Network and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings which was established in 1877 by William Morris, one of Ruskin’s earliest and most illustrious followers.  Ruskin was also an important influence on the creation of the CPRE – as shown in the excellent new book 22 Ideas That Saved The English Countryside – as well as the Open Spaces Society, so it was especially good to reconnect with those groups.

The highlight of the event was a stimulating presentation by Dr Sara Atwood, a Ruskin scholar from the US.  Her talk, entitled The Secret of Sympathy, explored our use of language to describe nature and how this profoundly affects our relationship with it.   Developing some of the themes in her lecture ‘The Earth Veil’ published by the Guild of St George last year, she talked about Ruskin’s interest in close observation of the natural world as a key to understanding and the way in which he saw nature as a whole, a set of interconnections, rather than in a compartmentalised, fragmented way.

Sara argued that “part of the problem we face in dealing with environmental challenges is our dependence on the language of science, technology and business.  After all, language doesn’t just express our thoughts, it helps to shape them. ”  Using abstract, narrowly scientific terms such as natural capital, ecosystems services and biodiversity, she claimed, detracts from our personal and emotional experience of nature and thereby alters our relationship with it.    While Ruskin has been described by some as a ‘proto-environmentalist’, Sara said he would have hated that clunky term for similar reasons.

A fascinating discussion followed about how today’s environmentalists (for want of a better term!) should fashion a new way of talking about their work and why it is so important for our wellbeing, as part of the natural world.  As with earlier seminars the discussion will help us develop our plans for working with the artists and others to connect with all communities and bring Ruskin’s ideas to life.


This may seem a long way from the practical day to day job of caring for the farmland and woodlands here in the Wyre Forest.  Building on its track record over the past decade, the  Wyre Community Land Trust, its staff and the many volunteers involved, is well placed though to talk about its work in ways which communicate a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the natural world. This is what the CLT has been trying to do in a small way with the public events we have been organising this year, including the Butterfly Picnic which takes place this coming weekend  And it is what we hope to explore more fully here at Ruskin Land in the coming years.