How to Rewild a Hill Near You…
West Bristol Climate Action (WBCA) is a group of local people who are concerned about climate change and want to take action to slow its pace. (Hence the name, as Smash Hits used to say.) This action takes various forms including our monthly talks and challenges, this blog… and, recently, our campaign to create a wildflower meadow on the grassy slope of Clifton Hill.
This campaign thas been spearheaded by two of our members: Julie and Dan. After months of background work, the project has got off to a flying start, with 300 people responding to our public consultation – 99% of whom were in favour of the meadow. Excitingly, our fundraising target for the work was exceeded within a week, potentially spurring on further local projects.
Photo by Harry Kessell on Unsplash
Julie and Dan told me how the campaign got started, their vision for the meadow and what the future holds.
Asking Bristol City Council to mow Clifton Hill less often was one of the first projects Clifton Climate Action (one of the founder groups of WBCA) embarked on back in 2019, Julie explained. When busy but passionate conservationist Dan came to CCA, he was already wilding an area on his street with his neighbours, so the two decided to take on the project together.
“Clifton Hill is the perfect site to be wild-flowered,” Dan explained. “It’s super sunny most of the day, it’s free draining as it’s on a slope, and it’s accessible by the public.”
The site is currently an ecological desert, sporting only a few species of plants, including clovers, one type of grass, buttercups and cow parsley. “This is down to the management,” Dan said. “In nature, it’s rare that a habitat is managed in the way Clifton Hill is. One species doesn’t wipe out a whole area 12 times a year, the way we do [with regular mowing].”
If we want to bring biodiversity back to an area, we must think like nature. Instead of frequent mowing, we should imitate the impact of herds of herbivores, grazing and then disappearing as they flee a predator. This allows vegetation to grow again as the herbivores move on and take those nutrients elsewhere.
Photo by Bas van Brandwijk on Unsplash
In practice, mowing will now happen less frequently on the Clifton Hill slope, and the cuttings will be collected, gradually depleting the nutrient-rich soil and helping the flowers to compete with the grass.
Julie said, “The council owns the grassland on Clifton Hill and so we’re working with them on the project. And we didn’t want to just wild up Clifton Hill – rather, we wanted to inspire similar projects across the city. The council is a major landowner in the city, and there’s a lot of scope for residents to work with them to do more.”
However, knowing the right person to speak to at the council to access help can be tricky and took perseverance. Ideally, WBCA would like to build a template to help others get projects like this off the ground, but this is a work-in-progress as the council develops its own systems.
When I asked why this project is important, Dan said, “Firstly, it proves that people are willing to help. Some 300 people responded and 189 of those said they wanted to help, whether with volunteering or by raising both awareness and funds. People want to help with the ecological crisis but need to be catalysed.”
There’s also the obvious environmental and ecological benefit. Additionally, WBCA is encouraging the council to roll out this kind of management for wildlife across any council grassland that isn’t used for walking or recreation, except where sightlines need to be preserved for traffic.
If the council has the right machinery to ‘cut and collect’ – that is, cut the grass and remove the clippings to nutrient-strip the soil and slow down grass growth – this will be better both for the environment and the council’s finances, since it’s cheaper to mow less frequently.
If we get the signage right,” Dan said, “people will realise they can do something similar near them, either in their gardens or nearby parks. Whether you have a windowsill or five hectares of land, everyone has a part to play.”
For Julie, an important element of the project is that it can be copied by others. “We wanted to do the project here because lots of people go past Clifton Hill,” she said. “We want everyone to go home and ask the council to do the same thing on a piece of unused land that they know about. As a climate action group, we can’t reach everyone, but lots of people will drive past this meadow and notice it.”
Part of the money that has been generously donated by some of you is going towards signage so that the public will understand what the meadow is and what to expect as it develops, which will take some time. The signage includes a link to our website with more information – including how people can copy the meadow at home in their own garden.
The site itself will be divided into two areas. The first is a traditional wildflower meadow that will be cut twice a year and may look a bit messy at first, containing high grass and lots of plants. “It’s not a flower bed,” said Dan, stressing that it’s important to manage people’s expectations around this. It may take a few years for the meadow to reach its full beauty, something we’re not used to in our culture of instant gratification. But the meadow will be planted with plug-plants in the spring to dramatically speed up the rate at which it will come into full flower.
Photo by Roman Synkevych on Unsplash
The second part of the site will be a floral lawn. This will also contain wildflowers, but they will be kept quite low.
Again, the signage will play an important part here, letting the public know how the site will look and what they can expect. From November 2021 to February 2022, for example, there will a patch which will be just turned-over soil.
Julie said, “It will be interesting to see how people regard it. We might have got more pushback two years ago from people who are used to seeing close-mown grass on public land but, since David Attenborough and others have spread the word about the ecological crisis, people understand more about what’s needed. So hopefully people will see it, like it and cut it some slack while it beds in.”
Dan said, “As a group, we want to have action for the environment – we need to be front-facing and get on with it. Bristol is known for being green, and it has the people and the ethos, but not always the action. But if we can provide case studies for how this kind of thing can work, it makes sympathetic councillors’ jobs much easier.”
Photo by Dmitry Dreyer on Unsplash
So how can readers of this blog help? Dan said, “We need people who will come out and spend a day with us digging, raking and planting. We also need a team of people eight times a year to rake, collect and remove the cuttings consistently for the next few years. You’ll spend time outdoors, meet new people and learn new skills; but it is manual labour – there’s no two ways about that!”
If this doesn’t sound like your kind of thing (it definitely isn’t mine, I’m far more of a sofa-based kinda gal), then fret not, WBCA can still benefit from your help. Dan and Julie have big ambitions, intending that – once WBCA has got the Clifton Hill site underway – we’ll be looking for more people to work on similar projects. Might that be you? Can you come and give a talk on your area of expertise? Maybe you could help with advertising our ideas, writing newsletters or liaising with the council? We need lots of skill-sets to get projects like these off the ground so, if you’d like to get involved, get in touch and we’ll find a job for you.
If you want to find out more, we have a webpage about the Clifton Hill meadow project here – including details of how you can create a meadow or floral lawn in your own garden.
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