Worth the wait
Published: Nov 2, 2017Native wildlife is as much a part of the plan as rhinos and gorillas...
Paignton Zoo is like a nature reserve in its own right. We manage the site to benefit native wildlife as well as our exotic fauna and flora. Notice I use the term manage. This implies doing something – not just leaving things to get on with it.
And actually, ‘management’ isn’t such an un-natural thing as you might think. Done well, it mimics the impact of large herbivores on the environment in creating a complex matrix of woodland, scrub and open grassland, which in turn provides diversity of habitat for smaller animals.
Our site essentially occupies a wooded valley. On the valley floor there’s development, though even here in Zoo Central there are ecologically interesting areas to study. They just happen to be occupied by rhinos and gorillas and other things that take exception to gardeners…
With the help of keepers, gardeners do sometimes investigate these spaces. On less adventurous days, they can take the high road up the valley side to where the woods are less disturbed. Here we find some relict gems of wonderful old woodland habitat with real botanical interest.
In spring it’s a quintessentially English woodland scene: hazel shrubs with an undergrowth of bluebells, primroses, wild garlic, wild strawberry and a tangle of other less-noticeable plants with odd old names: bugle, common dog-violet, wood spurge, dog’s mercury. Then there are the less glamorous supporting actors like wood sedge and wood speedwell, which are ancient woodland indicators – species which suggest long-undisturbed habitat that’s likely to support a rich and diverse fauna.
We have some quite rare plants here: have you ever heard of spurge laurel, wild madder, ivy broomrape, or ploughman’s spikenard? They are all here, quietly hanging on as they have done for hundreds of years. But because the wider world is changing around them, they are becoming ever rarer. As a conservation organisation we have a duty to try and make sure they can survive and thrive on our own site because they have nowhere else to go.
A few years ago, in several sections of our woodland, gardens staff cleared out some invasive species like Buddleja and replanted with native woodland tree species: hazel, field maple, small-leaved lime. One person took on the task of looking after the saplings, watering them and clearing competing bramble. Another started recording the ground flora in the hope that we might get some of the native woodland plants back. In the first year, a huge number of weeds came up. But, by year four, it was obvious that a corner had been turned and the woodland was recovering.
Now, the young trees are establishing nicely. In the future they will be managed by coppicing, and the coppice used for animal browse. They will be cut on rotation so there will always be cover for birds. Each year the number of ancient woodland plants increases. We are planting dog violet – the food plant of the silver washed fritillary butterfly. Maybe we can even get hazel dormice. Who knows?
But this does all take time. In a world of quick fixes and instant results, waiting years for things to get better (and apparently get worse first!) seems wrong, but trying to fix this sort of thing overnight just doesn’t work. It is, however, most definitely worth the wait.