May at Belfairs

Belfairs Pond

Five things to look out for at Belfairs in May

Ponds

With May 2019’s theme being “Water for Wildlife”, this is the perfect time to mention the ponds we have here at Belfairs. We only have a few, and they are rather small and hard to find- though perhaps this adds to their charm. The ponds add to the diversity of the reserve, supporting a number of species not found elsewhere on the site, including some fabulously fragrant Water Mint.

Unfortunately, one of the ponds supports another aquatic plant not found elsewhere on the reserve; Floating Pennywort. This species is native to the Americas and was brought to the UK as an ornamental plant. It was first recorded growing wild in the 1990s, with the first wild UK records coming from here in Essex. This non-native species has a number of detrimental effects: outcompeting native aquatic plants, preventing wind-mixing of bodies of water, blocking sunlight and disrupting erosional-depositional processes.

Floating Pennywort can spread up to 20cm a day under the right conditions and is able to regrow from a small fragment, so we will need to come back to the pond a number of times over the summer to remove regrowth. Though controlling the Pennywort will take considerable time and effort, hopefully by doing so we will allow this pond to remain a special bit of habitat.

Floating Pennywort

Floating Pennywort

Bracken management

Another species that we do some control of here is Bracken. Like the Pennywort, it can grow rapidly, outcompeting other plants and blocking light. Here at Belfairs, this is a little problematic as Bracken grows well in areas with acidic soils which support a variety of quite scarce species.

However, Bracken is a native species and having some Bracken is desirable; adding structural diversity and providing thermal stability. We try to keep Bracken levels at a “Goldilocks” level, not so much that light is blocked out and other species swamped, not so little that we reduce structural diversity.

May is the perfect time to try and control Bracken as it is currently growing from nutrients stored in underground rhizomes over the winter and is not yet photosynthesising enough to be putting energy back into these stores. By doing our control now, we hopefully reduce the Bracken’s vigour and allow a diversity of other species to flourish.

Fresh Bracken frond

Fresh Bracken frond

Broom

Another species that does well in acidic soils here at Belfairs is Broom. This shrub is a member of the Pea family and looks glorious at this time of year; absolutely bursting with yellow flowers splashed with scarlet. There is some superstition associated with blooming Broom, an old saying along the lines of “If you sweep the house with blossomed broom in May, you will be sure to sweep the head of the household away”. A good excuse to skip the spring clean…

Broom flower

Broom flower

Hawthorn

As with bringing Broom blossom into the house, bringing Hawthorn blossom into the house was also though to be associated with death. Like the Broom, Hawthorn is in full blossom in May- giving Hawthorn its other name of “May-tree”. As well as looking great, Hawthorn blossom is fantastically fragrant, and the young flowers are edible.

Hawthorn blossom

Hawthorn blossom

Sweet Vernal-grass

Like the “May-tree”, Sweet Vernal-grass gets its name from its habit of flowering in spring. Though perhaps not as brilliant as the blossom of Hawthorn or Broom, the dense cylindrical flower spikes of Sweet Vernal-grass are very attractive. When crushed, the stems of this grass give off a sweet, almond-like perfume, giving hay its characteristic smell. The stems are also packed full of sugar, which made it popular for chewing in the past and gave this vernal flowering grass it’s saccharine epithet.

Sweet Vernal-grass flower

Sweet Vernal-grass flower