Well it’s been a disgracefully long time since I managed to sit down and write a post and the reasons for this are twofold. Firstly on the home front I have been embroiled in the all-consuming process of having some major building work done which has meant that most of my evenings have been spent either shifting rock in the back garden, decorating or being too knackered to consider doing anything remotely creative. Secondly, August/September is one of the busiest times of the year at work which leaves considerably less time than usual available for appreciating wildlife. The reason for this level of activity is the recent addition of two new sites to Cotswold Commons and Beechwoods National Nature Reserve (my patch). One of these sites is Juniper Hill, a 9 hectare grassland common in a fairly advanced state of succession to secondary woodland but still supporting some decent areas of high quality limestone grassland. We haven’t yet taken on this site but are managing it ‘in anticipation’ so to speak. The second site is Bulls Cross and this is really where a lot of our time gets spent in August. Consequently I figure that, as I haven’t had time to do much else lately, I may as well write a post about Bulls Cross – a tiny (3 hectare) common consisting of 4 triangles of limestone grassland/secondary woodland intersected by 3 minor roads and bordered by a busy B road on its eastern edge – not least because it represents some of the interesting issues and quandaries that conservation in the 21st century presents. Last year I took a group of NNR managers from around the country to Bulls Cross to talk about some of the management issues we are dealing with on the site. During the visit a non-NNR member of staff asked me (apparently hypothetically) what the point was of including such a tiny poor quality site in the NNR, given the then extraordinarily high resource input required for relatively slim conservation gains. This question has stuck with me so here I would like to take the opportunity to explain exactly why sites like Bulls Cross are so important and why it is vital that organisations such as Natural England take them on.
Bulls Cross is perhaps one of the best known commons in the whole of the Cotswolds thanks to Laurie Lee’s descriptions of it his much-loved book, Cider with Rosie. I was put off reading this book for many years by the twee-sounding title but it is actually a fantastic book and surprisingly dark in places, not least in its description of Bulls Cross. Lee depicts Bulls Cross as a ‘no-man’s crossing… a ‘ragged wildness of wind-bent turves [where] travellers would meet in suspicion, or lie in wait to do violence on each other, to rob or rape or murder.’ Lee states that a hangman’s gibbet once hung here and extensive research by the Sheepscombe History Society suggests that this is indeed likely to have been the case.
A gibbet was a particularly gruesome way of advertising the punishment for some of the more serious crimes of the day such as highway robbery, murder, treason and sheep rustling. It was used to display the bodies of executed criminals in a highly visible place and, for maximum effect, was often located at a well-used crossroads. To this day Bulls Cross is a very busy crossroads and this goes back many hundreds of years to the days when it formed an important intersection of the routes linking Painswick and the older parts of Stroud to one of the main saltways between Berkeley and Birdlip. Another feature that made Bulls Cross an ideal site for a gibbet was the fact that, until sometime around the middle of the last century it was a bare, open patch of grassland that would have been visible from much of the surrounding Painswick Valley. Laurie Lee himself describes it as ‘a curious tundra, a sort of island of nothing set high above the crowded valleys… a baldness among the woods’ and no doubt it was a combination of its open, windswept character along with the fact that it was an important crossroads where travellers of all descriptions would have met, that gave Bulls Cross its reputation as a fearful, haunted place.
Visiting Bulls Cross today, it would be easy to question whether it deserves its lofty status, embedded by Laurie Lee in the annals of our literary history, most likely chosen by the authorities of the day as the place best suited to display criminals to both locals and travellers alike and even depicted in a painting by well-known local artist Charles Gere in the early 20th century. Modern day Bulls Cross is no longer a bare, windswept place of myth and legend. Instead to most people it is a place to pass through on your way to somewhere else, a familiar crossroads with a convenient layby often used for meeting people and starting walks to other parts of the Cotswolds. Where once the whole common was an open grassland in the midst of fields and woodland, today much of it is almost indistinguishable from the surrounding woodland and the remaining patches of grassland are only to be picked out amidst the rapidly encroaching trees and scrub.
Bulls Cross is an excellent example of many of the reasons why commoner’s rights are no longer exercised on many of the Cotswold commons. As traffic on the roads intersecting the common increased, close shepherding of animals would have been increasingly necessary. Where once the local lads would have been restricted geographically to life in and around the village and been keen to earn a few extra pence for shepherding the animals, this was less the case as the transport links improved and people became much more mobile in the landscape. With modern employment law, a shepherd in 2015 would probably cost somewhere around £20 000 a year. Furthermore, any assessment of the risks involved in grazing Bulls Cross with only the herding skills of a shepherd to prevent livestock from wandering onto the roads would immediately put a stop to any ideas of free range grazing the site. Not surprisingly therefore, commoners’ rights have not been exercised on Bulls Cross and many other local commons for many decades. Where it is not possible to identify the exact date of the cessation of grazing through historical records, an idea can usually be gained by ageing the mature trees that are found on most of the commons. They are generally a minimum of 40-50 years old which would coincide with the outbreak of myxomatosis in the 1960s when the crash in rabbit populations removed the natural grazers that in many cases had continued the grazing in place of the commoners’ livestock.
Examination of old photographs of some of the Cotswold Commons suggests that the initial encroachment of trees and scrub is an extremely gradual process, sometimes taking many decades to have any pronounced effect. Eventually though, it seems that sites reach a tipping point when sufficient numbers of mature, seed-bearing trees have developed on and around the grassland. From this point on, scrub encroachment can occur very rapidly and regular removal is then necessary to retain the open grassland and prevent succession to woodland. On Bulls Cross this point is long past and even following several years of winter scrub clearance much of the site is still choked by ash scrub and secondary woodland.
Two years ago we succeeded in returning cattle to part of Bulls Cross after more than half a century of their absence. This in itself was a major challenge requiring two years of consultation with the local community and the erection of 600m of fencing that was sufficiently robust to prevent tampering or escape of the cattle onto the main road yet completely removable in order to not cause a visual blight on the landscape when the cattle were absent. Last year we extended this to include all 3 of the grassland paddocks and, in spite of the huge amount of staff time involved in erecting and dismantling the fences, it was a great source of joy to see cattle grazing across the site after such a long absence. This year we seem to have finally honed our technique and succeeded in erecting the first paddock in roughly half the time it took last year.
So, why include such a marginal, resource hungry site as Bulls Cross in the NNR? Aren’t NNRs supposed to be the best of the best examples of habitats in the country? The simple answer to this is that, if we don’t take it on and manage it, who will? A site with no water, planning consent only for semi-permanent fencing that must be erected and dismantled within a week of the cattle arriving and departing, the high risk presented by the road, the large areas of bramble and recent secondary woodland requiring expensive or time-consuming clearance and the presence of invasive plants such as willowherb, hemp agrimony and non-native oxeye daisy, not to mention the numbers of blood-sucking, relentless clegs that dog your every move during the early summer! Surely it is the responsibility of a relatively well-resourced organisation such as Natural England to take on awkward sites such as Bulls Cross and restore them so that future generations know them not just as part of an endless woodland stretching unbroken across the Cotswold scarp but as the tiny and unique grassland haven that it has the potential to be, dotted with hundreds of wild flowers and bustling with myriad insects, mammals, reptiles and birds.
Less than a century ago, roughly 40% of the Cotswolds was covered in species-rich limestone grassland. Today that figure is more like 2% and allowing sites such as Bulls Cross to disappear beneath the trees will gradually decrease this percentage even further. Astonishingly Bulls Cross still supports much of the typical flora and fauna that is found on grassland commons 10 times its size. Duke of Burgundy butterflies still breed here in good numbers in the spring, glow worms and slow worms can still be found across the site, kestrels hunt overhead and hundreds of orchids including lesser butterfly, pyramidal, common spotted, twayblade and white helleborine can be found thriving beneath the rampant bracken and willowherb. Furthermore, Bulls Cross is a strategic stepping stone between other more significant limestone grassland sites such as Swift’s Hill, Sheepscombe and Juniper Hill, providing a crucial link in the network of such sites around the Painswick Valley.
It is also extremely unlikely that any other organisation would be willing or able to take on a site such as Bulls Cross. Surely it is the responsibility of an organisation such as Natural England to take on such sites and put the resources into them to restore them to as close to their former glory as it is possible to get, given that the alternative is to lose them forever.
It is impossible to deny that Bulls Cross has issues and that sometimes I look at it and wonder whether we will ever succeed in restoring it to the grassy tundra of Laurie Lee’s childhood. Yet in spite of the scale of the task ahead, Bulls Cross still has the capacity to surprise and inspire. Whilst putting up the fence a couple of weeks ago we stopped for a well-earned lunch break and as we sat sprawled in the sunshine chatting and enjoying the views across the Painswick Valley, we were surprised to discover that the kestrels overhead, the background thrum of bees and hoverflies, the fabric of wild flowers beneath and around us and the gentle breeze coming up the valley made Bulls Cross an immensely pleasurable place to sit, a conclusion that the busy road, the rampant scrub and even the occasional cleg could do nothing to change.