How old is my meadow?

I was a bit fed up after hear­ing the UK gov­ern­ment announce fur­ther cut­backs to the sci­ence budget today, so I thought I’d delve into the recent Free Access issue of Annals of Botany from Sept 2009 to see what’s been released. Obviously the rest of this post will be a shame­less plug for a paper I found — but it’s a shame­less plug for a really clever paper.

Buttercups. Photo (cc) Marilyn Peddle.
Buttercups, for people who like con­serving mead­ows as well as those who like but­ter. Photo (cc) Marilyn Peddle.

Extra petals in the but­ter­cup (Ranunculus repens) provide a quick method to estim­ate the age of mead­ows by John Warren isn’t just clever, it’s also simple and use­ful. Dating hedgerows for con­ser­va­tion is well-known and the meth­ods of count­ing the spe­cies in the hedge seems nice and obvi­ous. In con­trast it’s easy to mis­take mead­ows as bug gaps of empti­ness between the hedges. As Marilyn Peddle’s photo shows above that’s not the case.

Warren’s work takes a closer look at the but­ter­cups in a meadow. The method is amaz­ingly simple. You exam­ine a hun­dred but­ter­cups. For each but­ter­cup with more than the usual five petals, the meadow is seven years old. Variability being what it is, you’d need to count more than one sample to a reas­on­ably reli­able estim­ate, but as a rough rule its good for a couple of cen­tur­ies. Warren sees a use for this in con­ser­va­tion sur­veys. I think it could also be a very use­ful tool for archae­ology too.

There is a branch of archae­ology called Garden Archaeology. It’s spe­cial­ised but it can also be really inter­est­ing because the inten­tional reshap­ing of nature can reveal all sorts of ideas about power rela­tions on an estate. A lot of this kind of work is on sites dat­ing within the last few hun­dred years, so it fits the range covered by the method. The dat­ing isn’t exact, but it may be enough to use­fully dis­tin­guish between phases on land­scap­ing. Most import­antly it’s very cheap, and very simple. It’s also very rep­lic­able, which is unusual for archae­ology where your typ­ical excav­a­tion exam­ines a site by sys­tem­at­ic­ally des­troy­ing it.

I tend to like any paper where I can think “I could do that.” For this paper I’m not the only per­son who could. There was a pub­lic appeal for people to visit mead­ows of known age and sample the but­ter­cups there. It’s a neat example of cit­izen science.

Alun Salt. ORCID 0000-0002-1261-4283

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?

3 Responses

  1. When John Warren was fin­ish­ing this work, it was repor­ted in The Times — http://​www​.timeson​line​.co​.uk/​t​o​l​/​n​e​w​s​/​e​n​v​i​r​o​n​m​e​n​t​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​3​9​1​3​7​9​3​.​ece

    John is quoted as say­ing ““In this day and age we worry about biod­iversity … if it takes 500 years to get a fully mature meadow we should be a lot more care­ful about keep­ing them.”

    One of the places where old grass­lands still exist is in church­yards. In the Great Plains of the USA, they are some of the only areas where the ori­ginal prair­ies have not been ploughed, while in England, many have rarely been fer­til­ized, reseeded or weeded, so main­tain some islands of ancient gen­o­types. But man­age­ment and machinery can des­troy this his­tory when people don’t thing about what is there. My mother is heav­ily involved with the Charity Caring for God’s Acre — http://​www​.caring​for​god​sacre​.org​.uk/ — which provides advice about sens­it­ive man­age­ment of church­yards, par­tic­u­larly in rural areas.

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