The grass is singing

18th October 2020

As autumn arrives, the landscape around Goodwood offers its final burst of colour. Here, one of the estate’s gardening team celebrates the uncut meadows that transform into a riot of ochre and spent flowerheads.

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As late summer moves into autumn, the landscape around Goodwood offers its final burst of colour, with uncut meadows transforming into a riot of ochres, dotted with spent flowerheads.

In a grassland, the period that follows this – from autumn through to winter – is a time of rest that the native cool-season grasses use to creep into vacant spaces, taking advantage of the dormancy of other species to gain an early lead in the ecological arms race that spring will bring. For a species to survive, it must find its niche, and plants do so using three contrasting methods: some are able to grow tall and leafy to steal the sunlight; others can capitalise on disturbance such as soil movement, flood or fire to thrive; while certain flora are able to maximise scant resources such as nutrient-poor soils or a gloomy woodland floor. In Britain, terrain with the thinnest, poorest soils often produces landscapes that are richest and most alive.

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One of Goodwood’s most prized landscapes is Levin Down, a site of Special Scientific Interest and the eponym of our delicious cheese. Occupying a hilltop of chalky grassland, this exposed site has not once seen a plough or crop and is kept under control by hardy sheep and Exmoor ponies. Unlike lowland meadows, the slight soil means that no one species can dominate – the quick nutrient fix that competitive plants need to feed a period of expansive growth just isn’t available. The Levin Down plant community is made up of elegant survivors such as marjoram, clustered bellflower, eyebright, and round-headed rampion, each able to eke out what little the ground can provide.

Another fine grassland is the parkland that surrounds Goodwood House. Originally a medieval hunting forest, it subsequently evolved into a designed landscape for recreation and husbandry. The gnarled, ancient trees stand today thanks to centuries of coppicing and pollarding, while clumps that once existed for use as game cover were later transformed into features to accent the vistas. The fabric that binds this wood pasture is an unimproved grassland – one that has not been cultivated nor been exposed to artificial enrichment using fertilisers – and this ancient, unchanging management results in a stable, flourishing ecosystem.

Due to the sad loss of this year’s Festival of Speed, the decision was taken to leave the parkland grass to mature, allowing the seeds to ripen and fall, and the result has been spectacular. Sinuous paths designed by the Duchess of Richmond were cut into the long sward, giving wonderfully immersive walks through a habitat of fluttering insects and darting mammals.

The depth of plant variety tells a story of not only what is above the surface, but also below. Soil is as much of a habitat as the grassland it supports – diverse communities of bacteria and fungi create a resilient, active soil. In conventional farming, the use of fertilisers and pesticides can cause these soil communities to collapse, breaking the interdependence between soil flora and the plant rooted within, cultivating a soil that’s comparatively lifeless. Our organic approach to management enriches our soils, and this is reflected in our pastures that support healthy livestock and crops, which in turn create superb products that we very much hope you enjoy.

This article is taken from the Goodwood Magazine, Autumn/Winter 2020 issue.

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