For thousands of years the plant life along the Wey Valley provided the inhabitants with everything they needed to survive. Building materials, food, fuel and natural medicine was to be found in plentiful supply, the fertile soil and ample water supply ensuring luxuriant growth. Although the landscape has changed over the centuries most of the original native species have survived, and have been supplemented with those introduced from abroad.
WEY VALLEY FOOD
TREES & SHRUBS
Alder trees thrive in watery places, and are common along the river where you will find many healthy specimens with their roots dipping directly into the water. Black Alder (Alnus glutinosa) is common to the Wey Valley.
Historically they were cultivated for use in making charcoal used in the manufacture of gunpowder, and also being a hard wood that resists bloating and shrinking when wetted or dried were used in lock gate and sluice manufacture, and for other uses at water level along the navigations.
Alders often mark the original course of the river after artificial cuts were made.
Alders are also a species that provides great benefit to other plants growing nearby. It can root into and break up wet compacted soil where free oxygen is limited. By forming a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria-like organism living on its roots, it converts atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form.
Botanists describe Alders as a ‘pioneer species’ as it is expert at colonizing derelict land by seeding to establish shrub and tree cover, eventually itself becoming shaded out by more enduring species.
Alder carrs, a natural wet woodland habitat such as that to be seen at the Moor Park Nature Reserve on the Wey near Farnham, are formed when the Alder colonises a wet marshy area, and ably assisted by sedges results in stabilising the marsh.
The Alder naturally has a short life and can only thrive in full light. Well managed coppiced trees however can live for hundreds of years. In addition to producing excellent charcoal the Alder was also heavily coppiced for light durable wood that is perfect for turnery, and was also the preferred wood for the manufacture of clogs being both water and grease-resistant. Alder clogs were also renowned for being light and comfortable to wear.
The historically important and beloved Oak (Quercus) were also a common feature in the valley, with many species thriving in damp conditions. This magnificent tree still thrives here but no longer in the huge numbers that were evident a few centuries ago.
Oak trees offer more shelter and food to wildlife than any other of our native trees. Botanists have catalogued over 300 different species of insect and small animal that make direct use of the oak’s flowers, leaves, fruit, bark and roots. Other creatures including small birds, squirrels, dormice, wood mice, wood pigeons gravitate to the tree in turn to feed on these insects.
Oak galls are caused by gall wasps (Cynipidae) that lay their eggs on oak trees out of preference. This invasion of the bark induces the tree into forming an abnormal growth, a ‘gall’, around the larvae with the tree then unwittingly protecting them from predators. The infant wasps or ‘gallflies’ bore holes in the galls to escape, and these are often evident on galls.
Another type of tree that contributed enormously to the economy of the Wey Valley was Ash (Fraxinus), and these are still common today.
Over three hundred years ago the diarist John Evelyn (1620 – 1706) highlighted the importance of the ash tree in agriculture with this summation: “The farmer cannot be without ash for his carts, ladders and other tackling, from the pike, spear and bow, to the plough.” This importance was reflected in local folklore which guided that if you laid a circle of ash twigs around you as you slept it would form a natural barrier to defend against adders, then an extremely common snake.
The bark of ash was commonly brewed to form a liquor that was used as a traditional medicine for numerous ailments including sore throats. Modern analysis has found that ash bark contains quinine which is used in tropical climates to treat malaria.
The ash has a place in modern industry too and is used in the manufacture of handles for axes and garden tools, oars and snooker cues. Morgan, the elite British car manufacturer, also uses ash for interior trimmings in their sportscars.
Other Key Species
Willow (Salix) trees were encouraged along the Wey and were often deliberately planted alongside navigable sections as their substantial roots helped to stabilise the banks.
Also a common tree along the valley is the beech (Fagus) tree. A well adapted shade-tolerant deciduous tree the beech can thrive in close spacing and provides a particularly dense canopy of leaves that, with the exception of fungi, prevents the growth of other plants on the ground beneath. Easily identified by its thin silvery-grey bark typically on a straight stem the beech was, and still is, extensively used in the manufacture of furniture. Beech nuts, or ‘mast’, were a much sought after food for wild pigs and deer and oil pressed from the nuts was also used for cooking and oil lamps.
Common throughout Britain is the hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) which for many hundreds of years has been used for stock proof hedging given its impenetrable thorn growth. Fittingly the old English word ‘hawe’ means a space enclosed by a hedge. The hawthorn rows to 30 – 50 ft (10 – 15m) and is renowned for its longevity, with 250 years not being unusual. The wood was commonly used for walking sticks, tool handles, engraving and turnery, and also made good firewood. It is not surprising that such an ancient and useful tree.
A shrub that everyone using the footpaths all around the Wey Valley pay enormous respect to is the dense blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) with its vicious thorns that are more than capable of tearing great gashes into the flesh of the unwary.
The plum-like blue-black fruit known as sloe that follows its white blossom has commonly been used for flavouring drink, a special favourite being gin. The blackthorn has the habit of flowering early in the year and commonly in March when it can still be bitterly cold giving rise to the term ‘blackthorn winter’.
A common feature along the river is coppiced woodland. Coppicing is the process of encouraging trees to throw up new heads of straightish branches (‘small wood’) by cutting trees and shrubs to stumps.
Depending upon the intended use of the poles produced and the type of tree, coppicing is worked on cycles of between seven to fifteen years.
Coppicing does bring with it other benefits, which has encouraged the managers of nature trusts along the Wey to continue with the procedure even though the commercial need has long since passed. Strengthened by the increased availability of light on the woodland floor, wild flowers flourish and butterflies enjoy the glades created. Birds that prefer dense low growth also frequent the coppiced areas.
Coppice wood in the Wey Valley was widely used for the manufacture of hoops for barrels with significant quantities being regularly shipped along the Navigations to London and beyond. Coppiced chestnut provided the perfect wood for making quality walking sticks which involved considerable skill in heating and bending the wood.
The beautiful horse chestnut (Aesculus) is under a three-pronged attack that is threatening thousands of these trees throughout the Wey Valley. Drought and bleeding canker (1) have been threatening the species for some time but the biggest threat now appears to be that of moth infestation.
First detected by experts at the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens at Wisley in the valley two years ago, the leaf miner moth (Cameraria ohridella) specific to the horse chestnut produces larvae which burrow into the leaves of the tree and feed on the foliage. The result is the loss of the trees leaves which affects both the overall health and growing ability of the tree.
First reaching Macedonia in 1985 it appears that the moth is now successfully infiltrating the UK as trees across much of the country are infested. An adult leaf miner moth can each 5mm in length and is recognisable by its metallic chestnut brown forewings and silvery white stripes edged in black. The moths are accomplished breeders and spread very quickly as they can cover long distances. Adults appear from April and lay eggs from May through August on the leaf veins. Each female can lay up to 40 eggs.
The Forestry Commission believes that one in ten of the trees are now infected across Britain and that the combined threat of canker and leaf moths matches the impact of Dutch Elm diseas in the 1970s.
However treatment for the trees pioneered in the Netherlands may provide a solution in combating the problem. Chestnuts similarly infected in The Hague have responded well to the use of a homeopathic spray in a trial that has been running over a two year period.
However experts in Britain are less optimistic, especially in being able to save trees that have already succumbed to canker or leaf miner infestations.
A borough tree officer in London, where horse chestnuts are similarly infected, shares this view.
The horse chestnut depending upon species can reach from 13 - 114 ft (4 - 35 m) and is commonly recognised for its large leaves, showy insect-pollinated flowers and their fruit which appear as brown nuts and have been used by children for hundreds of years in the game of conkers.
(1) Bleeding canker is where a fungal pathogen (Phytophthora) causes sap to bleed from the trunks and branches. The damage to the tree can be irreversible if the bleeding results in the extensive loss or girdling of the tree's bark.
Once widespread, Junipers (Juniperus) are on the decline due to changing land-use patterns and demand for the bushes.
Junipers traditionally in the Valley and throughout Britain provided local people with berries and firewood (which burns with a cedar-like fragrance). Farmers used the bushes with their prickly branches to provide a natural barrier to control livestock, and manufacturers of gin now source the juniper berries that provide its distinctive aroma from Tuscany and Eastern Europe. The bushes also provide good ground cover for wildlife.
Since the 1970s the number of junipers in England has halved and according to the charity Plantlife this decline continues unchecked. Remaining plants are ageing and reproduction requires proximity of healthy male and female plants. In a survey (2005 - 2006) undertaken by 236 volunteers for Plantlife it found a complete absence of juniper seedlings at 85% of the sites surveyed. Nine sites were surveyed in Surrey. The plant, despite being one of the three native conifer species grows slowly, and provides an important habitat to 40 species of insects. The charity is campaigning to increase public awareness over the need for better conservation and help for regeneration for the plant.
The tall and graceful stems topped by clusters of pale pink flowers are common water plantains (Alisma plantago-aquatica) which can grow to over 3 feet (0.9 m). The flowers are followed by distinctive flattened seeds set in a horizontal whorl. The plant’s rhizomes were used to treat complaints as varied as cystitis, dysentery and kidney stones.
Now relatively common alongside the river banks is policeman’s helmet, or Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) which is a naturalised plant originally imported for ornamental water gardens. The strong scent of this tall hollow-stemmed plant is quite distinctive and the orchid-like flowers produce seed capsules which explode when touched giving them the common name of jumping jack.
Once very characteristic of the water meadows around the Wey is ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) which will grow to 30 inches (75 cm) clearly showing its tattered ragged petals of pink or white. The drainage programmes in the last century has resulted in a much reduced habitat. Quite happy with the presence of butterflies which enjoy the plant it does deter ground based insects such as ants with its highly effective defensive downward pointing hairs on its stem.
Great reedmace (Typha latifolia) thrives in rich silty habitats and so particularly favours the banks of slow moving rivers. The densely growing roots which trap silt make the plant a favourite for conservationists who want to stabilise river banks and marshy areas. When dried the leaves were used in basketmaking and the rhizomes were used as a coffee substitute. Admired for its bullrushes standing proudly above the river these spiked flowers have the straw-coloured male flower directly above the darker cylindrical female flower.
Common around the Wey are the foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea), also known as fairy gloves. The easily recognisable plants growing up to 5 feet (1.5 m) tall have large erect spikes of purple, golden or white flowers. Although a highly poisonous plant for many centuries the foxglove has medical uses. An extract from the leaves helps regulate action of the heart and stimulates kidneys to excrete water retained by people with heart problems. In its fresh state it can be highly dangerous especially to children and livestock and can cause drowsiness, convulsions and in some cases death.
The 5 feet (1.5 m) tall deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is quite rare, and its name which derives from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘narcotic’, gives good warning as to just how poisonous this plant is. The highly toxic cherry-like berries follow the alluring purple bell-shaped flowers. Over many centuries people along the Wey made careful use of the plant for medicine, and curiously it was also used in traditional cosmetics for blanching the skin and removing freckles, hence the common name of ‘fair lady’.
The stinking iris (Iris foetidissima) has grey-purple flowers which show during June and July followed by large seed heads that stay on the plant until the winter months when they split open to reveal bright orange seeds. This became known as the roast beef plant due to the smell emitted when crushed resembling decaying beef. Preferring woodland the plant is fairly common and can grow to a height of 24 inches (60 cm)
The common yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) or ‘cock’s comb’ which grows up to 17 inches (45 cm) is so named as the bladder-shaped seed capsules of this yellow flowered plant when mature rattle in the wind. Often perceived by farmers to be damaging to meadows as it can supress the growth of grasses, although the plant is a sought-after species for conservationists who try to encourage colonisation to counter over-grazing and introduce diversity to meadows. Boiled with beans and honey yellow rattle was used for eye and throat complaints.
For centuries tufted vetch (Viccia cracca) which grows up to 6 feet (1.8 m) was relied on to provide fodder for cattle. Vetch attracts bacteria to its roots which has been proven to transform nitrogen from the air into nitrogenous compounds that enrich the soil. The plant is recognisable by its pea-like violet-blue flowers which are followed by brown seed pods.
The dried flower heads of the great burdock (Arctium lappa) have burrs which attach themselves with their hooks to passing animals allowing the dispersal of their seeds. A large plant the burdock grows to a height of 5 feet (1.5 m) and has large leaves to the base which can be up to 14 inches (35 cm) long. The burdock is very rich in vitamin C and both roots and leaves were widely used in medicine for skin diseases and swellings.
An important plant for local industry along the Wey Valley, the wild teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) is a type of thistle that was used by the clothing mills to tease the nap out of newly woven cloth as it hung out to dry on the tenterhook frames. The plant was commercially grown near the mills for that purpose and can reach 6 feet (2 m) in height. A water-retentive extract from its stalk and leaves is extremely rich in tannin and was used medicinally to stimulate the skin’s defences.
Another plant recognisable for its less than pleasant odour is the cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum) which has large arrow-shaped leaves that appear in the spring to be followed by flower-bearing stalks that produce highly poisonous bright red berrylike fruits. As ever there is a good reason for the bad odour as dung midges are attracted to it and are trapped until the female flowers are pollinated and the midges are released as the encasing hairs wither away. The plant is also commonly known as lords and ladies.
A remarkably well-named plant is the herb robert (Geranium robertianum) which has a cluster of common names probably reflecting its usefulness for medicinal purposes. The names include dog’s toe, Jenny wren, Puck, granny-thread-the-needle, poor Robin, bloodwort and dragon’s blood. The last three highlight the plant’s late season bright red stems which were commonly used to heal wounds. Other medicinal uses included treatment for diarrhoea, peptic ulcers and internal bleeding. The official name is in honour of the Cistercian monk, Abbot Robert who was a founder of the order in the 11th century. Growing to 9 – 15 inches (23 – 38 cm) the plant has five-petalled pink flowers.
The resilience of a common and very poisonous yellow-flowered weed is causing concern to livestock keepers and animal welfare groups across the Wey Valley. Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea, also known colloquially as Yellow Peril, grows profusely in meadows and pastures and is adept at surviving in dry conditions. The result is that livestock are tempted to eat the green foliage of the plant as it stands out in the parched fields with potentially fatal results.
Ragwort is highly poisonous to animals and if eaten can result in liver damage and a slow and painful death. Other side effects include loss of weight and condition, depression, constipation, jaundice and sunburn.
Ragwort is registered as injurious under the Weeds Act of 1959 making it an offence to fail to comply with clearance notices. Health Authorities also warn that humans are as much at risk as animals and should handle the weed with absolute care. Preventative measures include the wearing of gloves and the washing of all exposed areas of skin throughly once you've come into contact with the plant.
Frustrations in Reporting
It transpires that for concerned members of the public wanting to report the presence of ragwort, bureaucratic red tape is hindering elimination of this poisonous weed. The Surrey Advertiser reported (September 2007) that a Guildford resident had advised of the considerable presence of ragwort in Sadlers Field at Burpham to Natural England who told her that they were unable to act unless she advised them of the name and address of the landowners, this despite a complaint form pinpointing on a map the precise location having been completed. The field has been lying fallow.
The concerned resident at her own expense paid to download the landowner's details from the Land Registry website and forwarded these on to Natural England who then formally approached the owners to order the weed's destruction. The owners complied, having allegedly stated that they were not aware of the dangers imposed by the presence of ragwort, although by this stage the plants had gone to seed. However the resident was then asked by Natural England to monitor the field and advise them if the landowner had taken action.
A lethal variety of toadstool is the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) likely to be encountered around the Wey and nicknamed ‘toadstool of the pixies’ was closely associated with folklore. It contains extremely powerful psychotropic compounds and this bright red fungus with white spots should not be touched as only a small quantity ingested can provide enough poison to be fatal.
A foul smelling fungus, the appropriately named common stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus), emits its foul odour from the black spores emitted as it emerges from the ground. The phallic slightly risqué shape created merry havoc for the extremely prudish Victorians who went out of their way to avoid the stinkhorn. It is said that one of Charles Darwin’s daughters, who often visited the Wey Valley with her father, would burn any she found lest they turned the heads of her innocent housemaids. Likewise editors confronted with the horror of having to publish a picture of the fungus would go so far as to rotate the picture 180 degrees so as not to offend their readers.
The foul smell attracts flies which feed on the spore-containing slime at its tip which induces almost immediate diarrhoea causing the flies to deposit the spores in the immediate area. Stinkhorn first appears at the surface as white balls and grows typically from 6 inches (15 cm) to 10 inches (25 cm) ending up as a white shaft with a cap covered in olive-green gleba, the slime that attracts the flies.
A report (June 2007) by the wild plant conservation charity Plantlife publishes the results of research into the nationwide coverage of rare and threatened arable plants has identified that Surrey rates third in a list of counties recording the presence of indicator plant species since 1980.
Surrey scored 367 points, 11 points behind the joint leaders Berkshire and North Essex, using Plantlife's specially developed assessment methodology. The technique assesses the importance of particular sites for arable species based on the presence of either a single threatened species and / or an exceptional presence of these species. The method tallies the individual scores of 120 indicator species present weighted according to their rarity and decline across Britain allowing conservationists to instantly assess the value of a site.
The survey reveals severe regional differences in the diversity of rare species in arable field margins with the south-east, south-west and eastern England being the most diverse whilst those in the north-east were the most species-poor.
Arable farmland flora has suffered over the last 60 years due to changes in arable farming techniques with many species proving to be unable to adapt or survive the farming revolution. Advanced seed cleaning, increased fertiliser use, new high-yielding crop varieties and the introduction of herbicides are primary factors.
The most recent (2005) list of Britain's most threatened arable plants divides species into categories of completely extinct; extinct in arable habitats; critically endangered; endangered; and vulnerable. The five classified as completely extinct are Lamb''s-succory; Interrupted Brome; Thorowax; Small Bur-parsley and Downy Hemp-nettle.
Much work is now being conducted to try and reverse this decline and the activity of conservation bodies including Plantlife are proving to be successful. A key development has been in encouraging farmers to preserve larger margins at the edge of fields for wild arable plants. These outer field margins are promoting botanical diversity helped by farmers reducing herbicide, insecticide and fungicide on crops bordering these critical areas. Government sponsored Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) schemes, which in England has been supplemented by the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS), have proven successful in adapting farming parctices to the benefit of wild arable plants. The CSS provides farmers with a financial inducement in return for managing their land for a better farmland environment.
The Woodland Trust's campaign, Tree for All, to reintroduce woodland and encourage youngsters to take an active role in the guardian ship of the natural environment has been a great success in the valley.
More than 5,700 trees have been planted (March 2008) by pupils at schools across Surrey. Species given to the schools as part of the scheme included hedge and copse species and were planted in their school grounds and local open areas.
Pupils at Broadwater School in Godalming designed a new wildlife area and picnic site with technical assistance from a local landscaping company to plant 30 trees as part of the scheme.
Surrey is one of the country's most tree-filled counties with a 22% woodland coverage and it is hoped that the Tree for All scheme will help maintain that status. Since the Woodland Trust launched its hedge and copse scheme in 2004 Surrey school children have contributed to the reinstatement of more than 100 miles of hedgerow. Almost 200,000 trees (to March 2008) have been planted in the south-east since the scheme started. The Trust's target is for 12 million plantings throughout the UK by the end of 2009, representing one tree for every child under 16 years of age.
The Surrey Wildlife Trust has declared war on invasive plants clogging the River Wey, its tributaries and surrounding ponds. A number of aquatic plants, many imported from abroad for their ornamental attraction in water features, have continued to colonise the valley's water system. This invasion not only stems water flow and inhibits oxygenation but also overwhelms native species which in turn can have a negative effect on wildlife.
It is estimated that over £3m per year is spent across the country trying to eradicate these troublesome species.
Fighting Back Against
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in Wisley is leading an attempt to eradicate a fungus-like disease that is attacking trees and plants. Pytophthora ramorum was first detected in the UK six years ago and has attacked plants throughout the UK. To complicate matters further a newer version of the virus known as phytophtora kernoviae is now spreading with reports of it appearing in Cornwall, Wales and Cheshire.
Pytophthora is a group of soil and water-borne fungus-like pathogens that attack plants at or below ground level causing crown and root rots which are normally fatal. The best known disease caused by Pytophthora is potato blight, although this is the only known variant that is wind-borne. The presence of Pytophthora in plant tissue is difficult to confirm although the RHS has developed a 'baiting test' which involves growing the fungus on apples to induce sporulation which is necessary to provide an identification. The RHS has an active pathology research programme at Wisley investigating new techniques to speed up Pytophthora testing.
In July 2008 the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Forestry Commission and the Welsh Assembly representatives met at Wisley Gardens to launch a national consultation into the disease. The group were shown a spot at the gardens where the South East Asia-originating fungus had infected and devastated a previously healthy rhododendron. The infection was spotted in February and drastic measures were taken to prevent it spreading.
No further infections have so far been found at Wisley.
A resident from Hascombe publicised attempts to have Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) recognised as a dangerous plant and classified as a notifiable weed. Alison Savage had become alarmed at an invasion of the plant in her village and the lack of knowledge of residents as to how dangerous contact with it can be.
Giant Hogweed with its distinctive clumps of white flowers clustered in an umbrella-shaped head can grow up to 16ft (5m) tall and can cause severe skin inflammations, and exposure of the eyes to its sap can cause blindness. Skin coming into contact with sap initially turns red and itches but if exposed to strong light will blister severely.
Tim Farron MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale in Parliamentary Questions (June 2009) tried to have Defra take action and classify the plant as notifiable but was unsuccessful in his bid. A notifiable classification compels the authorities to remove plants. It is however now against the law to plant the species (Schedule 9 Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981) and it is also classified as controlled waste under the Environmental Protection Act 1990.
The plant was introduced into Britain as a decorative garden ornamental in the 19th century and is especially common along the banks of the River Wey.
There is an information sheet about Giant Hogweed available HERE. (PDF 5mb)
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