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Horticulture, Gloucester

PUBLISHED: 10:41 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 08:56 21 February 2013

Old Gloucester cattle maintain the Alney Island Local Nature Reserve

Old Gloucester cattle maintain the Alney Island Local Nature Reserve

Gloucester's schemes for inner-city horticulture, and the city's peripheral nature reserves, are largely unknown to people who visit, yet they are hugely influential and very relevant in today's world.<br/><br/>By Mark Child

If you go to the Victorian cemetery in Gloucester's Horton Road early in the year, you are likely to see a small flock of rare breed North Ronaldsay sheep nibbling at the vegetation. It is not a new concept. In medieval times, sheep grazed our burial grounds as a matter of course, and you can still sometimes see 'sheep creeps' - purpose-made holes in stone churchyard walls - that allowed passage from neighbouring fields. Even today, one may occasionally come across sheep in rural churchyards. But a rare breed of sheep, and in the middle of a city? It's all part of an immensely important programme of conservation, based on Gloucester's nature reserves, that deserves to be much more widely known that it is.


Every town that wants to make the most of its potential for tourism and business requires an organisation that will vigorously market the place to whoever it feels to be its target stakeholders. These include visitors, tourists and residents, for they are all stakeholders in the economic future of an area as are those who work there, the organisations that help to boost its economy, and those that can be attracted to provide inward investment.


Take, for example, Gloucester in Bloom. On the surface, it pretties the town's streets. Yet its advance last year to take a Gold Award in the small city category of the Heart of England in Bloom competition actually sends out powerful subliminal messages; the whole community - residents, volunteers, and the local authority - co-operated to such a degree, that Gloucester was shown to be a good place in which to live and work.


Earlier in the year, the Gloucester in Bloom Committee chose five winners in their Street Regeneration Award programme, aimed at bringing residents together with the common purpose of filling their streets with ornamental planting schemes. The awards, each of 500 worth of garden centre vouchers, were made to the residents in three city streets, a community rose garden project, and a group of residents living on barges in Victoria Basin on Gloucester Docks. These boat people, already well known for their container planting, will now be able to purchase a sufficient quantity of long troughs to make an avenue of blooms.


There is no doubt that the real aim of the city's Civic Pride Awards in the three categories of best garden; best hotel, restaurant, pub, or shop frontage; and best allotment, is to make Gloucester more attractive to visitors as well as residents. If you are visiting, and like what you see, the experience will remain a pleasant one in the memory, and you are more likely to return. That's good for business. The City Council will be hoping to underline last year's blooming success with a significant win in 2007. Judges will 'be looking favourably on entries using environmentally friendly materials' and that too, helps to give out a 'caring' message in our increasingly environmentally aware times.


Even so, it is never a good thing for initiatives to be carried on in isolation, which is why a dedicated organisation is needed that promotes the sum of the parts for the greater good of the whole. Gloucester recently took a step in this direction, when the city's cabinet agreed in principle to the formation of a marketing alliance - a new organisation to 'market Gloucester to the world as a retail, leisure and business centre'. At the moment, it sounds a bit like holding talks about holding talks, but at least the cabinet's doors are open to an 'independently run, not-for-profit organisation that would be responsible for marketing, city centre management, tourism and events promoting the city ... a more coherent and unified marketing voice'.


Unification of the old fabric; the influences of intellectual heritage; the new-build needs for the residential and business markets; and the general requirements of contemporary living are something very much on the minds of those involved in the regeneration programme for Gloucester. Seven key historic sites form the basis of this project, as readers of Cotswold Life (June 2007 issue) will know. The promotors of this scheme understand that each part cannot be undertaken or marketed in isolation. For maximum effect, every element, as it is achieved, needs to be publicised independently and be firmly in its place within the whole scheme. Cohesion is one of the major keys if a unified whole - ultimately the most desirable result - is to come out considerably greater than the sum of its parts. In this way, the impact of the success of Gloucester in Bloom is every bit as significant as the 200 million redevelopment of Gloucester Quays. In a programme for marketing Gloucester to the world at large, the graveyard nibbling of the North Ronaldsay sheep is more significant than one might think.


Perhaps Gloucester's proposed marketing alliance will be formed with time enough to address the huge marketing opportunities afforded by the current major projects. But there are other, older schemes, that it may feel able to get to grips with, and to give the publicity and marketing tools they deserve. We live in an age when there is a significantly widening gap in the knowledge of urban adult consumers - and inevitably, the next generation - of what happens in the countryside, and where food actually comes from. We also live in a time of great social disparity, of eco-awareness, and of environmental issues.


All of these are addressed, albeit currently on a shoestring as far as marketing is concerned, and seemingly with very little printed publicity, by the several conservation areas in and around the city that are operated by Gloucester City Council's Countryside Unit. This is the organisation that puts North Ronaldsay sheep into the Horton Road cemetery, and runs numerous small reserves - such as the relatively tiny Barnwood Arboretum. It also operates a whole range of larger, very important, but poorly documented reserves across the city. All of its work is carried out in conjunction with Natural England, formerly English Nature, which is the government-operated body that was set up to oversee all conservation projects.


The Countryside Unit came into being in the early 1980s, on the back of the Countryside Commission's programme of funding to establish what proved to be largely unsuccessful country parks. Its Countryside Manager is the incredibly knowledgeable, passionate and erudite Derek Wakefield-Brown, who joined the City Council's operation in 1985, in order 'to gain experience working in nature conservation in the urban fringe'. Previously, he worked as a volunteer warden with Gloucestershire County Council, looking after Painswick Beacon, amongst a number of Cotswold sites.


Derek believes that conservation initiatives have greater relevance in today's socio-economic and business climates than at any time in the past. In the 1980s, the accent was on leisure and recreation, but city dwellers often felt alienated from the countryside that was then even closer to their doorstep than it is today. To their credit, Gloucester City Council gave him the freedom to expand on the original concepts and to explore the wider issues and the educational value of the schemes.


The flagship area is the Robinswood Hill Country Park, centred on a natural punctuation mark at the end of the Vale of Berkeley. The last nub of golden-brown Cotswold stone emerges near the summit of the hill. The area borders the road between Gloucester and Stroud, rises to a height of 198 metres, and has a 360-degree panorama from the top, including spectacular views over the city.


In the 19th century, water was provided to the city of Gloucester by a commercial enterprise run by the Gloucester Water Company, which had its works at Robins Wood Hill. By an Act of Parliament in 1855, the city was enabled to buy these works, and to build further plant and reservoirs at Great Witcombe. The joint venture, on which Gloucester's corporation spent some 100,000, funded forty-six acres of reservoirs and gave a sufficient supply of water for the city's needs. The complex at Robins Wood Hill was in operation until the 1920s, and, in the place of the reservoir, there is now a car park, the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust's headquarters, and a visitor centre.


It is all part of the 250-acre Robinswood Hill Countryside Park, run by Gloucester City Council's Countryside Unit. Derek is based in the old farmstead, a rambling brick building that dates from about 1720, on land at the foot of the hill that was farmed throughout the 1800s. The summit can only be accessed on foot, or by Derek and his team using some fairly spectacular off-roading along the steep inclines and deeply rutted tracks. Numerous paths cross the hillside, lifting the walker through grassland and thick woodland before the glorious denouement of the summit. Deer are often to be found here, coming in very early in the morning along the old railway line that runs close by.


The land hereabouts has been farmed for centuries, and the hill was always a place on which people liked to walk and have picnics. It was farmed by Gloucestershire County Council before the City Council bought it with a view to creating a country park, for which grant aid packages once existed. Imagine the difficulties encountered by the scheme's promotors, more than thirty years ago, in trying to sell the idea to the burghers of a semi-rural city, whose centre was only a ten-minute bicycle ride from the countryside.


The concept has easily been vindicated by the number of volunteers that have worked at Robinswood Hill over the last two decades - upwards of 5,000 - and the number of children who, after regularly visiting and becoming involved in the working of the Countryside Unit's several Gloucester City sites, have gone on to take relevant courses of study in higher education. Derek can site numerous instances of young people whose previously chosen career paths have been changed following their positive experiences at Robinswood Hill or its satellite operations. In addition, they all offer rehabilitation possibilities and therapeutic environments for people who are suffering from the stress-related ailments of the contemporary business world, and there are many who believe their lives have been saved by the experience.


Just outside the farmhouse door, are some of the rarest breeds of farm animals one can find in the United Kingdom. They are not simply display pieces, but working animals that are allowed to forage naturally. Derek went for breeds that were almost extinct, as listed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, and others that were a little less endangered, but attractive to see. "We have a few breeds here that are quite seriously under the cosh," says Derek, "and some that could soon completely disappear."


Amongst the breeds of sheep at the farm are Castlemilk Moorit, a Scottish primitive and hill breed cross, produced to decorate the estates of Victorian landowners; the feral Boreray from St Kilda; the four-horned Manx Loghtan from the Isle of Man; Soay - a breed that is actually in recovery - from the Atlantic islands of Soay and Hirta; and the North Ronaldsay that, in its native environment, will live on seaweed from the beaches. Its fleece grows in about six shades. Amongst the cattle on site is the distinctive jet black or mahogany red Gloucester breed; the miniature Dexter; the Irish Moiled, of which there were only about twenty left a quarter of a century ago; and the Longhorn, which has an amazing physical presence and is thought to have originated in Oxfordshire. Pig breeds include the Gloucester Old Spots, Saddleback pigs, and the red Tamworth, whose meat is also sold by the farm.


People ask Derek why anyone should bother to save rare breeds that may not be commercially viable in the sense that farmers cannot make money out of them. "I always ask why people restore steam locomotives, or keep vintage cars going, or rebuild old properties that are falling down? The answer is that they should all be protected as part of our history and our heritage. Previous generations did away with so many old buildings that we now wish had been preserved; the next generation will feel the same way in respect of rare breeds, if we simply allow them to disappear."


However, Derek is not in favour of rare breeds being regarded as museum pieces. He is firmly behind the Rare Breeds Survival Trust's 'eat it or lose it' approach to helping rare breeds survive, and of farmers' markets which are rapidly being established as the outlets for meat with the kind of flavours that were still universal just half a century ago. "It's still rather low key, but I think we are on the threshold of an explosion for that kind of market throughout the UK."


Allied to the Rare Breeds Farm, insomuch as some of the Robinswood Hill animals are domiciled there, is the St James City Farm, a valuable resource situated in Albany Street, Tredworth, in a predominantly ethnic inner-city area. This is nothing like the ubiquitous concept of a rare breeds establishment, or a conservation area; nor does it need to be, for its criteria are different. Bound on one side by a public footpath and a chapel, surrounded by residential terraces in an area of high-density housing and walls that have their share of graffiti, here is a series of paddocks, and a number of sheds and pens in a secure area, where cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, ducks, chickens and rabbits, etc, are on display. A scrap dealer's yard once stood where the farm is now, and the old road remains beneath the ground; there is a wildlife garden at one end of the site, and community allotments at the other.


The farm was formed in 1998 in response to a change in legislation that threatened to deprive children from taking part in extra-curricular environmental studies for which schools had previously been able to charge parents. This meant that inner-city schools, which most valued the experience and had the greater density of environmentally deprived children, often failed to raise sufficient funds to continue giving them access to animals and the countryside. Gloucester's City Farm was the first of its kind; there are now sixty-nine throughout the UK, of which nineteen are in London, and four in Bristol.


Before the farm was established at Tredworth, some 900 homes around the proposed site were consulted; more than 600 returned their questionnaires, of which 93% welcomed the proposals. St James City Farm was founded in order to take the countryside to the inner city, and to provide an environment and activities that are relevant to the school curriculum. But it was achieved in a climate of some political scepticism. Derek was 'summoned' by the National Farmers Union, as well as the local Rotary Club, to explain what on earth was going on.


It has all proved to be a great success. Says Derek: "It gives a real hands-on animal experience for city people, and it also establishes where food comes from". Yet there are still people who, in believing that the countryside is still sufficiently accessible to obviate the need for a city farm, fail to grasp that large numbers of city-dwelling adults do not go there, for whatever reason, and this deprives their children of its sights and sounds.


The farm is an integral part of the community hereabouts. Local residential kitchen, garden and allotment waste is composted here; the farm's manure and bedding waste is used on residential growing sites; eggs and meat products from animals are sold on site, and the children get involved in the whole life cycle, welfare and feeding regimes of all the creatures at the Farm. Do not consider that a visit to the City Farm is unnecessary if you have been to Robinswood Hill. It is an excellent example of what can be achieved in an urban environment, and small children in particular will benefit from its scale and the small animals there.


Hay meadows are the most threatened of all the natural wildlife habitats in Gloucestershire. They are a survival of the times when hay was cut in midsummer and cattle grazed the land during the autumn. By working in this way with nature, plants were able to flower and set seed, and the centuries-old process continued whereby the land supported a rich and varied collection of wild flora and fauna, as well as domestic farm animals. Within living memory, the management and working of hay meadows comprised an essential part of the farming year.


The county has since lost about ninety-five per cent of the hay meadows that it had just fifty years ago. Changes to farming practices have caused this in part: the meadows have been ploughed up, sprayed with insecticide, or re-seeded. Changes in animal husbandry have meant a devastating reduction in the number of flowering plant species supported by these grasslands. The knock-on effect of land management, housing requirements, and the construction of roads and motorways have all contributed to their decline, and modern-day fly-tippers have laid sites to waste.


The ten-acre Hucclecote Hay Meadows is one of Gloucester city's two Sites of Special Scientific Interest. It is an unimproved neutral grassland, full of wild flowers in their season, that supports some seventy-five species, and is consequently a gem of a valuable resource, and a nature trail of some significance. Even so, it is just a fraction of the medieval meadows that research shows us surrounded Hucclecote in the past, and which were foreshortened when the M5 motorway was built, and has since been built on by developers. The nature trail leading from Lobleys Drive is surrounded by industrial parks and housing estates, and, nearby, what will effectively be a new village. Hucclecote Hay Meadows is classed by Natural England as a local nature reserve, inasmuch as it is a resource for the local population to use, become involved in its management, and have a say in what happens to the sites in the future.


Just off the main Bristol Road through Gloucester, in the middle of a modern housing estate, lies the four-acre Quedgeley Nature Reserve, an extraordinarily rich sanctuary for the local community. Developers returned it to the local authority for use as a public open space, although that is something of a misnomer because this former arboretum, densely planted garden and woodland site - where the 17th-century Quedgeley House once stood adjacent - is anything but open. True, it has some small spaces, but here is a wonderful mix of arboretum and woodland above layers of shrubs and herbs, intersected by numerous little pathways. One of its treasures is an eighty-foot cedar tree.


There is a badger sett on the reserve, built to facilitate the occupants of nearby setts who were threatened by the encroaching adjacent housing developments, and which is now used by visiting badgers. The pond is a site for newts and other aquatic creatures and insects, and the area is an ideal habitat for a wide range of creatures. Great crested newts were introduced into it from Robinswood. The beauty of this reserve is its enclosed nature, which could hardly be more of a contrast to the Countryside Unit's wetlands.


Alney Island, formerly Castle Mead, is just off the A40 on the opposite side of the River Severn to Gloucester Prison, and about half a mile as the crow flies from Gloucester Cathedral. Here, the River Severn splits into two channels. It is said to have been one of the significant sites in the early, and ultimately lost, 11th-century struggle between Edmund Ironside, King of England, and the invader, Cnut. Gloucester Races were held here, on the flat riverside hams, until the early 19th century, and were revived for a while with the accompanying fairground attractions in the 1860s. A ham is a large open field, part of a flood plain, crossed by drainage ditches. In 1983, some five hundred oak trees were planted around the meadowland, including indigenous and non-native varieties; limes, willow, silver birch, ash trees and field maple have since been put in, and shallow ponds and scrapes have been installed. This area is now known as Richard's Wood, and is about 200 acres in extent.


Historically the fields were grazed by livestock, which was removed in time for the hay crop to grow, which was then cut before the animals were returned. Now, it is the largest nature reserve in Gloucester, and an important wetland habitat for fauna and flora. The site is managed in the traditional way as a wetland nature reserve, whereby cattle help to keep down the wetland vegetation during the winter, and are introduced again in the summer after the hay crop has been cut. The Countryside Unit maintains the area with a small herd of traditional Old Gloucester cows, one of which had produced a calf, just a few hours before we called.


If you go to the Victorian cemetery in Gloucester's Horton Road early in the year, you are likely to see a small flock of rare breed North Ronaldsay sheep nibbling at the vegetation. It is not a new concept. In medieval times, sheep grazed our burial grounds as a matter of course, and you can still sometimes see 'sheep creeps' - purpose-made holes in stone churchyard walls - that allowed passage from neighbouring fields. Even today, one may occasionally come across sheep in rural churchyards. But a rare breed of sheep, and in the middle of a city? It's all part of an immensely important programme of conservation, based on Gloucester's nature reserves, that deserves to be much more widely known that it is.


Every town that wants to make the most of its potential for tourism and business requires an organisation that will vigorously market the place to whoever it feels to be its target stakeholders. These include visitors, tourists and residents, for they are all stakeholders in the economic future of an area as are those who work there, the organisations that help to boost its economy, and those that can be attracted to provide inward investment.


Take, for example, Gloucester in Bloom. On the surface, it pretties the town's streets. Yet its advance last year to take a Gold Award in the small city category of the Heart of England in Bloom competition actually sends out powerful subliminal messages; the whole community - residents, volunteers, and the local authority - co-operated to such a degree, that Gloucester was shown to be a good place in which to live and work.


Earlier in the year, the Gloucester in Bloom Committee chose five winners in their Street Regeneration Award programme, aimed at bringing residents together with the common purpose of filling their streets with ornamental planting schemes. The awards, each of 500 worth of garden centre vouchers, were made to the residents in three city streets, a community rose garden project, and a group of residents living on barges in Victoria Basin on Gloucester Docks. These boat people, already well known for their container planting, will now be able to purchase a sufficient quantity of long troughs to make an avenue of blooms.


There is no doubt that the real aim of the city's Civic Pride Awards in the three categories of best garden; best hotel, restaurant, pub, or shop frontage; and best allotment, is to make Gloucester more attractive to visitors as well as residents. If you are visiting, and like what you see, the experience will remain a pleasant one in the memory, and you are more likely to return. That's good for business. The City Council will be hoping to underline last year's blooming success with a significant win in 2007. Judges will 'be looking favourably on entries using environmentally friendly materials' and that too, helps to give out a 'caring' message in our increasingly environmentally aware times.


Even so, it is never a good thing for initiatives to be carried on in isolation, which is why a dedicated organisation is needed that promotes the sum of the parts for the greater good of the whole. Gloucester recently took a step in this direction, when the city's cabinet agreed in principle to the formation of a marketing alliance - a new organisation to 'market Gloucester to the world as a retail, leisure and business centre'. At the moment, it sounds a bit like holding talks about holding talks, but at least the cabinet's doors are open to an 'independently run, not-for-profit organisation that would be responsible for marketing, city centre management, tourism and events promoting the city ... a more coherent and unified marketing voice'.


Unification of the old fabric; the influences of intellectual heritage; the new-build needs for the residential and business markets; and the general requirements of contemporary living are something very much on the minds of those involved in the regeneration programme for Gloucester. Seven key historic sites form the basis of this project, as readers of Cotswold Life (June 2007 issue) will know. The promotors of this scheme understand that each part cannot be undertaken or marketed in isolation. For maximum effect, every element, as it is achieved, needs to be publicised independently and be firmly in its place within the whole scheme. Cohesion is one of the major keys if a unified whole - ultimately the most desirable result - is to come out considerably greater than the sum of its parts. In this way, the impact of the success of Gloucester in Bloom is every bit as significant as the 200 million redevelopment of Gloucester Quays. In a programme for marketing Gloucester to the world at large, the graveyard nibbling of the North Ronaldsay sheep is more significant than one might think.


Perhaps Gloucester's proposed marketing alliance will be formed with time enough to address the huge marketing opportunities afforded by the current major projects. But there are other, older schemes, that it may feel able to get to grips with, and to give the publicity and marketing tools they deserve. We live in an age when there is a significantly widening gap in the knowledge of urban adult consumers - and inevitably, the next generation - of what happens in the countryside, and where food actually comes from. We also live in a time of great social disparity, of eco-awareness, and of environmental issues.


All of these are addressed, albeit currently on a shoestring as far as marketing is concerned, and seemingly with very little printed publicity, by the several conservation areas in and around the city that are operated by Gloucester City Council's Countryside Unit. This is the organisation that puts North Ronaldsay sheep into the Horton Road cemetery, and runs numerous small reserves - such as the relatively tiny Barnwood Arboretum. It also operates a whole range of larger, very important, but poorly documented reserves across the city. All of its work is carried out in conjunction with Natural England, formerly English Nature, which is the government-operated body that was set up to oversee all conservation projects.


The Countryside Unit came into being in the early 1980s, on the back of the Countryside Commission's programme of funding to establish what proved to be largely unsuccessful country parks. Its Countryside Manager is the incredibly knowledgeable, passionate and erudite Derek Wakefield-Brown, who joined the City Council's operation in 1985, in order 'to gain experience working in nature conservation in the urban fringe'. Previously, he worked as a volunteer warden with Gloucestershire County Council, looking after Painswick Beacon, amongst a number of Cotswold sites.


Derek believes that conservation initiatives have greater relevance in today's socio-economic and business climates than at any time in the past. In the 1980s, the accent was on leisure and recreation, but city dwellers often felt alienated from the countryside that was then even closer to their doorstep than it is today. To their credit, Gloucester City Council gave him the freedom to expand on the original concepts and to explore the wider issues and the educational value of the schemes.


The flagship area is the Robinswood Hill Country Park, centred on a natural punctuation mark at the end of the Vale of Berkeley. The last nub of golden-brown Cotswold stone emerges near the summit of the hill. The area borders the road between Gloucester and Stroud, rises to a height of 198 metres, and has a 360-degree panorama from the top, including spectacular views over the city.


In the 19th century, water was provided to the city of Gloucester by a commercial enterprise run by the Gloucester Water Company, which had its works at Robins Wood Hill. By an Act of Parliament in 1855, the city was enabled to buy these works, and to build further plant and reservoirs at Great Witcombe. The joint venture, on which Gloucester's corporation spent some 100,000, funded forty-six acres of reservoirs and gave a sufficient supply of water for the city's needs. The complex at Robins Wood Hill was in operation until the 1920s, and, in the place of the reservoir, there is now a car park, the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust's headquarters, and a visitor centre.


It is all part of the 250-acre Robinswood Hill Countryside Park, run by Gloucester City Council's Countryside Unit. Derek is based in the old farmstead, a rambling brick building that dates from about 1720, on land at the foot of the hill that was farmed throughout the 1800s. The summit can only be accessed on foot, or by Derek and his team using some fairly spectacular off-roading along the steep inclines and deeply rutted tracks. Numerous paths cross the hillside, lifting the walker through grassland and thick woodland before the glorious denouement of the summit. Deer are often to be found here, coming in very early in the morning along the old railway line that runs close by.


The land hereabouts has been farmed for centuries, and the hill was always a place on which people liked to walk and have picnics. It was farmed by Gloucestershire County Council before the City Council bought it with a view to creating a country park, for which grant aid packages once existed. Imagine the difficulties encountered by the scheme's promotors, more than thirty years ago, in trying to sell the idea to the burghers of a semi-rural city, whose centre was only a ten-minute bicycle ride from the countryside.


The concept has easily been vindicated by the number of volunteers that have worked at Robinswood Hill over the last two decades - upwards of 5,000 - and the number of children who, after regularly visiting and becoming involved in the working of the Countryside Unit's several Gloucester City sites, have gone on to take relevant courses of study in higher education. Derek can site numerous instances of young people whose previously chosen career paths have been changed following their positive experiences at Robinswood Hill or its satellite operations. In addition, they all offer rehabilitation possibilities and therapeutic environments for people who are suffering from the stress-related ailments of the contemporary business world, and there are many who believe their lives have been saved by the experience.


Just outside the farmhouse door, are some of the rarest breeds of farm animals one can find in the United Kingdom. They are not simply display pieces, but working animals that are allowed to forage naturally. Derek went for breeds that were almost extinct, as listed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, and others that were a little less endangered, but attractive to see. "We have a few breeds here that are quite seriously under the cosh," says Derek, "and some that could soon completely disappear."


Amongst the breeds of sheep at the farm are Castlemilk Moorit, a Scottish primitive and hill breed cross, produced to decorate the estates of Victorian landowners; the feral Boreray from St Kilda; the four-horned Manx Loghtan from the Isle of Man; Soay - a breed that is actually in recovery - from the Atlantic islands of Soay and Hirta; and the North Ronaldsay that, in its native environment, will live on seaweed from the beaches. Its fleece grows in about six shades. Amongst the cattle on site is the distinctive jet black or mahogany red Gloucester breed; the miniature Dexter; the Irish Moiled, of which there were only about twenty left a quarter of a century ago; and the Longhorn, which has an amazing physical presence and is thought to have originated in Oxfordshire. Pig breeds include the Gloucester Old Spots, Saddleback pigs, and the red Tamworth, whose meat is also sold by the farm.


People ask Derek why anyone should bother to save rare breeds that may not be commercially viable in the sense that farmers cannot make money out of them. "I always ask why people restore steam locomotives, or keep vintage cars going, or rebuild old properties that are falling down? The answer is that they should all be protected as part of our history and our heritage. Previous generations did away with so many old buildings that we now wish had been preserved; the next generation will feel the same way in respect of rare breeds, if we simply allow them to disappear."


However, Derek is not in favour of rare breeds being regarded as museum pieces. He is firmly behind the Rare Breeds Survival Trust's 'eat it or lose it' approach to helping rare breeds survive, and of farmers' markets which are rapidly being established as the outlets for meat with the kind of flavours that were still universal just half a century ago. "It's still rather low key, but I think we are on the threshold of an explosion for that kind of market throughout the UK."


Allied to the Rare Breeds Farm, insomuch as some of the Robinswood Hill animals are domiciled there, is the St James City Farm, a valuable resource situated in Albany Street, Tredworth, in a predominantly ethnic inner-city area. This is nothing like the ubiquitous concept of a rare breeds establishment, or a conservation area; nor does it need to be, for its criteria are different. Bound on one side by a public footpath and a chapel, surrounded by residential terraces in an area of high-density housing and walls that have their share of graffiti, here is a series of paddocks, and a number of sheds and pens in a secure area, where cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, ducks, chickens and rabbits, etc, are on display. A scrap dealer's yard once stood where the farm is now, and the old road remains beneath the ground; there is a wildlife garden at one end of the site, and community allotments at the other.


The farm was formed in 1998 in response to a change in legislation that threatened to deprive children from taking part in extra-curricular environmental studies for which schools had previously been able to charge parents. This meant that inner-city schools, which most valued the experience and had the greater density of environmentally deprived children, often failed to raise sufficient funds to continue giving them access to animals and the countryside. Gloucester's City Farm was the first of its kind; there are now sixty-nine throughout the UK, of which nineteen are in London, and four in Bristol.


Before the farm was established at Tredworth, some 900 homes around the proposed site were consulted; more than 600 returned their questionnaires, of which 93% welcomed the proposals. St James City Farm was founded in order to take the countryside to the inner city, and to provide an environment and activities that are relevant to the school curriculum. But it was achieved in a climate of some political scepticism. Derek was 'summoned' by the National Farmers Union, as well as the local Rotary Club, to explain what on earth was going on.


It has all proved to be a great success. Says Derek: "It gives a real hands-on animal experience for city people, and it also establishes where food comes from". Yet there are still people who, in believing that the countryside is still sufficiently accessible to obviate the need for a city farm, fail to grasp that large numbers of city-dwelling adults do not go there, for whatever reason, and this deprives their children of its sights and sounds.


The farm is an integral part of the community hereabouts. Local residential kitchen, garden and allotment waste is composted here; the farm's manure and bedding waste is used on residential growing sites; eggs and meat products from animals are sold on site, and the children get involved in the whole life cycle, welfare and feeding regimes of all the creatures at the Farm. Do not consider that a visit to the City Farm is unnecessary if you have been to Robinswood Hill. It is an excellent example of what can be achieved in an urban environment, and small children in particular will benefit from its scale and the small animals there.


Hay meadows are the most threatened of all the natural wildlife habitats in Gloucestershire. They are a survival of the times when hay was cut in midsummer and cattle grazed the land during the autumn. By working in this way with nature, plants were able to flower and set seed, and the centuries-old process continued whereby the land supported a rich and varied collection of wild flora and fauna, as well as domestic farm animals. Within living memory, the management and working of hay meadows comprised an essential part of the farming year.


The county has since lost about ninety-five per cent of the hay meadows that it had just fifty years ago. Changes to farming practices have caused this in part: the meadows have been ploughed up, sprayed with insecticide, or re-seeded. Changes in animal husbandry have meant a devastating reduction in the number of flowering plant species supported by these grasslands. The knock-on effect of land management, housing requirements, and the construction of roads and motorways have all contributed to their decline, and modern-day fly-tippers have laid sites to waste.


The ten-acre Hucclecote Hay Meadows is one of Gloucester city's two Sites of Special Scientific Interest. It is an unimproved neutral grassland, full of wild flowers in their season, that supports some seventy-five species, and is consequently a gem of a valuable resource, and a nature trail of some significance. Even so, it is just a fraction of the medieval meadows that research shows us surrounded Hucclecote in the past, and which were foreshortened when the M5 motorway was built, and has since been built on by developers. The nature trail leading from Lobleys Drive is surrounded by industrial parks and housing estates, and, nearby, what will effectively be a new village. Hucclecote Hay Meadows is classed by Natural England as a local nature reserve, inasmuch as it is a resource for the local population to use, become involved in its management, and have a say in what happens to the sites in the future.


Just off the main Bristol Road through Gloucester, in the middle of a modern housing estate, lies the four-acre Quedgeley Nature Reserve, an extraordinarily rich sanctuary for the local community. Developers returned it to the local authority for use as a public open space, although that is something of a misnomer because this former arboretum, densely planted garden and woodland site - where the 17th-century Quedgeley House once stood adjacent - is anything but open. True, it has some small spaces, but here is a wonderful mix of arboretum and woodland above layers of shrubs and herbs, intersected by numerous little pathways. One of its treasures is an eighty-foot cedar tree.


There is a badger sett on the reserve, built to facilitate the occupants of nearby setts who were threatened by the encroaching adjacent housing developments, and which is now used by visiting badgers. The pond is a site for newts and other aquatic creatures and insects, and the area is an ideal habitat for a wide range of creatures. Great crested newts were introduced into it from Robinswood. The beauty of this reserve is its enclosed nature, which could hardly be more of a contrast to the Countryside Unit's wetlands.


Alney Island, formerly Castle Mead, is just off the A40 on the opposite side of the River Severn to Gloucester Prison, and about half a mile as the crow flies from Gloucester Cathedral. Here, the River Severn splits into two channels. It is said to have been one of the significant sites in the early, and ultimately lost, 11th-century struggle between Edmund Ironside, King of England, and the invader, Cnut. Gloucester Races were held here, on the flat riverside hams, until the early 19th century, and were revived for a while with the accompanying fairground attractions in the 1860s. A ham is a large open field, part of a flood plain, crossed by drainage ditches. In 1983, some five hundred oak trees were planted around the meadowland, including indigenous and non-native varieties; limes, willow, silver birch, ash trees and field maple have since been put in, and shallow ponds and scrapes have been installed. This area is now known as Richard's Wood, and is about 200 acres in extent.


Historically the fields were grazed by livestock, which was removed in time for the hay crop to grow, which was then cut before the animals were returned. Now, it is the largest nature reserve in Gloucester, and an important wetland habitat for fauna and flora. The site is managed in the traditional way as a wetland nature reserve, whereby cattle help to keep down the wetland vegetation during the winter, and are introduced again in the summer after the hay crop has been cut. The Countryside Unit maintains the area with a small herd of traditional Old Gloucester cows, one of which had produced a calf, just a few hours before we called.


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