There are many issues that divide Britain. Whether we should leave or remain. Do you put the jam or cream on a scone first? But Shaftesbury opinion is split on the cow parsley question. Should it stay or should it be strimmed?
Every spring, Shaftesbury Town Clerk Claire Commons receives emails about cow parsley – the plant with distinctive white frothy flowers. “I probably get about a dozen each year, at the point when it’s flowering,” said Claire.
People’s views on cow parsley are polarised. “Half the people in Shaftesbury love it and think it’s beautiful, natural and adds to the character of the town. The other half see it as untidy and not fitting of some of the more manicured gardens that we’ve got,” Mrs Commons explained.
Claire diplomatically summed up the opposing viewpoints. “The sentiment against cow parsley is that it interferes with the view over the Blackmore Vale, when people are standing in the Rose Garden and looking at. It is a stunning view. The comments in favour are that it’s pretty,” said Claire, who added that the domesticated variety is ‘all over the Chelsea Flower Show’ this year. “It’s also a haven for wildlife,” she said.
That’s one of the reasons why bee campaigner and Open Spaces group member, Brigit Strawbridge is interested. Last Tuesday, cow parsley was on the Town Council’s agenda. Members discussed the plant’s growth beneath Park Walk and along the top of St James Park. I met Brigit at that spot and she was keen to point out the plant’s biodiversity benefits. “It is one of the only things that is still flowering at the moment for insects. Underneath the cow parsley is an ideal place for smaller mammals, for shrews and for slow worms, too,” said Brigit.
The Town Council had a cow parsley cull on this bank earlier this spring. Some residents were pleased, others were appalled. Brigit’s view was clear. She doesn’t want it to be cut back again. “There are loads of places on Park Walk where you can stand and get a view. Lots of trees have already been chopped down for the sake of views. That’s as it is but it would be a crying shame to lose this last bit of wild habitat, just for views,” Brigit said.
She has suggested designating the green space along the Jubilee Steps that lead down to St James as a form of wildlife haven. “We don’t have many wild areas in Shaftesbury. To have a designated nature reserve in St James’ Park is just a great way forward. It’s already a nature reserve, though not by name,” said Brigit.
Councillors are aware that leaving a patch of land for nature to take its course may cause some confusion. During their meeting, they discussed erecting an information board. “Instead of people thinking, ‘Oh, this is a mess and the Council haven’t dealt with it’ they will realise and understand that it has a purpose,” said Brigit. “In my experience, if you put a notice up to say why something is here, people then think ‘okay, that’s fair enough’.”
She suggested adding red campion to the cow parsley areas for a touch of colour. That idea appealed to the Town Clerk. “It would make it look more like a wildflower area. I think she’s got a good observation on that one. It would really enhance the area and make it pretty to look at and attractive, rather than this perception that it is unkempt,” said Claire.
The Town Council will now liaise with the Open Spaces group to decide how the space sloping up toward Park Walk will be managed. And that could decide the cow parsley’s fate. “It is going to ask the Open Spaces committee to work together to come up with a management plan. The tone of the conversation through that meeting was essentially they want to keep it (cow parsley) in place, but make sure that the community is informed on why it’s there, so it’s enhancing the wildlife areas,” said Claire. It is hoped that the matter will be determined by the end of summer. “Hopefully this year, but definitely next year, we will be leaving the cow parsley to thrive,” said Brigit.
Across town, another bee-friendly, wildlife-rich space is being planned. Earlier this year, Shaftesbury Town Council took ownership of a patch of land where a house once stood between St Martins Lane and Salisbury Street. Brigit and the Open Spaces group members are working with the Town Council’s grounds team on a planting schedule for the ‘Salisbury Street Green’.
“There’s a hawthorn there and a big bank. We will allow the dandelions to flower there before they’re cut back. But we’ll keep the bank area strimmed, because that’s good nesting for ground nesting-solitary bees,” Brigit says.
She added that they intend to add flowers that are useful for pollinators. “We need plants that will flower through July, August and September. One of the shrubs that we’re going to be planting, because it’s a winter flowering shrub, is mahonia. Its leaves look quite prickly, a bit like holly, but the flowers are bright yellow. It can cope with frost and snow. That’s good for any bees flying during the cold weather.”
Communication with the community is important and, as suggested for St James Park, signage will also be placed on the Salisbury Street Green so wildlife sightings and developments can be shared. “It’s a little bit like when you go to an RSPB reserve and there is a board saying what has been seen today. People write the name of the bird,” said Brigit. “We’ll make sure that we keep people updated with what has been planted throughout the year as it changes and also what we find there. We’ll do mini surveys, they are called ‘bio-blitz’, where you count how many different insects there are.”
Brigit hopes that residents will appreciate the enhanced appearance of the space. “It’s going to be prettier than it is at the moment. It’s going to be an attractive place to walk through and, I hope, an interesting place as well. We also talked about the possibility of a bench there,” she said.
Brigit believes that the Town Council has listened to environmental concerns and is making positive strides forward in how our open spaces are managed. Staff have reconsidered their use of some chemicals.
Brigit pointed out a strip of grass near a bin on Park Walk. “I know that solitary bees nest there in the ground,” she said. “And I mentioned this to the council a few years ago when we talked to them about not using glysophate-based herbicides in the town. They stopped routinely spraying weed killer around the bins and the trees. Ground-nesting bees are thriving as a direct result of them not doing that. It is really good. In my experience, the Council members do listen and take things on board. They do want to do the right things. And they are heading in the right direction to help Shaftsbury combat biodiversity loss rather than contribute to it,” said Brigit.