Campaign Diary: A Resolutely Modern Prairie | Wild flowers

BBetween the Shropshire Union Canal and Chester Zoo car park, what was once an ‘improved grassland’ slope has undergone a transformation. Less than three years ago, I saw this piece of land laid bare; now I run my hand through knee-high grass interwoven with wildflowers. It is a temporal anomaly, a habitat both new and old.

This alteration of time and space is the work of Chester Zoobiodiversity manager Sarah Bird and her colleagues, who manage the nine hectares of open-access land nature reserve on his domain. They want to go back in time until industrialized agriculture covered the land with fodder and welcomed wildlife back.

To begin restoration, topsoil was removed and the site was harrowed. Perennial wildflower seeds were purchased from a local specialty charity (now defunct) and scattered in the dry spring of 2017. Bales of green hay from the Kipper’s Field meadow in Flintshire have also been deployed across the site to provide a boost.

Today, the resulting prairie is largely a wash of neutral tones, buff grasses and seed heads left to rust, with livelier notes provided by bird’s-foot clover. The acid headlights of the ladies’ bedstraw go out, while the turrets of common knapweed rise, their violet crowns studded with bumblebees.

Following recent storms, the mowed path is strewn with slugs and squelchy in places. Water flows down the slope to an unlined pond, replenished by rain and patrolled by a broad-bodied hunter dragonfly. The swallows that grazed me last month are nowhere to be found, but I hear reed buntings and reed warblers beyond the edge of the hedge. Under the cool breezes, the summer heat remains, and the sheltered northeast corner of the prairie is a paradise for butterflies: common blues, lesser coppers and guardians.

Did the early country columnist Thomas loose recognize this as a landscape of his youth? I couldn’t find anything comparable in the archives. This modern prairie is so closely monitored and managed that it may never be a true wilderness gateway to the past. Instead, I hope it can help us move forward, shaped by the best of what has come before.

Chris B. Hall