Bluebells, Cliff Ridge Wood

Ever since seeing the first blue buds appear three or four weeks ago I have been waiting patiently for the purple haze. I feel sure the bluebells in Newton and Cliff Riidge Woods are late this year. Maybe the recent cold spell has set them back a bit. At least when it does come it will be free, not like at Ashridge, another of National Trust’s many properties where you now have to pay to view the spectacular blue carpets.

The reason the National Trust have given for introducing the charge is to pay for extra rangers because the “bluebells are being trampled and the ground is being compacted”. They are a pretty sight but we must remember that great swathes of bluebells are not really a natural sight. Bluebells have evolved to withstand trampling and grazing by large herbivores such aurochs, elk and red deer. The large carpets that are common today are the result of removal of these animals so it could be argued that a bluebell wood is what the scientists call a plagioclimax habitat. That is an ecosystem in which the influence of the humans prevents it from developing further. But then there are not many habitats which are not influenced by man.

It is a common belief amongst gardeners that deer do not eat Bluebells but research by the Forestry Commission has shown that deer do in fact have an impact on woodland biodiversity with tree and understorey species both being vulnerable to browsing including bluebells. Muntjac deer, themselves an introduced species,  have a particular predilection for the little blue flowers.

Bluebells are a species of deciduous woodland, blooming early before the tree canopy shades out the wood floor. Two species are found in the British Isles. The Common Bluebell is native whereas the paler Spanish Bluebell is an introduced species. The two hybridise readily and produce fertile offspring leaving our native Common Bluebell at risk. For this reason it is protected a  under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 making it a criminal offence to remove any wild bulbs.

In folk medicine the bulbs of bluebells have been used as a diuretic or styptic to stop bleeding and as a remedy for leucorrhoea.

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