Around the Shropshire Hills, the golden plumes of laburnum blossoms and the curlew’s call are a lasting reminder of the ways in which people in this area have shaped the countryside, from common moorland, to enclosed pastures and meadows.
Laburnum is typically a small deciduous tree, with cascading, bright yellow flowers from the south of Europe. Around the Stiperstones, it is commonly found in hedgerows, bordering roads and dividing fields. Laburnum’s local provenance goes back to a time when the miners were settling in haphazard squatter settlements all over the commonly owned moorland in the late 1800s. This was when the lead mines at The Bog and Snailbeach were at their most productive. It is said that the miners had permission to build their dwellings on the commons, provided that they could build a house and have smoke billowing from the chimney by nightfall. As these little cottages started to spring up, and communities were forming, people became eager to mark out their land’s boundary. Rumour has it that the amount of land a household could claim was determined by standing at each corner of the house and throwing an axe as far as possible. Anything that fell within these limits could be enclosed.
When these parcels of land were being hedged, it appears that the plant of choice was Laburnum anagyroides, or common laburnum. It is well suited to being a hedging plant, and takes well to being cropped into dense, low rows. However, it does have one downside, it is highly toxic to livestock, making it an odd choice to contain the animals used to support these small holdings.
Many reasons for this choice have been posited. The wood of the laburnum tree is particularly desirable, being a suitable alternative to ebony, however, if these trees were being grown for timber, a hedge would not achieve the best results. Another suggestion is that laburnum was planted for its decorative properties. The sunshine yellow blooms being a welcoming sight to miners after a long shift working in the deep, dark mines. To me, none of these suggestions provide a strong enough value to counteract the significant risk of poisoning livestock, an essential source of food for these remote communities.
In my opinion, the strongest answer to this apparently strange choice lies, as with many things, with the human race’s penchant for narcotics. The miners would chew the beans of this toxic plant, which contain chemicals analogous to the nicotine found in tobacco. Despite the unpleasant side-effects, this particular vice became extremely popular among those working long hours in deep, poorly ventilated tunnels, where smoking was not an option.
Within these laburnum boundaries, the moor was being systematically removed, causing big changes to the communities of plants and animals. Butterflies such as the Orange-tip and the Small Tortoiseshell moved from the upland heaths to the new hay meadows. Kestrels and Barn Owls started hunting the small rodents drawn to spilt grain and animal food. Ground nesting birds such as Skylarks and Curlew began to leave the moorland and nest in the pastures, where they could hide as the grass grew long. The species that couldn’t adapt to the changing land use, such as the Bilberry Bumblebee, became increasingly uncommon.
This settlement of people on previously unsettled land put humans and nature in direct contact. Some species flourished, and some suffered, but this changed when the mines started to empty. At the turn of the 20th century the mines at Snailbeach and The Bog were slowing down in production, and this meant that the communities that had built up in the area had to look for other work. For most people this meant farming. The slow-paced small holdings transformed into commercial farms. Increased pressure from consumers and government, for more food at lower prices, in the wake of the Second World War meant increasing intensification, which was bad news for nature. Even those species that had managed to flourish in the miner’s subsistence farms were now under threat from large machinery, pesticides and changing farming practices.
It is in the aftermath of all of these changes that we now sit. Looking out over the Shropshire Hills with concern for our natural world. The ground nesting birds, such as Curlew are disappearing, and the laburnum hedges are a beautiful, yet stark reminder of the mistakes and the successes that have led to this point.
**Warning – All parts of the laburnum tree are highly toxic and have been associated with many hospital admissions. If you or someone you know has consumed any part of the laburnum tree, seek medical assistance immediately.**