The dog walkers are out in force. They step across the neatly-laid duckboards of the flood meadow, keeping their footwear clean. Mountain bikers crunch along a shingle track by the River Lea, while canal boats phut past, breaking up islets of debris.
All these users of the space around Hackney Marshes see cows grazing in an enclosed field. The tiny Black Dexter is dwarfed by a fierce-looking English Longhorn and Belted Galloways. On hot summer days, the herd lopes towards the shade of a tree by the marshy fringes of a ditch. Animated or still, these cows are a subversive feature of the Hackney landscape, pulling the eye away from the new-build riverside apartments and the platinum bulk of Canary Wharf’s tallest building on the horizon.
These cattle may be visually familiar to the many Hackney residents who enjoy the Marshes, but their purpose remains a mystery to most. Few know they’re working for a living.
On 18 July 2002, consultant ecologist Brian Wurzell was compiling a species list when he found “three tiny, immature scraps of a plant growing below a ditch-bank”. Wurzell could hardly believe what he was looking at. But he sensed that he’d just discovered Britain’s second colony of the critically endangered creeping marshwort (apium repens), previously recorded at just one other site – an Oxfordshire flood meadow.
The plant’s first-ever flowers appeared in September that year, confirming Wurzell’s identification. Creeping marshwort has four or five bracts, compared to the otherwise similar fool’s watercress, with only one. “The discovery knocked me for six,” he says.
Wurzell’s trained eye had spotted this rarity only a few frisbee throws away from the busy football fields of Hackney Marshes. In fact, this field is technically part of Walthamstow Marshes, but it’s closest for Hackney residents, and no-one I know makes the distinction. For most people, the whole open sweep of marsh is a defining edge of Hackney.
In autumn 2002, Wurzell and Lee Valley Park together drew up an emergency action plan to increase suitable habitat in the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) where the creeping marshwort grows. In March 2003, park ranger David Miller’s team re-dug the profile of a ditch close to where the plant was first found. “Behind the ditch,’” Miller explains, “we excavated a shallow slope, and then carefully scraped away soil to expose the underlying seed-bed.’”
Until about a hundred years ago, cattle were a common sight on these marshes. They were allowed to graze here between old Lammas Day on the 13th of August and Lady Day on the sixth of April.
In 2003, rare breeds of cattle were re-introduced to the marshes between late summer and December. These were an important element in achieving the second part of the habitat management plan for creeping marshwort. But at first sight, it’s not obvious how that could work.
“The cattle go for the most vigorous vegetation first,” explains Brian Wurzell. “A greater diversity of plants, especially annuals and lower-growing perennials, can now thrive in the space that would normally be choked by coarser species.” But dealing with invasive rushes and grasses is still a battle. “Vegetation needs cutting twice a year with brush-cutters, to keep the vegetation down – before the cows make an impression – and to stop the rushes from seeding”, says Miller.
David Miller defines another important role for the herd. The hollows created by their hooves enable plants to survive even when moisture conditions aren’t ideal. Theoretically, the hooves could help spread the plant.
These combined tactics are working. According to Brian Wurzell, reeping marshwort quickly started growing in “large, vigorous patches.”
But there have been a few scares. “We have an ‘old’ scrape of 50m x 20m and an extension of 20m x 20m,” David Miller tells me. “The old scrape was a bit too dry so creeping marshwort was never able to spread away from the ditch. It was extremely successful along the ditch until June last year, when a species of grass called creeping ent overwhelmed it.” As a result, he says, the rangers almost lost the colony of creeping marshwort here. “However, the scrape extension has been extremely successful so far and the creeping marshwort is thriving here,” Miller concludes.
Fortunately for creeping marshwort, nobody is in hurry to disturb its habitat by grubbing around in the corner of what looks like any other field covered in cowpats – although this one is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Indeed, if they could see this tiny plant, many would write it off as unspectacular. And the name doesn’t help. To me, this fusion of words suggests a nasty skin complaint. Poor little creeping marshwort. Why couldn’t it be called meadow star-flower instead? Pages would have been written about the discovery.
Ah, well, the British love wildlife – so long as it moves and is colourful, dangerous or cute. Creeping marshwort is none of these things, but it’s a survivor. For a couple of weeks during 2012, packed coaches will arrive on Hackney’s East Marsh. In a field, not far away, a tiny plant will continue to grow, undisturbed, uncelebrated, and overlooked. And that’s good.
Related story: Beware Hackney Marshes ‘land grab’