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  • Julie Muller

CROFT CASTLE - Parkland Trees And River Treasures

nearest post code HR6 9PW

Two sheepdogs resting on the grass in front of a line of twisted veteran chestnut trees on the Croft Estate in Herefordshire
Bruno and Shep sitting beneath the veteran chestnut trees in Croft Park

When we visited Croft Castle, it was a particularly busy Bank holiday weekend. The car park seemed replete with motor vehicles of all shapes and sizes and a similar diversity of humans milled about, either preparing for their visit or recovering from their exertions.

Bruno and I were glad to escape the throngs of people and head off on our walk. Our humans had decided to tackle the most challenging walk that Croft had to offer – The Poke House Wood Walk - and, as it was later in the afternoon, we knew that we had to get a move on.

The firm track at the start of our walk was warm to our paws but soon we emerged on to gently upward sloping grassland resplendent with an avenue of immense veteran chestnut trees. Their gnarled twisted branches scraped the ground resembling trolls walking on their knuckles. It is said that these trees grew from chestnuts gathered from the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon and planted in the formation of the Spanish fleet, whilst a field nearby

boasts a similar formation of ancient English oaks depicting the opposing British victors.

Today the trees had not yet broken bud and so these giants looked even more impressive, and I couldn’t resist seeking out the rainwater which had collected in the hollows and nooks at their ‘feet’. It seemed almost disrespectful to jump and play beneath them, so we trotted up the hill. Lots of dogs and their humans were coming the other way.

A tricoloured sheep dog sits amongst the wild flowers in the woods on the Croft Estate in Herefordshire
Shep resting in the woods on the Croft Estate in Herefordshire

Soon we turned down a long wide track alongside which a plethora of wildflowers were growing. Further away from the track, the flowers gave way to small shrubs and larch trees with branches dripping with new fresh green needles. - the only coniferous tree to lose their needles in the autumn. Behind them stood ranks of tall dark green conifers which were planted as a cash crop because they grow so tall so quickly. However, this came at the expense of the more natural wildlife-rich wood pasture and now the National Trust rangers are working very hard to return the woodland to how it once was. Amongst the shrubs, we could see the skeletons of a few very old sentinel trees which once formed part of this very special habitat.

As we continued our walk, we noticed many more areas where the older trees had been hewn and new saplings, sourced from elsewhere on the estate, planted in their place. These sported strong plastic tree guards to protect them against the fallow deer that roam freely. We actually caught one of them staring at us! Each of the trees is planted separately to each other so that their branches can spread out in all directions. Trees grown in this way live much longer than woodland grown trees and have the potential to become the ancient sentinel trees of the future providing niches for a vast array of wildlife for centuries to come. Even when they die, they will continue to support life – roosts for birds and bats, food sources and homes for rare beetles and other invertebrates as well as sustaining a multitude of fungi.

We noticed that already there were wildflowers pushing their way up through the bare soil, and these are just an indication of the beauty to come in future years.

When the trees are more mature, and the pastureland established then cattle will be brought in to act as caretakers to maintain the correct balance in this wood pasture habitat.

We soon left the wide surfaced track behind us and headed into the woods. Here the ground was carpeted in a ‘mosaic of wildflowers – blue bluebells, yellow celandine, lemon primroses, and drifts of white wild garlic and wood anemone, the scents of which were so intoxicating that it made our noses twitch. Of course, Bruno as usual was more interested in less pleasant smells – it is astounding how many disgusting things that he seems to be attracted to. We skipped over the many tree roots that snaked their way across our path. Some of the younger shorter trees were already starting to unfurl their leaves and it was relaxing to walk under their gentle green shade.

The soft surfaced path dipped down steeply towards the river. We could hear the gush of the River Lugg as it raced past, and I could almost smell the water. It made me feel so thirsty and I desperately wanted to get to the water’s edge. This was easier said than done. Often the bank was just too steep or the water current too strong. Finally, I got my chance and I plunged into the delicious cold water, lapping at the surface as I swam. As usual Bruno bounced along the edge of the water – desperate to join in but ever so slightly scared.

Two damp sheepdogs sit on the banks of the River Lugg with the fresh foliaged trees behind
Bruno and Shep sit on the banks of the river Lugg

I didn’t stay in very long – Julie didn’t want me to disturb the locals. It is all too easy to cause damage without realising it.

The River Lugg is a tributary of the River Wye and is recognised as a Site of Special Scientific interest for a whole variety of reasons. It starts its 45-mile journey on Pool Hill in Powys amongst peaty heather and moorland sedges and joins the river Wye at Mordiford – just 6 miles downstream of Hereford. Its route passes through moorland and farmland and its water collect nutrients on its way and so supports different communities of plants and animals. It is a largely unpolluted river and supports a healthy otter population.

Even more exciting are the different species of fish that are now found living here – many of which were once denied access to these waters by man-made obstructions such as weirs. Over the last few years fish passes have been built which bypass these obstructions and allow migratory fish such as Atlantic salmon and brown trout to swim and spawn further upstream. There are lots of other fish in the water too including pike, eel, and lamprey feasting on each other and/ or the diversity of invertebrates and insect larvae. One of the invertebrates that live here are the white clawed cray fish. These amazing animals which can live in very shallow water look like miniature lobsters and are under great threat from other species of Crayfish which have been introduced into the river systems by humans often as a food source. Sadly, they out compete the native crayfish and they also carry an infection – Crayfish plague – which has decimated the white clawed crayfish populations. The introduced species are immune to it!!

I was reluctant to leave the river, but we were only half way through our walk and the time was getting on.

Back on the track, the air was busy with aerial insects. Dragonflies and damselflies flew purposefully past us on the hunt for food and an assortment of white, peacock and blue butterflies flitted around, alighted on the path in front of us only to take off again just as Bruno caught up with them. – a good if frustrating game – it kept him out of trouble!!

We climbed up the steep slope away from the river through the trees and up to the fields ahead. A herd of cattle were munching contentedly - we gave them as wide a berth as we could. Soon we were walking in the woods again. I think that this part of the estate is called Poke House Wood probably named after a mischievous sprite who is charged with spiriting away helpless maidens walking in the woods after sunset. A local resident was said to be so concerned at the disappearance of these young women that he donated money for the purchase of a church bell which was tolled at sunset so as to warn people to vacate the woods.

As we trotted on, we were surprised to see a number of upturned black beetles waving all six of their limbs in the air. It was almost as if they had gone into head-to-head combat with each other but had all been knocked off balance. Naturally Julie and Antony righted them and sent them on their way. Meanwhile tree stump tables littered with pine husks evidenced a squirrel’s recent repast. So much activity going on under our noses. We just need to stop for long enough to notice it.

These old oak trees have witnessed huge change in human fortunes too. It was here at Mortimer’s Cross that the decisive battle between the houses of Lancaster and York was won by Edward, Duke of York with Sir Richard Croft at his side. Sir Richard’s loyalty was rewarded. He became the King’s confidante, and his wife Eleonor became governess to the two princes who were later imprisoned in the tower by their evil uncle Richard III. Later the family were stewards to Henry VII’s son Arthur when he and his wife Katharine of Aragon resided at Ludlow Castle. In fact, thirty generations of the Croft family have lived here for a thousand years -tweaking the appearance of their home to suit themselves – apart from a 170-year period when their speculations in the slave trade went disastrously awry. All of this can be discovered on the Croft Castle’s National Trust website.

Our walk was coming to an end. We had experienced and seen so much more in a comparatively short time.

But, what’s more – there is still so much to be discovered and we can’t wait to visit the estate again

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