Clearing goat’s rue in Gutteridge Meadow

Last Friday I spent a day with London Wildlife Trust at Gutteridge Meadow, a beautiful strip of meadow sandwiched between Gutteridge Woods and the A40 with various jets taking off from RAF Northolt on the other side of the road. The wet meadow is a beautiful mix of grasses, meadow thistle and patches of bramble and dock, with Gutteridge Woods and Yeading Brook to the South.

Goat’s rue (Galega officinalis) is a ruderal species, normally colonising wasteland, but is also happy in wet meadows. A native of the Middle East, it was introduced as a forage crop and is still found in gardens (Carol Klein was getting excited about some goat’s rue on the last Gardener’s World), but it’s invasive, forming thickets which shade out other species. It’s also toxic to livestock particularly when the seed pods are young. It was therefore necessary to pull it up from the meadow before it went to seed, which would only spread it further.

The tool of choice for this job was a Lazy Dog, a hand tool specifically designed for non-chemical individual removal of invasive weeds. It also looks like what a Klingon would garden with. The basic principle is to push the fork attachment under the root ball of the plant using the footplate before levering it out using the top handles. In practice, this involved occasional tripping over sideways, swearing at bits of root that didn’t want to come out, but mostly pretty successful removal of some large patches of goat’s rue. This was like meadow surgery, trying not to tread everything else in the meadow flat at the same time.

Even when we finished for the day, there was still masses of goat’s rue left. As with the Himalayan balsam (introduced by the Victorians) lining the banks of Yeading Brook and the River Crane, you could get demoralised when there is just so much of this stuff to clear, and limited time before it goes to seed and all your work seems to have been for nothing. Even this effort though will hopefully make a difference on a local level, and there is always the option to come back with sickles and slashers, and take the tops off the plants before they set seed.

It could be worse. In Snowdonia, Rhododendron ponticum (again, thanks Victorians) has completely invaded some areas, with massive plants shading out everything else and acidifying the soil. The clearance programme there is going to take years, and starts with cutting the mature plants down with pruning saws and chainsaws, burning the branches, leaving the stumps for three to five years and then spraying the new growth with glyphosate.

Sometimes conservation seems to boil down to removing stuff that’s in the wrong place and hoping that what was there to begin with decides to come back. I blame the Victorians.