Amberley, West Sussex, February 2023
The light was low over the Arun valley. To the south the Sussex coast was a band of grey concrete, the horizon between sky and sea broken only by the pale sticks of the offshore wind farms. The Isle of Wight rested out at sea to the west like a great sleeping sloth.
The Arun’s floodplain had traces of silver, the remains of January floods. The rain had gone quiet in recent weeks, and so the wetlands were receding back to the river.
The birds were quiet, too. Every now and then a small flock broke and reformed in leafless branches, possibly linnets, goldfinches, chaffinches, it was hard to tell. A red kite followed the crests of the Downs for much of the seven I walked along the South Downs Way that day.
When I first turned off the main road onto the trail, I saw a couple planting out the fresh green leaves of cherry laurel, no doubt to screen their farmland. I gasped but said nothing. They worked at speed, focused intently on their planting.
Cherry laurel is one of the most invasive and ecologically destructive shop-bought species in the UK. I’ve spent much of my recent working life removing it from oak woods. I firmly believe it should be banned from sale. Holly and yew do just as good a job as screening hedges and are nowhere near as destructive. England’s most ecologically rich and diverse woodlands are usually oak, a tree that loses out every single time to cherry laurel. It can also become established in downlands, of which the South Downs are famous.
A couple of weeks ago I was working with a group of volunteers pulling cherry laurel saplings from an ancient oak woodland that holds a diversity of broad-leaved tree species, namely: oak, ash, wych elm, hazel, holly, yew, field maple, hawthorn, guelder rose, and more. Where cherry laurel has become established in this woodland, all of these species would disappear without intervention. So the task was very clear – remove the self-seeded laurel saplings before they become established and reduce the woodland to a monoculture of one species.
That is the fundamental issue with monocultures of invasive species: the diversity of plants, fungi and animals dies out. That is bad for everyone and everything, even laurel eventually.
This is a tree that originates in the Balkans and is available in most garden centres as a quick-growing, glossy evergreen to create a screen in a garden. It’s also toxic.
Of course there are many species which have toxic chemicals in them, and humans are experts at introducing them to the environment, but I’ve personally felt the impact of laurel’s toxicity.
Some years ago I somehow got a very small laurel splinter into the vein in my wrist. The following day my wrist swelled-up and a line appeared down the middle-underside of my forearm from the site of the splinter. I went to the accident and emergency and was forwarded through to a care unit where they injected my hand with antibiotics and took several tests, including an ECG. They puzzled over the issue and sent me home with a prescription of more antibiotics. Laurel wasn’t even on their register of toxic plants on that December day in 2017. The infection dropped away after the NHS’s treatment and a few weeks later a miniscule, redundant piece of laurel splinter appeared from my wrist.
Cherry laurel contains cyanide in its leaves and is used by entomologists, or so I’ve heard, to create kill jars for trapping invertebrates. That said, yew is of course also toxic, and the cherry family (which laurel resides in) holds cyanide as a defence mechanism in many of its relatives. The laurel is just doing what’s in its nature, its our role in spreading it to places where it causes harm that is an issue.
Along the South Downs Way, there was much better news. For miles I observed a trench dug into a farmer’s field and saplings of hawthorn and other native hedgerow species planted. This new hedgerow spread for several miles, an incredible contribution from the farmer, or perhaps volunteers who had been involved. Britain has lost 50% of its native mixed hedgerows since the Second World War and, in a landscape home to declining farmland birds like corn bunting and yellowhammer, this new habitat will make a huge difference.
In this case, the difference will be a positive one.
Thanks for reading.