In case you thought tidy gardeners were the best gardeners, think again. A serious dose of "untidiness" in Dulwich Park has produced a small explosion of butterflies and moths, feeding and living off plants most horticulturalists do their best to eradicate - nettles, bramble, dock and, of course, long grass.
Visitors to the park over spring and summer may have noticed that much of the perimeter has developed into a de facto "countryside walk", the path weaving its way through ever-denser stands of greenery. This was the result of pressure from the Dulwich Society and Dulwich Park Friends, who in April persuaded Southwark park managers to leave an unmown strip of up to 8-10 metres around the perimeter. Areas planted with spring bulbs were also left uncut, except for well-defined mown "rides". To its credit, Southwark, in the shape of Andy Chatterton, who is responsible for park maintenance issues, readily agreed.
The aim was to increase biodiversity, make the park more wildlife-friendly and also give parts of it a more countryside feel - which is, after all, what parks are supposed to provide. But it all happened much faster than anticipated. By early July, when the Wildlife Committee held a butterfly walk in the park - itself a hostage to fortune since butterflies find most urban parks sterile terrain - the number of species present took even Malcolm Bridge, who led the walk, by surprise.
Species sighted on the July 10 walk included holly blue, meadow brown, gatekeeper, comma, speckled wood as well as three types of whites, not least the pretty green-veined white. Malcolm, who is Surrey recorder for Butterfly Conservation and has been monitoring the park since the change of management in the spring, says there are now 16 species present - double the number a sterile grassland-only park such as Crystal Palace would contain. The lack of mowing has made an "amazing, enormous difference," he adds.
In fact, as he points out, the perimeter of the park, as can be judged by the names of the butterflies above, has turned into a mixture of woodland edge and meadow - both rich habitats for wildlife. If you add the adjoining playing fields and also the big gardens next door to the park fence - far enough from the houses and their resident horticulturists to have benefited from some productive neglect - an impromptu nature reserve of up to five acres may, in effect, have been created.
The walk itself, irrespective of butterflies, now provides a rich and distinctive landscape experience - with wonderful displays of cow parsley in spring and some impressive stands of nettle and longer grass later on. Some of those who came on the walk, despite being regular park visitors, had no idea it was there - which, before this year of course, it wasn't, in quite such form.
The park also contains two other notable species - the purple hairstreak butterfly and the horse chestnut leaf miner moth. The latter was first "discovered " by scientists in Macedonia in 1987, arrived in the UK - at Wimbledon Common in 2001 - and is now busy tunnelling its way through the horse chestnuts of Dulwich. Look at most eye-level horse chestnut leaves in the park and you will see the telltale brown blotches of its presence.
The purple hairstreak lives in the canopy of oaks but needs long grass below the oaks for its caterpillars to survive. The Society and DPF have asked Southwark to leave unmown "collars" below larger trees around the periphery and also want the perimeter left uncut this year. In parks as in gardens, it seems, less - at least in terms of how much time you spend interfering with nature - is often more.
David Nicholson-Lord (Wildlife Committee)