Half a Year at Hollow Marsh

Hanne Larsson

(UK)


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What can the arrival of three semi-wild ponies to a splinter of Somerset show us about the need to slow down, smell the hayfields and just listen to something other than ourselves?

*****

I am completely turned around, the hedge-lined fields filled with wheat, clover, cows and sheep make no sense on my OS map and I’m convinced the hay meadow I’m meant to be finding is in fact marked as woodland filled with blackbird song.

‘Mark? Hi, yes. I’m here but there’s definitely no horses in this field. Oh, through the woods? Yes, I think I hear, well, someone at any rate.’

My first glimpse of Hollow Marsh Meadow Nature Reserve is therefore rushed and glimpsing as Mark, another Somerset Wildlife Trust volunteer, and I say our hellos and start looking for the ponies. 

I volunteered because I love horses, Mark because he’s freshly retired. Our brief is to check on the three grazers once a day and report back to our volunteer leader. There’s one of us for each day of the week. We’ve agreed to meet so I can show Mark what he should be checking them for, him freely joking he doesn’t know one end from the other. 

Three heads pop up from their breakfast as we approach. We’re studied by two mares (Bella and Hattie) and a gelding (Buzz), the gelding covered in a fly rug. I give Mark the run-down on checking for limps, wounds, each movement to be unhurried and calm around them, with my one stark warning to never stand behind any horse. I know that lesson only too well. 

Once he’s a little bit clearer about how a horse works, we say our goodbyes – he’s doing Wednesdays, and me Mondays.

The meadow is in full hum on this late June morning, the weather forecasters warning of a heat wave over the next few days as the year slips into July. Down a lane, through clover fields and a woodland edge, we’re firmly off the road here, the drone from the A37 replaced by fly-flittering and bee-buzzing. Constant and comforting, and a hint of just how loud nature can be if we only stop to enjoy it. 

Introducing myself, I tell the horses of the heatwave but they don’t seem bothered, the pulling of grass through their teeth non-stop. I’m already old news, having not brought anything tasty with me. But we volunteers have strict instructions; they will get what they need from the land.

Weeks pass. Our group messages are mostly filled with ‘they’re fine’, some photos, random questions, all quickly read and resolved. The sun turns everything hazy, everyone sluggish.

Their second field is cut, the yellow rattle seeds long fallen to the ground, ready to be trampled in for next year. Now that the flowers are brown instead of purple or blue or red, including the spotted orchids long wilted, through the gate they trundle, ready for their munching.

These meadows are a vanishing habitat – ecologists call these unimproved neutral meadows. Unimproved because no one is fertilising them to encourage more grass, or intensively grazing them. Neutral because the soil is just that – neither too acidic nor too alkaline.  Bland names masking how rich the native flora can be, and what that supports in the form of bees, grasshoppers, butterflies, beetles, ladybirds, dragonflies, and others. How lovely this mosaic smells when the sun has warmed it through. How noisy our modern lives are, yet the meadow noise manages to reset something in my brain. The meadows invite, and then lull us.

Our first real test comes in the form of the stream – the ponies’ only water source and dropping rapidly. 

I turn up earlier and earlier on my allotted Monday as the heat drags on, the nettles growing more potent, the grass shrivelling, the brambles snaking and latching on to clothing through each stile and gate. We begin to worry about whether our trio of charges will have anything to eat if this carries on.

Elsewhere the country dusts over completely, but here in our corner of Somerset, we are still blessed with hints of green.

Our volunteer coordinator is warned of the stream levels – a trough dragged in on a trailer, water sourced from somewhere. They seem non-plussed, Buzz still avoiding all human contact but Bella and Hattie now coming for a head scratch, ear scratch and cuddle. We are learning what works for each other, as the season unfolds.

Brief rain respite rolls in, then the second heatwave hits in August. The ground with its memory of wetter times cracks deeper still, dislodging old hoofprints, creating islands from grass tufts. The hay meadow looks like it could catch on fire at any moment and all the little rain has managed to do is remind us how humid things get when heat and water combine.

The ponies hide under the trees when the meadow’s whites and yellows flower-shift to purples, tails lazily flashing the incessant flies. But even the buzzing and birdsong seem muted, with the leaves on trees shrinking into orange hues, dropping like it’s early autumn. Pretty, but the beauty is worrying; this is stress and not normal. 

As the weeks lengthen into months, I reflect on these two small meadow slivers when the humming changes and the birdsong mutes. 

Spending time in them becomes more than a tick-box exercise for the ponies’ health, it becomes a way to unwind, the word ecology takes on a new meaning, not just the study of house but a place of home.

The weather breaks in September, and with the downpours come a burst of grass growth almost overnight. Fresh, quick, green stretches up towards the heavens. The group message chats ping alarmingly one morning when Bella won’t get up. A vet is called, colic suspected, and from behind mobile screens we all wait for the verdict.

She recovers spontaneously, though many other horses normally don’t. I was always told that a horse needed to keep moving – a bit like you would burp a baby, I presume. 

The landscape changes – fields harvested, the sheep moved around to graze other fields. Temporary fencing cuts off footpaths so farmers can do what they need to, us traipsing across their spaces in ever longer detours. There’s the constant weekly lottery over whether I’ll be chased by a cow with some herds more docile than others. You choose your route carefully, fingers crossed. Always prepared to retreat. 

Buzz still turns his whole body away in protest if I get too close, ears flattened, his subtext clear: humans are not to be trusted. Hattie remains untroubled by her two companions – happiest on her own.

And then just like that, autumn arrives. I notice it more in the daylight (lack of) than in the temperature. The grass-dew infiltrates my shoes slightly earlier in my walk every week; I catch the morning cries of tawny owls and young buzzards calling on the wing, demanding food, announcing their claims to territories. The trees were already wilting from the heatwaves, but now there’s ripened fruit and fungi flooding the nostrils. The blackberries, where they survived, look spectacular – shiny, round baubles of purple juice that taste denser than other years. 

As the clay soil wets once more, I slip over multiple ways when visiting the ponies, dragging clods of mud back on heels, my feet heavier than when I began. I find a glorious black-shimmering hedge, and come home late one morning with three kilos of them, the kitchen smelling of hedgerow, then jam and crumbles. 

With autumn comes the realisation that the ponies will be leaving Hollow Marsh for their winter home on Exmoor soon. 

A date in October is floated, then moved into November. The balance between controlling the grass growth and dropping temperatures in our minds. Their coats grow thicker – winter is coming. We all begin to say our goodbyes. My efforts to give Buzz a cuddle remains unsuccessful as he continues in his role as Mr Grump.

Until my penultimate visit. 

I find Buzz deep under a tree, muzzle delicately trying to avoid brambles, too absorbed in his hunt for something to notice me.

I study him for a while but he remains oblivious, his chin wobbling as his teeth try to nibble at something. It takes me a moment to realise he’s after the wild apples on the ground, so I help him out by grabbing as many as I can, feeding him a few, grabbing a cuddle in passing. 

He follows me as I find the others, my pockets bulging with small round delights. 

And suddenly, he’s become a different pony altogether. I speed up, trying to reach the other two in the second field for appley-treats before he nibbles through my coat pockets or accidentally grabs my fingers. He’s at a proper lick as I realise my window for getting the other two any apples is rapidly diminishing by Buzz’ insatiable appetite. But I don’t run because I know I would never win if he starts to chase me. 

Who knew the way to the sullen boy’s heart was with fallen apples? And I refuse to feel guilty – our instructions were clear – the land will give them what they eat.

And so it has. 

And next year there will be other ponies to get to know and welcome home.

Hanne Larsson

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Hanne is a Swede who longs for her childhood’s 95% humidity and hawker centre food. Her stories are fed by moss-covered rock-trolls and what-if scenarios; her non-fiction by nature and what places do to people and they to them. She’s currently finishing up an MA in nature & travel writing.

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