Backlighting

Backlit Spider

Backlit Spider

I confess to a weakness for backlit photos, as I just feel that backlighting, or at least light that is coming obliquely from behind, really brings out something mystical and magical about the subjects.  This weekend we were blessed with the most fantastic light for photography, with the autumn light coming in at a low angle and making the insects and plants shine in a way that it does not during the high summer.

Backlit Spider

Backlit Spider

Speckled Wood

Speckled Wood

Speckled Wood

Speckled Wood

I set out deciding to focus on this light and took some photos around our woods.  There has been something of a late summer revival in the weather, and it was very warm, with late speckled wood butterflies, large whites, brimstones and common blues on the wing, as well as emperor dragonflies, southern hawkers, common hawkers, brown hawkers and lots of common darters still basking and hunting around our meadows and ponds.

One particularly special moment came while I was photographing a lovely little spider, and a common darter dragonfly actually came down and landed on my hand.  I managed to move my hand and take one picture before it flew away.

Perched on my hand

Perched on my hand – a common darter dragonfly

Backlighting is special, although you need to make some adjustments to exposure or you end up with a silhouette – I use the exposure compensation setting to over-expose the pictures relative to the metred value, keeping the camera in aperture-priority mode to give me control of depth of field.  Sometimes you need to over-expose by more than you think!

Autumn is very fast approaching, but for the moment, there is still the opportunity to take some summery photos, and I was grateful for the light at the weekend to help me capture these backlit images.

Common darter

Common darter

Common darter

Common darter

 

Haymaking – the Video

I’ve already blogged about this, with still photos, but we have now edited and condensed 6 days of hard work into just 6 minutes of video.  I shot the video with my small camera (EOS 100D) because I was working most of the time, and could therefore only carry a small camera.  It does show the process of haymaking to encourage wildflowers.  This was our first ever attempt and we would love to thank all our friends who made it possible.

Hay-making Part 1

Mowing the hay

Mowing the hay

Haymaking.  Something we have never done before.  So why are we doing it now?  And what does it involve?

We have been trying to get wildflower meadows established in the clearing at Alvecote Wood, as well as in three large meadows that will remain wildflower meadows when Betty’s Wood has grown up around them.  It is not as easy as you might think.  It isn’t just a question of chucking down a bit of seed and ending up with a beautiful wildflower meadow.  The problem is with the soil fertility.  The clearing at Alvecote Wood was for years used for animal grazing, and is highly fertile.  Betty’s Wood was, until 2010, an arable field that was regularly fertilised for the benefit of the crop.

Spreading the Hay

Spreading the Hay to help it dry.

The problem is that fertile ground promotes the growth of grass at the expense of wild flowers with the end result that they are crowded out by tall grass.  There are a few things you can do.  One of them is to plant yellow rattle in the wildflower seed mix.  This is a semi-parasitic plant that feeds on grass, stunting its growth and allowing wildflowers to grow.  We have done this, but the growth so far is patchy, which results in some areas showing good wildflower growth and others being overwhelmed by grass.

In 2011, the first year of our meadows, we had hardly any growth because of the drought.  So we just used our mulching mower to take out the top, and this didn’t cause a problem.  Last year, however, the rain gave very lush growth.  The problem is that access for contractors to our meadows is poor, modern equipment being too big to pass through the mature woods on the way to the fields, and the meadows are too small by modern standards (about 3/4 acre to 1 1/2 acres each) for modern equipment to cope with.  We ended up having to use the mulching mower because we simply couldn’t find anybody who could mow and bale for us and in places this year the meadows suffered for it, showing lush grass growth but relatively poor wildflower growth in some places.  We had clearly reached a fertility tipping point and this year it was critical that we got the hay mowed, and took the cuttings off, since this means the hay doesn’t rot down and return the fertility to the soil.  Between the trees, we are leaving a mulch as this helps the trees to grow, but in the meadows, we need to reduce fertility to suppress grass and encourage wild flowers.

Inevitably this meant a trip to eBay for the equipment, and even then, we needed stuff that our old tractor could cope with.  Eventually we came up with the goods, and after taking a punt on a non-working mower that was due to be scrapped, we managed to get it working again, and set about haymaking.

Spreading the Hay

Spreading the Hay to help it dry

But how to do it?  A lot of modern haymaking is almost all grass, in big fields, creating large round bales that can be used for animal feed.  This is often done relatively early in the year so that animals can then graze the stubble.  Wildflower hay is different – it needs to be made after the wildflowers have set seed, and after the butterflies and moths have finished using it, and the birds have finished nesting there.  In short, in late August, rather than June or July.  We also needed to produce square bales for sale as horse feed, as this is more convenient for the smaller user of hay and were fortunate to find a suitable small square baling machine.  We sought as much advice as we could from farmers old and young, and read all the manuals, watched YouTube videos, and prepared as well as we could.

But when it came to it, we were on our own.  We decided with a good weather forecast this week, only an outside chance of a shower, we should get on with it.

Wind rows

Wind rows – what the mower produces on first cut.

First of all, we used the drum mower to cut the hay.  We were amazed at the lovely close cut that you got, and thankful that our slow old tractor gave time for the voles to get out of the way.  The hay was all gathered up into lovely wind-rows, but we needed to get it properly dry.  For this we used the hay-bob.  This has two settings – spreading, and collecting.  We used it to throw the hay up into the air, scatter it over the ground, and aerate it, promoting good drying.  We will need to do this for one or two more days before baling.  That is another skill we need to learn!

What the photos can’t show you is the absolutely astounding and beautiful scent of wildflower hay.  It is warm and sweet, and I can honestly see why animals love wildflower hay.  It has a completely different smell to grass, which can smell a little bit bitter.  I carry the scent home with me in my nostrils, although some of it is down to the bits of hay left in my hair too, after a morning in the fields.

We are using a hand rake to bring the hay in from the edges close to the trees, so it all dries properly and can be collected.  We hope we will end up with lots of lovely sweet, dry bales that we can sell to offset the costs of making them.  It is really exciting.  Our first hay-making!  All we need now is lots of people to help us stack the bales and get them under cover once they are made.   I’m sure there will be lots of help.  At the end of the day, this is about the wildlife and making our meadows as diverse and rich as possible to benefit the flowers, and those creatures that depend upon them.

Part Two should feature baling, weather permitting!

Insects on display

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

This weekend, the insects have been out again in great numbers.  Interestingly, both the butterflies and the dragonflies have taken to perching high up in the grass, or on available posts, canes, sticks and tables and seem to be on display.  Common blue butterflies are often difficult to photograph because they sit so low in the grass, or on low plants such as birdsfoot trefoil, and by the time you have got down there to get a decent view they have long-since flown away (at least if your knees are as bad as mine).

But this weekend they have been shining like lovely little jewels at the top of the stems of grass.  Choosing a sheltered part of the meadow, but with plenty of scope for their pheromones to blow downwind to attract the females, the males have been sitting, rubbing their wings, at the convenient (for photographers) height of about 2-3 feet.  Getting decent shots has not been terribly easy because of the breezy conditions, but there were just a few occasions when the light was perfect, and I managed to capture some more of these little jewel-like creatures.

We have also had a great display by the common darters, usually males but a few females.  These dragonflies like to perch at the top of something, and they are making full use of the bamboo canes we put into the ground to support self-seeded oak and birch trees around the margins of Betty’s Wood.  Not the most picturesque background, but for the most part they are quiet, using their wings like a veil, sitting and waiting, each claiming the territory around their own perch.

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Finally, a few sightings of the emerald damselfly, which seemed to be totally missing last year, but are present in numbers again this year.  We also spotted some new-generation brimstones feeding around our ponds on the purple loosestrife.  We hope the numbers will swell in future thanks to the alder buckthorn we have planted for their caterpillars.  The spectacular small copper butterfly has also made an appearance, feeding on the thistles around the field margin.  These are such beautiful little butterflies, but also very fast-moving, however I managed to get a few snaps of one.

Small Copper

Small Copper

Brimstone

Brimstone

Emerald Damselfly

Emerald Damselfly

This year seems to have been brilliant for butterflies and dragonflies, and they are certainly on display at the moment.  They needed a good year after the last two have been so difficult for them.

Common Blue – Jewels of the Grass

Common Blue

Common Blue

I’ve always thought that “Common Blue” is not the right name.  This butterfly is an absolute jewel.  It isn’t all that common either – widespread, maybe, but numbers have suffered in recent years.  The Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus) is just beautiful as it flits along the meadows, verges and wastelands in search of both nectar sources and foodplants for caterpillars – plants which include birdsfoot trefoil, white clover, black medick, thistles and knapweed, all of which we have in plentiful numbers in Betty’s Wood, as well as in our main clearing in the ancient wood.

They have more than one generation a year.  Last year was poor for Common Blues, and we only spotted one or two of the first generation in our meadow.  Thankfully, the second generation has now emerged in good numbers.  The second generation, in particular, is spectacular.  I think this is because of the contrast of colours:  the yellows, browns, oranges of the drying and maturing grass and seeds and that stunning flash of blue from the wings of the male.  Complementary colours really do their best to set each other off.

The upper wings are beautiful, but I think the lovely little dainty spotted underwings with their flash of orange are the real treat.  Last night, all the male Common Blues had gathered in a small part of the meadow, in an area sheltered from the wind and catching the evening sunshine.  They were perched head-down, in typical fashion, high up on the grass stems and rubbing their wings to release the pheromones, presumably to attract the ladies.  I didn’t see any females, just 8 to 10 males sitting within a few feet of each other at the top of the grass.

I managed to catch a number of photos of these stunning little jewels of the grass.  I hope this lovely little butterfly will carry on coming to our meadow for many years to come – we are certainly doing all we can to encourage it.  It is a real pleasure and delight to behold.

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Visit to a Special Meadow

Burnet in the Meadow

We are working hard to develop our wildflower meadows at Alvecote Wood, but they are immature, and have a long way to go.  Just three years ago the meadow in Betty’s Wood was a field of wheat, and the meadow in the main clearing at Alvecote Wood had not been managed, and had deteriorated to just a few species of grass and wildflowers.  We have an idea what we would like to achieve, but there are very few local examples that we can visit to see what we are aiming for.

So we were very privileged to visit some special meadows this week, courtesy of Richard White from Swan Farm at Grendon, Warwickshire.  We know the farm itself because we purchase our wild bird seed (and bedding for our chickens) from their very good pet and equestrian supplies business.  It is a rare example in this day and age of a mixed farm – livestock (cattle, sheep, geese, turkeys) plus meadows and grain crops for supplementary feed.

Softness of the meadow

What we went to see, though, were the meadows.  These are unimproved meadows, by which I mean that they are not managed by cutting for silage twice yearly, nor are they fertilised.  Instead they are managed in a traditional way, by cutting hay in late summer when the yellow rattle starts to rattle signifying the seeds are mature.  The hay it generates is rich, full of wildflowers, and much sought-after locally as feed for animals.  It is then grazed by cattle, followed by sheep on a low-intensity basis to avoid damage to the ground, and for short periods to avoid build-up of parasites and reducing the need for medication to the animals.  It is a traditional hay meadow, managed in the traditional way, the knowledge of which is sadly dying out as generations of farmers are brought up to think the only way is chemicals, intensive and industrial.

The meadows stretch down between the Coventry Canal and River Anker, and they are unbelievably beautiful places.  First of all, it is obvious that the place is a paradise for wildlife – there are signs all around.  Swallows swooping around the buildings, yellowhammer singing in the hedgerows, skylarks in the air in full song all around, flocks of lapwing wheeling in the sky, small animal tracks through and under the grass, clouds of moths, butterflies and dragon and damselflies.  This is living countryside.

Meadow cranesbill

Some of the plants we recognise from our own meadows, such as yellow rattle, knapweed and birdsfoot trefoil, but others, such as the wonderful patches of burnet (also known as salad burnet, deliciously edible), and meadow cranesbill with their nodding blue heads and glorious luminosity.  The variety of grasses is also significantly higher than ours, and well distributed throughout the meadow in contrast with ours, which seems to be more patchy.

Down by the river, there were literally clouds of banded demoiselle damselflies emerging – all too active to photograph well – and it is clear that the river and its banks are healthy, the river at this point being little more than a stream.  The meadow is so dense it is difficult to walk through, particularly if you are on the short side like me – I had to resort to a kind of goose-step to get around, and that was pretty tiring.  But it was so worth it.

Meadow cransebill

Visiting a place like this is totally inspirational because it shows us where we want to get, and gives us at least an idea of what to aim for, and how to go about it.  At the moment we can’t graze our meadows because the trees are too young and vulnerable, but grazing is obviously the way to go when they get larger.  The habitat is quite similar, and we are hopeful, although it is unlikely that our recently-sown meadows will reach the same level of lush diversity that these meadows, managed traditionally for generations, have done.  That is why these old meadows need to be protected and nurtured – because the replacements are not the same.  We also need to nurture the knowledge of the farmers who can do this, and pass it on, before it has all gone.  It became quite clear while talking to the farmer that this form of traditional farming is economically viable – less intensive, but just as profitable, because careful management of animals and land reduce costs.  Our meadows are for wildlife, and meadows on nature reserves are too.  But what we actually need are more of these working meadows, manged sympathetically and sustainably.  It was a privilege to go there.  I just hope that our great nieces and nephews will, in the fullness of time, be able to visit such places too.  They cannot be allowed to disappear.

Female banded demoiselle

All the photos in this post are available for purchase via SmugMug – just click on the link here.

Wildflower Meadows

Buttercup in evening sun

Buttercup in evening sun

Southern marsh orchid

Southern marsh orchid

There has been a lot of publicity recently about the decline in wildflower meadows – we have lost 97% of our meadows in the last 80 years, thanks to changes in farming practice and use of herbicides.  But wildflower meadows provide a rich habitat with multiple ecological niches as well as an amazing experience for human visitors (See article in The Independent).  Wildflower meadows are a wonderful example of the impact of humans, domestic animals and natural processes to produce a very rich ecosystem.  Their richness depends upon management – upon mowing for hay, light grazing of the stubble and the wonderful natural process that creates a balance between many different plants and grasses.

Our own meadows have different origins:  those in Betty’s Wood are newly-established on a former arable field, and those in Alvecote Wood are a clearing that was heavily-grazed and unmanaged, resulting in very little diversity and loss of the wonderful mixture of wildflowers.  Both suffered from over-fertility – the former due to fertilisers, the latter due to animal dung.

What is wonderful now is the way in which they have responded to management, even though this has been suboptimal over the years, thanks to difficulties with weather and access for equipment.  The warm, wet June we have had so far has been paradise for so many species.  We have oxeye daisy, birdsfoot trefoil, yellow rattle (a marvellous plant that subdues the grass and makes for a better display of flowers), tufted vetch, sainfoin, medick, clover (white and red), yarrow, red campion, ragged robin, forget-me-not, meadow buttercup and creeping buttercup and others besides.  A few annuals thrive also, including cornflower and corncockle.  At the edge of the ponds, teasel is spreading, providing food for the birds.  In a damp patch, the southern marsh orchids which started off as a single plant are now multiplying and spreading too.

Yellow Rattle

Yellow rattle

All of this makes a brilliant source of food for insects and nectar for bees and other pollinators.  Dragonflies and damselflies hover over the meadow in the sunshine.  Butterflies seek places to lay eggs on a variety of foodplants.  Swallows and swifts swoop in to eat insects during the day, and bats feed at night-time.  Small mammals take shelter under the thatch of grass, providing food for foxes, badgers, owls, kestrels, buzzards and red kite.  The adjacent field of barley is devoid of life by comparison.

We still have a lot to learn about meadows.  Creating and maintaining them is not easy – it is not just a case of flinging a bit of seed on some soil and sitting back.  But it is extremelyrewarding to help reverse a widespread decline, even if our own meadows cover only about 4 acres (out of our 20 acre woodland site).  If you can create a meadow, it really is one of the most wonderful things you can do to help wildlife (planting trees and digging ponds being the others).  And join the Plantlife campaign to prevent councils from mowing wildflowers in grass verges until they have set seed, for this adds up to a massive wildflower meadow throughout our towns and villages, if only we could learn to value rich meadows over sterile short grass.

Meadows are brilliant.  If you can find one, please spend some time in one, enjoying what they have to offer.

 

The Meadow Comes to Life

Last year was a drought and this year has been a deluge – and it is obvious what Betty’s Wood meadow and trees prefer!  We have had some worrying moments since the meadow was planted in October 2010 and the trees in February 2011.  Despite a great display of poppies last year, the perennial wildflowers and the grass sward in particular were very sparse – after a year of growth you could still see the lines made by the seed drill.  The diversity was also low, with little in the way of the important butterfly foodplants, such as birds-foot trefoil.  Some areas had barely any growth on them at all, and newly-planted areas of wildlowers on top of the spoil removed when we dug the ponds had just a tiny green fringe.  The largest meadow was so sparse that when we mowed it, we were throwing up dust from the parched and cracked surface, and there were few clippings left from the sparse mayweed and poppy growth.

The trees, too, had suffered, despite our best attempts to water them.  Although we ended the year with 5% loss plus 1% stolen out of our 5000 trees, some were not in the best of shape.  In particular, the species we had planted in the area that is normally wet (alder, varieties of willow, poplar, aspen) had struggled to put on any growth at all, and in places, had managed only one or two leaves.

This year started badly too – a drought through March left us wondering how we were going to cope through the summer.  We needn’t have worried – although the rain has not been pleasant for humans, and at times we have had problems with the quantity (including a flood in the woods that almost washed away our bridge), the trees and meadow have loved it, and responded with growth that we could only have dreamed of last year.

Standing by the ponds last night, I could hear the leaves of our little aspen trees as they trembled against each other – aspen is the only tree in our wood that you can identify by sound!  Last year, they had a couple of leaves each, but this year, enough to make a noise.  Our cloned willows are growing enthusiastically.  Some of our trees are now about 5 feet high and others are showing great recovery growth.  Areas are now beginning to look a bit like a young woodland, rather than a parched meadow with a few sad trees in it.

And the meadow!  Oh my goodness, the meadow!  We have such lush growth it is hard to walk through it.  The grasses, yellow rattle, beautiful clovers, medick, sainfoin, tufted vetch and large patches of birds-foot trefoil.  And daisies.  Lots and lots of daisies.  Over a million ox-eye daisies.

With the meadow and improvements to our ponds have come insects – thousands of insects.  We have a really good show of common blue and brown argus butterflies this year.  We also have small heath butterflies for the first time, and to our delight, the dingy skipper has arrived too.  Almost every flower has a ladybird, some kind of bug, beetle, fly, bee, hoverfly, spider or other living thing on it, feeding from it, and enjoying it.  The grass is thick enough for us to see vole and rabbit tunnels and pathways.  A skylark is sussing out potential nesting spots.  Our ponds, too, are showing increased diversity of life, including common blue, azure, blue-tailed, red-eyed, white-legged and large red damselflies, as well as the four-spotted and broad-bodied chaser dragonflies.  As you walk through the meadow, little clouds of azure damselflies rise up and settle again.  The contrast with the agricultural land over the fence is staggering.

We complain about the rain.  We complain about having to wear wellies and a raincoat in summer.  But the rain has wrought a transformation that outweighs the inconvenience.  The meadow has come to life.