Meadows come to life

Meadow at Sunset

Meadow at Sunset

Meadows are very rich areas for wildlife, particularly if they are managed well.  Most of our meadows have only been in place for a few years, although the main meadow in our woods has been a clearing for a long time.  We are managing all of them to maximise wildflowers and to provide maximum benefit for pollinating insects, as well as to provide food plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars.  In the last couple of weeks, these meadows have really started to come to life with buttercups, purple vetch, red campion and ragged robin appearing in ever-increasing numbers, to add to the cowslips and snakes head fritillaries of early spring.

In the last few days other plants have started to come out – in particular the spectacular southern marsh orchid, which is spreading in the damp areas of Betty’s Wood, and the first ox-eye daisies are starting to bloom.

Evening Buttercup

Evening Buttercup

Southern Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

Ox-Eye Daisy

Ox-Eye Daisy

Ox-Eye Daisy

Ox-Eye Daisy

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

In the ponds, too, the iris are coming into flower, and emergent stems of sedge, spearwort and iris are forming great vantage points for the four spotted and broad bodied chaser dragonflies staking out their territories.  Damselflies are also on the wing, roosting in the long grass, on the thistles and on the trees in the hedgerow.

Brown Argus Butterfly

Brown Argus Butterfly

Small Heath

Small Heath

Small Copper Butterfly

Small Copper Butterfly

Common blue butterfly

Common blue butterfly

With the blooming of the meadows come the first of the summer butterflies – brown argus, small copper, common blue, dingy skipper and small heath are now all on the wing in our meadows, as well as the large and small white, brimstone, green-veined white and the ever-present peacock and small tortoiseshell.

Yellow Rattle

Yellow Rattle

We manage our meadows in a number of ways.  One of the star plants is the yellow rattle, pictured above.  This marvellous plant is semi-parasitic and knocks back the grass, making it possible for more wildflowers to thrive.  We add to this by mowing and removing the hay, which takes fertility out of the soil – wildflowers generally thrive in relatively impoverished soil, and low fertility again keeps the grass in check.  It has taken a while to get the process of improvement started, but we are now seeing the results.

In the next few weeks we are looking forward to seeing large and small skippers, Essex skippers, ringlets and meadow browns.  Then the meadows will truly be in their prime, but for the moment, they are full of promise.

Evening Buttercups

Evening Buttercups

Southern Marsh Orchids

Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

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We bought the land on which we planted Betty’s Wood at the end of 2010.  In 2011 we noticed that there were a couple of orchids developing in the wet and rutted area on the far side of the field, near the boundary, in which dew ponds had formed in the tractor tracks.  Here also was developing willow scrub, a result of an inability to plough and sow this area, and it was one of the most wild parts of the field, and also very rich in wildlife compared with the desert left behind by a wheat crop.

In 2012, we had the same two plants in the same area, but no more.  This year, however, they have obviously spread.  At last count there were 31 individual flower spikes, most of them discrete plants, covering not only the original area, but spreading into adjacent paths and damp ground near one of our newly-created ponds.

They are Southern Marsh Orchids.  They are not rare.  Dactylorhiza praetermissa is relatively common in the south and midlands of England.  Apparently it likes damp areas, but not wet areas, and as such our dew ponds, ruts and slightly boggy paths are ideal for it.  It is described as liking calcareous soil (generally chalky and alkaline) but our soil is relatively acid and consists of clay and sand over coal.  The wonderful thing about this display of orchids is the variety in form that they show.  Not only does the colour vary from a beautiful pale magenta pink through to deep purple via a wonderful deep magenta pink, but also the form varies enormously from tiny little spikes with just a few flowers right through to impressive lupin-like spikes almost 2 ft high. All have the characteristic spotted pattern on the lower petal.

What is so wonderful is how quickly these beautiful plants have colonised the area after agriculture ceased and wildlife was encouraged.  They are now growing among the dew ponds, scrub and young trees, as well as on the mown path, and there is plenty of habitat that will remain both damp and open into which they can spread as the woodland develops around them.  We hope to conserve and spread some of the seed later this year too, so that other damp areas within the woods can support their beauty – in particular a very damp meadow in the main woodland itself, just a few hundred yards away.

They are so beautiful, so exotic, and so special, I rather went to town on the photos.  I certainly hope that this year’s set of photos is the first of very many.

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.