Haymaking – the Video

Our second year of making hay from our meadows at Alvecote Wood. Five days of very hard work, but very lucky with the weather. We got 153 bales this year (141 last year) and sold and delivered it all to the stables next door to the woods.

This is a video of the whole process. It gives you an idea of what we have been doing over the past few days.

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

Nature-watching

Common Wasp

Common wasp on angelica

I love birds.  And butterflies.  And dragonflies.  And reptiles.  And amphibians.  And wild flowers.  I keep records of the species I have seen, and am as excited as anybody when I see a new species for the first time.  Lots of people do this.  They go round collecting lists of things they have seen, some travelling long distances to get a “tick” on their list.

But I’m not a birder, twitcher or any other kind of highly-travelled collector of “ticks”.  My approach to wildlife watching is different.

Years ago, I would get in the car and set off whenever there was a report that a certain butterfly had emerged in a particular location, and head off to well-known bird-watching haunts to see species I had not seen before and were known to be there.  But I found this very unsatisfying.  There was no real connection with the creature I was viewing, no really deep understanding of this creature and its relationship to other species within the ecosystem in which it lived.  Likewise, I found wildlife-watching holidays, in which we were conveyed round in groups to look at wildlife for a brief moment before moving on to the next location to be rather empty.  So I’d seen bee-eaters, or flamingos, or hoopoes – so what?  How much did I really know about the habitat in which they lived, and why they were there, and what pressures they face, and how they behave, and what interactions they have with other creatures in the local area?  Not a lot, really.

Also, I have a weakness when it comes to being a birder, or other type of “collector” in that I actually like watching all birds, all butterflies, all dragonflies, all wildflowers.  They are all fascinating, common or rare, frequently seen or rarely viewed.  I find it endlessly fascinating to watch common little brown birds, just as I find it fascinating to watch a rare species.  I love to watch how they behave, how they interact, what they feed on, where they nest, and how they fit in with the other species in the habitat in which they live.  A knowledge of, appreciation for, and enthusiasm for collecting rarities on a list can be a wonderful way of getting people involved in nature-watching, and protecting our diminishing wild places, but it isn’t the way I like to enjoy nature.

Peacock Butterfly

Peacock butterfly – common butterfly, common ragwort, but very worth watching

Baby Wren

Little brown bird – baby wren

For me, the pleasure of nature-watching is in knowing the habitat well, something that gives each sighting of a different species some meaning and context.  Obviously owning a woodland is a wonderful thing, and allows me to form a close and deep connection with the land, the trees, the plants, the insects, the birds, the bats and all the other creatures that choose to live there.  New species are exciting, not just because they are new, but because they represent the fact that the ecosystem can support them.  They are there because they want to be there, because the conditions are right for them to be there.

I also like wildlife watching whenever I travel elsewhere for business or pleasure.  Wherever I may fetch up, I like to watch what wildlife is there, and what it is doing.  I like to travel to nice places with diverse ecosystems, and enjoy walking in other woodlands, countryside, hills and valleys.  But nature-watching isn’t only about going somewhere that you know is going to be populated by spectacular wildlife.  It is about learning what you can about the local habitat and then seeing what is there in context.

This year we went to Doncaster for our business.  We stayed in a hotel in a very ordinary edge-of-town retail and leisure development.  And yet there was great wildlife there.  Early purple orchids by the edge of the ornamental lake.  Long-tailed tits in groups flitting through the young amenity trees by the chain restaurant in which we dined.  Pied wagtails in the hotel grounds.  Wildflowers growing in profusion in the as-yet-undeveloped areas around the edge of the development.

It didn’t matter that the wildflowers and birds were common.  What mattered was learning about, and enjoying, what the habitat had to offer, even a very “ordinary” urban-edge habitat on a brownfield site.

Great tit in the snow

Great tit in the snow – common, but beautiful

In short, I like to learn about whatever ecosystem I find myself in has to offer.  I am sure that some “tick-collectors” like to do this too, but my experience is that quite a few do not – the tick matters more than anything else.  Maybe at heart I am an ecologist, rather than a birdwatcher, butterfly-watcher, bat-fanatic or anything else.  For me, the pleasure of nature-watching is about taking the pulse of the land and becoming part of it, so you can understand it in depth, and appreciate everything that is there, from the common to the rare, the plain to the flamboyant and the drab to the colourful.  There is so much all around us all the time and that is what makes being a nature-watcher so exciting – provided you don’t mind your birds being small and brown, your butterflies being white, and your amphibians being common.  I don’t.  I enjoy watching them all.

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!

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

Butterflies in the Evening Meadow

Small Skipper

Small Skipper

Small Skipper

Small Skipper

The evening is so beautiful for photographing butterflies.  The lighting provided by the evening sun is much warmer, and coming from a low angle, which provides many possibilities for beautiful colours, highlights, and contrasts.  The butterflies are just that little bit less active, and as the temperature drops, they are seeking a place to roost among the flowers and grasses.  We were in our meadow until quite late last night – almost 9pm – and managed to snap a few pictures of the delightful little butterflies that are currently present in large numbers.  Last night we saw meadow brown, ringlet, small skipper, dingy skipper, large skipper, essex skipper, common blue, small tortoiseshell, large white, small white, speckled wood, comma, red admiral and purple hairstreak (the latter at the tops of the tree).  It was just beautiful.

Here are a few pictures from yesterday’s visit to the woods.

Meadow Brown

Meadow Brown

Comma

Comma

Meadow Brown

Meadow Brown

Small skipper

Small skipper

Small skipper

Small skipper

Essex skipper

Essex skipper

Southern Marsh Orchids

Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

photocoursewe-123

photocoursewe-125

photocoursewe-129

 

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.