Our meadows have been absolutely beautiful this summer. I have been putting together a video of our meadows over the course of the summer, right up to haymaking last weekend.
English bluebells. To me the are the English countryside in spring. We are so very fortunate to have a lot of English bluebells at our woods, concentrated in two main areas, but with patches scattered throughout the whole woodland.
This week they have really started to come into flower, just a little bit early this year thanks to the mild March and April that we have had. There are two main areas – an area we call The Plantation because of larch that was planted there, and the bottom part of the woods. Both of these areas have bluebells with bracken developing later in the year.
Over the last two years, the exceptionally mild winters have meant we had no frost under the trees, and this has led to brambles taking over, particularly in the Plantation area, because they have not been killed off by the frost. Letting them get a head start in the spring means that they dominate the bluebells, and last year the display suffered. This year we have cut back the bramble to allow the bluebells to recover.
We have not been disappointed by the display!
Our woods are probably at their most beautiful during the spring. This week we welcomed the Royal Forestry Society here on a visit, and I filmed some video as we went round, adding some stills and a commentary afterwards. This really gives you a feel for the woods and their wildlife. It lasts about 11 minutes, but in reality it takes about an hour to walk round.
Spring is here at last, and what a welcome thing it is. It started when I was cooped up in a hospital room for two weeks, watching the crocuses on the balcony bloom in their tubs, and the first small tortoiseshell butterfly flutter past my window. But I could not go out and enjoy it.
Coming out of hospital, the first thing I noticed was the wind on my face. Cold, for sure, but very welcome, and something that had been sorely missed.
They seemed almost imperceptible at first, the signs of Spring at the woods. It was very subtle. One week, you could see through the understorey, through the woods to the fields beyond. Then a few days later, you couldn’t. Just a few buds bursting here and there and the woods were transformed once again.
The daffodils came out in great numbers, followed by the lesser celandine, primroses and cowslips. This last weekend the first bluebell buds appeared, the blossom was profuse on the blackthorn, and the first cherry blossom also came into flower. Snakeshead fritillary are also in flower, and the smell of wild garlic hits you before you see the emerging leaves.
Within a few days, tiny green leaves were all over the birch trees, like little jewels, backlit by the sun. Catkins cover the willow trees, leaf buds bursting, early bees feasting on the pollen. Comma, small tortoiseshell, brimstone and peacock butterflies are everywhere in the sheltered parts of the meadow. Chiffchaffs are calling. The first blackcap is in song.
Surprisingly, for most birds are still building their nests, we even have a robin feeding her young, the nest precariously perched in an empty log bag thrown onto the top shelf of our log store.
This is the feeling of spring. The wind on your face. Some warmth in the sun. Frantic bird activity, flowers on the woodland floor, and the delicate sight of new leaves and catkins. A feeling magnified by my release from captivity. A glorious feeling. A joyful time of year.
A video describing the process of meadow maintenance that we undertook recently – harrowing, top-seeding and rolling.
Our wildflower meadows were originally sown in 2010, as part of Betty’s Wood. We used the best wildflowers and grass mix that we could afford at the time, but there have inevitably been compromises and setbacks along the way. First of all, we had a drought in 2011, which meant that not only did the meadows not grow well, but we didn’t have much time to attend to them, as we had to spend all our time watering the 6000 little trees planted at the same time. In 2012, everything grew quite well, but we were unable to find anybody who could cut and bale the hay for us. We were only able to cut properly and bale the hay in 2013.
This year, unusually warm spring conditions combined with lots of water in the soil led to a massive growth of grass – so tall that it was actually taller than me (OK, I’m not very tall, but even so…over 160cm tall). The wildflowers were struggling.
Some plants have done well – clover, birdsfoot trefoil and knapweed. Some patches of yellow rattle are keeping the grass in check. The meadows have been successful in attracting a good variety of butterflies and moths to our site. But overall, we felt that the meadows needed improvement.
This year we decided to top-seed the meadows. We got as much advice as we could before starting. We cut the re-growth from haymaking to about 6 inches /15cm. This would allow the harrow to get into the ground and create some bare patches.
We then harrowed with a chain harrow. The aim of this is to chew up the grass, create some bare areas into which wildflower seeds can be sown, and to give them a chance before the grass comes back next spring.
We top-seeded with a wildflower mix that we had specially recommended by Butterfly Conservation and designed for our soil. This includes wildflowers that should bloom from March (cowslip) to September (daisies, yarrow and knapweed), giving a long season for pollinators. Our meadows are fairly small (between 2/3 and 1 1/2 acres), so we used a hand spreader – obviously if they were larger, we’d need a mechanical spreader.
We then harrowed again, to ensure no seed was left on top of the leaves. Finally we rolled the seed in with a Cambridge roll. This will push the seed into the soil and stop it from blowing away.
You’d normally do this maintenance earlier in the year – usually in September. However with the very dry weather, the clay soil was like concrete. Conditions are just about right now – warm, but also damp enough to prevent the harrow jumping off the surface and allow it to do its job. The soil is also still warm enough for the seeds to germinate and start to grow before winter, thus giving the wildflowers a good start on the grass in the spring. At least that is the hope!
We also have a video, demonstrating the process.
If you want to improve the biodiversity of a piece of land, one of the best things you can do is put in a pond. We are lucky that our woods are damp, there is water flowing through them, and they have a clay soil base which is eminently suitable for ponds. We started out with one pond that was badly-designed and silted-up. As part of our programme to improve the site for wildlife, and to rationalise the drainage, we put in three brand new ponds in the upper part of the woods, and divided the old pond into three new ponds, terraced along the ditch. The first pond is a silt trap and the remaining ponds now keep free from silt, and drain properly back into the ditch.
When we had the opportunity to buy Betty’s Wood and plant it with trees, we also added ponds – it was a very suitable field, with lots of damp patches and a base of both red and white pottery clay. There were already some natural ponds formed in tractor ruts, and we added 5 more ponds in a cluster. This means we have 11 ponds on site, in three clusters. There is another pond which is more of a pit that gets damp in winter – but these temporary ponds are also very valuable habitat. All of them were put where a pond would naturally want to form, in areas that were already damp. None of them are artificially lined – the clay keeps the water in place. Some of them dry out in the summer, others stay wet. All are connected so that wildlife has a refuge in the deeper water if needed.
We were rewarded in the first year with a few dragonflies and damselflies. As time has gone on, our ponds have brought more life to the woods. The range of dragonflies and damselflies has increased, helped by the fact that we are adjacent to other pools and ponds, a canal and a river. Birds regularly come and drink in the ponds. We have a good population of toads and smooth newts, together with a few frogs. We have some resident mallard who come back each year although are yet to breed successfully. Last year we had a pair of lapwing in Betty’s Wood. We have an increasing population of grass snakes who love to swim in the ponds and bask on their banks. Swallows swoop down to feed on the insects that breed in the ponds. Last year we had a Hobby, which likes to feed on dragonflies. Mammal tracks show that all our resident mammals drink at the ponds – muntjac, badger, foxes, squirrels, rabbits, stoats. Insects also come to drink at the ponds, particularly butterflies, bees and wasps.
Around the ponds are wet areas, in which we get wonderful plants – cowslip, buttercups, snakes head fritillary and a growing area with southern marsh orchid. As well as the usual sedges, reeds, rushes, flag iris, ragged robin, teasel and figwort.
Ponds bring a place to life, and putting them in was one of the best things we have done for wildlife at the woods.
We have the most fantastic display of bluebells at the woods every year, and every year it is a little bit different. This year we didn’t have a cold winter, and so the brambles did not die back in our main bluebell patch. In consequence, the bluebells in that area are not so good, but in other areas they are surprisingly good.
All our bluebells are English native bluebells. There are probably getting on for a million of them at the woods, and it is quite amazing how they differ in form but also in colour, ranging from an extraordinary deep purple-blue, through all shades of blue, some even with a touch of turquoise, to very pale blue. We even have one pink English bluebell, and one or two white English bluebells.
How do we know that they are English bluebells Hyacyinthoides non-scripta and not Spanish? Well, our bluebells all have narrow leaves, most are bent over at the top, rather than standing tall, they have long narrow flowers with recurved petals, and they have white or cream coloured pollen. Spanish bluebells have broader leaves, stand up tall, have wider flowers with non-recurved petals and tend to have blue pollen.
It is difficult to capture the feeling of being in and among the bluebells on camera. Simple images don’t do justice to the intensity of the blueness, nor do they really capture the delicate beauty of these flowers.
There is nothing for it but to get down and get dirty in the mud. I tend to photograph bluebells lying on the ground, where I can get good support for the camera. I try not to disturb other bluebells, and this does limit my ability to get good angles sometimes. I try to use selective depth of field. Depending on how far the subject is from the background, I use f stops somewhere between 4.0 and 8.0, and always my Canon 100mm macro lens. I also try to get a good background clear of clutter – either with bokeh from the light coming through the trees, or a clear dark or light background. Exposure can be anywhere from +2 to -2 stops, and compensation is really important in the dappled light of the woods. Finally, post processing is important to capture the feeling of being among the bluebells – I generally use Lightroom to tweak the curve and get the result I am looking for.
I feel very privileged to have such a wonderful selection of these beautiful flowers to choose from, despite that fact that I am allergic to them and they give me heroic doses of hay fever whenever I try to photograph them! Bluebells are common in Britain, but rare worldwide.
If you would like to help survey bluebells in Britain, and to see the extent to which non-native and hybrid bluebells have spread, please fill in the Natural History Museum survey http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/british-natural-history/survey-bluebells/ – anybody can do this, and it will be of great help.
During the Summer months our woods are open on Wednesday evenings for visitors between 6 and 8pm. One of the good things about this is the lovely light that we get across our meadows at this time in the evening. Indeed, the woods are aligned such that the evening light is much more compelling than the morning light in most places.
Last night we opened for the first time this year, and were really lucky with the light, which was perfect for wildflowers and insects alike. These are a few photos that I took last night, and also on a couple of other evenings during the week. We had lots of visitors last night and I am hoping that the open evenings prove to be popular again this year. We don’t charge for entrance, so if you want to come along, please do!
Blackthorn and other trees of the genus Prunus are usually the first trees to come into flower. Blackthorn blossom is so delicate and pretty, dusting the bushes and hedgerows with a light frosting that looks like sugar, or light snow. As well as looking beautiful, it is really important as a source of nectar for pollinating insects that are becoming more active at this time of year. It also promises a harvest of sloes later on in the year – wonderful for including in hedgerow jams and jellies and for making sloe gin and vodka.
It isn’t just blackthorn that we find in bloom at the woods. Our orchard also has blossom on the plum trees. Most pleasing of all is the blossom on our cherry trees. We planted some wild cherry in Betty’s Wood in 2011. Not many trees were included, just a few, to provide birds with wild cherries as food in autumn. These trees have now grown large enough that they have blossomed for the first time. This is really exciting for us – our little trees are now producing nectar for the bees and other pollinators, and later in the year will provide fruit for birds, small mammals and insects. It is a sign that the young woodland is developing into a resource for wildlife.
Finally, not strictly blossom but lovely to see nonetheless, last year we had just one cowslip in Betty’s Wood. I have now given up counting – there are at least 50 of them growing on the mounds by our ponds and in the grass nearby. They are visited by the bees, as are the ribwort plantain which are just coming into flower, and provide another good source of nectar and pollen for the hive.