30 Days Wild – Day 12 – The Power of a Flower

Tuesday at Blashford is volunteer day, or at least one of them, we also have a regular work party on a Thursday as well, today we were balsam pulling. The balsam in question is Himalayan balsam, a garden plant that escaped into the countryside and particularly likes growing along river and stream banks, “riparian habitats” as they are known. It is an extraordinary plant, growing to two or three metres tall in a matter of a few weeks,outgrowing all native plants that live in similar places. It also has explosive seed pods which can throw the seeds a metre or more when they pop. Being a non-native it has escaped its natural disease and insect controls and grows almost without check, which is why it has become a problem.

before

a disappointingly large stand of balsam

We have been removing this plant by pulling them up for many years now and have made good progress on the upper parts of the Dockens Water, where there are very few plants now. Clearly though, we failed to find quiet a few plants last year for there to be quite such a dense stand as this. Flooding carries the seed along and will also concentrate it where the seed gets deposited. We had a lot of plants to pull up, but we did pull them up and this is what it looked like a short while later.

after

after balsam pulling

What is very clear is that once the balsam is gone there is very little other vegetation, showing how it out competes other species.

Himalayan balsam has very nectar rich flowers, leading some to claim it is “Good for bees”, bees and other insects will take nectar from it, but I think the case for it being “good for bees” is very questionable. When it flowers it is very popular, but before this it shades out all the other flowering plants that would providing nectar, so across the season it probably provides no more than would be there anyway, it makes the habitat one of feast or famine cutting off food sources earlier in the season.

Flowers are immensely rich sources of food for lots of creatures, perhaps especially insects, but I have watch deer carefully picking off flowers and leaving the rest of the plant. The flower has the protein-rich pollen and the sugar-rich nectar, in short the stuff needed to make animals and keep them running. The flowers are not giving this largess, they are trying to get their pollen transferred to another flower to allow seed formation and make new plants. As the year progresses different flowers become the main attraction for lots of insects. Just now hemlock water dropwort is very attractive, but a new draw is appearing in the form of bramble flowers.

bramble flowers

bramble flowers

We easily notice the larger species such as butterflies, but look closer and you will see lots of tiny insects.

bramble flower with pollen beetles

A bramble flower with several small beetles

I think the beetles in the picture are pollen beetles, but I am not certain.

Closely related to brambles, the roses are at their peak now, the similarity in flower form between the bramble and this dog rose are clear even if the rose is the showier.

dog rose

dog rose

I was pleased to receive reports of four little ringed plover chicks seen today from Tern hide, the first proof of any hatching so far this year. It was also good to see the common tern arriving at the rafts on Ivy Lake carrying small fish to feed newly hatched chicks.

My moth trap highlight today was a lobster moth caught at home, not a species I see very often and I still have to find the extraordinary caterpillar which is the source of the moth’s name.

lobster moth

lobster moth

To refer back to my earlier comments about the food value of flowers, I noticed the mullein moth caterpillar in my garden has eaten most of the flowers off the figwort plant, it has eaten all the best bits first!

mullein moth on figwort

mullein moth on figwort

What’s in My Meadow Today?

I know it is not a plant that belongs in a meadow in southern England, but I like bloody crane’s-bill, so I have it in the meadow, where it grows and seeds quite well.

bloody cranesbill

bloody crane’s-bill flower

Something else that does not really belong are the anthills, this is not because ants are not native here, but you do not usually get anthills in meadows. This is because a meadow is really a field that is grown to produce a crop of grass, so the act of cutting the field would knock down the anthills before they became large. I cut the grass around the anthills taking care to leave them to get bigger year by year as I rather like them. This maybe because I spent many years working at Farlington Marshes where the masses of anthills are a significant feature of the reserve.

anthill

One of the anthills being extended by the ants.

 

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30 Days Wild – Day 1

A day off and mostly at home, so a chance to see the garden during the day. As my garden will feature from time to time in the blog over the “30 Wild Days” I will provide a bit of background.

A bit of research shows that it is very close to being an average UK garden, apparently the average back garden is 190 square metres, I think mine is almost exactly this. Like about 3.5 million UK gardens it has a pond, even if a very small one. We have two trees over 3m tall and one just under so close to the 2.4 average number of trees. 7 million gardens have bird feeders, around 60% of all gardens, and 4 million have bird boxes and we have these too. It is located in suburbia, although close to open countryside and surrounded by housing.

There are ways in which it departs from the average though, about 50 square metres are left to grow as a mini-meadow. This area is in its fourth year of meadow management and it is starting to look quite good. It has developed by a combination of mowing once a year with the cuttings removed and some seeding. I have not entirely gone for local native species, but they are the main component.

meadow

Back garden meadow

I am going to do a little daily “feature” within the blog entitled…

What’s in my meadow today?

yellow rattle

yellow rattle

In the meadow picture you can probably make out some yellow flowers that are not buttercup, these are yellow rattle, it is both a traditional element in a hay meadow and one that was not desirable if you wanted a good crop of hay. It is an annual that has seeds contained within the inflated calyx and as they dry they rattle, hence the name. As the hay was raked up the seeds would fall out, scattered about as the hay was turned. It was undesirable because it is semi-parasitic on other plants and often on grasses, so lots of yellow rattle meant less grass and so a poorer hay crop. In a back garden meadow it is useful as it reduces the vigour of the grasses making them less competitive and allowing the flowery herb species to prosper. The rattle is also a good nectar source in its own right being popular with bees in particular.

It was not a very sunny day but fairly warm and there were a few insects about, one of the largest hoverflies in the garden was a Sericomyia silentis, it is also one of the more attractive species.

Sericomyia silentis

Sericomyia silentis

One of the species that probably occurs in every garden int he country, is the garden snail, whilst they can be a nuisance in the vegetable patch are rather attractive in their own way. They can live for five years or more and will both hibernate to avoid the cold in winter and aestivate to avoid drought in summer.

garden snail

garden snail Helix aspersa

A Day Unparalleled

Although I failed to see it a when I opened up this morning, the grey phalarope remained on Ibsley Water as did a juvenile black tern and the two ruff. A feature of recent days on this lake has been the mass fishing events, when a flock of cormorant, sometimes a hundred or more will act together to drive  large shoal of small fish into a corner. This attracts grey heron, little egret and the great white egret, which patrol the shallows, everyone gets some fish, sometimes several, which shows just how big the shoal must be.

The swallow and martin flock was perhaps a little smaller today, but still ran to several thousand and once again included a single swift. However it was not the birds that made for an “Unparalleled” day, it was a moth, a Clifden nonpareil, or blue underwing.

Clifden Nonpareil

Clifden nonpareil in egg boxes from the moth trap.

These are very large and, until recently, very rare moths. Having become extinct in the UK they turned up only as rare migrants until recolonizing about ten years ago. The New Forest area seems to be their stronghold now and in the last few years we have seen one or two each year, but they at still a real treat. It is just a shame it did not turn up yesterday for the moth event.

Big Blue headshot

Clifden nonpareil close up.

We have been doing quite a lot of grass cutting recently, some areas we are managing like meadows to increase the variety of wild flowers and this means we have to cut and remove the bulk of the grass by the end of the growing season. Today we cut areas of the sweep meadow used by education groups near the Ivy North hide. In this areas we cut in alternate years to leave longer herbage for over-wintering insects. If we leave it uncut for too long bramble and small trees start to colonise and many of the grassland plants, upon which so many insects depend, disappear.

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A meadow area near Lapwing hide prior to cutting.

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Meadow area near Lapwing hide after cutting.

The grass is raked up and piled into a heap which should provide a good place for grass snakes to breed next year, especially if the heap is in a sunny spot.

30 Days Wild – Day 30: At Last!

Sorry for the late post of this the last day of 30 Days Wild, but my 30th day was spent on the road. On my travels I passed through areas of the country that I have lived in during years gone by. It was interesting to see that there were buzzard almost everywhere, I remember when it was necessary to go west to at least the Welsh borders to see one. I also saw red kite, once so rare that a special trip was the only option if you wanted a glimpse of one.

As my post is late it coincides with National Meadows Day, so I will mention one of the other things I noticed on my travels, the verges and how they were managed. I was mostly on the motorway network so much of the grass was long, with scattered banks of scrub. I was disappointing to see the particularly wide banks of grassland beside the M6 Toll road being mown short even right to the top and the cuttings left lying, it looked very “neat” but was a disaster for wildlife. I don’t know if it was because it was a toll road but this was thankfully the only section I saw getting quite such brutal treatment.

Incidentally I make no apology for not applying the strict definition of a meadow, that is a field where herbage is cut as a crop, dried in the sun and removed to feed livestock, there are rather few of these now. For my purposes, if it is a grass and hopefully, herb mix that is maintained with little or no spring grazing, it could be a meadow as far as most of the species that use meadows are concerned. So wide verges, roundabouts, golf course rough and corporate greensward all count.

As I said I spent the day on the road, in fact it was also part of the night as well, due to road closures and subsequent detours. On the nocturnal part of my journey I saw a couple of foxes and another recent addition to south-east England, a polecat, which trotted across the road in front of me as I was navigating a back route alternative to the A34.

Today I was at Lepe Country Park, where they were opening a new sensory garden, put together by staff and the Friends of Lepe, it is very fine and well worth a visit. Many years ago I used to work at Lepe and one of the projects I did then was to add what is now the meadow area at the north of the site onto the Country Park. It had been a deep ploughed cereal field but we seeded it and thirty years on is a meadow afforded SINC (Site of Importance for Nature Conservation) status. I took a quick look today and it was alive with butterflies, maybe not an old meadow but a great one for wildlife. This is one of the wonderful things about grassland, a relatively few years of good management can produce something of real value for wildlife. Despite this it is trees that get planted all the time as good for nature conservation, yet most of these secondary woodlands will still be struggling to reach anything like their potential in a few centuries. Plant a tree if you must, but make a meadow if you can or persuade someone who manages grass to step back and appreciate that they manage a wonderful habitat, not a green carpet. With a little imagination we could be surrounded by meadows.

30 Days Wild – Day 2: In the Garden

My weekend started early and I was on a day off today, so I took the chance to do some work in the garden. Although not large and a pretty typical suburban garden it is now home to a good range of wildlife. When we moved in nearly three years ago we decided to leave part of the lawn and develop it as a small-scale meadow. It has come on well and looks the part quite convincingly now, with yellow rattle, field scabious, knapweed, ox-eye daisy and much more. It is perhaps more accurately a herb-rich grassland as some species are not entirely typical of true hay meadows, but it looks good and the wildlife seems to like it.

Ox-eye daisy

Ox-eye daisy

We do also have more conventional flower borders and here we have gone for plants that are good for nectar and pollen, such as geraniums, fleabanes and scabious species. Today I came across a brightly coloured fleabane tortoise beetle on an elecampane flower bud.

Fleabane tortoise beetle

Fleabane tortoise beetle

I did not manage to dig a pond in the first year so it was a bit of a late addition, but a very necessary one in any wildlife garden. A pond, even a small one such as our, does bring in so many more species, especially if you do not add fish.

pond skaters

Pond skaters feeding on a drowned bumblebee.

We even get a fair range of dragonflies and damselflies and today I found a pair of large red damselfly egg-laying.

Large red damselfly pair egg-laying

Large red damselfly pair egg-laying

The male remains attached to the female whilst she lays to ensure that the eggs he has fertilised get laid.

We also planted a few native shrubs, including an alder buckthorn, the food plant of the brimstone butterfly, this has almost worked too well and our tiny tree has more than ten caterpillars and almost every leaf has been nibbled!

Brimstone caterpillars

Brimstone butterfly caterpillars

I like the fact that I can be at home in the garden but still be surrounded by a bit of the wild. Gardens can be fantastic for wildlife, especially for insects such as bees and others that require nectar and pollen, growing good plants for these species also gives you a great flower filled garden so is a win all round.