30 Days Wild – Day 14 – It’s Not Just Grass!

A day off catching up with domestic tasks, so wildlife watching was largely restricted to the garden. The mini-meadow is looking very fine at present, it may only be 5m by 4m, but it is packed with flowers and has  a very good structure. The term “structure” in relations to grasslands means the variation in height and the layering of the vegetation. A well structured grassland will have vegetation at every level. In mine the lowest level is occupied by lesser stitchwort, mouse-eared hawkweed, cowslip, bugle, bird’s-foot trefoil and white clover. Slightly higher is the yellow rattle, creeping buttercup, dandelion, ribwort plantain, red clover and bloody cranesbill.  Higher still are the ox-eye daisy, hawkbits, field scabious, perforated St John’s wort, meadow buttercup and corky-fruited water-dropwort. The top layer is mostly taken by knapweed. There are several different grass species and a number of other herbs dotted about. 

This structure allows insects to move about all through the area at every level and light can get through to the ground. This is the opposite of an intensive grassland where the objective is a dense even grass sward, these may be fields, but they are really high yield grass crops, with high biomass and low biodiversity. Traditional forage crops were hay, and repeated cropping tended to increase biodiversity and and reduce the biomass. It is easy to see why farmers seeking lots of forage would move to an intensive model, but the result has been a 97% loss of herb rich grasslands in the UK in a lifetime.

“Views over green fields” might be trumpeted by estate agents or implicit in the idea of the “Green Belt”, but green fields are ones that have lost their biodiversity. Similarly green lawns, verges and civic areas are ones that have had their diversity and wildlife stripped away. It is easy to see why agricultural grasslands have been “improved” to increase their productivity, these are businesses seeking to make a profit. Despite this most of the best remaining herb-rich grasslands are on farms and farmers are at the forefront of improving the situation.

So why are local authorities and corporate owners of mown grasslands so set on removing their variety has always been a mystery to me. Many years ago I worked at a Country Park and took to leaving the banks and other areas not walked on to be cut just once a year, mowing the rest as paths and patches around picnic tables. Pretty soon we had meadow brown, common blue and marbled white flying between the picnic places. However I soon got complaints, not from the site users, but from councillors and others who declared it “untidy”, I did not give up but as soon as I moved on they restored the old regime.

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My mini-meadow, it really is not difficult to have diverse wildlife friendly spaces rather than dewilded grass.

Some land uses demand regular mowing, but it should not be the default approach, we should expect habitats to be managed to maximise their environmental value. Wildlife lives everywhere, given the chance and should do so, we should expect land managers to be properly discharging their responsibility for the land they manage and to be looking to increase biodiversity, not mowing, or worse still, spraying it to oblivion.

meadow brown

Meadow brown in the meadow, hiding from the wind

Bombus lucorum

Bombus lucorum, the white-tailed bumblebee on ox-eye daisy

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30 Days Wild – Day 11 – Land of Giants

Another great night for moths, as anyone trying to sleep will have noticed, good moth nights tend to be too hot and windless for sleeping.  I caught 31 species in the garden and an impressive 46 at Blashford Lakes. I say impressive, but this is just for these days, catches of 80 or even 100 plus species were more common in days gone by and can still be achieved on the very best night at the best sites. There now seems to be no doubt that moths, along with perhaps all insects, have become less common. This seems to be a gross decline in numbers across the board, rather than a the extinction lost of species, although rarity does precede extinction.

It is very hard to say exactly why insects have declined but I think it is to do with human n=intervention in the environment, perhaps not a single cause but a combination of habitat degradation, nutrient enrichment, habitat fragmentation, chemical use etc. The sum of our many and various impacts on the world around us. I have run traps in more out of the way places where human impact is less obvious and have been impressed by the large number of individuals, even if not species that I have seen. Once in the far west of Ireland I saw several hundred garden tiger moths attracted to a single light trap, it was an extraordinary sight!

A 25 year long study of 63 nature reserve in Germany using a standardised collecting method concluded that flying insects of all types had declined by 75% during the study period, a truly shocking statistic an done that supports the gut feeling of most that look at insects here too. You can find out more on  Naturespot an excellent site that records wildlife across Leicestershire and Rutland.

puss moth

puss moth -one of my favourites from last night’s catch.

Moth traps do not only attract moths and last night at Blashford we caught a giant lacewing, these are really big, at least for lacewings. It is a species found in damp woodland that I have only ever found at a moth light, they must be hiding out there somewhere, but they are not the most obvious creatures when resting.

giant lacewing

giant lacewing

After a morning spent mowing bramble regrowth I was off the Fishlake to do a walk for Trust members. It was very hot in the sunshine and we enjoyed seeing a hobby and hearing a cuckoo.  The cuckoos will very soon be leaving us again, work by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has shown that many of our cuckoos arrive here in mid April and leave by the end of June. How do they know? They have fitted a number of them with satellite tags and you can follow their progress at BTO Cuckoo tracking , it is a fascinating project and well worth a look.

Personally I enjoyed the sight of lots of male banded demoiselle jockeying for the best perches on the yellow water lily flowers along the barge canal.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

Back home I had a wander around the edge of the meadow and it struck me that I had not mentioned clovers, perhaps because they are in almost every patch of grassland, even maintained lawns. I have just the two most common species, the red and the white clover, but both are wonderful nectar sources for insects, especially bees. Clovers, like the rest of the pea family to which they belong have the ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, which is why they were used in crop rotations before we had chemical fertilisers to increase the nitrogen content of our soils.

white clover

white clover

I think I will have a quiet night in today, last night I was tramping around a New Forest heath in search of nightjar for a survey being run by the Wildlife Trust. I enjoy a survey as much as the next person, but I confess that when I was crossing from one transect to the next and found that the “path” actually just lead into an uncrossable bog, resulting in the need for a nearly two mile detour, the appeal waned a little. I did find some churring nightjar though and heard a drumming snipe. These are two of the strangest natural sounds to be heard in this country and ones that, if you have not heard them on a dark June night, need to be added to your “Bucket lists”, a proper Wild Experience.

30 Days Wild- Day 10: Bees and Butter

Not at work on Day 10, so I spent some time in the garden. It is a mixture of fairly traditional borders and a small wilder area which we manage as a mini-meadow. In the border the emphasis is on plants that look good but have flowers that will be attractive to insects. Certain types are particularly good, the star so far this year has been the Echium pinana which attracts bees in amazing numbers. Another very good group of plants are the scabious and similar species. We have a good patch of the very large Cephalaria grandiflora which lots of insects will visit.

common carder bee on Cephalaria gigantea

common carder bee on Cephalaria gigantean.

I have always liked growing Umbellifers in the garden and I am pleased to say they seem to getting more popular, most species are attractive to hoverflies, this year we have added the lace flower (Orlaya grandiflora), and it seems to have been well received by the insects.

hoverfly on Orlaya grandiflora

hoverfly on Orlaya grandiflora

To provide feeding for as many bees as possible it is necessary top grow a range of plants with a range of flower types as different bees are adapted to exploit different flower forms. They will also collect pollen as well as nectar. Some of the bumblebees have especially long tongues and so can reach into flowers with very long tubes such as some of the clovers which smaller species cannot.

red-tailed bumblebee on white clover

red-tailed bumblebee on white clover

The star sighting of the day was attracted in by the flowers, but it was not a bee, but a humming-bird hawk-moth, my first of the year. Although they seem to be getting more regular these day-flying migrant hawk-moths are always exciting to see.

I am lucky to live within a short walk of the New Forest, so as dusk approached a short excursion to listen to nightjar was in order. It was a bit windy, which reduced activity a bit but we still heard one or two churring birds and briefly saw some wing-clapping display flight.

In walking through the pines to get top the heath edge something brilliant yellow stood out on the woodland floor. So bright, in fact that my first thought was that it was a bit of rubbish, but it was not, it was a large patch of troll butter. This is slime mould and like most is found of rotten wood.

troll butter

troll butter