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A YEAR IN A WILDFLOWER MEADOW

31st July 2020

 

 

The attractive Small Copper butterfly is both small and copper-coloured and fast flying. It lays its eggs singly on Sorrel leaves which is the food plant of the caterpillars. There may be 2 or 3 generations a year.

 

Despite having the name of Gatekeeper, this butterfly spends a lot of time flying amongst the grasses though one of its favourite nectar plants is blackberry flowers. We have a large blackberry bush in the middle of the meadow which not only provides us with lots of fruit but is an encouragement for many flying insects. At first glance the Gatekeeper can be mistaken for a Meadow Brown but it has bright orange patches with eyespots on the upperside of both wings. The male is distinguished by dark scent bands. The underside can similarly be mistaken but has the addition of small white eyespots. Eggs are laid by dropping them singly amongst the grasses where the caterpillars emerge to feed on the leaves before crawling down to the base where they hibernate over the winter.

 

 

 

 

 

There have been many 6-spot Burnet moths as reported earlier and this strange structure attached to a daisy stem is a cacoon that originally enclosed the chrysalis.​

 

 

Wild carrot​ is a biennial so the first year it produces a mound of feathery leaves followed the next year by branched stems of white umbels of flowers, sometimes tinged with pink. Often in the centre are a few dark red flowers, possibly an invitation to insects. This one also has a cluster of eggs probably from some sort of shield bug. The root does smell of carrot but is small, white and fibrous and not really palatable. Each year a few plants appear in the meadow though they do prefer chalky soils. They are much taller than the stouter Sea Carrot, a subspecies found regularly along our clifftops.

 

 

 

Meadowsweet grows in slightly damper conditions and it is now showing its lovely creamy coloured flowers.​(Meadowsweet) It has quite a heady scent and was once used as a strewing herb to help counteract unpleasant smells. It also has medicinal properties including salicylic acid (aspirin) and was used to flavour mead.

 

 

Philip from Lethytep gave me a seedhead of Yellow Bartsia a couple of years ago and a few specimens have appeared since then. Like the Hayrattle it is a hemiparasitic annual still photosynthesising with its green leaves but gaining minerals from the grasses.

 

Btw we saw the first Silver-washed Fritillary this week. They have become more common the last few years and some of you may remember the trip to RHS Rosemoor in 2018 with Ross where they were flying around in clouds!

   

 

 

17th July 2020

Every week I always think there won’t be anything new to see but I’m proved wrong so I’m afraid you have a double helping this time after a fortnight gap!

A specific midge lays its eggs on the terminal bud of the Germander speedwell, producing excess hairy growth, a gall, within which a couple of larvae will develop. Many insects can produce galls and you may be familiar with Oak apples or the Robin’s Pincushion on the Dog Rose.

 

 

 

Another new appearance is the Greater Burnet, a native of damp grassland. A member of the Rose family its maroon flower heads are like small lollipops on long stalks with the compound leaves growing near the base. It has been used for centuries as a medicinal plant, particularly with its astringent properties supposedly to stop bleeding.

There are literally thousands of the common field grasshoppers in the meadow leaping up to 20 times their body length as my footsteps disturb them. Back in 23rd May they were newly-hatched tiny nymphs but over the weeks they have shed their exoskeletons several times in order to become full-size adults. Their wings start as little buds and increase in length at each moult so that finally the males can rub their legs against them to make their familiar song to attract the females. There can be different colour variations to blend in with the background and the brown version with the full-length wings shows this really well. Eggs are laid into the soil at the base of grasses where they overwinter before hatching and starting the growth cycle again.

 

  

 

Many Ringlet butterflies have now emerged showing chocolate-coloured wings with a thin white border. Their name comes from the rings on both sides of the wings. The eggs are dropped amongst the grasses where they hatch and remain at the base of the stems as semi-hibernating caterpillars during the winter months. After feeding up on the grasses they pupate and then emerge as adults in mid summer.

 

This beautiful Southern hawker dragonfly (below left) is resting between flights over the meadow where it catches a variety of other insects within the basket shape it makes with its legs, to assuage its voracious appetite. I moved on to the pond only to see another identical dragonfly just flying away. It had crawled out of the water as a large nymph and clung to a leaf before emerging from the exoskeleton as the mature adult (below right).

 

 

Three spiders have come to my attention. Firstly the Small Wolf spider that creeps low amongst the grasses jumping on its prey. The female carries the egg sac under her back end (below left) and then the spiderlings on her back(below right) for a few days after that. (both chance photos so apologise for poor quality)

 

 

The Nursery Web spider (left) is a fast and active hunter with the female this time carrying the egg sac in her fangs. She spins a silk tent for the spiderlings and the photo shows her guarding them.

 

 

The Harvestman (right) is closely related but not actually a spider, with its head fused to its body, no silk gland or fangs and catching its prey using hooks on the end of its eight very long legs. This is not to be confused with the Daddy Longlegs or Cranefly, an insect with six legs. Its larva is the leatherjacket which is a nuisance to gardeners because of it eating plant roots and stems.

 

 

 

 

3rd July 2020

When I spot an insect it’s usually a case of wading through the meadow at speed to catch up with it and then take a series of photos immediately. I’m afraid it does mean my camera settings are not always as correct as I’d like.When I spot an insect it’s usually a case of wading through the meadow at speed to catch up with it and then take a series of photos immediately. I’m afraid it does mean my camera settings are not always as correct as I’d like.

The Large White adult butterfly is now drinking nectar from a variety of flowers. Both sexes have black wingtips but only the female (below left) has two large spots and a dash on the upper fore wings. Unfortunately they and the Small White are always keen to lay their eggs on our greens so the caterpillars can soon turn them into “net curtains”!

Unlike most other butterfly species, large numbers of the Meadow Browns (below right) continue to flutter about in all weathers. They manage to fly as pairs when mating and in this photo you can distinguish the female with its double spot and extra pale band across its underwings compared with the male.

 

 

Hogweeds produce sculptural seed heads, which have become very popular in the design world but unfortunately there can be between 20 and 40,000 seeds per plant. Although they grow in the meadow we do try to prevent them from seeding and taking over. I did spot some caterpillars from the Parsnip moth devouring the flowerheads of some which was one way of preventing the problem. They had enclosed themselves in a web which managed to keep them safe and fairly dry even in the rain.

 

 

 

 

One of my favourite wildflowers is the Meadow Cranesbill (left) whose brilliant blue flowers have just started blooming, despite their preference for more alkaline soils.

 

We have Hedge Woundwort (below left) flowering in the hedges but being a slightly damp meadow the Marsh Woundwort (below right) grows along one side as well. The latter differs with its paler flowers and narrow smoother leaves compared to the nettle-shaped ones of the former though both have an unpleasant smell. Wort means used as food or medicine so in this case they were used to treat wounds.

 

 

I have one mistake to rectify. On 24th April I named the caterpillar wrapped in a nettle leaf as that of the Snout Moth. It was in fact that of the Nettle Tap (right), not that most people would probably be concerned! I was walking past the nettle patch in the rain and there was a swarm of tiny moths, less than 1cm in length. On reading up about them, they had developed from the black-spotted, pale cream caterpillars I’d seen earlier in the year.1pic alongside

 

 

 

26th June 2020

 

One more grass worth noting is Timothy named after an American farmer. Its flowers are packed into a cylinder shape with purple anthers and no awns. The latter feature distinguishes it from Foxtail which has long awns making it more brush-like.

Yarrow was one of the original flowers in the meadow and despite looking like a member of the carrot family is actually a Daisy (Asteraceae). It is strong smelling with feathery leaves and each inflorescence has numerous groups of florets in the form of yellowish disc florets surrounded by white ray florets.

 

 

 

Self Heal is common as a spreading plant in lawns but growing more upright in a meadow environment. Deep purple flowers grow in squares in an oblong shape. As the name suggests it has been used as a herbal remedy for centuries due to its ant-inflammatory properties, healing wounds, treating heart disease etc.

 

 

 

Male large skipper

 

Female small skipper

 

Skipper butterflies are now about with their wings held like “Jump Jets” at rest, which seem to be for very short moments in the hot sun, preferring to fly at great speed defending their territories. The small Skipper is bright orange whereas the large skipper is darker, more veined with a fine hook at the end of its antennae. In my photograph one antenna is missing from a very tatty specimen. In both species the males have black stripes of scent scales. Eggs are laid singly under blades of grass and the caterpillars hibernate over the winter forming “nests” within tubes of grass.

 

 

The 6-spot Burnet moth is day-flying, feeding particularly on the nectar of Knapweeds and laying its eggs on Birdsfoot Trefoil which the caterpillars eat and also hibernate in over winter. Their six bright red spots on each wing act as a warning to predators as hydrogen cyanide is produced in every growth stage of the moth.

 

 

 

 

 

19th June 2020

 

 

 

The Yellow Hayrattle is living up to its name with the seed from the earliest plants now ripe and rattling loose within the persistent cup of sepals. I usually collect some of the seeds and spread them around the meadow.

I have mentioned previously that some grasses are useful but not so many as to be detrimental to the flowers. They are flowering themselves now and have long anthers so that they can disperse their pollen in the wind. The tall False Oat Grass has grown above the daisies and almost sparkles as it sways in the breeze and sunshine. Like true oats one of the pair of bracts surrounding each floret extends into a bristle or awn.

 

Cocksfoot grows in tussocks and has a distinctive triangular flower head.

Crested Dogs-tail is characterised by the flower head being flattened on one side.

 

Yorkshire Fog or Velvet grass has a soft feel to its leaves and the flower heads are tinged with purple. The origin of the former name was that from a distance it was likened to the smoke billowing from the chimneys of Northern factories. All three mingle amongst the daisies at approximately the same height and are just examples taken from the fourteen different species we have recorded in the whole garden.

Some good/bad news – the rabbits are rapidly reducing in numbers but unfortunately it’s due to Myxomatosis which is a very unpleasant poxviral disease.

 

 

12th June 2020

The importance of being amongst nature is being stressed all the time to help us mentally through this pandemic. It made me think, does it matter what are the names of the flowers, insects etc. and should I just make this blog pictorial. Perhaps it’s only botanical nutters like me who need to know the species and the anecdotes attached to them. So if I am overdoing the detail please comment.

I continue……..there are 3 more members of the pea family (Fabiaceae) flowering at the base of the taller plants. The white and red clovers are widespread in any type of grassland and are still cultivated as a fodder crop or part of rotation because of their roots’ ability to fix nitrogen. They have globe-shaped flowers, sought after by bees and trifoliate leaves often with v-shaped white markings particularly in the red species. The third “pea”, the Black Medick is so named because of its tiny black pods each containing just one seed. It has much smaller yellow flower heads and to distinguish it from similar looking species the leaves are hairy ending in a small point. It can be a bit of a pain forming “mats” in a more pristine lawn.

The Knapweeds are beginning to break up the extensive white area of the Dog Daisies with bright purple patches. In our meadow they are all one species, the Common Knapweed, despite having several different forms. The deciding factor is the ridged stems which become thicker below the flower heads in all cases. The hairy leaves may be smooth-edged at the top but vary in amount of indentations as they go down the stems. The flowers are quite variable in colour and size too - pale to dark purple and with or without ray florets. Like other members of the daisy family (Asteraceae) they have small central disc florets which can produce seed but the outer ray florets if present are often infertile. All knapweeds, cultivated varieties included, have an abundance of nectar which make them very popular with insects.

 

 

 

 

5th June 2020

This week the moth trap yielded a Privet Hawkmoth,10-12cm wingspan with attractive pink patterning. You may have seen one on Springwatch. The adult feeds on nectar and lays its eggs on Privet and many other shrubs.This week the moth trap yielded a Privet Hawkmoth,10-12cm wingspan with attractive pink patterning. You may have seen one on Springwatch. The adult feeds on nectar and lays its eggs on Privet and many other shrubs.

 

The warmth at the beginning of last week brought out lots of Meadow Brown butterflies. They are the most numerous species in the UK and have the reverse situation of most butterflies with the female being larger and more colourful than the male. The underside of the wings as shown are similar with just a few subtle differences. The eggs are laid in the summer and the caterpillars feed on several different grasses, overwintering at their base until the following Spring. They then pupate for 3 weeks before emerging as adults again, ready to feed on nectar from a variety of flowers. The front pair of their legs are vestigial but may be adapted as sensory organs and so you only see them standing on their 2 remaining pairs. This is a feature of the family Nymphalidae which also includes the Fritillaries and the large “Reds”.

 

 

 

The highlight for me this week was finding our first orchid, naturally appearing after 9 years. I think it is a Southern Marsh, not uncommon but still welcome. Orchid seed is like dust without an endosperm (food store) and needs help from a fungus, sometimes a specific one, to provide sugars for germination. It can then take up to 7 years before flowering.

You can see the effects the rabbits have had on several areas of the meadow. So much eating and trampling have left it looking like wasteland with bare patches as well as the creeping in of buttercups and so-called weed species. However the untouched areas are a delight and I enjoy sitting amongst the daisies and other species watching and listening. So please join me one late afternoon! Of course chiffchaffs, blackcaps, thrushes etc decided to stop singing but never mind.

 

I've tried a video that I've sent via OneDrive at Jane's suggestion. Five minutes is probably too long but it can feel quite relaxing and of course people can stop it any time. 

 

 

30th May 2020

The warm weather has caused the Dog Daisies to come into flower quite a lot earlier than some other years. Over this past week they not only have opened their buds but grown above the other plants which are still flowering. They appear to follow the sun like sunflowers - this photo on the right was taken from the same spot 4 hours later than the LH picture.

 

The first of a new generation of Tortoishell butterflies was taking advantage of the open flowers and so was this newly emerged Bush Cricket. This was tiny and like grashoppers will change its skin 5 times before reaching the adult size. It is actually omnivorous and eats tiny invertebrates as well as plant material. Its long antennae distinguish it from a grasshopper.

 

 

 

23rd May 2020

The meadow is now full of insects of varying shapes, colours and sizes so this week I’m going to pick out a few representatives. Most of them never stay still for long so some of the photos are not as sharp as I’d like them to be.The meadow is now full of insects of varying shapes, colours and sizes so this week I’m going to pick out a few representatives. Most of them never stay still for long so some of the photos are not as sharp as I’d like them to be.
Bees and wasps tend to be thought of as the most important pollinators and there are certainly large numbers of them but many less significant insects carry out the task as well, as they feed on the pollen and nectar.

The common blue butterfly is building up in numbers with the male a bright blue colour and the female brown with a varying amount of blue. The underwing of both sexes has black and orange dots on a beige background. They feed on nectar and many of the eggs are laid on the Birdsfoot Trefoil which acts as a food plant for the caterpillars.

 

 

The Speckled Wood butterfly is seen fluttering along the adjacent hedgerow in dappled sunlight but lays its eggs on a variety of grasses.

 

 

 

There are many day-flying moths with tiny micro moths, often less than 1cm long, flitting amongst the grasses at vast speed making them very difficult to photograph.

 

In contrast the Poplar Hawkmoth has a 7-9cm wingspan and has appeared in the moth-trap due to its host plants of poplar and willow growing along the periphery of the meadow. The adult doesn’t feed and when at rest its abdomen curls upwards and the hind wings are held forward below the front ones.

Grasshoppers are increasing in numbers but on hatching are less than 1cm long with undeveloped wings. They shed their skin up to 5 times as they grow to reach maturity.

The yellow dung fly with its fluffy abdomen and long legs folded under its body, drinks nectar and catches small insects and as the name suggests lays its eggs on dung.

 

 

Plenty of cuckoo spit can be seen as a result of the Froghopper larva producing froth to protect its soft body as it feeds on young leaves and shoots. It moults several times before becoming an adult.

Sheild bugs, so called because of their shape, come in different genera, colour and behaviour. They suck plant sap from both meadow plants and specific trees Finally, the wing cases of the thick-legged flower beetle are a beautiful metallic green which glisten in the sun as it eats pollen from a variety of plants. This male shows off with large bulges on its legs.
   

 

 

 

 

 

15th May 2020

 

At last we’re beginning to see what a wildflower meadow should be looking like – initial colours of the earlier species mixed amongst those still to grow taller and open their flowers.

 

Yellow Hay Rattle is always recommended in wildflower mixes because it is hemi-parasitic on grasses – its green leaves still photosynthesise but water and nutrients are gained from the grass roots to which they attach, reducing the grasses’ growth abilities by up to 60%, thus providing more space for flowers. It is an annual, named because of the retained sepals enclosing the seeds which rattle inside once mature. Of course this year it is ironic that it is needed when the rabbits are doing a far better job of keeping the grasses at bay.

I have actively removed nettles, thistles and docks from the main meadow, allowing their own small patch nearby. One dock plant can produce up to 60 thousand seeds and a tap root up to 3 ft long so rightly or wrongly I spot-treated them in the early years. Sorrel however is closely related but a more delicate plant supporting spikes of pink flowers (male and female on different plants) with arrow-shaped leaves. These can be incorporated into sauces and soups giving them a sharp lemony flavour due to their oxalic acid content. Dock leaves are oval in shape and with no proven constituent to mitigate nettle stings, their efficacy is probably a placebo effect!

 

oval dock leaves

spear shaped sorrel leaf

sorrel flowers
A large number of insects are becoming apparent now and the first hatches of damselflies from our nearby pond are quartering the meadow. During their relatively short lives they consume many other insects such as mosquitoes, catching them on the wing with their long hind legs. Apart from their smaller size, damselflies can be distinguished from dragonflies by the way they fold their wings back over their thin bodies when at rest.

 

 

 

8th May 2020

Three different members of the pea family (Fabiaceae) are now flowering. Two vetches, the common (below left) and the hairy tare (below right) are sometimes used in a mixed fodder crop or as a green manure because their roots are able to fix nitrogen from the soil. In both species their leaves terminate in branched tendrils to facilitate climbing. The common vetch has single or pairs of purple flowers whereas the hairy tare has 1-8 much smaller pale lilac flowers.

 

The third species is the Birdsfoot trefoil. Bright yellow patches of their flowers will continue to grow through most of the summer. Their buds often have an orange tinge and their leaves are trifoliate like clovers and with no tendrils. Like all peas the flowers typically have a standard petal at the back, two wings and a fused keel enclosing the stamens and stigma so that when a bee lands looking for nectar, its weight exposes these to enable pollination.

 

Carder bee on birdsfoot trefoil

 

 

The buttercups are now recovering though often are much shorter than normal and not easy to photograph amongst all the greenery. We have two species, the creeping (below right), which can be a bit of a thug as it is very successful at producing new plants along runners (stolons). This distinguishes it from the meadow buttercup (below left) which is taller, singular and more graceful. Another difference is the middle lobe of the leaf of the former is stalked unlike that of the latter.

 

 

Four Cockchafers or Maybugs appeared in the moth trap last night. They are beetles which emerge in May as suggested by their nickname and lay their eggs in fields where the larvae live and grow for three years before pupating and becoming adults. This adult is a male because it has 7 feathers on its antennae whereas females only have 6! They can be a problem for farmers as the larvae have voracious appetites for cereal, vegetable and other roots but the adults are not destructive as they tend to eat different leaves.

   

 

2nd May 2020

 

 

The rabbits do seem to be eating mostly grass (an advantage normally) but at the same time they are trampling and even sitting on the wildflowers rather too regularly. These plants are therefore very stressed, with the need to flower being a priority and consequently are doing so at 2-3inches high compared with their normal height. Some flower buds are eaten along with the grass and bare scrapes are quickly being colonised by annual “weeds” producing more a look of wasteland.

 

 

Luckily there are areas that have not been under attack and with the rain at last, plenty of plants are managing to grow normally. Not many are flowering yet so I’m posting a relatively short report this week.

 

Almost all the butterflies from that first flush have died and their offspring are probably now in their pupal stage. However the importance of the Lady’s Smock and other early Brassica species is shown with them still hosting the Orange Tip, Green-veined White (below left) and Small White butterflies (below right) for both feeding and egg-laying. Remember to look closely at the underwings to distinguish between the latter two because of their similar colour and upper wing patterns.

 

 

 

24th April 2020

Although wildflowers in a meadow flourish more when they don’t have to compete with grasses, some grass is essential as both hosts for feeding as well as cover for insects, voles and amphibians. Slow worms can be included as we found this one slithering through the tussocks. They are legless lizards (this one was a male, the female has a black line along its back) and eat slugs and insects and although they are a protected species it’s reckoned their worst predator unfortunately is the domestic cat.

 

 

 

The earliest grass to flower is the short, not too invasive, Sweet Vernal Grass, so called because of the sweet smell when dry. It has particularly long anthers which shed their pollen in the wind before the stigmas appear, to ensure cross pollination.

The ribwort Plantain can become a bit of a problem with each flower head producing 200 seeds and its rosette of leaves persisting through the winter. It’s another species that is wind pollinated with long protruding stamens which are a popular supply of pollen for many insects.

 

 

Nettles are an important food source for the larvae of the bigger “red” butterflies and indeed are known to support up to 40 insects in different ways. We keep a large patch along the edge of the meadow but currently I have only seen this snout moth caterpillar wrapped singly in a web on the leaf tips.

 

Finally, I put my moth trap out last night in the middle of the meadow just to see if any moths were flying this early in the year. Most of them feed on the surrounding trees and bushes so I am departing from my blog subject but I just wanted to include photos of a few of the species collected. I haven’t identified them yet but they are all wonderful mimics and I hope you find them as fascinating as I do!

 

 



 

 

 

 

17th April 2020

A few small flowers are growing in patches whilst the vegetation is low, for example two more different Speedwell species, the Thyme-Leaved (left) and Germander as well as the common Mouse-ear (above), so named because of its soft ear-shaped leaves.

 

The dandelions are beginning to set seed in their familiar clock shapes and apparently may be eaten by Goldfinches, Siskins and Sparrows.

 

 

 

 

 

The meadow is slightly damp and the Ladies Smock/Cuckoo Flower, which likes these conditions is appearing all over. This is one of the major feeding plants of the Orange Tip butterfly. The female has grey wing-tips (above left) unlike the orange of the male and not only drinks the nectar but lays its eggs singly just below the flower bud (left). Once hatched, the caterpillar feeds on the flowers and seed pods. The Green-veined White butterfly (above right) follows a similar practice but is not in competition because its caterpillars tend to eat the leaves. Although we’ve seen the latter flying about I haven’t managed to photograph one on the Lady’s Smock. Speckled Wood butterflies have also appeared , flitting along the hedgerows.

 

 

Bumblebee queens emerge after winter hibernation with the intention of making a nest. This Red-Tailed bumblebee for instance was bumbling in all directions over the meadow looking for somewhere underground, like an old mouse hole, to lay her eggs.

Many potentially larger wildflowers are now starting to grow so it will be interesting to see if they can survive the rabbits!

 

 

 

 

 

11th April 2020

 

Sadly almost all the cowslip flowers have been nibbled by the rabbits so I have included a photo from last year to show you what a sight they normally are. 

 

The blue flowers of Field Speedwell, thought of as a weed by most gardeners, do make lovely splashes of colour mixed in with the Celandines.

 

 

 

A few white Fritillaries have appeared amongst the purple ones. In the wild they tend to be natural like the occasional white bluebell but horticulturally they are often named as a subvariety alba.

 

 

Insects are proliferating in this warm weather and it's not just the bees. We have many cultivated plants and trees in flower but the dandelions are still a favourite for this hoverfly and Peacock butterfly. The latter along with the Comma, Red Admiral, Tortoishell and Brimstone overwinter as adults and have all been seen in the garden. Orange Tip, Small White and Holly Blue can be added to our list at the present time. 

 

 

This oil beetle has a fascinating life cycle (https://www.buglife.org.uk/projects/oil-beetles/) and I'm pleased to say we might be helping its existence.

 

 

 

Most of my bird and animal photos are taken through the kitchen window, hand-held with my 18-300 telephoto lens, looking up the meadow, some times at great distance, so the quality isn't brilliant. Apart from the rabbits we have squirrels looking for their stored nuts, jays and other crows pecking for leatherjackets and the blackbirds digging for worms to feed their already hatched young. All this is overseen by the local buzzard sitting in an ash tree (50M away), sitting being the operative word as it has no interest in reducing the rabbit population for us!