Still recovering from our older son George’s 18th I spent some down time in the garden today looking for butterflies. Appropriately enough, as next week is Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count, sponsored by Marks and Spencer. I counted 6 species in half an hour loitering around the herb garden – Common Blue, Large White, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Small Copper, and Brimstone. Nothing unusual to get the hardened Lep excited, but really good news for me; when we moved here there were only Whites around, so we’ve done our bit to create good habitat for butterflies. I’ve also recently seen Six Spot Burnets and Large Skippers. In a very modest sort of way I feel like a kind of God; there’s a lot you can do to build up a good population of colonial species like these.
In the herb garden Oregano seemed to be a particular magnet for the Browns, and in the borders Veronicastrum for the Brimstones.These guys are a particular success, as I hadn’t seen one around here at all until now. Why have they suddenly arrived? Because I planted a short stretch of Alder Buckthorn, their larval food plant, in a section of hedge. You can see how tasty it has proved. With butterflies it’s not just the nectar plants you need – it’s their whole habitat. When you get that right the effects are pretty much instantaneous.
Another post on meadows – sorry, but it’s that time of year and you can’t say too much about meadows. “Meadow” would be a bit of a stretch to describe the area which we’ve been experimenting with over the last 9 months. It’s about 30m by 13m (mini-meadows can be a lot smaller), and started off as being part of the pasture in front of the house. It would have been an eyesore had we started off by stripping off the top soil or spraying the existing sward, and the grasses were too varied and interesting to lose in any case. Steve Alton recommended grazing and chain harrowing in the autumn, which we did. You can see how it started here. We then sowed LOADS of Rattle, and kept the sheep on the area over the winter to push the seed into contact with the earth as they marched about. I should say that this was all very high risk as I knew we had people coming to two one day courses in meadow creation and management in June the following year – i.e. last weekend. Anyway, thank goodness it has worked. We now have a sea of Yellow Rattle and, very obligingly, a single plant of a relatively rare native species, the catchily named Corky-fruited Water Dropwort. Andrew George tells me it can last some time in a sward without flowering and is indigenous to these parts, so there may be other plants out there in the rest of the field. Along with the Bumblebees – who love Rattle – I also spotted our first Meadow Brown today – I hope we have as many this year as we had last. It gives me the greatest pleasure seeing these colonial species, knowing that we have created the right habitat for them to live and multiply in. Andrew made the same point during our meadow course last weekend, where among other butterflies we saw Large Skippers on a site he has designed at Carymoor. I’m hoping we’ll have some here this year; on our existing meadow area we’ve got Cocksfoot as one of our grasses for the larvae and loads of some of their favourite nectar plants, including Bird’s foot Trefoil, Yarrow and Knapweed. Anyway, back to Caroline’s mini-meadow. Once the Rattle has set seed we’ll cut it and let the sheep back in until autumn (I’ll put a little fence around the Corky-fruited Water Dropwort so it can seed later on, doubtless to general hilarity). Come autumn and we will sow a pure widlflower mix into the areas where the Rattle has been most effective in reducing the grass, or use seeds collected from another area. It has been a simple and effective way to start a meadow area without losing our existing grass or stripping the topsoil off. Just the sort of thing our tutor-in-chief Sue Everett would approve of. Phew. Thanks Steve. Related Posts: Yellow Rattle
I have a great deal of sympathy with James Alexander-Sinclair’s latest thoughts on the environmental movement:
“I do worry that it has all become a bit evangelical and I really do not like being preached at: it makes me want to go and burn a huge pile of tyres on a raft in the middle of an unsullied lagoon full of rare creatures.”
Mea culpa. It’s really hard to hit the right tone while trying to get a clear message across. Haranguing one’s audience is only one pitfall; there’s also a real danger of lapsing into a kind of environmental puritanism. Wildlife gardening is about making people happy, and not about creating and running a nature reserve.
And what better way to remind me of that than to visit Clive Farrell’s Dorset home. Clive is the man behind Butterfly World; a lifelong lepidopterist with the money to back his dreams. His own estate is a really inspiring mix of the utilitarian and the whimsical, where painstakingly planned wildlife gardening meets fantastical design on a grand scale. Around every corner is a new and unexpected joy, and the rich mosaic of habitat types he has created brings with it not just a stunning variety of fauna but a good deal of his own brand of fun. Here be dragons and dormice, Water Buffalo and the Small Blue. Fab.
I should think more about the articulation between what an ecologist would call “unimproved grassland” and landscape design. I met Andrew George the other day, a locally based painter who is perhaps better known for his landscapes for butterflies, including the British Butterfly Garden at the gigantic Butterfly World in Hertfordshire. His combination and manipulation of native flora and design is alluring, and opens up all sorts of possibilities for folk to include native planting in their gardens. Do have a look at his book, “The Butterfly Friendly Garden”. The approach is unashamedly and understandably very butterfly-centric (even if it’s about lepidoptera I would have expected bees to have at least made it into the index, for example!), but it’s a fascinating read and offers a lot of sound advice as well as ideas. It has given me considerable food for thought; even though I don’t have a budget the size of a luxury saloon car there’s a lot I could do. If I did have, give me Brimstones over Beamers any day.