Meadow Update

In autumn 2009 we seeded a meadow in the corner of one of Archie’s potato fields at Sparkford, next to the A303. The idea was to test some of the mixes I was being offered by suppliers, and to show people:
A) How easy it can be
B) How meadows evolve
C) How beautiful they are
To see how it has developed click on one of the photos to find a gallery, or just search for “Archie” to find related posts.

I pop down there with the dogs every couple of weeks to hoik out the odd thistle, and took my camera with me yesterday. It’s really beginning to take off – and not just visually. The thing I really love about establishing meadow areas is to see how they change and to watch their associated fauna arrive. It’s great playing God. I didn’t see anything rare or bizarre yesterday, but things are stirring; talking about just lepidoptera, I bumped into Small Tortoiseshells and Marbled Whites (“found in flowery grassland” – hurrah!), Meadow Browns and Six-spot Burnets. So next time you’ve zoomed past Sparkford roundabout eastbound keep a look out for it, on your left hand side, and ask yourself whether you couldn’t do something similar.

Our Meadow in July

Greater Knapweed clumpMeadow BrownOur meadow is lovely at the moment; although the most obvious flowers are Greater Knapweed, Yarrow and Meadow Vetchling, the Self-heal and Lady’s Bedstraw are also out. The meadow is alive with insects; it is buzzing and clicking, chirping and rustling. Fantastic. I thought I’d stand in a clump of flowering Knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) for ten minutes in the morning and in the afternoon and see what came along. I’m no entomologist, so please excuse the identification, but how gratifying to see so many friendly pollinators. Nothing out of the ordinary, but a good crowd.There were, of course, many more, either too small or too fast for this useless photographer, Six Spot Burnetbut at least this gives an idea of what you might help with a small meadow area…
Greater Knapweed is one of the best nectar plants, and it seems to attract all sorts of pollinators. Most obvious were the butterflies (and day flying moths). We’ve once again been swamped with Meadow Browns this year, but in my half an hour I also saw a Six Spot Burnet moth and a Small Tortoisehell. I’m sure we’ll have Gatekeepers later on too. Although Greater Knapweed seems to be just the ticket for butterflies, it is more of a struggle for our honey bees with their much shorter tongues. Perhaps surprisingly they’re not dissuaded, Small TortoisehellHoney beeand in the afternoon sun were the most numerous insect about, with two or three simultaneously working the same patch. They were very specific in their taste, as were the Hoverflies; not for them Meadow Vetchling or Lady’s Bedstraw. The solitary bees I saw were the same. Much quicker and more agile than bumblebees, there must have been at least 6 different species at work, although I only managed to photograph three. I’m still hopeless with my identification;Large Solitary Bee and KnapweedSolitary Bee and Knapweed I think there were Mason Bees of various types and Leaf-cutter bees too. Since we made our solitary bee box I have become more aware of these chaps and, consequently, see many more of them about, but still struggle to work out who is who. There are, after all, over 250 species to get to grips with and they all move fast. More work required. I am marginally more at home with bumblebees. Solitary Bee and KnapweedOur garden and meadow areas have become Bumblebee Central, thanks to judicious planting and management. Although we have plenty of Common Carder Bees (below top left), I’m still disappointed not to have seen the Shrill Carder Bee, but I live in hope! I think I have also seen Brown-banded carder bees (Bombus humilis) about, but I couldn’t be certain. The other unmistakable bumblebee around at this time of year is the Red Tailed Bumblebee, B. lapidarius. There’s a nest under the orchard wall around 50 metres away, and it wasn’t surprising to see a few workers of this very smart Common Carder BeeRed Tailed Bumblebeeand relatively short tongued species around the nectar rich area where I was snapping. My identification skills start to go awry at this point, however. Apparently the key difference between B. hortorum, the Garden Bumblebee, and B. lucorum, the White-tailed bumblebee, is the yellow band at the bottom of the thorax. Tricky. I hope I’ve got this right. I think this is a White-tailed Bumblebee – i.e. without yellow band on thorax. White-tailed Bumblebee Common but endearing. This next lady, then, could well be B.hortorum, or a Garden Bumblebee worker. She is rather moth-eaten, but she does have a yellow band at the bottom of her thorax and, apparently, a very long tongue. If I’m lucky I can sex bumblebees, which you can do by looking at the antenna; long, round antenna mean a male. I might have some idea on bumblebee identification, but I know next to nothing about different hoverflies. I think I can only confidently name one of these. Like solitary bees I am astonished to find the vast number of native species – around 270 – Garden BumblebeeHoverfly 1and they are strong enough flyers that, like butterflies, we also entertain migrants. I’ve always been told their larvae have an insatiable appetite for greenfly, but it turns out that only about a third of them eat aphids. They’re interesting and attractive insects, though, and – surprise surprise – many are in decline as a result of habitat loss. I thought I’d add some to my gallery, as they frequented the Knapweed too. Hoverfly 2Hoverfly 4The meadow will start to look tired in a little while, and once some of the Knapweed goes to seed I’ll cut it. I don’t need the hay, so it doesn’t matter if it’s all stalky. The sheep are already running through some sections of it where there’s nothing left to flower to save me the effort of cutting it. In the meantime I’m looking forward to more coffee breaks out there in the sun, and enjoying it as much as the birds seem to be. Hoverfly 3I haven’t even begun to describe the Flycatchers, finches, martins and swallows… I’m just amazed by how much there is going on in such a small area, and equally amazed at how easy it has been to establish such a rich habitat. Immensely satisfying – go on, give it a go!

Caroline’s Mini-Meadow

Caroline's meadow
A Sea of Rattle
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.
Rare British Plants
A Very Superior Sort of Plant
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.
Meadow Brown in Rattle
Home Sweet Home
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.
Large Skipper at Carymoor
Female Large Skipper 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