2 December 2013

Winter colour

During the short days of November and December when the skies are often wood pigeon grey - it hardly seems to get light. Low light levels seem to make the world a rather drab place and it becomes harder to find inspiration and solace. However, look closely and both can still be found - all but on a subtler scale than during the blousy, carefree days of summer.

Vibrant lime-green mosses seem to almost shine in the grass, re-hydrated and easier to see in the shorter aftermath grazed sward. The bare branches of shrubs and trees are more clearly visible now the leaves have fallen and mosses and lichens are much more apparent.

Micro-carpets of mosses are almost like velvet on tree branches and lichens appear like splashes of yellow ochre or flaking Verdi-gris - all providing winter colour on a micro-scale.

17 October 2013


Whilst checking the sheep at one of the meadows recently, I was very struck by the amazing structure of some teasel heads in the ditch and how they have evolved to be so 'multi-purpose'.
Earlier in the season, the tall stems carry the flowers aloft, advertising the tightly packed flowers to passing insects for pollination. The close packing of the flowers seems optimise the number of flowers over a given surface area - all interlocking with not an air gap to see.
The sharp spines on both flower heads and stem protect the flower from grazing and the hollow stems given strength but with economy of structure.
After pollination, the seed heads act as shakers and rattles for dispersing the seed ( if the flocks of goldfinches don't get there first).
On dewy autumn mornings, intricately worked spiders' webs are clearly visible, the spiny framework of the flower heads providing an ideal support over which to drape over the sticky snares.

12 September 2013

In the aftermath of summer

After the summer hay cut, the meadows quickly green up and begin to grow again - putting on 'aftermath' growth.
In most years, it helps site condition to late summer or autumn sheep graze this aftermath.
The timing of  grazing varies from site to site and season to season, but generally the first meadow to be aftermath grazed is Fox Fritillary meadow.  The meadow is on relatively fertile floodplain alluvial soils and so quickly 'springs' back into growth after the haysling.
We delivered a flock of SWT Hebridean sheep to this meadow in mid August.  At first their task looked like a daunting one, but they soon set about nibbling back and revealing the fence lines, as well as tackling the tall herbs along the edge of the ditch and any docks or thistles that try to creep into the sward.
The sheep do an excellent job in encouraging the grass to 'tiller', which tightens the sward and helps prevent bare patches where undesirable  plants like ragwort, creeping and spear thistle might otherwise establish.
Although the sheep do generate a certain amount of nutrients as dung, the overall effect of aftermath grazing is a second harvest of the meadow. There is net movement of nutrients off the meadow in the form of nutrients that have been assimilated into the fabric of the sheep -  so when the sheep leave the meadows so do the nutrients!
The sheep dung is also a useful source of organic matter and can  be important for soil and dung invertebrates.
The grazing means that the sward is low at the beginning of the next growing season. This tends to favour wildflowers that are intolerant of shading and competition from taller grasses. The snake's head fritillary pushes up its delicate leaves before the taller grasses get going, giving it a head start in the photosynthesising stakes. Low growing plants like adder's tongue, bugle and cowslip which would soon be engulfed by large grasses also take advantage of this early window.

27 August 2013

Seeking a refuge

Hay-cutting is a very necessary and important part of the management of the meadow reserves - but from the perspective of a grassland insect, the hay cut must be a very dramatic change of scene!

Obviously we need to cut the hay to maintain the wildflower diversity of the meadows on which the insects in part depend, but we can reduce the impact by leaving uncut refuges for insects, particularly pollinators like bees.

On each of the hay meadows, we leave an uncut refuge strip of about 5-10m wide.  Aftermath grazing by the sheep helps trim these uncut areas up later in the year, but we also vary the  location of the strip each year to prevent scrub invading the  blackthorn is particularly quick to silently creep into the meadow
 when the cutter or sheep have turned their back!

The refuge strips also provide a graded and gentle edge to the meadow, which adds structural diversity and increases the range of habitat niches.

Hopefully many species benefit from these strips, though I think the field vole may question their value when the barn owl hovers overhead finding the strips very convenient quartering!

24 July 2013

On bale

What a contrast the weather has been this year compared to last for haymaking.
A wet summer really hampered the 'haysling' last year, whereas this year a run of fine, dry weather has allowed the process to go relatively smoothly with our hay harvest from the meadows safely cut, baled and stored by the end of last week. My thanks to the great team who worked so hard to make it all happen.
There was even time to step back and admire our hard work and I could not resist this picture of Ellie, triumphant on bales at Martins' meadows  or to put it another way - she is 'out on bale for good behaviour!'

18 July 2013

Docks (or Rumex) often go unnoticed as a component of meadow flora. Some species like curled dock (Rumex crispus) and broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius) are considered undesirable in all but the edge of meadows as they can be indicators of poor sward condition and less than ideal management – they readily colonise areas of bare ground created by over-grazing or compaction and reduce the quality of hay.

Wood dock (Rumex sanguineus) as the name suggests, can often be found at the edge of meadows growing in the shade of hedgerows

Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is the most typical meadow dock and is very much part of the open hay sward. Its diminutive cousin, sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella) occurs on drought prone grasslands and heathlands.

At first glance, docks are rather too green or brown to readily catch the eye, but at certain times of year and when looked at in close-up, they really are quite fascinating.

As the seeds ripen they slowly flush from green to red to a rich burnt umber – almost giving the appearance of going rusty. The ‘red seed ’phase is particularly obvious in common sorrel and sheep’s sorrel, both of which can turn a meadow or heathland scarlet in early summer. The seeds of common sorrel are almost translucent hanging like strings of lanterns amongst the grass.

Each species of dock has unique shape and form of fruit. When looked at closely through a lens the ‘architecture’ of the fruit is astonishingly intricate. Some resemble shield bugs or trilobites whilst others look like a green and red fried egg on a string!

So next time you see a dock - take a moment to 'ruminate' on Rumex!


2 July 2013

Rattling around

Yellow rattle or hay rattle - Rhinanthus minor is one of the most intriguing plants of hay meadows. It is semi-parasitic on the roots of grasses and where it is abundant it can appreciably suppress grass growth. For this reason, in the past when productivity of hay meadows was so important, yellow rattle was not favoured as it reduced hay yield.

Unusually for a grassland plant, it is an annual – totally dependent on setting seed each year to survive. It quickly sets masses of seed in June – seemingly perfectly timed to precede the hay cut! 

The seed is held in the ‘balloon’ like sepals and as these dry out and the seed ripens, so the cases ‘rattle’ and the seed is shaken out in the breeze.  Hay-turning also helps scatter and spread the seed. 

Yellow rattle’s life style is well adapted to the hay meadow yearly cycle – so conserving hay meadows is key to this plant’s survival.

29 May 2013

The keys to the future?

With the unwelcome arrival of ash die-back last year, it is with some apprehension that I have been watching the unfurling of the hedgerow ashes at the meadows. So far, so good - the fresh green leaves seem to be  emerging from the dark buds with their usual grace.  However, it is really too early to tell and I will be keeping a watchful eye in coming months and years.

An unexpected benefit of this need for careful observation, is that it has encouraged me to look much more closely at a tree which is so familiar I often hardly give it a second thought - except to ponder whether we are in for a 'splash or a soak' depending on whether the ash or the oak comes into leaf first and whether it will be a good or bad hay year! (The spring has been so late and condensed this year the two trees seem to be pretty much neck and neck at the moment).

I am not sure I have ever before paused to look so closely at the ash and to catch a photograph of it just as the ash keys are beginning to form. I was really struck by the almost translucent 'toffee apple' brown of the keys, contrasting dramatically with dark bud scales and vibrant new green leaves.

Let's hope that somewhere in the many bunches of ash keys now forming -  there is some natural resistance to ash die-back - that at least some of the keys will unlock a future for the ash.

22 May 2013

New home at Mickfield

In the last couple of years, I have often seen a Little Owl sitting on the entrance gate at Mickfield. So I was delighted, when earlier this year, I was offered a Little Owl box to put up on one of the oaks at Mickfield.
The box was very carefully made and generously donated to us by a Suffolk Wildlife Trust volunteer - Bob Dunsdon. Thanks Bob - much appreciated.

On a cold blustery spring day a few weeks ago, Stuart Holland and I set off for the meadow and installed the box.

It is certainly a very impressive 'high rise' apartment, with fine views over the meadow and the scarce goldilocks buttercup at its feet.

25 April 2013

In the last week or so, spring has finally sprung - leaves and flowers unfurling almost as we watch. Primrose, cowslip, barren strawberry, blackthorn and cherry plum -  all hunched and tight shut against the cold for so long, rapidly shrug off winter, throwing their flowers open to the sun.

But the ground is still cold, so the real spring growth surge, when the meadows seem to double in height overnight, has not yet begun. This means that early flowering species are particularly visible this year as their flowers are carried above the short sward.

At Mickfield Meadow, the Wood Anemone  - Anemone nemorosa is a striking example of such an early species. Patches of this delicate species waiver in the spring breeze.

Wood Anemone or Wind flower is a strong indicator of ancient and undisturbed land. It is more commonly associated with ancient woodland than grassland, its early flowering taking advantage of higher light levels before the woodland canopy closes over.  But old, undisturbed grasslands have many of the characteristics of ancient woodland glades and rides so it should be no surprise that Wood Anemone can occur in both.

28 March 2013

A Murmur of Spring

As we slowly trudge on through the coldest March since the early 60’s, with the collars of our thick coats turned up against the biting easterly winds - the promise of spring and summer still seems distant -  despite the passing of the spring equinox and changing the clocks this coming weekend.

The meadows appear much as they did in November, quiet and still against grey leaden skies.

But stand still, watch and listen for a while and all is ‘a-chatter’ with a murmur of spring.
Flocks of fieldfares run in fits and starts foraging in the grass, well camouflaged and hard to see until they are disturbed and noisily rise into a nearby tree. 

Photo by Darin Smith

Starlings too, busily feed, searching for grubs, with their sharp beaks - ‘aerating’ the meadow as they go. Their flocks almost seem to roll like waves as they work across the meadow – gently all rising and then settling again to feed in another area.  Like the fieldfares, when startled, they head to a hedgerow tree  and remain silhouetted in the branches whistling and chattering until it is safe to return. 

Photo by Darin Smith

All this 'conversation' in the trees, must I’m sure include at least a mention of the hope  that spring will soon arrive - after all when does a conversation in this country not include the weather!

14 March 2013

The benefits of insulation

We are all aware of the benefits of insulation to help keep out the winter cold. This week’s late snow and cruel easterly winds were a stark reminder to try and shut out the draughts from our homes and only venture out in lots of layers! 

Up at Winks Meadow, high up on the Claylands of Suffolk, the easterly winds cut across the former Metfield airfield and there is seemingly very little shelter. 

However, on a day of sub-zero temperatures, fleeting sunny spells and with much of the meadow covered in snow, I was amazed to see grassland spiders running about amongst the tussocks of grass. 

Snow does of course act as an insulating blanket, creating slightly warmer conditions beneath - but I think the secret of this early activity of the spiders was the undulating micro-landscape of the grassland. A series of miniature hills and valleys created by the tussocks and rosettes of the grasses and broad leaved herbs – forming a sheltered network of lee-sides, tunnels and cavities where the spiders could carry on despite the freezing conditions above. Definitely a case for keeping their heads well below the snowy parapet!
Seeing the spiders in the meadow on a day like this really highlighted the importance of micro-topography and structure of grassland, the benefits of extensive grazing and always leaving some ‘raggety’ bits as refuge and shelter to enable wildlife to get through the winter.

26 February 2013


In the raw, bleak days that we have been experiencing lately, days spent working outside don't hold much appeal. However, January and February are an ideal time of year to carry out hedging work on the meadows. The berries of the hedgerow shrubs have mostly been eaten by the birds and it is still too early for birds to be thinking about nesting.
Hedgerow management at the meadows is mostly rotational coppicing, with a priority being to coppice elm that has started to succumb to Dutch elm disease.  Coppicing elm helps to rejuvenate it and makes sure this characteristic hedgerow species continues to survive in our  hedges.

The work can look drastic immediately after it is done, but the coppiced shrubs quickly put up strong shoots in the new growing season and in a few years a really dense hedge has re-grown. Only a short section of hedge is coppiced in any one winter so that there is always a good range of ages and structure to the hedge and cover for birds and other wildlife is always maintained.

Last week the Suffolk Wildlife Trust mid-week volunteer team undertook some coppicing at both Mickfield and Fox Fritillary meadows - despite the cold the team completed two good sections of hedge and hopefully found the task a good way to keep warm in a particularly perishing week!
 I would like to thank Stuart Holland (mid-week conservation team leader) and his team for all their hard work on the meadows' behalf. Thanks also to Stuart for the photographs.

11 February 2013

Just the Thicket

At this time of year, the focus of the meadows tends to be on the edges and hedges rather than the grassland itself.  The boundary features are not only the framework within which the meadows sit, but also provide valuable links and wildlife corridors that connect nature reserves with the wider countryside.

The winter months are the ideal time to carry out management on the hedges and scrub, causing minimal disruption to wildlife and its habitat. Working rotationally on these habitats further reduces any impact, as a refuge is always maintained even when seemingly quite dramatic work such as coppicing is undertaken.

One of the tasks this winter has been to begin to rejuvenate and thicken a block of blackthorn scrub.

This species can form really dense thickets which are favoured by species like bullfinch. However, as the blackthorn matures it becomes quite drawn and leggy in character and begins to loose its 'thicket' quality.  The thinner structure is less valuable for birds.The answer is to coppice it in rotation to encourage denser re-growth.

The block of blackthorn we have worked on at Martin's meadows this year has been 'high' coppiced  with the aim of ensuring the new growth is above rabbit feeding height. We did coppice a small area a couple of years ago  down to ground and the rabbits made swift work of removing all the re-growth! We have learnt our lesson and have tried a different tack this year.  Hopefully the result will be strong dense growth, thick enough to suit bullfinch and from which you can hear this bird's faint  but distinctive whistle like song. (Photo of bullfinch by Darin Smith)

9 January 2013

A Plum location

 Whilst out and about this week I came across a character period home in an idyllic rural setting enjoying views over unspoilt countryside. The residence boasted many original features, along with extensive alterations, made by various incumbents over the years, but all sympathetic with the age and style of the property. The current residents enjoy an undisturbed, tranquil existence in a plum location!
 I was so struck by this wonderful Suffolk home, that I made further investigations.  I discovered that the property already had many tenants, both permanent and on a short lease. A space where many could make a home irrespective of their occupation, size, age or species! Some hunker down for the winter months, hibernating in cracks and crevices, whilst others are transient summer visitors, timing their stay to coincide with ripening fruit. Others have found it an ideal location to raise a brood in one of the upper apartments, returning several years running for the nesting season.

Some have decided to put down ‘roots’ making it a more permanent home, whilst others simply rest in the shade it casts in the heat of high summer.
Despite its age and having ‘wintered and summered it’, the residence is still in very good heart. Indeed, with age – its value is likely to increase. It has a marked lean, caused by strong winds some seasons ago, but its foundations are sound. It was an advantage to view it in winter as it enabled me to see the underlying structure – nothing obscured by spring blossom or leaves. If the occupants were happy here on a grey, damp day in January, it bodes well for the rest of the year. 

The residence is no ordinary place, it is within a Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserve and is one of similar architectural style in the locality, typical of a traditional orchard.  

A plum tree in the orchard at Martin’s meadows!