Tag Archives: Bird’s Foot Trefoil

Magical midsummer meadows

Last summer, on one of the hottest days of the year, I joined a walk led by Nick Gray of the Dorset Wildlife Trust through some traditionally managed meadows in Dorset’s Marshwood Vale. We found fields filled with lush grasses, colourful wild flowers and a profusion of insects. This outpouring of joyous, exuberant growth seemed to embody the essence of high summer and the walk turned out to be one of my wildlife highlights of 2018.

Marshwood meadow 2
Lush grasses in the meadow

 

We started from Babers Farm below the village of Marshwood and, after a short walk across several fields clad only in a veneer of golden stubble, we crossed a field boundary to enter another world. Here a thick carpet of knee-high grasses dominated the sward, still green despite the long spell of hot weather. Richly coloured flowers were woven into the grassy fabric and many small brown butterflies danced among the seed heads. A transient flash of orange was probably a silver-washed fritillary butterfly. Grasshoppers leapt from the grass in broad arcs as we walked and brightly coloured insects fed from the flowers. As I looked up at the bowl of hills surrounding the Vale, a kestrel, pale brown in this brash light, swept silently across the field. It was the perfect summer moment.

Perhaps it was a reaction to all the doom and gloom I had been hearing about our treatment of the environment and the resulting loss of wildlife? Perhaps it was a deeply buried childhood memory of family picnics among flowers on Dorset hills? Perhaps it was simply all the natural beauty around me? Whatever the reason, it felt, for a few moments, as though this was the only place in the world I wanted to be.

These meadows are managed under a higher-level stewardship scheme which pays for the loss of income incurred through traditional, less intensive land cultivation. The meadow flowers and grasses grow during the warmth and wet of spring and summer and hay is cut and removed in mid-July when flowers have mostly set seed. The aftermath growth is grazed by animals in the autumn after which the land is left until the following spring. It was the last day of June when we visited and high summer sees these meadows liberally studded with the flattened white umbels of corky-fruited water dropwort, a member of the carrot family and a Dorset speciality but rare elsewhere. The flowers were very popular with insects, especially hoverflies which buzzed loudly in small groups while hovering by the flowers in a courtship display. A female would sit on a flower head while a male hovered above her; sometimes another male would hover above the first in a “stack”.

The bright yellow slipper-like flowers of bird’s foot trefoil were also very common in the meadows, sometimes growing so prolifically that the flowers merged into drifts of sunny colour. This is such a common flower that we tend to overlook it but perhaps its very familiarity leads to the many popular names attached to the plant such as eggs and bacon, hen and chickens or granny’s toenails. Nick also told us that the plant may have useful anti-worming properties if consumed by sheep.

Dotted around the meadows, sometimes in large clumps, were the unruly purple flowers of knapweed. These are popular with nectaring insects and I saw a colourful burnet moth and several marbled white butterflies. Knapweed is also one of the plants with the popular name of Bachelor’s Buttons and Nick told us how, in the past, young women played a love-divination game with the flower heads. A young woman wanting to know if her affections would be returned took a knapweed flower head and plucked off the open florets. She placed the flower head inside her blouse and if, after an hour, new florets had opened, then her love would be reciprocated.

Here is the story told by John Clare in his poem “May” from the Shepherd’s Calendar:

They pull the little blossom threads
From out the knapweeds button heads
And put the husk wi many a smile
In their white bosoms for awhile
Who if they guess aright the swain
That loves sweet fancys trys to gain
Tis said that ere its lain an hour
Twill blossom wi a second flower
And from her white breasts hankerchief
Bloom as they ne’er had lost a leaf

A short walk across open countryside took us southwards towards the centre of the Vale, where we found another large traditionally managed meadow. As before, a rich mixture of thick grasses and colourful flowers dominated but I was surprised to find drifts of yellow rattle and a few orchids, looking rather the worse for wear. I began to realise that each meadow has its own character, its own flora, its own colours reflecting the underlying geology and dampness.

Several recent studies have highlighted the decline of insect and bird life in the UK. Factors contributing to this decline include climate change, habitat loss, pollution and pesticide use. For example, the 97% loss of flower-rich hay meadows in the UK during the 20th century linked to agricultural intensification must have seriously affected insect populations as well as birds dependent on insects for food. Some have gone so far as to suggest that unless we modify farming methods, we shall face “Insect Armageddon”. This needs to be taken seriously owing to the important role insects play in, for example, maintaining soil health, digesting waste and pollinating our fruit and flowers.

The meadows that I visited last summer in the Marshwood Vale send a positive message showing that, with careful management, these important habitats can be restored to their former glory, supporting insects and providing food for birds. In more good news, the Magical Marshwood Vale Project (funded by National Grid and coordinated by Dorset AONB and Dorset Wildlife Trust) started in 2018 with the aim of enhancing traditional landscape features and helping to reinstate ecologically important wildlife habitats. This includes the restoration of more wildflower meadows.

I should like to thank Nick Gray for his advice and enthusiasm.

Black and yellow long-horn beetle on corky-fruited water dropwort, The beetle has lost nearly all of one antenna.
Black and yellow long-horn beetle on corky-fruited water dropwort, The beetle has lost nearly all of one antenna.

 

Swollen thighed beetle on corky-fruited water dropwort
Swollen thighed beetle on corky-fruited water dropwort

 

Birds foot trefoil
Bird’s foot trefoil (with a green insect on the upper right hand side of the picture)

 

Marbled white butterfly on knapweed
Marbled white butterfly on knapweed

 

Burnet moth on knapweed
Burnet moth on knapweed

 

Meadow Grasshopper
Meadow Grasshopper

 

This article appeared in the January 2019 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Europe’s answer to the tropical rain forest

Back in June, I went on a walk across some flower-rich chalk grassland in west Dorset (a county in the south west of the UK).  The article below describes the walk  and was published in the September edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.  It is a very “Dorset” article and some readers may not be familiar with a few of the allusions.  So, the Cerne Giant (or the Rude Man of Cerne) is a massive figure carved in the grass upon a chalk hillside above the village of Cerne Abbas.  Gabriel Oak is a sheep farmer who features strongly in Thomas Hardy’s novel “Far from the Madding Crowd”, immortalised, for me, in the 1967 film starring Alan Bates, Julie Christie, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.  Gabriel Oak keeps his sheep on a chalk grassland hillside.  A “coombe” is a local name for a valley.

 

Wild Thyme
Some of the species found on the chalk grassland including wild thyme (purple), black medic (yellow) and salad burnet (dry brown).

 

Chalk grassland with its colourful wildflowers and multitude of insects was once a common sight in a Dorset summer.  It is the landscape defended by the Cerne Giant and where, in Far from the Madding Crowd, we first meet sheep farmer Gabriel Oak.  In the 20th century, however, much of Dorset’s chalk grassland disappeared following changes in farming practice, although small areas survived, usually where ploughing was too difficult.  So, when I heard about the visit to Higher Coombe, an area of chalk grassland above Litton Cheney, as part of the South Dorset Ridgeway Festival of Discovery, I jumped at the chance to see this ancient landscape and its exuberant floral displays.

We gathered near the entrance to Coombe Farm just off the busy A35.  Despite this being only a few days away from the summer solstice, the sky was overcast and a cold, blustery wind cut across the ridge sending many of us to grab warmer clothing.   The coombe fell away to the south, a deep gash in the chalk with precipitous grassy sides and extra folds and creases giving the landscape the look of a rumpled duvet.  A farm track clung to the eastern side of the coombe and higher up, near Coombe Coppice, sheep dotted the hillside.  Beyond the coombe, occasional shafts of sunlight illuminated the Bride Valley and its patchwork of green fields.  The sea should have been visible but a distant mist had taken its place.

Local expert Nick Gray, from the Dorset Wildlife Trust, was our guide for the afternoon. He began by shepherding us through a farm gate on to the western slope of Higher Coombe to follow a rough contour along the hillside.  Walking was difficult, there was no distinct path in the long, thick grass and the steepness of the hillside made it awkward to pause to observe.  But there was plenty to see: architectural clumps of thistles with their purple mop heads, many different species of grasses and, where the turf became shorter, a mosaic of colourful wild flowers lighting up the hillside.  My attention was drawn by the violet-purple splashes of wild thyme with its distinctive tubular flowers but Nick made sure we also noticed the tiny white trumpet flowers of squinancywort with their delicate pink stripes.   The buttery yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil were also scattered about the hillside together with frothy lemon-yellow clumps of lady’s bedstraw and the delicate golden globes of black medic.  A few lilac-mauve discs of scabious and pink-purple pyramidal orchids added to the display.  These were just a few of the diverse plants growing here and it has been estimated that chalk grassland can support up to 40 different species of flowering plant per square metre.  It is one of Europe’s most diverse habitats, the European equivalent of the tropical rain forest.

So, why is chalk grassland such a rich habitat?  The soil that covers the underlying chalk hills is a great influence, as Nick explained to us. Thin, lime rich and nutrient poor, it holds little water especially on steep slopes and dries out quickly in the summer.  These stressed conditions mean that lush grasses cannot dominate and a wide range of chalk loving species can flourish.  Good management with controlled grazing is also essential to keep the turf short, stop scrub developing and at the same time allow chalk grassland plants to grow.  The land on both sides of Higher Coombe is managed through a stewardship agreement with the farmer whereby, for about six months each year, grazing animals are excluded on one side.  When grazing stops, the grassland explodes into flower and this year the western side is getting its chance.  Next summer it will be the turn of the eastern side which will be ablaze with orchids.

With this profusion of flowers, I had expected to see many invertebrates but, that afternoon, there were very few flying.  Bees in particular were scarce and we saw only two bumblebees all afternoon.  Perhaps the cool air, the lack of sunshine and the encroaching sea mist were restricting their activity?  We came across two large golden-ringed dragonflies resting among the vegetation on the hillside, unable to fly in these weather conditions. This did, however, give us the chance to examine these normally mobile creatures with their striking yellow bands on a black background.  Later on, as we walked through another field on the eastern side of the coombe, we disturbed many small butterflies which seemed to be sheltering in the long grass.  In part compensation for the lack of flying insects, there were some beautiful bee orchids and common spotted orchids on this second chalk hillside.

But should we care about the decline of this special and once common habitat?  The loss of wild flowers will certainly have affected the beauty of our countryside, as well as contributing to the well-documented decline in insects and farmland birds.  There is also evidence that florally-rich chalk grassland provides healthier forage for grazing animals as compared to contemporary feeding on heavily fertilised rye grass.  Perhaps, had we been aware of the importance of the chalk grassland landscape, we might have valued it more?

If you want to see some of the remaining pockets of this special landscape then try Eggardon Hill or Maiden Castle or the Cerne and Sydling Downs or, further afield, visit Ballard Down in the Purbecks or Hambledon Hill and Hod Hill north of Blandford.  Chalk grassland is glorious at any time of year but the best time for flowers is from spring until early autumn.

Nick Gray talks to the group on Higher Coombe
Nick Gray talks to the group on Higher Coombe with the Bride Valley in the distance.

 

Wild Thyme
wild thyme

 

Squinancywort
squinancywort

 

Bird's Foot Trefoil
One flower and three seed heads of bird’s foot trefoil. The shape of the seed heads is responsible for the “bird’s foot” part of the name and also  for one of the plant’s local names, granny’s toenails.

 

Pyramidal orchid
pyramidal orchid

 

Golden-ringed dragonfly
golden-ringed dragonfly

 

Bee orchid
bee orchid

Have you seen the bee orchids?

There I was, standing up to my knees in the long grass trying to examine a flower, when a woman passing on the nearby path asked, “Have you seen the bee orchids?”  I turned and answered “No, but I was hoping to find them” and she continued “If you go nearly to the end of the reserve by the bridge, there’s a very nice one”.

Bird's foot trefoil
Bird’s-foot Trefoil

 

Common vetch
Common vetch

 

Aller Brook Nature Reserve in Newton Abbott is a place of contrasts.  It might reasonably be called an edgeland for it is on the edge of the town and the reserve starts where the Brunel Industrial Estate ends.  But it’s more urban than even that implies; the other main boundary of the reserve is the A380 trunk road making its presence felt through the continual loud rumble of cars and lorries speeding between Torquay and Exeter.  Between these two urban barriers is an extended triangular tongue of land with the water of Aller Brook running down the middle in a deep scrub-lined channel – this is the Nature Reserve.

Despite all the noise and light-industrial activity, this reserve is a perfect example of how nature can be coaxed in to a space if it is properly managed.  Kingfishers and otters are reported to visit the Brook and, when I was there, birdsong filled the air, at least when traffic noise allowed.  The main path along the boundary with the industrial estate was fringed with typical May flowers: red campion, cow parsley and brambles, all blooming beneath a thick tree canopy.  On the other side of the path, the Brook was occasionally visible through the scrub shield.

Further along the path, I came across several small areas of grassland managed as hay meadows.  Typical meadow plants were flourishing adding splashes of colour to the muted green grasses. Tall drifts of yellow and white ox eye daisies and unruly purple knapweed grew through the thick vegetation.  Common vetch, dotted with pink pea flowers, and buttery yellow bird’s foot trefoil scrambled through the rough cover holding on wherever they could.  A few common spotted and marsh orchids added a little exoticism.  Along the edge of the brook there were stands of dog rose with their floppy, pale pink petals. With all these flowers about, bees were abundant.

The reserve ends at a bridge where the Brook empties into the estuary of the river Teign between huge swathes of tea-coloured reed beds and shiny pillows of brown mud.  The same reeds form a narrow border to the brook.  The bridge area was the part of the reserve where the Bee Orchids were supposed to be, so I looked very carefully within the grass.  They were quite easy to spot, six fine flower spikes standing about 20 cm above the ground with triple propeller-like, pinkish-violet sepals surrounding their complex flowers.

From the bridge, a path returns along the other side of Aller Brook and, at least at the beginning, the vegetation is quite similar.  Compact tracts of grassland sloped downwards to the Brook; common vetch scrambled through the grass accompanied by a few pyramidal orchids.  This side of the reserve, however, felt more contained with stands of brambles and thick tree cover attempting to mask the nearby main road.  It was still slightly unnerving to see glimpses of cars speeding past at 70 mph about 20 metres away.  Incongruously, near here I found another impressive group of Bee Orchids, five spikes in total, with two growing perilously close to the path edge.

As the reserve narrows, so does the path and for some time I walked along a green corridor beneath thick tree cover with relative shade and few flowers.  Eventually the path emerged into the light near a very busy roundabout and the car park of the Toby Carvery.  A ranger I had met earlier told me to look at the grassy area around the car park.  I had to ask a cuddling couple sitting on the edge of this area if they minded if I wandered around the grass but eventually I found thirteen flowering spikes of Bee Orchids looking very fresh, together with one pyramidal orchid.  This unlikely and rather bleak urban spot has a better population of Bee Orchids than the Nature Reserve itself!

There is something very beautiful and rather weird about the flowers of the Bee orchid when you look beyond the three pink sepals.  The most obvious part is the lower petal, the labellum, largely a rich dark red but decorated with variable, yellow horseshoe patterns.  Either side of the labellum are two spurs with a furry surface.  Above the labellum is a pale green arching structure containing two small yellow balls (pollinia) supported by fine threads so that when the wind blows these vibrate.  Above this pale green structure are two horns.

As the name of the orchid suggests, some people see a bee in the complex structure of the flowers.  They imagine the body of a chunky bee (the labellum, complete with furry extensions) with antennae (the two horns) and wings (two of the sepals).  To be honest, I don’t get this – all I see is a complex and idiosyncratic flower but perhaps I am being too literal.  I showed the pictures to Hazel, however, and she immediately saw the bee.

The apparent resemblance of the flowers to bees is also linked with theories of pollination whereby a male bee sees the orchid “bee”, thinks it is a female and tries to pseudo-copulate.  As it does so, it picks up pollen from the pollinia and when it leaves, disappointed, it tries again on another flower pollinating it at the same time.  In southern Europe, the Bee Orchid is cross-pollinated by bees of the Eucera genus but to me none of these bees looks anything like the Bee orchid.  But anyway, who knows what a bee “sees” and it has been suggested that the odour of the flower is more important in attracting the male bees.  To complicate things even more, Bee Orchids in the UK self-pollinate so they manage without bees.

Visiting a place like Aller Brook I can’t help but reflect on our relationship with nature.   I really like the Aller Brook Nature Reserve, there’s something special about the grassland with its profusion of meadow flowers and the Brook with its resident kingfishers and otters.  I love the orchids.  I can’t, however, help feeling troubled by the urban noise, the proximity of traffic and light industry.  This juxtaposition of modern urban life with some of the real glories of nature highlights our dysfunctional relationship with wildlife.  Is this tiny scrap of land the best we can do?  Surely we should be giving nature a higher priority rather than endlessly building roads and houses?

As I thought about this, Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi kept coming back to me, particularly the words:

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”

I visited Aller Brook Nature Reserve on May 30th 2017

Common spotted orchid
Cut-leaved cranesbill and common spotted orchid

 

Bee orchid 1
Bee orchid

 

Bee on knapweed
Bumblebee (male B.pratorum) on knapweed

 

Bee orchid 3
Bee orchids showing pollinia

 

Aller Brook
Aller Brook

 

Toby Carvery Car Park
The car park of the Toby Carvery