Tag Archives: butterflies

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.

Butterflies, flowers and imaginings by the River Avon in Devon

On a sunny day in late July, we walked by one of Devon’s rivers. With holidays and visitors, it’s taken me until now to write about it.

We started our walk from the village of Loddiswell, high above the river valley. On this warm late July day, we descended through quiet lanes confined by steep Devon Banks alive with a confetti of butterflies (mostly Meadow Brown and White). In spring, these banks are painted white with the starry flowers of Wild Garlic (Ramsons) mixed with splashes of Red Campion, but although there are few flowers now, something must be attracting the butterflies. At Reads Farm we left the road and took a path under trees and beside a stream to reach open grassland bordering the river.

River Avon near Loddiswell
The river Avon near Loddiswell

This is the middle Avon, part of this Devon river that rises high on Dartmoor dropping down to reach the sea at Bantham and Bigbury on Sea. Rain had been sparse recently and the quiet state of the river reflected this.

Comma butterfly
A Comma butterfly

We headed upstream on a riverside path enclosed by tall grasses and brambles, accompanied by more butterflies including this beautiful Comma. The dry, warm summer has been good for butterflies and I can’t remember having seen so many for some years.

Marsh woundwort
Marsh woundwort

Near the same spot was a stand of tall plants with striking orchid-like pink flowers; these are Marsh Woundwort, a plant of damp places. Woundwort features in both Gerard’s and Culpeper’s Herbals and, as the name implies, it has a long history in folk medicine for use in wound healing.

Soon the path entered woodland. The river was still close by and the tree-canopy cooled the air and dimmed the light. There are supposed to be Dippers and Grey Wagtails but we don’t see these birds today. We do see a Blackcap and my daughter sees the unmistakeable iridescent blue flash of a Kingfisher. There are Otters in the Avon and sometimes you can see otter spraint on the river bank, the closest I have come to a seeing a wild otter.

Railway Bridge over Avon 1
The old railway bridge over the Avon

Eventually, the old railway bridge appeared ahead of us. Although the bridge is a human artefact, its mellow brick now blends in well with the trees surrounding it. The sunlight filtering through the trees and reflecting from the water produced ever changing dappled patterns on the old brickwork. In the photograph of the bridge (below) the image is confusing because of the almost perfect reflection of the bridge on the surface of the still water.

Railway Bridge over Avon

We crossed the bridge to head downstream on a path continuing through woodland along the track bed of the former South Brent-Kingsbridge railway. This opened in 1893 and ran for seventy years; some called it the Primrose Line because of the profusion of these flowers in spring. Eventually, we come upon the old Loddiswell Station, largely intact. This used to serve legendary cream teas but we are out of luck today as the buildings are up for sale. When the trains ran, the station was said to be a “brisk walk away” from the village. What they didn’t say was that this included a steep hill and, after crossing the river again, that is our route back to the car.
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I recently read “The Old Ways” by Robert Macfarlane describing his many walks along long-established paths. I was particularly interested in his idea that in walking along an old path it might be possible to “slip back out of this modern world”, to conjure up traces of past lives. As we walked along the track bed of the old railway, I thought again about this idea. Could I find any trace of former lives as we walked here?

When this railway came to Kingsbridge near the end of the 19th century, it would have changed people’s lives. South Devon would have become more accessible. Local produce could be sent further afield; this included crabs and lobsters for London and Southampton (for the liners). The railway would have carried men off to two wars and the lucky ones would have returned. The railway would have brought people to Kingsbridge for holidays and in 1939 children evacuated to Kingsbridge would have passed this way.

Many of these events would have been coloured with high emotion. As I walked, I could imagine some of the events and how people might have felt. These sensations were heightened by finding the old station buildings which gave me a tangible framework for my imaginings. Perhaps that’s what Macfarlane means by slipping out of this modern world.

The photographs are by Hazel Strange.