Tag Archives: ragwort

Rewilding a flower-rich meadow – Lockdown Nature WalkS 9

Flower-rich hay meadows were once a major feature of our countryside but from the mid-20th century onwards a tidal wave of agricultural intensification swept across farmland taking away 97% of the hay meadows along with the colourful flowers that once grew there.  Together with increased use of chemicals and pesticides, the effect on wildlife has been devastating with farmland birds such as the linnet and the yellowhammer declining by more than 50% since the 1970s.  It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, when Hazel recently returned from one of her solo walks to tell me she had discovered a flowery meadow on the outskirts of the town with many interesting insects.  So, for my ninth Lockdown Nature Walk I want to take you to this hidden, rather magical place. (For my previous Lockdown Nature Walks, click here).

Our starting point is Harper’s Hill, the old road to Plymouth and the West (see Lockdown Nature Walk 7), that heads steeply upwards away from the town and the main Kingsbridge road.  The walk I shall describe was done on an overcast morning in mid-July. 

After crossing the busy Kingsbridge road, we trudged slowly up the steep hill, soon entering the tree-enclosed part of the track that felt dark, damp and cool that morning.  As we passed a small open area on the right of the track, though, the sun broke through the cloud for a short time, illuminating a large patch of brambles.  Many small brown butterflies flitted about the flowers in the warm sunshine together with bumblebees and one beautiful demoiselle. 

In time, the lane levelled out and along the damp, shaded banks on the left were several patches of an unusual plant with large elongated heart-shaped leaves and bright red candle-shaped flowers.  This is red bistort, probably a garden escapee as my wildflower books don’t consider it suitable to include.  Several black and yellow wasps were nectaring from the flowers that morning.

Red bistort with nectaring wasp

At Tristford Cross, we turned right along the old road above Broomborough Down.  As befits a ridgeway road, there were fine views across countryside towards Dartmoor, and this part of the walk felt bright, breezy and fresh, a perfect antidote to the gloomy national news.  Although the verges were dominated by thuggish swathes of nettles, there were plenty of other flowers.  Common red soldier beetles, popularly referred to as hogweed bonking beetles, were performing on the white, tea plate-sized flowers of their favoured plant whilst honeybees wallowed in frothy, creamy clumps of meadowsweet.

Hogweed with mating pair of common red soldier beetles (Rhagonycha fulva)

We soon reached a clutch of caravans and outbuildings by the roadside, marking the start of a stony track descending downhill, away from the ridgeway road.  The man who lives here keeps chickens and cultivates vegetables and below his neat and tidy settlement there was a large stand of brambles with several white butterflies feeding. 

This stony track is a continuation of Jackman’s Lane (another section was featured in Lockdown Nature Walk 7), a typical green lane with woodland on the left and high Devon hedges on the right.  When I walked here about two weeks previously, the hogweed had just come into flower attracting many black and yellow long-horned beetles.  Since then the vegetation had increased making the lane feel more enclosed.  The hogweed was also past its best but wasps, hoverflies and more soldier beetles were enjoying what remained of the flowers. 

Despite the increased vegetation and the variable cloud cover, plenty of light reached the lane but this changed when tall trees began to enclose the track.  Some way into this darker section we passed an enclosed compound on the right-hand side of the lane, surrounded by sturdy metal fences; this is the Permaculture Centre based around an old concrete water reservoir. 

Hazel carried on down Jackman’s Lane for a longer walk while I located a makeshift path through the line of trees away from the lane, just beyond the Permaculture Centre.  This path is like a portal between two worlds and it transported me from a mostly monochrome green lane into an open grassy meadow set on a steeply sloping hillside and full of colourful flowers and insects.   A bench has been installed at the top of the hill so that people can sit and enjoy the meadow and the views across the town of Totnes and to the hills of Dartmoor.  Follaton Oak, a recent housing development,  lies at the bottom of the meadow.

View from the meadow to the recent housing development and beyond to the Follaton Arboretum and the town of Totnes

I walked slowly downhill, passing a copious clump of brambles where a few bumblebees were feeding from the pinkish flowers.  At first, yellow was the dominant flower colour in the meadow with large amounts of bird’s foot trefoil growing across most of the area.  Although bird’s foot trefoil grows widely in the UK, I don’t remember having seen so much of the plant growing in one place. There were also some yellow heads of a dandelion-family flower bobbing in the breeze (cat’s ear or hawkbit perhaps); a few clumps of thick rushy grass suggested underlying dampness.  Purple began to compete with yellow further down the slope where large stands of thistle and knapweed flourished.  White clover dominated some areas. 

A section of the meadow with bird’s foot trefoil and knapweed

Now and then, the sun broke through the cloud and the mosaic of meadow flowers sparkled in the bright sunlight as though many small, coloured lights had suddenly been switched on. With all these flowers, I expected to find many insects and I wasn’t disappointed.  Red-tailed bumblebees fed from the knapweed and thistles, and crickets and grasshoppers scattered in sudden leaps to avoid me as I walked. The stars of the insect show were, however, the distinctive black and red burnet moths (Zygaena).   These medium-sized, day-flying moths have a wingspan of about 3cm and are unmistakeable.  With their shiny black forewings decorated with red spots, they look as though they have put on smart black jackets with bright red buttons.   Their black, club-shaped antennae are another notable feature. (See pictures at the end of this post)

I came across the burnet moths all over the site, often when they were feeding on knapweed or thistles and occasionally on bird’s foot trefoil.  From my photos and counting the spots on their forewings, they seem to be a mixture of five-spot and six-spot burnets.  When they find a good flower to feed from, they stay there for some time but I did see a few flying about the site.  They fly slowly, almost hovering, exposing their black abdomen and bright red hind wings.  The selection of flowers here is ideal for these moths: bird’s foot trefoil is the preferred food plant of the caterpillar and knapweed and thistles are liked by the adults for nectaring.

The burnet moths were not having it all to themselves, though, as there were butterflies enjoying the meadow as well. A tortoiseshell and a ringlet were flying and on two occasions an orange-brown small skipper butterfly and a burnet moth quietly coexisted on the same knapweed flower head (see picture at the top of this post). 

This is an extensive area of meadow grassland on this hillside above the recent Follaton Oak housing development and I was intrigued to know how it came to be here. The original proposal for the development shows pictures of the area as rough pasture before it was developed but indicates that it should become “ecological grassland”, as it clearly has. The proposal also suggests the planting of fruit trees on the site and there are several apple trees now bearing fruit. 

I wanted to know how the site was maintained so I spoke to Carol Owen of the Follaton Oak Residents Group.  She told me that the meadow is being left to be as wild as possible, mowed and cleared just twice each year.  Docks are becoming rather too prevalent so the residents try to cut these where possible. For the most part, though, no additional seeding had taken place so the many flowers we see now are those that have grown naturally.  Insects have colonised the area showing how easy it can be to achieve a form of rewilding.  The result is this wonderful natural area on the edge of the town.  

From the meadow, there is a precipitous stony path descending between the houses with some good stands of ragwort growing nearby.  Go straight ahead from here to access a path leading to the Follaton Arboretum or walk along the roads between the houses to reach the Plymouth Road for a return to the town centre.

Six-spot burnet moth ( Zygaena filipendulae) feeding on bird’s foot trefoil, note the proboscis probing the flower

Five-spot burnet moth (Zygaena trifoli or lonicerae) feeding on knapweed
Six-spot burnet moth in flight
Meadow grasshopper (Chorthippus parallelus)
Based on its long antennae this is a bush cricket but from the photo, I cant tie this down to a species.
Ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus)

An oasis of calm, a mosaic of environments

Towards the end of July, I visited the Maer, a nature reserve situated at the eastern end of the promenade in Exmouth, a seaside town in the south west of the UK.  With its sand dunes and sandy grassland, the Maer is a remnant of a much larger dune system that once stretched down to the beach. Nowadays, it provides an oasis of calm close to the busy sea front as well as a habitat for special plants and insects.

sea holly growing on the sandy ridge

A slight mist softened the long views as I walked eastwards along Exmouth sea front.  Some warmth penetrated the cloud and a few people were already enjoying the beach on this late summer morning.  The sandy tip of Dawlish Warren lay tantalisingly close across the water and further on, the Ness at Shaldon lurked in the mist like a gigantic wedge of cheese.  The commercial area with its big wheel, pubs and cafes was busy but eventually I reached a quieter part where sand and scrub tumbled downwards at the side of the beach road.  This is the edge of the Maer, a local nature reserve and one of Exmouth’s hidden gems. Superficially, the Maer is a large grassy, sandy space sandwiched between the beach road and Exmouth Cricket Club but it conceals a mosaic of different environments with unusual flora and fauna.

A substantial sandy dune ridge forms the southern border of the Maer giving views across the reserve on one side and towards the beach on the other.  Marram grass grows thickly giving the sand stability but there are also areas of bare sand and areas of scrub, reminders of the dune system that must have occupied this area before the beach road was built.  Restharrow with its pink and white pea-type flowers and a few residual yellow evening primrose provided some colour but it was the sea holly that surprised.   This is an unusual and unexpected plant that grows extensively along the first part of the ridge.  Its spiky greenish-grey leaves with white margins and veins and its powder blue flowers light up the sand as though someone had spilt pale paint.  Sea holly flourishes in these arid conditions by having leaves covered in a waxy cuticle to help retain water and through its deep roots. Although sea holly has some visual resemblance to our Christmas greenery, it is a relative of the carrot; in the past it was employed as an aphrodisiac.

Several large insects with bold black and yellow markings crawled about the bright blue sea holly flowers collecting nectar.  These are beewolves, some of our most spectacular solitary wasps, that nest in sandy places and specialise in catching honeybees.  Both male and female beewolves were feeding that day but it is the larger female (up to about 2cm long) that catches and paralyses honeybees and may be seen flying back to the nest carrying a quiescent honeybee beneath her.  She digs a nest tunnel in sandy soil up to a metre long with multiple terminal branches where she lays eggs and provides honeybees as food for the developing larvae.  These once rare insects have expanded their UK range since the 1980s, possibly in response to climate change and I saw them in several places on the reserve notably on a stand of mauve thistles. They are not aggressive towards humans.

Further along the ridge, before it is colonised by brambles, scrub and low trees, I found a large clump of an unruly scrambling plant covered in pea-type flowers of an impressive reddish-pink colour.  This is broad-leaved everlasting pea, a perennial relative of our annual sweet pea, growing through the grasses on the Maer ridge holding on via thin tendrils.  A chunky dark bee was feeding from the flowers, apparently undeterred by their jerky movements in the breeze. This was a leafcutter bee, most likely the Coast Leafcutter Bee that favours sandy habitats near the sea.  They nest in burrows in vegetated sand lined with pieces of leaf cut from trees and plants.    Later, when the sun came out, I saw several of these bees chasing one another around the bright pink flowers like children in a playground.

The large central part of the reserve was coated with golden brown grass criss-crossed with paths for walkers and looking very dry, a reflection of the recent lack of rain.  Within the grass were mats of restharrow and many of the yellow dandelion-like flowers of catsear.  One area resembled a lunar landscape with many small craters where the surface had been dug out exposing the sand.  Solitary wasps and small leafcutter bees had happily nested here.

Tall clumps of ragwort with bright yellow daisy-like flowers and deeply lobed green leaves were dotted around the central area. This plant provides valuable habitat and food for invertebrates and I found one clump that had been appropriated by black caterpillars with prominent yellow bands.  They were moving about, eating the leaves of the ragwort, voraciously consuming the greenery and destroying the upper parts of the plant.  These are caterpillars of the cinnabar moth and as they feed, they assimilate some of the toxic alkaloids contained in ragwort, rendering themselves unpalatable to birds and other predators.  It is said that their yellow stripes act as a warning to birds.   Once fed and mature, the caterpillars dig themselves into the ground to spend 12 months or so as pupae before emerging as beautiful day-flying red and black moths.  The adult moths live for a few weeks, feeding on nectar before mating and laying eggs on the ragwort leaves.  The eggs grow into caterpillars and the cycle starts all over again.   The cinnabar moth is entirely dependent on ragwort for its survival.

Towards the western end of the reserve, I found a large colony of flowering plants, perhaps suggesting damper conditions.  Clumps of common mallow up to a metre tall dominated with their trumpet flowers composed of five deep pink petals each with purple stripes.  At the centre of each flower was a mass of grey pollen-covered stamens emanating from a single stalk like a miniature bunch of flowers.  Near the mallow, large areas were covered by a sprawling, scrambling plant richly covered with pea-like flowers above many small, spear-shaped, mid green leaves.  Flower colours varied from very pale to light blue, mauve and deep purple with some plants having several of these colour variants.  One plant even had bright yellow flowers.  This is Sand Lucerne, a fertile hybrid of lucerne and sickle medic, naturalised in East Anglia, where its two parents grow together, but now transplanted elsewhere.

There’s so much to see at the Maer and I could easily have spent several more hours looking about.  But I had a train to catch so I headed back along the promenade and across the town towards the station.

This article appeared in the October edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The picture at the head of this article shows the sandy ridge just above the seafront in Exmouth and the clump of broad-leaved everlasting pea.

 

beewolf on sea holly
male beewolf on sea holly

 

Female beewolf on thistle
female beewolf on thistle

 

Broad-leaved everlasting pea with leafcutter bee
leafcutter bee on broad-leaved everlasting pea

 

cinnabar moth caterpillars on ragwort
cinnabar moth caterpillars on ragwort

 

common mallow
common mallow

 

Sand Lucerne
sand lucerne