Meadow Life In Miniature

Soldier_beetle_(Cantharis_rustica)

Last weekend my wife and I paid a visit to Long Close Gardens in Woodhouse Eaves, North-West Leicestershire, open as part of the National Garden Scheme. The Gardens themselves are absolutely fantastic, a real haven for wildlife and they are recognised as one of the best open gardens in the UK, winning awards and international plaudits. Tucked beyond the hedge on one side, almost hidden from view, is the real gem though; acre upon acre of undisturbed ancient wildflower meadow, managed by the gardeners and open to the public. Owing to modern, intensive agriculture, just 1% of ancient wildlfower meadow remains in the UK and that is a real tragedy; meadows are one of the most diverse habitats on the planet and their destruction has seen a decline in British flora and fauna incomparable to anything else.

It was, sadly, the first time in my 29 years that I have ever had the pleasure to stand in the middle of an ancient meadow and wow, what an experience it was. Everything was just coming into bloom and the sheer noise from the frankly vast amount of birds and the constant buzz of the insects was overwhelming. Never, within such a small space, have I seen life prevail in such abundance. Excuse the number of pictures below, but they need sharing! If you get a chance to visit; go.

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Just a small part of the Meadow at Long Close
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Another section of Meadow
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It keeps on going
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And on…

Inspired by this meadow and with yesterdays blazing 26c sunshine I went for a stroll down to the unimproved grassland just beyond the rail bridge in the edgeland in the hope of finding some of the day-flying Moths to tick off my list that I am unlikely to ever trap in the garden and I wasn’t disappointed. Now it is in no way comparable to the stunning scenes above, but, the grassland here, having been left ungrazed and unmanaged for several years, is starting to thrive. The fields are yellow with several different species of Buttercup and interlaced with patches of Common Vetch, Red Clover and Cuckoo flower whilst the hedgerows are alive with Dead-Nettle, Cow Parsley and Great Willowherb.

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Cantharis rustica

I didn’t have to walk far, just a few metres into the flowering grass, to find signs of life not always so obvious to the casual walker. The first critters I stumbled across were a community of vibrant Solider Beetles, Cantharis rustica, clumsily climbing the stems of grass and flitting from flower-head to flower-head in search of prey. Soldier beetles are often found in gardens too but as they often resemble parasitic wasps in flight they are swiftly shooed away. In fact, Soldier beetles are one of the most beneficial insects in the garden and should be widely recognised as the gardeners friend; the larvae, also veracious predators, feed on a number of pest-species eggs before hibernating and emerging as adults in Spring. The adults feed on aphids and other small insects but also consume nectar and pollen; their habit of leaping from flower-to-flower makes them an important pollinator too.

At the field boundary, with rain plentiful the week before, the now full ditch beneath the Blackthorn hedge has pushed new blooms into life that further enhance the common grassland flowers. An exposed break in the hedge sports a deeper section of ditch surrounded by a large patch of Brooklime in full bloom. Hoverflies of a variety too vast to record are drawn in by the blue flowers and promise of water; so manic and busy are they in dart-like hovered flight, a mere dizzying murmuration of wing-beats and yet when pause is taken to nectar lazily on the blooms they are instantly fragile and intricate in design.

Running alongside almost the entirety of the ditch is an abundance of lush, green growth that can only be Great Willowherb. Still a month or so away from showing its tall spires of pink flowers, the plants are already providing a vital resource for some of the local insects. On closer inspection the leaves have been visibly munched away at, little holes are present on almost every leaf and in plain sight, so is the culprit. Dozens of little blue-green flea beetles, Altica lythri, rest on the leaves, sunning themselves in the sticky heat. This particular flea beetle feeds almost exclusively on Great Willowherb and so it’s easy to exclude most others on identification. The numbers have clearly swelled thanks to some recent wet weather, humid air and now solid sunshine causing new leaf to unfurl at a rate of knots. It makes perfect conditions for breeding too.

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Altica lythri

Back into the grassland but still close enough to the ditch to absorb the moisture, is a bit of a wet-pasture specialist; Cuckoo Flower in full bloom, which, being a Moth-man, raises my eyebrows immediately. Cuckoo flower is one of just two foodplants of the day-flying Meadow Long-horn moth, Cauchas rufimitrella, the other being Garlic Mustard. Whilst this is the larval food-plant, so too the adult visits solely these on which to nectar and, though Cuckoo flower can be abundant the Meadow Long-horn is considered scarce in Leicestershire although I think this could be as much to do with under-recording as anything else. I’m in luck though as right on cue and as if by magic there’s a single moth on the first flower I look at. The Longhorns are difficult to photograph, they shimmer iridescent with the light, one moment blue, then green, gold and most notably on the screen of a digital camera, black. Some of the Longhorns look remarkable similar and In a previous post a few weeks ago I shared photographs of a very similar moth in the edgeland woods. Luckily, this one is identifiable by its smaller size and it’s attraction to the Cuckoo flower. Another tick for the year list.

There is a Moth that I have been wanting and waiting to see for quite a while and again it is not overly common in many parts of Leicestershire. I’ve been waiting for the perfect combination of flower, strong sunshine, mild temperatures and light winds and so, although the Long-horn was a great spot, I was intent on finding this little beast on a day like this. It flies only in May and June, in strong sunshine, but the Small Yellow Underwing is well worth the wait. This diminutive moth is actually a macro and is particularly active; darting around amongst long grass and meadow flowers at close to ground level it can be easily missed and unless you seek it out, you probably wouldn’t notice it at all.

Tip-toeing through the field, eyes to the floor, this Buttercup rich, long grass is perfect habitat for the Small Yellow Underwing but I keep drawing a blank. Instead I watch on as dozens upon dozens of Red-tailed Bumblebee workers forage tirelessly. It strikes me as an abundance of Red-tailed’s that I havn’t seen before and I’m puzzled as to why there seem to be comparitively few other Bumblebees making the most of this meadow feast.Bombus_lapidarius01 On the other side of the grassland is a dry hedge where the buttercups melt away into a lush margin of nettle, dandelion and bramble interspersed with the mauve flowers of Common Vetch and the blues of Field Speedwell. As I stopped to observe the myriad of spiders and flies playing cat and mouse amongst the nettles I clumsily knocked a patch of Meadow Buttercup with my leg and from this, a delicate flutter of wings darted to the next patch of grass. I’d found it, and not just one, but a colony of six or seven all fluttering around in the long grasses like thistle seeds on a breeze. As one paused and I tried to take a photograph it simply leapt away, impossible to follow its dusty tones through the grey-browns of the grass. Onto the next one and it’s a repeat; the cycle continued on until I gave up trying to photograph them (the pictures below are not mind) and just spent some time looking, admiring.

It’s not often a naturalist leaves his home with intent to see a single species, so reliant on specific conditions and see the plan come to fruition, but when it happens it’s a great feeling.

SmYellowUnderwing_PrioryW_12May08 2397 Small Yellow Underwing

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