Here’s a number sequence. 1.5,0,1.5,0,6.5,16,11,2,0,4,8,3,8,8,0,4, 0.5,5,0,3,1 What does it signify? Well simply the daily rainfall totals in mm for July so far. Nothing too dramatic, and whilst there’s relief that watering is no longer needed for outside vegetable growth, which is powering away, there’s huge frustration at the challenge of trying to make decent hay in West Wales this year. Manually!
No matter how many forecasts are scanned, all have struggled this year to give an accurate guide to whether or not rain is going to fall within a given 24 hour period, and if so, when. And as any hay maker knows, even light rain can quickly spoil a partially dried crop. How folk coped before internet forecasts, or how meteorologists and astrophysicists are now arguing over whether in Northern latitudes we are heading for a mini ice age and Maunder minimum, or further rising temperatures, when predicting the weather just a day ahead seems so fraught, is a constantly intriguing issue for me. But now, as manual hay makers, our only option is to take a punt and cut the hay meadow in small blocks, with a win some/lose some philosophy.
But at least techniques honed in last year’s wonderful extended dry spell have stood us in good stead. If in doubt, the cut grass is quickly shifted onto a previously harvested, and therefore already drier strip, which always speeds grass drying, then manually tossed and if rain threatens, the still not fully wilted hay can be raked into big bags, put under a tarpaulin, and brought out for a final drying and turning and then manual baling, on another day. But all much more physically demanding than watching it wither under scorching skies. Click here for last year’s post for more on the manual hay baler. And as the field’s patina changes, and as we move towards a more traditional mix of grasses and flowering plants, the crop is becoming less lush, and so even this year the possibility of producing lovely hay with only about 24 to 36 hours drying time from cutting, becomes achievable, when working on such a small scale.
This field now has potentially 2 new, or different, names…
Either Longevity hill, for the healthy cardio-respiratory effects of working hay on its slopes, and dragging material up and down (often quicker and simpler than resorting to an ATV), and sometimes back up again. (Click here for the location of the more famous longevity hill). I shall ignore the downside of joint stresses from always working with feet at permanent, and varying angles during this healthy exercise.
Or Cae uwchben y ty , which we discovered from Glyn recently is what he called the field when, as a young boy, his family first moved to the property. Meaning, quite simply, ‘the field above the house’. In addition we now have Cae bach (little field)… Cae efail (blacksmith’s field)… since a blacksmith apparently used to have a forge in the end of what we’ve always known as ‘the cowshed’ – perhaps it needs to be renamed as the smithy. And finally Dol bach (small meadow) for the small valley bottom field… No name apparently for the larger meadow field, so perhaps this should be Dol mawr (big meadow)… And in the middle distance, beyond the wood across the stream, the humpy field of our neighbour to the East, was known as Cae castell (castle field), denoting a fort in the very dim and distant past. Complete with rumours of a mediaeval or earlier, weapons’ stash being uncovered years ago, when ditches were cleared. Local oral history, presumably passed through generations around roaring fires, now making it onto the nebulous web. Perhaps we should buy a metal detector, and go prospecting?
So you will see that the ‘Longevity hill’, and ‘pelotons’ in this post’s title have nothing to do with the (ongoing) 2015 Tour de France, in which Britain’s Chris Froome, aided by the recently shunted and crashed Welsh rider Geraint Thomas, still currently wears the yellow jersey and heads up the ‘peloton’. But as in previous posts, I’ve now encountered an additional meaning for this French word which describes the main group of cyclists in a road race. And this came about whilst researching Orchid seed germination. (More Cwmdu meadow orchids below, from a return visit)…
Many readers will know that Orchid seed is incredibly fine, almost like dust. An individual seed contains an embryo surrounded by a casing which is itself encased within a matrix of dead cells and air in a honeycomb like structure. To get some idea of how amazing and variable these are from differebt species, click here, for a glimpse of electron micrographs and text from “Orchid seed diversity – A scanning electron microscopy survey. By Wilhelm Barthlott, Bernadette Große-Veldmann and Nadja Korotkova.”
What this morphology gives the seeds is the potential for very wide dispersal over great distances on the wind, but it also leaves the seed with almost minimal stored nutrient for establishing a new plant. So how, and why do terrestrial native orchids populate particular fields, or meadows? And how easy is it to establish them?
Although you can now buy examples of several species of native orchids for planting out, these have all been germinated in a laboratory on a specialised gel medium, which supplies all the missing nutrients necessary for a developing orchid plant. In the natural environment, the whole germination process is dependent upon the interaction of specific fungi with the orchid seed. (Our single meadow orchid setting seed for a second year, below. How long before we find a companion appearing?)
Huge numbers of seed will land on potentially suitable sites, but in most cases the seeds will be inactive until the following spring, by which time rains and physical actions will have moved them into the leaf litter, or upper soil layers. Here, fungal hyphae – those thread like structures that form a network or mycelium, send tiny outgrowths which either penetrate the case of the embryo itself, or the very tiny root the embryo is capable of starting with its very limited stored food reserves. The fungus then very quickly establishes microscopic structures resembling balls of tagliatellae within the orchid’s individual cells. From these structures, also known scientifically as pelotons, nutrients and more specifically Carbon and Nitrogen, are passed from the fungus to the orchid, allowing it to develop and grow. Click here and here, for some great scientific papers with more detail on what is clearly a very complex symbiotic association. Without these fungal pelotons, the orchid seed will never be able to develop.
And so the key to whether orchids colonise a particular plot of land probably owes much more to what is going on beneath the soil surface, a largely hidden world to us land carers and whether the right fungi already exist there. Are the 2 recent waxcap mushrooms shown below, and still popping up throughout the meadow – revealed once cutting has occurred – suitable fungi? I have no idea. Orchid seed availability itself, which in this part of the world may well be pretty universal given the numbers of orchids surviving in several nearby flower meadows like those near Cwmdu, may be less of a limiting factor. And remarkably for such tiny seeds, recent work has shown considerable longevity for some species of many years under field conditions. Click here for more.
With time, the orchid, thanks to its fungal support system, is able to develop roots of its own, and eventually a primitive storage organ called a protocorm, beneath the soil. When this is large enough, and this may take a few years, the orchid can finally make its own leaves, and appear above ground, and eventually become large enough to flower. At the same time many species produce swollen root like structures resembling testicles, and this accounts for the ‘orchid’ name chosen to describe this, one of the 2 largest plant families in the world with around 25,000 species. Once an above ground photosynthesising plant develops, the orchid may even pay the fungus back for its generous help, by passing some of its own carbohydrate products of photosynthesis, back to the fungus.
Understanding a little of this vital process of mycoheterotrophy (the ability of some plants to live on fungal carbon) is helpful in reinforcing the message to never apply either artificial NPK fertilisers, or organic animal manures to traditional hay meadows, if you’re keen on developing maximum floral diversity – including orchids. (Spot the flowers in a nearby intensively managed dairy farm fields). Since the Phosophorus component of any such additions will drastically affect fungal activity below the soil surface. Click here for more. And here for why interactions between many other plants and arbuscular mycorrhizae fungi are now viewed as being even more complex than previously thought!
Years ago I spent considerable sums on soil mineral analysis from our own in-tyre vegetable garden soil, and compared it with our then neighbour’s conventional ‘organic’ plot on which home produced goat manure had been liberally spread, since I was worried about potential leaching of toxic materials from the tyres, into our soil. The results were surprising – a warning from the lab of excessively high phosphorus levels from the ‘organic’ manure enriched soil which would impair the uptake by plants of many other nutrients. Our in-tyre soil appeared normal, for all minerals assayed.
There are other issues to consider if you’re rearing stock in high rainfall areas like ours, in that soils may well be depleted of some trace minerals. We’ve tried to address these perhaps conflicting demands of trying to mitigate potential trace mineral deficiencies, whilst avoiding damage to supportive fungal networks, by spreading in a very limited way, either dried seaweed extracts onto some portions of our land, or using limited amounts of wood ash.
But I wonder how much gardeners can learn from this natural interaction in our hay meadows between plants and fungi – different members of 2 of the 5 kingdoms of life on earth?.
How often are we exhorted to whack on the muck or manure, or plenty of organic matter?
What impact will this have on our garden’s subterranean fungi?
Perhaps less, really would result in more? This is an area I shall definitely return to, since it has stimulated a lot of thought on how little I really understand about what we are doing in our garden!
Whilst all this below ground activity goes unseen, and we struggle around the field trying to harvest usable hay, I’ve been wondering how best to maximise the meadow’s potential for supporting moths, butterflies and other invertebrates. Already things have progressed hugely from last year. We’ve had large numbers of Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet moths, and lots of Meadow Browns… Large and Small Skippers and Ringlets, adding movement to the meadow scene this year. Even another Scarlet Tiger moth…And constant chirring grasshoppers… But clearly removing all the hay simultaneously from a field will destroy their habitat at a stroke. So what are the recommendations for aiding their survival?
To my surprise, I failed miserably to find anything at all specific on this, searching for either butterflies, or more generally for invertebrates. There is a link here, on the Buglife website, which gives some general advice for upland hay meadows, but I thought I’d better go back to first principles.
Clearly a key parameter is how long the butterfly or moth egg takes to hatch – since if laid and stuck securely to a leaf stem, as many are, any laid on vegetation that is cut during hay cropping will be removed from the field and perish. I figured that once hatched, there would at least be some chance that the juvenile caterpillar might drop off the drying, and dying, plant material in a hay crop, and survive either on the aftermath regrowth, or by crawling to some nearby intact vegetation.
So this year, I’ve been removing the hay in blocks, leaving strips of intact vegetation behind. This has the added benefit of concentrating butterfly activity into the remaining areas, so that they’re a bit easier to observe, and any eggs laid in these strips will have even longer to develop and hatch. I discovered that most meadow butterflies have eggs which take 2 to 3 weeks to hatch, and in the absence of anything specific, my guess is that the Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet moths (above and below) will be similar. In addition, most adults will mate within the first 2 to 3 days after emergence from their pupae, and rarely live longer than 2 weeks So the plan is that the strips between blocks will remain for at least this time period – hopefully more like a month or more, before topping/ cutting or even just being grazed off once we wean our lambs onto this field’s aftermath regrowth. In this research I found the excellent UK butterflies website, which is a mine of detailed butterfly information. Click here for more.
And as often happens, whilst reading about butterfly eggs, I read the site’s comments on butterfly courtship, and mating, and discovered the delightful lepidopteran concepts of sex brands, love dust and hair pencils.
It seems that many butterflies initially use visual cues to help in finding mates, unlike moths where in most cases the receptive female will sit, head down on a suitable stem, and emit a pheromone to attract in any passing males – the best posture for emitting a scent released from its rear. Female moths produce these olfactory attractants from specialised abdominal glands. But, (should you wish!), you might soon be able to buy your own transgenically modified plant synthesised substitutes, which are equally effective at luring moths to a trap. Click here for more..
But in butterflies, for closer interactions, it seems to be the male butterflies which emit specific chemical pheromones. Click here for some elegant Swedish research which demonstrated that in a species also common in the UK, female butterflies’ antennae are about 10 times more sensitive to citral (isolated as the chemical pheromone) used by the Green-veined white butterfly. Without citral, the female was unlikely to accept, or approach either a male butterfly, or indeed a model made using a male butterflies wings. Indeed in most butterfly species, a male is incapable of forcing a mating, unless the female is receptive, and its also been shown that the 3 common white butterflies all use different chemicals as pheromones, presumably as an aid to species differentiation at mating time.
In most butterflies, these pheromones are produced in specialised areas called sex brands, which consist of hair pencils or androconia (the plural form of androconium, a scientific word coined around 1870 from the Greek words for man/male – andros; and dusty – konios). Observations in the 1960’s showed that in a couple of Danaus species butterflies including D.plexippus, (the Monarch butterfly), the males pursue the females, and then douses her from above with scales and pheromones, from these androconia, just prior to mating. This does indeed seem to have very speedy aphrodisiac effects, and the ‘love dusted’ and now receptive female will then fall to the ground where copulation will occur.
In the case of the UK Grayling butterfly, a species I’ve yet to find at Gelli Uchaf, the final part of the courtship flight involves the slight variation of the male ‘bowing’ in front of the female, and bringing his androconia into direct contact with the female’s antennae. The end result is again a hopefully receptive female, and successful mating. I do have several images of the Small Skipper butterfly in this section, which has defined sex brands on its upper forewing – obvious in the pictures accompanying this section, as a fairly narrow black line in the middle of the wing, but as yet no sightings of a mating pair. But after reading all this racy material, I was fortunate to find a pair of Meadow Browns, Maniola jurtina, in the act of mating, as I had an evening wander through the partially cleared meadow. The male butterfly is the lower of the two.
With so much activity in the meadow, the garden has simply chugged along, as a restorative presence, when we’ve had a chance to sit down. Some images follow, but we look forward to a quieter time in August, when we can do some more serious pottering, or just lie back and take it easy…
PS. As we got soaked to the skin, again, whilst bagging up more wet hay, after cutting yesterday afternoon with a clear 3 dry days forecast, I do wonder in our current results based culture about the merit of the reported £250,000 annual pension for the current head of the Met Office, when she retires…