Meadow Musings

After about 4 years of starting to get to grips with managing and trying to restore the meadows around our cottage home, (initially a sadly fairly low priority for us in the long list of jobs to do when you take on a derelict property), I thought it would be helpful to group any postings that I’ve written on the subject of our meadows in one place, in chronological order to save ferreting around through all my previous blog posts. So that’s the purpose of this page.

As of May 2015, I volunteered to set up and run a website for the fledgling Carmarthenshire Meadows Group, so now many of the posts I and others write about this subject can be found by clicking here.

I’ll try to eventually preface it with a subfolder showing all the flowers and grasses which I’ve found are now growing on these 11 acres. Starting in this year 2015. I’m sure species diversity will increase with time, but these are the plants available to our small flock of Tor Ddu sheep to graze on. Compare this with a typical modern pasture field.

What does any other lamb or meat we eat feed on?

Does it affect flavour?

Are we aware of how much more carbon is stored in the soil of a permanent pasture hay meadow, compared with any other form of land management in the UK – including forestry?

And what about the huge diversity of life which also makes a home in a typical upland hay meadow?

Are you interested, and do you care? If so, do read on, and I hope you might learn something from our journey of discovery, over the years.

For a very quick overview of some key ideas, watch the recorded zoom talk from 2021, covering many important aspects of our wildflower meadows, but do set your You Tube settings to HD, to appreciate the images:

Or to see how the upper hay meadow was looking on June 23 2021, watch the short You Tube clip below, then compare it with our early scenes, and notes over the years, listed below: 

From 27/09/2012:

Pounding the upper hay meadow path in drizzle meant I spotted these quite large ( 5 to 6 cm) pinkish brown Waxcap mushrooms.

And as I consulted my excellent Roger Phillips authored ‘Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe’ to identify this large species, the page fell open on Page 62, and there it was, Hygrocybe calyptriformis (calyptraeformis). The appropriately named Pink Waxcap. And even more interestingly, since there were perhaps a dozen of these mushrooms within a few yards of the meadow path, it’s listed as a rare mushroom. In fact so rare that it features as one of the few Red Data Book mushroom species in the UK, and it’s been given a place in Biodiversity Action Plans for the UK. If you’re interested in more on this species, click here for what seems to be a very comprehensive 27 page review of it and its distribution, produced by Plantlife.

Perhaps I should even let someone know I’ve found it, since there are so few records of sightings, most of the local ones being in village churchyards, where benign sward neglect allows it to thrive. It joins a list of notable rare species, (e.g.Marsh Fritillary Butterfly, Forester Moth, Trichiosoma sorbii- Club-Horned Sawfly) found at Gelli Uchaf, and testament to the currently unspoiled nature of the environment. And yet another encouraging endorsement of how pastures will become more bio-diverse over time, if you stop the N.P.K fertilizer and intensive grazing! Also as I’ve written in the blog before, several Waxcap species have a stronghold in the wet mossy unspoiled pastures of Carmarthenshire, and indeed this weekend I think that there are guided fungi forays taking place at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, hoping to find a variety of Waxcaps in the organic grazed pastures of the estate…

…… And a circuit of the same path in sunshine was timed perfectly with the setting sun for another ‘Taller when Prone’ moment…

From 10/10/2012:

More mushrooms have popped up in the garden as autumnal temperatures and rainfall stimulate fruiting, including a rare Yellow Waxcap probably Hygrocybe subglobispora, in the High Meadow, a short distance from all the Red Data Book Pink Waxcaps mentioned in the last post…..

….. another unknown from the High Meadow…

 From 4/07/2013:

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Most people in the UK will know that over the last few decades nearly 98% of permanent hay meadows have been ploughed up and lost to more intensive agriculture. We’re incredibly lucky to have a network of small traditional hay meadows in the ‘cwm’ or valleys that Gelli looks out onto. These may not produce the weight of crop that a resown, heavily fertilised modern ley will, but the diversity of plants and sheer numbers of flowers that an old hay meadow contains is astounding. And it’s associated huge insect population. Our neighbour’s adjacent hay meadow (above) has reached this glorious state, over the last 20 years, simply by lack of fertiliser application, late hay cutting, and short grazing over the winter months. I can’t say for certain whether Yellow Rattle was even sown into this field, or whether it has arrived on its own, but its now a dominant feature. This hemi-parasitic plant has been recognised for some time as being a key element in restoring grassland plant diversity by weakening the growth of some of the more powerful native grasses. One of the last areas where we would like to create an impact at Gelli is indeed our native meadows. None have been ploughed for decades, or received any artificial fertiliser during our time at Gelli (as far as we know!) but certainly not for the last 7 years.

Until we acquired our own sheep last year, we were limited by our ability to control grazing strategies. Starting with a just few sheep meant that last year our High Meadow was under-grazed, and although we manually removed a hay crop from perhaps 15% of the field, the majority of the pasture was left ungrazed until autumn. Our sheep then made very little impact on these lengthy areas over the winter and early spring.SDIM1867 (2)

The result has been a fascinating patchwork of appearance by this summer – the areas cut for hay last year are already showing small numbers of Creeping and Meadow Buttercup, Sheep Sorrel, and Dandelions and restrained grass growth.SDIM1873 (2)

A very few Yellow Rattle plants have germinated in a couple of places from a few seed sown last autumn.SDIM1852 (2)

There are quite large patches where scattered seed of Birdsfoot Trefoil, Lotus corniculatus, sown just 2 years ago, seems to have already established in an almost monocultural slab, although with different flowering times throughout its population.SDIM1849 (2)

And a few areas of Lesser Stitchwort, Germander Speedwell, Pink and White clovers and even the odd plant of Whorled Caraway, which I discovered is a nationally rare native, but has been selected as the county flower for Carmarthenshire.SDIM1870 (2)

What has caused this huge variation in how this single, barely 1 acre, meadow looks this year?SDIM1861 (2)

Is it the result of inorganic variations beneath the soil surface?SDIM1856 (2)

Or are invisible fungal networks or some other organic factors involved? I’ve often wondered how several plants which we grow in the garden (particularly natives) will move in a drifting, and sometimes expanding ring, fashion away from their initial location which they vacate completely within just a few years?SDIM1886 (2) …(The central green band is of native Ivy-leaved Bellflower, Wahlenbergia hederacea, in our mossy copse, which has relocated from an original few scraps at the left margin of the image to this central strip. None remains in the original location. I fear that it will die out as it meets the slightly more vigorous non native Chrysoplenium davidianum, stage right).

Are the same processes at work here?SDIM1846 (2)

I’d realised that Yellow Rattle could play a key role in restoring flower diversity in this meadow and so had collected some seed locally 2 years ago. Sowing these onto our wild flower ‘Berm’ produced a few flowers with viable seed, which last year got sown mainly onto the poorly covered bank above our vegetable Big BagsSDIM1848 (2)

– figuring that this would provide a bigger still yield of seed for sowing into the meadow next year. It has indeed flowered well this year, but I found some fascinating recent papers on the value and techniques for using Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus minor, in this way to change meadow flower compositions. Click here and here and here. The key points seem to be:

  •  Expect it to take 10 years! Actually I reckon our recent lack of fertiliser use gives us a head start, and hope that 5 years will see a huge change.
  • The weight of rattle seed sown in a finite area initially had a big effect on the number of rattle plants growing in the first 3 years, but by year 4, the natural seed production in situ had ironed out these differences. Fresh seed from this year’s harvest must be sown in the autumn, since it has poor long term viability and needs autumn chilling to germinate.
  • Until the Yellow rattle has started to weaken natural grass growth, sowing other flowers or ‘forbs’ is not likely to be very successful (although my Birdsfoot Trefoil experience seems to contradict this).
  • Cutting for hay in late July seems to be the optimum time. This is fortunately the usual ideal time in our upland meadows, (weather permitting) since growth is often slower earlier in the year than in lowland areas. Normal hay making procedures will result in natural spreading of both Yellow Rattle and other forb seed around the pasture. Of course the current trend for silage or haylage completely eliminates the opportunity for Yellow Rattle, and other meadow flowers to have flowered and seeded before being cut down, and is another reason for the lack of diversity in modern pasture fields.
  • Short grazing of the pasture in late autumn and early spring is really important – this allows a short height of grass growth for when the annual Yellow Rattle has to germinate, and grow through other plants, and trampling by stock in the autumn helps to push seed into the ground.
  • A short cut approach discussed in one of the papers above, would be to spray off all existing grass with glyphosate, but given our distrust of this omnipotent chemical, is not an option we’d consider.

However I’m hopeful that some areas of the meadow where the previous year’s rank grass seems to have effectively killed off most of the permanent grass, simply by flopping onto it over winter, provides an opportunity to sow into terrain not dissimilar to a weed killed field, albeit with a healthy mossy soil covering.

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From 30/07/2013:

Shortly after my last post we’d began our tedious manual small scale hay making on our steeply sloping field by strimming off selected areas of our this hay/wild flower meadow. I reckoned strimming around the empty bee hive might be a good idea as well since the developing heatwave may have triggered a swarm nearby. Indeed we’d both seen and heard a mini swarm fly overhead and down our track, a couple of days earlier. So 2 days later I got quite excited when Fiona noticed a few bees exploring the hive entrance at dusk…S1010001 (2)A day later and the numbers had increased, and another day saw tens of bees around the entrance in the mid day heat, which by now was regularly hitting the high ‘ 20’s degrees C…S1010006 (2)By dusk, activity seemed to have ceased, and keen to see whether anything was happening inside I carefully lifted the top super off the hive (after first pressing an ear to the flaky paint of the exterior for any sound of significant bee activity. None was detected)…S1010007 (2)To my surprise there were perhaps 50 or 60 bees pressed in between a couple of the combs. But this confirmed my suspicions that all this activity wasn’t real scouting for a new home, but simply exploiting and robbing the residual honey stores left by the previous, long deceased, inhabitants. A later visit from Andy, the bee keeper, confirmed this. Within 2 days the honey had presumably been cleared and no more bees were seen around the hive. Of course I do wonder if bees are capable of sensing death in a hive like this, and perhaps giving it a wide berth as a potential new home? This would be a sensible adaptive trait, in view of the evident vulnerability of the hive’s current position during the unusual freeze drying Easterly winds of the previous spring.

The other novelty of this heatwave, which I can only communicate through words, is the range of new smells which haven’t been experienced for sometime. And mostly very pleasant ones. Beginning a couple of days after our neighbour had his hay meadow cut. The smell of fresh hay pervading the kitchen in the early morning cool beating the dusk time scent from the honeysuckle outside the front door, which was sufficiently tempting to bring out the Elephant Hawk Moths in time to see them before they faded into the night sky…S1010011.a PG (2)

From 16/08/2013:

SDIM2716 (2)A few days later after bringing a bit more hay in from our High Flower Meadow, I remembered to go over to photograph the 2 Helleborines growing under mature Ash trees on the Northern field margin. And there was another Tree Wasp. Perhaps gaining some nectar, or perhaps just resting up above wet grass level…SDIM2722 (2)

From 30/08/2013:

In the High Flower Meadow I’ve continued to take off more hay and overgrown grass, using a recently acquired 2 wheeled BCS tractor – (I’ll write about this a little more next time)…S1010016 (2)Raking the cut grass into wind rows for drying and removal, I found this toad hunkered down into its own protective ‘foxhole’ which perhaps helped it evade the vicious scissor action of the sickle bar mower. But how beautifully camouflaged…SDIM3028 (2)I felt that this image could be improved on when the sun came out, so 5 minutes later I revisited the marked spot, only to find that the toad had moved on – presumably wanting to escape from the drying action of the midday heat. Disappointed, I was about to move on, when I realised that it was still there – but it had just moved to one extremity of the 3 inch deep divot, and pressed its nose into the base, and its rear into the air. What finally caught MY eye, was seeing amongst the subtlety of beige and green, the rich tones of its eye…SDIM3032 (2)

A Sauron like, divorced, suspended, fiery globe. Watching. Wide Open. And just today in the tyre garden, an immobile Golden Ringed Dragonfly hanging out on the Verbena hastata flowers.

‘Eyes’ wide open.

But then being lidless, its ‘eyes’ can never close …SDIM3112 (2) Even such permanently alert sensory apparatus couldn’t prevent chunks being taken from its wing …SDIM3108 (2)

… What was the predator? And did the likely dogfight exhaust the wounded Dragonfly, which was resting to recuperate?

From 15/09/2013:

The BCS power scythe is temporarily resting as the rain falls and its operator is left with the frankly less appealing task of manually clearing the debris. Its’ ability to tackle old tussocky shoulder height grasses and rushes in our several acre lower wet meadow has been formidable, but the plan was always to try to improve this field and increase its diversity over several years. Rather like a garden, bite off too much in one go and early disillusionment is likely to set in…SDIM3318 (2)

Of course what to do with so much plant debris was also going to be a big issue. Burning it would be an option, during one of our dry cold wintry spells. But having run my compost reactor, I now appreciate even more the value of decomposed organic matter as a potential soil improver or potting agent. So I’ve gradually worked towards forming the debris into modest length deep bed sized piles…SDIM3510 (2)Perhaps I might even try growing squash on them at some time in the future? If not, then at least the eventually decomposed organic material is more accessible and confined. As with many of the tedious tasks we’ve tackled over the years, rationing one’s efforts to a shortish time each day seems best. Lugging pitchforks full of wet rushes is physically moderately demanding for ageing joints, but it’s a good way to work up an appetite for breakfast.However as with ‘making’ the garden, any transient improvement in the appearance of these meadows which this blogger can achieve will inevitably be quickly undone by the ravages of the climate and geology, once efforts cease …

It’s been interesting to spot how quickly one’s intrusion into such wild territory is noted and exploited by the native fox population. Within a day of cutting the rushes, droppings began to appear on tussocks of rush stem that had been left proud of the surrounding wet ground.SDIM3509 (2)… (Rowan berries for breakfast?)

Perhaps this was simply a drier place to pause? But there’s also a territorial element to it, and I’ve already reworked my own deterrent marking to take account of the fact that Height Matters.  Interestingly a google of “foxes and defaecation marking” produced a top search of a PDF document produced by Bristol City Council on living with urban foxes. Click here for link. Quite often in my time as a vet living in Bristol I would pass 2 or 3 foxes crossing the roads as I travelled the 10 minutes between home and clinic to attend a late night call out. Since living in rural West Wales, whilst foxes are undoubtedly common, one rarely seesthem. This deposit below involved at least a 4 foot climb up the rush pile, to be top dog fox …SDIM3504 (2)… (central top, to the right of the darker rushes – and how wonderfully ergonomically designed a good 3 tine pitchfork is?) …

But this PDF document also explains how adult foxes can easily scale 6 foot fences or walls. Which brings me back to my own use of human male urine as a scent mark deterrent of both rabbits and foxes around the garden and poultry enclosures. I’d had a spell where I was uncertain whether it was really working – at least as far as the rabbits were concerned – scrapes had been appearing again together with droppings on several of our mossy copse paths earlier in the spring. Then a penny dropped. (Sorry).

Having read that foxes have 12 different postures for depositing urine, with females just squatting, I figured that my pee should be directed from the watering can not just onto the ground, but higher up – as though deposited by a more dominant predator. Moreover, if it was placed reasonably regularly and on the leeward sides of mature trees or fence posts, then it stood a much better chance of persisting in our wet climate. Since adopting this modified marking routine, at roughly weekly intervals in late spring, evidence of any rabbit activity in the garden had reduced to almost zero.

Co incidence? Well one can never be certain, but in spite of this apparent success at deterring these garden nuisances, a week ago just before dusk I came across a recently killed mature rabbit lying between 2 of our Rhododendron shrubs with the left side of its head missing, but otherwise a superficially unmarked carcase. Intrigued as to what had killed it, I was distracted by another garden finding, but remembered it a couple of hours later, just after dark, so thought I’d nip out and get an image for the blog. I didn’t even take a torch, since I knew where to find the body, and reckoned that the infra red pre flash and exposure light beam from the camera would be sufficient to focus the shot on the carcase. But the body had vanished! I couldn’t see any trace in the dim red glow.

I returned with a torch to search for traces at the spot where the bodyhad been, and then realised that it was still there, but had been covered with leaves and debris, and by now most of its head had been eaten…S1020027 (2)But what could have been responsible? A fox?S1020030 (2)

I then found a great on line guide to ‘Livestock and Animal Predation Identification’.

You can click here for the full link, which covers foxes, badgers, weasels, and many other potential British predators, but being of North American origin, also includes Bobcats, Lynx and Mountain Lions. (There is a record here of a single mountain lion having been documented as killing 192 ewes in a single night, so I’m glad that we don’t have any of those around!) There are some really sensible guidelines about what signs to look for around the carcase – where wounds are, what has been consumed, teeth marks and sizes, or scratch wounds, etc. all of which I’d missed doing until it was too late, i.e. the body had disappeared completely. But the covering of the carcase with leaves gets mentioned in the section on Bobcats and Lynx, though isn’t included in the section on domestic cat predation. The ‘cat’ will then return to the site later for a further meal from its kill.

From 27/10/2013:

Almost every day for the last 6 weeks has seen us both on rush clearing duties in our lower meadows. The prolonged drier weather this year enabled me to cut almost all of the meadow. Clearing what will inevitably be just the first cut of rushes has taken much longer.SDIM4150 (2)But this pitchforking turns out to be very healthy all over body exercise, and has had the added benefit of getting us both down into the field earlier in the day than we’d normally manage. And so on a couple of occasions I’ve caught sight of a fox exploring to the North of our Upper field. I’m guessing that I was downwind at the time, and it didn’t hear the distinctive sound of the metal gate’s latch being worked as I arrived on site. Both mornings were clear and bright, and one couldn’t help but be impressed by the richness of its distinctive brown/rust black pelt. But I didn’t have my camera to hand and so instead share an image of a wonderful spider’s web net created around a single Stipa stem overhanging from the top of one of the many rush piles which now snake across the fields, like some giant reptilian form.SDIM4147 (2)

But at the beginning of this week Fiona had a much closer encounter with a fox. Close to the pile of road stone that yielded a mystery egg in a previous post, and in torrential rain, she was doing some vital clearing of rain run off channels on our access track, when she spotted the carcase of a large fox just off the main track surface…SDIM4197 (2) What really caught her eye was that the fox was being stripped by a vast number of maggots. I  was able to capture this 24 and 48 hours later, when the rain had abated briefly, and I have to say that even as a retired vet used to some pretty gruesome sights, this was pretty shocking … so skip the next 3 images if squeamish…SDIM4191 (2)SDIM4195 (2)

But it does demonstrate just how quickly and completely a carcase can be stripped and recycled, given mild conditions, by this larval insect form. Though it has its own mystery attached. How did it end up here? If you look closely it seems to have fractured ribs and humerus. Was it hit on our track? Or on the road a few hundred yards away? Or was it shot or caught by the hunt which has started operating nearby again in the last few weeks? Was it even the same fox I’d seen in our meadow earlier in the month? Thoughts to lie and dissipate even as it morphs from animate to skeletal, memory and dream…  SDIM4228 (2)

And by this curiously stormy and foxy introduction I arrive at what was initially going to be the main topic of this post before the above episodes made me change tack …

 From 22/04/2014:

As the first rain of over 2 weeks arrived I’d just managed to complete another topping of the rushes in our 2 lower fields, in a fraction of the time it took us last autumn. Already they are looking more like meadows than rush forests, but such continued effort behind the BCS power scythe has left the body pummelled and in need of some therapeutic keyboard recuperation…S1000113 (2) … The cleared fields and a powerful LED torch meant that the other night I shone the beam from our Magic Terrace garden into the lower (then sheep-less) field to be met with 2 pairs of reflective eyes following my moves. Worried about lamb predation by foxes, I moved down into this field, and the ever watchful eyes backed off, before slinking out of the field to the South. Just as well, since our twin lambs had chosen this moment to escape the watchful protection of mum and get themselves stuck between the double fencing of the hedge boundary.

But how well will the goslings fare, when they hatch from the nest that a Canada goose has now created close to where I found the large submerged egg a few weeks back?S1000111 (2)From 4/06/2014:   

With so much to look at in the garden over the last fortnight, why devote most of an overdue post to meadow management thoughts? Simply because it’s difficult to rival the beauty and diversity of a traditional hay meadow, and they’re increasingly rare habitats both nationally and globally. If you read this outside the UK, do let me know whether your country still has any of this type of managed grassland with flowers.S1020011 (2)

…(Our High Meadow in late May, with the first flower heads of Sweet Vernal grass beginning to add to that lush leaf green)… Compare this to last year’s image, in late June, of the same field, to show the progress being made…SDIM1870 (2)

It’s tempting to think that they’re a marvel of nature, and in a way they are, but more specifically their very distinctive flora depends upon the long term interaction between man and larger grazing animals providing just the right growing conditions for a diverse range of grasses and other flowering plants to blend together. As I started writing this morning, I’ve just received a post from Christine at Croft Garden on the natural delights of machair, which is a variant of this concept found in coastal areas – particularly North West Scotland. Click here for the link to this wonderful piece.

But before this I’d recently read of the centuries old traditions of hay meadows and their management in the Transylvania region of Romania. There is a beautiful evocative article from The National Geographic (by presumably the same Adam Nicolson who was brought up by Vita Sackville West and father Nigel Nicolson at the iconic Sissinghurst garden in East Sussex, and is married to British wildflower champion Sarah Raven) which you can read by clicking here. This confirms the point that without annual mowing, and removal of a hay crop after many of the flowering plants have set and dropped seed, combined with appropriate grazing, the meadows are quickly colonised by shrubby species and revert to the dominant natural plant populations of scrub and then forest within a handful of years.

What particularly struck me about this piece was the simple, frugal existence of these, by hand, hay making Romainian small holders (most with no more than a few acres of land). And also the awareness, knowledge and appreciation that they possess of the plant diversity in these upland meadows. Apparently even young children can identify about 50 per cent of the nearly 150 different flower species in a typical meadow. Try asking the typical Brit, young or old, to identify 10 common wildflowers, and I bet the success rate would be in single percentage figures.

Does this matter? This recent human disconnect from the beauty and benefits of our native flora. Can you identify the flower below?SDIM7697 (2)

In addition, the hugely varied plant tapestries described in the Romanian meadows were thrilling. Often as many as 50 different species of grass and flowers can be found within a single square metre of meadow turf. How do our gardens compare with such intermingling richness? Who would dare to, or indeed succeed in, cramming so many plants into such a small area? And with no supplementary fertilisers! But this concept of intermingling, and self seeding plants where no one form is sufficiently vigorous or dominant to out compete its neighbours is surely the clue to a naturalistic effect within a garden. Unlike the vastly more frequent clearly defined block of a bit of this, next to a bit of that. In a much more manicured way, such simple plant intermingling was what really struck us all those years about some of the formal plantings at Monet’s garden at Giverny, and provided the impetus for our own journey into impressionistic planting trials. A few of our current effects are shown below to illustrate how tricky it can be to achieve anything to match simply nature’s ways …SDIM7630 (2)SDIM7813 (2)SDIM7821 (2)SDIM7820 (2)

And just now our biggest realised mistake was to allow some of the taller Geranium cultivars (unlike the short one above) in the impoverished rocky substrate of our man made Magic Terrace garden. They are simply too tall and early into vigorous growth thus swamping their shorter companions. So right now, Fiona has with huge effort been ripping them out, and we shall use the more benign Erodium manescavii as a more refined and less invasive alternative. At last I’ve raised enough seedlings as replacements.SDIM7817 (2)

The Transylvanian hay meadow flower diversity supports, not surprisingly, a hugely vibrant and diverse insect and higher animal fauna, and in large part it still exists because the terrain is too steep for reseeding and a mistrust from the farmers (and the cost) of artificial fertilisers means that many meadows have developed their own ‘natural’ floral patina over centuries of such literally hands on management, using heirloom simple wooden tools to gently shift the hay around after manual scything.SDIM7722 (2)

Our own future King, HRH Prince Charles, has created a little section of Transylvanian type meadow at his Highgrove garden, (click here), and is keen to help support this fragile habitat, currently under threat as the appeal of such ‘primitive and impoverished’ rural living in an increasingly progressive Romania wanes amongst the younger generation.

You can even book a holiday at a cottage that Prince Charles owns in the area to explore this very special environment. Click here for the link.

But closer to home HRH Prince Charles has also been passionate about preserving the UK’s old hay meadows. It’s often quoted that 97% of traditional hay meadows have been lost from the UK in recent years, and last year as a project to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation, he established the Coronation Meadows initiative.SDIM7674 (2)

Click here for a link to the Carmarthenshire page of the website. The simple aim was to establish a nationwide collection of traditional meadows which could be visited by the public, enjoyed, and be potential plant and seed refuges for this type of once common habitat. Since our local meadow at Cae Blaen-dyffryn was only about 20 minutes away, and is described as having the greatest population of butterfly orchids in Wales, we thought we should visit…S1020034 (2)

Locating it was tricky, and there is no easy nearby parking place but walking back along the road from where we managed to snuck the car off a right angled bend brought us to a, for now benignly uninspiring, 9 acre plot set quite high up in the hills to the South of Lampeter. (Possibly a little higher than our own 800 feet above sea level High Meadow). But looking more closely, the tell tale signs of plant diversity revealed themselves…SDIM7729 (2)The white flowers of Pignut, fringing the small Hawthorns, Yellow rattle’s crinkly leaved upright stems pushing up everywhere fulfilling its vital grass weakening hemi parasitic role, along with the lower growing pink flowered Lousewort. And every so often the tell tale glossy bulb like leaves, some spotted, of the orchids. We shall revisit in a few weeks for a more exciting floral vista…S1020031 (2)

But interestingly this meadow is managed by the Plant Life charity, and its acquisition was sponsored, I notice from the information board, by Timotei shampoo. And this gives a clue as to why such meadows are now so rare that some Coronation Meadows are simply roadside verges – simply no areas of representative meadow fields remained within those county borders.

It is an expensive, weather affected and labour intensive option to go the annual hay crop route, with no use of artificial fertiliser. So for much commercial agriculture, the practice has been abandoned. Reseeding with more vigorous and productive varieties of grass has been the norm, heavy grazing or earlier cutting for silage, and much application of artificial fertiliser. The flowers rapidly disappear, as does the dependent fauna.SDIM7732 (2)

Carmarthenshire is indeed fortunate in retaining many traditional small upland hay meadows. In part perhaps because they are managed by small holder hobby ‘farmers/stewards’, which indeed best summarises our status. But driving back from Cae Blaen dyffryn along the tiny lanes to the East of Gelli confirmed another more recent threat to such meadows…SDIM7720 (2)

Forestry. In a little known initiative, the Welsh Assembly Government has created a plan to plant 5,000 hectares of new woodland every year for the next 20 years. Read more (click here), and it appears that the aim is for such new woods to be placed on steep, and currently under-managed land. But barely a mile from us, on perfectly level, and historically meadow type pastures, the trees have gone in.S1020044 (2)

At least broad leaved species have been used. Though how well the many obvious ash seedlings will fare is open to debate. Driven, I guess, by significant grants for planting together with low management costs over many years, for some farmers this may be an economically attractive option. I understand that this particular development has been made by an absentee landlord. Which therefore probably makes perfect financialsense. But how to save the hay meadows?SDIM7727 (2)

Throughout the UK, environmental stewardship schemes help to support wildlife sympathetic farming practices, but apparently only the Higher Level Stewardship schemes are likely to encourage farmers to retain hay meadows as a financially viable option. Click here for more discussion on such schemes in England. And there simply isn’t enough money in the kitty to have a significant effect. So it does seem that the survival of many of the remaining hay meadows, certainly in this part of the world, will depend on enthusiastic stewards who see a value over and above any commercial decisions in maintaining this natural/man made almost symbiotic ecology, for personal and perhaps shared long term aesthetic and wildlife benefits.SDIM2393 (2)

… The above view from last July (note the still large beige areas devoid of living vegetation, simply killed by fallen over rank grass from the previous season) shows how well the meadow has greened up with self sown plants in just a year. The image below is from mid May 2014. I’ll repeat the image later this year to show the extent of mid season flowers …S1020001 (2)

So our High Meadow is already being transformed, and recreated from its flower barren intensively grazed earlier existence with more flowers than ever this year, and the yellow rattle at last is establishing in local pockets throughout the turf…SDIM7687 (2)

Our lower and much wetter meadows which support a different range of wildflowers has presented much more of a challenge with extensive rush overgrowth. Throughout the UK rushes seem to have benefited from the wetter and generally milder conditions of recent years, and present a real management challenge. Click here for an interesting insight into potential solutions…SDIM3510 (2) … Last September, above…SDIM7608 (2)

… (Late May 2014, after 1 spring cut and 3 weeks post spraying with a selective herbicide) …

Simply cutting, or even heavy grazing, is unlikely to limit their progress, and rather like our Geranium cultivars in the garden, they are a dominant plant species, out competing pretty much anything else. So after much deliberation we have opted this spring to apply a selective weedkiller to the worst sections of our lower meadows, following on from last year’s autumnal, and then an early spring, cut using our BCS 615SL Powerscythe.

Several reports seem to endorse rush control in this way as a necessary evil, to achieve diversity going forward. Click here for a link on the status of Welsh Hay Meadows, by the charity Flora locale. And click here for a project to restore hay meadow diversity funded by the English Utility company United Utilities. (Interestingly, Transylvania has a very different climate to West Wales with just a third of our annual rainfall, and predictable hotter summers, so my guess is that rushes do not present the same issues there).

The decision to use a herbicide was made easier by an imminent change in legislation. As from 2015, it will no longer be permissible to purchase any agricultural plant protection chemicals without first obtaining a certificate of competence in its application. You will need a different certificate for different means of application.

So for us it would require a course at an approved centre, then registration to complete a test, and then taking an exam which would hopefully result in a certificate of competence.

To use a knapsack sprayer. (Let alone a walking stick weed wiper – probably a punishable offence…)SDIM7740 (2)

The cost of all this would be well over £450, excluding the travel costs, plus possible overnight accommodation.

The cost of the selective weedkiller sufficient to treat several acres of rushes is currently about £45.

It seems to me likely that very few smallholders would contemplate shelling out this sum. So what would the options be going forward, if you have a rush problem? Presumably the ‘powers that be’ anticipate we would call in a suitably qualified contractor to apply the chemical. But one of the things we’ve learned here, is that any weather dependent task may have very limited windows of opportunity to be successfully completed. In the case of rush treatment it needs to be applied early in the year-ideally late April/May when there is vigorous new rush growth above surrounding foliage, and you need at least 12 hours without rain after application for optimum success. Even with good weather forecasts, you might only know on the morning that today is the best time to spray.

Now ring your contractor, and get him to come within a couple of hours, along with all those other smallholders ??

And in our case vehicle access to the fields is inappropriate for much of the year. They are just too soggy. The 2 wheeled BCS 615 SL power scythe scores highly here, being much lighter than either ATV/Quad bike or even worse a tractor and equipment, so little surface damage is created after just a few days without rain.

So I’m guessing that even if chemical control was thought to be a reasonable option, in future it will simply not be practical or financially viable. Inevitably there is short term disturbance of the fauna, after cutting and spraying, but I still managed last week to take this distant image of a pair of cuckoos which have used the electricity supply lines across the lower meadow every year as a convenient perch to survey the field below, for possible meals, or host nests. (And 2 hours after publishing this, F and I stood close to this spot for 15 minutes whilst the midge clouds gathered, watching the female cuckoo move from wire vantage point to the tops of each of the piles of rushes, and with remarkable efficiency systematically shifting around the field, barred beneath like a sparrowhawk, no doubt hoping to spot a potential host nest for it’s egg. Come again next year, cuckoo, and we hope the field will be even more inviting…)  S1020046 (2)

I’ll update in future years just how successful (or not!) our attempts at managing these fields have been. For now, we have grass returning, wild flowers have already colonised the ditches very well so we have plenty of nearby seed to reintroduce, and for the first time in the 20 years that we have owned the property, the fields actually look like damp meadows, rather than rush mono-cultures. Maybe we shall manage to leave these fields to future owners in better nick than when we took over stewardship?

Perhaps in a few years it may even be possible to take off a hay crop. And of course the last thing we wanted to do was disturb the soil structure or surface by ploughing or rotavating since this would certainly bring a huge number of viable rush seeds to the surface. As in Transylvania, left un-managed such fields either become rush infested or move beyond that stage to wet willow sand birch sumps.  A nearby meadow is managed in alternative fashion by an annual burn off in early spring. No grazing ever takes place here, but here the near mono-culture has become one of very tall coarse tussock forming grasses – seen below last week with early season lush regrowth…S1020030 (2)

From 27/06/2014: 

The wonderful hot sunny weather at this time of the year inevitably means 2 tasks occupy much of out time. (Sadly not, as recent garden visitors suggested, sitting on our various garden seats sipping glasses of wine!).

Shearing and hay making. As an amateur shearer the results are best described as patchy, and my lack of practice makes me very slow, but fortunately we have patient sheep who can see beyond the experience, to the relief of a cooler summer ahead. Prompted by an amusing and timely birthday card this year from Fiona’s mother, I opted to try sitting down to shear, and this worked surprisingly well in sparing further back issues, which I guess are the bane of any slow shearer.

My previous post went into some detail on meadow management and as often seems to happen, no sooner had I read and written about Romanian hay making traditions, than Fiona returned with a leaflet picked up in the local shop about traditional wooden hay making tools. A fascinating phone call ensued with Simon Bowden, who it transpired lives a few miles away, but had the distinction of winning the quality class at last year’s UK hand scything competition in Dorset. As well as coppiced willow plant supports, Simon makes hay forks (second from left below) and hay rakes, from selected willow osier stems which he cultivates. Simon can be reached on 07792 236817.  Fiona had previously sourced a wooden hay rake elsewhere, but we arranged to pick up one of Simon’s hay forks just in time…Traditional-wooden-hay-making-tools.jpgThe revelation is that it is significantly lighter than a pitchfork, and ergonomically shaped with slight bends at the base and prongs, to make tossing hay much less onerous, with a lovely touch of a penny piece used as a rivet, where the single wand is split into three…SDIM8129 (2)

The casual observer might question the advantage. But manual hay working is a repetitive, and laborious process … SDIM8144 (2)(… so reducing the weight of the tool is a huge plus, as F demonstrates above, and below…)

Though leavened by working in glorious weather, with stunning views…SDIM8120 (2)SDIM8139 (2)

And it was as I moved across the slope with wheeling Red Kite overhead, and the cuckoo still calling in the valley, as the sssshhhhhhhssssshhhhh whisper of dry light long grass stems studded with dessicated golden buttercups and pink sorrel seeds, was gathered and tossed or flicked over, that I wondered about how few folk will ever have experienced this simple pleasure? How would you describe that unique sound of dry hay on wooden fork, over baked ground? Or the smell?

Do get in touch if you’d like to experience it next year. Many hands certainly make lighter work!

But a couple of phone calls later secured some willing helpers for this year. Neighbouring smallholders who like us have a requirement for limited hay for winter fodder joined us and we’re really grateful to Dave, Avril, Theresa and Graham for helping us turn, fill and then share about 150 big bags of wonderful sweet smelling hay. Though we all seemed to work out own way of how we managed the task …

And when it all got a bit hot and tiring, we retreated to the cool of the Gegin and lots of tea, biscuits, cake and jovial banter…SDIM8119 (2)SDIM8118 (2)SDIM8116 (2)SDIM8117 (2)

Interestingly no one seems to manufacture a small hay baling machine which could be drawn behind an ATV, so the Big Bags are for us a convenient way of storing and man handling the bulky finished material. The slope of the field precludes larger conventional hay making machinery, and at least for this year, I was able to skirt round particularly flower rich areas of pasture with the BCS power scythe to allow subsequent seed collection for spreading around the rest of the meadow, and perhaps our lower meadows too. We also now know  from Glyn, the previous owner, that the steep slope together with the fact that the field used to have a track going through it spared it from ever being ploughed or reseeded. Which probably explains why we’re making such progress in returning it to a flowery state. Other recent visitors bemoaned the fact that much of their surrounding pasture has been improved and is now a uniformly ‘P********* Green.’SDIM8142 (2) …the white stars of Lesser Stitchwort light up the understorey…SDIM8110 (2)SDIM8125 (2)… whilst evening sun illuminates the scene before cutting…

As light relief from this toil we returned to our local wild flower Coronation meadow ( not it seems a hay meadow) at Cae Blaen Dyffryn, where a variety of spotted and butterfly orchids were indeed blooming in profusion. But photographically it proved tricky to get an image that did justice to the splendour of this upland scene as the sun moved round behind a line of beech trees to the West of the meadow.SDIM8154 (2)cae-blean-dyffryn-coronation-meadow.jpg  …(notice how much less dense the grass is in this meadow, than our own High Meadow)

From 19/07/2014:

Before and after our trip, on dry days, I’ve been collecting Yellow Rattle (Rhinathus minor) seed to spread around our meadows to add both colour and aid establishment of other meadow flowering plants. On a warm summer evening there’s a simple delight in stooping to gather the seed capsules off the stems in a single upward stripping action.SDIM8382 (2)Starting with a just a handful of seeds about 4 years ago, I reckoned I could harvest quite a bit from the clumps of plants scattered around the high hay meadow this year.SDIM8383 (2)But after winnowing the seeds out with a couple of inherited old sieves, I wondered how much I had actually collected…S1040061 (2)Weighing it was easy, but how many seeds does that amount to?
The smallest weight we have is 5 grams, so I thought it would be pretty quick to count out this number of seeds…S1040073 (2)
A couple of cups of tea later, and the calculations were finished. About half a million seeds.S1040077 (2)S1040078 (2)
 
Worth doing? Well apart from the sensual delight of strolling through the meadow, there were the sights of skipping butterflies…SDIM8392 (2)
one of which somehow followed me inside…S1040070 (2)
and even the odd disturbed Large Yellow Underwing moth, which after taking flight, gave its identity away in a blurry flash of colour…SDIM8299 (2)SDIM8300 (2)
But apparently a Kg of Yellow Rattle seed will cost well over £100, so there is an economic advantage in the patient approach when dealing with such a prolific species.
And I hope that by hand selecting the earliest seed capsules, I might eventually select for a population that flowers earlier in the year, which will give us big advantages when deciding whether we can chance taking an early hay crop off the meadows. For those locked into environmental land stewardship schemes, there is often a date of July 1st as being the first possible option for cutting hay. This year, having to wait until then would have missed early weather chances, which often are limited, in West Wales. All the above yellow rattle was harvested before July 1st. Other flowers set seed later, so the plan is to use marginal or central strips of uncut meadow to allow these plants to flower and set seed, as well as providing plenty of suitable grass species for the common grassland butterflies to use for egg laying.
 
 
From 3/08/2014:

I’d made a second trip down to the stream to photograph the novelty ofthat. Revived by barely 10 mm of overnight rain, it was still low, but running with the sort of cloudiness normally associated with winter spates, yet more greyish than that type of muddy brown. Weeks of dried detritus and dislodged soil being moved on quickly downstream towards the sea trapped brooding migratory salmonids, eager to spawn. Do they smell, or taste it? Is it time to move?…S1040068 (2)

The smell of wet bonfire ash from the previous days’ 35 piles of twice burned rushes hung in the air, and certainly filled my nostrils …S1040061 (2)S1040063 (2)

Even the sheep seemed to sense a novelty.

Who was this booted stranger? The sounds, shorts, coat and probably smell were familiar, but the black, ribbed dome sprouting from his head rendered him unfamiliar and threatening. No nuzzling up for a head rub today. Scatter and skidaddle quickly with the sense of panic that can quickly seize a group of sheep, and run through them all with telepathic rapidity.

Our final session of serious hay making finished in late July, and I’m devoting a lot of images to capture the hugely impressive manual hay baler that was knocked up by our neighbour and fellow hay labourer for this year, Dave Bevan. Dave is shown below with us using the baler. 2 people can knock out a bale which is a very passable alternative to old style small bales in just a few minutes. Dave’s bales are just the right size to both fit 6 into my small ATV trailer, and about 8 on the base of a trailer he also knocked up from an old caravan chassis – what a clever chap he is!S1040048 (2)S1040052 (2)S1040053 (2)S1040051 (2)

… Using 2 pre-cut lengths of polypropylene baler twine, with a simple loop on one end, and designed to be tied so that they are re-usable next year…

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… The twines are fixed on 2 hooks to the rear of the machine, (with careful supervision from the designer/maker)…

S1040002 (2)… then the twine is threaded over the top of the rear frame, and then internally to the bottom where it is held in place by the split hose and eye screws at the base of the machine. The long ends are then fed through the front door, which is closed and latched…S1040006 (2)S1040008 (2)

…hay is added manually…S1040011 (2)…and when pretty tightly filled…S1040015 (2)…compressed with a pressure plate and block…S1040018 (2)S1040020 (2)S1040024 (2)S1040026 (2)

…More hay is added…S1040028 (2)…and pressed again…S1040035 (2)

…More hay is added, then the twine is unhooked, and this pre-looped end is fed over the top of the compressed hay, and out through the gaps at the top of the front door. At this stage, you can’t get the bottom bit of twine to reach the loop, so the hay is pressed again, and held in place by the blue rope fixed above the front door…S1040036 (2)…The 2 twines can now easily be tied with a slip loop knot…S1040039 (2)…the rope released…S1040042 (2)…the door catch opened, and hey presto, with a push from the back of the bale…S1040044 (2)… and with a pull on the twines, the bale emerges …S1040045 (2)

(The above are time lapse images…there is a simple hilarity in watching the actual process, speeded up – perhaps I can get it uploaded to You Tube sometime).

There’s a real satisfaction in seeing each bale emerge, the time old satisfaction in making something pleasing, and with a real value to the maker. The above images show us processing hay previously collected in Big Bags, though the machine can be used on a slope in a field, as Dave, Graham and Theresa demonstrate …SDIM8436 (2)SDIM8480 (2)SDIM8470 (2)

For all the cynics, it is indeed labour intensive, but for managing a small acreage of hay, where terrain precludes big machinery access, and for just in time weather dependent processing, its a really brilliant little near zero cost baler.

The Bevan Brilliant Baby Baler

Thanks indeed to Dave for this inspired design and for Dave, Avril, Theresa and Graham’s help this summer. I’m sure all our sheep will approve the finished material this winter…SDIM8488 (2)

Next year we plan to build our own, so that with 4 people working the 2 balers, 2 others can keep them fed with loose hay. (Or rather the balers…)

 
From 26/08/2014:
 

Our recently revealed, wet meadow’s old ditches…SDIM8964 (2)

Leached out, decades old, decayed detritus.

SDIM8965 (2)

Memories of previous existence. Dusts rainbowed over muddy sludge.

SDIM8970 (2)Reincarnated by recent rain.

SDIM8966 (2)SDIM8969 (2)SDIM8982 (2)Colours bleed. Animation returns.

SDIM8974 (2)SDIM8975 (2)SDIM8976 (2)

Dull?

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As Ditch Water?

SDIM8983 (2)SDIM8986 (2)SDIM8985 (2)SDIM8989 (2)SDIM8990 (2)Death, or Life?

From 7/09/2014:

I thought that this concluded ant swarm events for 2014, having had the first obvious swarm event of black ants at the more usual time of the end of July, whilst hay making. However I happened to wander into our High meadow 3 days ago when the Yellow Meadow Ant, Lasius flavus, had decided that NOW was the right time to swarm. Swarming of most ant species is usually very tightly linked to favourable weather conditions, so that predators are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of above ground insects energing from multiple nests, and the winged form of the ants have the best chance to mate with genetically different groups, and disperse to set up new colonies. Even so, the mortality of young female queens is huge, though still not enough to dent the fact that the biomass of all the world’s ants currently exceeds that of all humans. But since queens can remain active egg layers for up to 15 years, only the odd one needs to survive to ensure species success…S1070181 (2)Lasius flavus are the most common ant hill forming species of meadow ants in the UK. Very large above ground nests can form over years, (about a litre of soil per year is shifted above ground, giving a hint at an ant hill’s age),  but the ants themselves are rarely seen above ground. Unlike many other ant species, they rely on a symbiotic relationship with a very small number of species of root feeding aphids, kept in special chambers below the soil surface in the nests. The ants eat some of the weaker aphids as a protein source, and also eat the aphid’s sugary excretions as a carbohydrate source, within a mini ant created environment managed with almost agricultural like husbandry efficiency. And by so doing, create unique beneficial effects on the surrounding soil and vegetation.Click here and here for more.S1070166 (2)

Our largest ant hill was covered with mainly winged virgin queens, slowly making their way up the tallest grass stems…S1070173 (2)S1070178 (2)There were far fewer obvious winged males around, and even the occasional much smaller and wingless worker ant…S1070177 (2)But none of the queens seemed to be flying. Had I missed this? Were all the queens already mated, since this was quite late in the day? Maybe this is why I saw so few winged males, since mating is so violent that the male ant dies almost immediately afterwards. Click here for a bit more on basic ant anatomy.

There were even some queens without wings which were already starting to make attempts to dig underground to establish new colonies. In some species the wings snap off, sometimes they are chewed off, since they would clearly be unnecessary impediments for the rest of their lives spent below ground…S1070186 (2)I can see that a new field of interest could be opening up for me, to burrow into in more detail later (2 burrowing queens below) …S1070187 (2)

The following day, the same ant hill scene was completely ant free.

The annual mating ritual was completed.

From 27/09/2014:

Whilst clearing  a section of one of our lower meadow ditches a couple of weeks back, I’d spotted a joined pair of red and yellow dragonflies dipping repeatedly along the narrow peaty ditch for egg laying. I was interested that the pair stayed linked for this – straightened out from the wheel configuration of copulation, but with the upper male seemingly in control of the flying, whilst the lower female hammered her ovipositor beneath the surface at appropriate points. Needless to say I didn’t have my camera with me, so the following day after collecting a couple of eggs from the poultry and placing them in my shorts for safe keeping, I picked up the camera and ditching hoe and headed back down for another hour or so of ditching effort. A Small Copper butterfly appeared, always a delight…S1080060 (2)With the sun rising, and the sweat falling I headed for the upper pond to see what Dragonflies were still around.

Have you ever tried photographing a Dragonfly?

Some species are cooperative and spend significant amounts of time resting and basking on the ground or low vegetation.S1080014 (2)These are fairly easy to photograph provided you remember 3 important points. Wear dull clothing (certainly not white tops), approach slowly, and ensure that your shadow doesn’t fall across them as you get close.S1080018 (2)But what about those majestic patrolling large dragonflies, that actually confront you close up, and clatter their wings audibly, as you enter their sphere of airborne supremacy? They do hover, but move so fast that my digital SLR and basic lenses have never succeeded in capturing an in flight image. So I opted for the Camcorder, with a more powerful zoom, but lower quality…S1080027 (2)

The problem with using this is the delayed shutter release when operating it in still capture mode. So I hoped for at least a few usable images if I took enough in the first place. But after crouching for several minutes to get the right angle to capture an insect against a background where it would be more visible, my knees complained, so I opted to lie on one side on the still slightly dewy damp grass.S1080028 (2)Much more comfortable, and easier for my hands  to hold the camera still, and basically wait for a patrolling dragonfly to fly within the general area of where the camera was pointing. Click the shutter, and hope.

Another quarter of an hour or so, and I reckoned I’d maybe got one or 2 shots where the dragonfly was actually photographed in the frame. (Only later on screen was I able to work out what some of the species were… Common Darter -male and female, Black Darter and Southern Hawker).S1080019 (2)

Even better, I’d witnessed one of the large patrolling dragonflies zoom in on, and clatter aggressively into, a mating pair of smaller dragonflies, right in front of me at the pond’s margin. But was this fleeting moment captured in any clarity? It all happened so fast. Actually it wasn’t bad…you can see below the green/black/blue Southern Hawker attacking the back of the arched red male Common Darter, which is grasping the olive female Common Darter behind its head …S1080025 (2)

About half an hour later I was washing up, having climbed back to the house, and thought I must have splashed some water onto my shorts, since my right thigh was feeling wet. The day was warm, so I wasn’t too worried, but a few minutes later I realised that the damp patch was getting bigger, and liquid was trickling down my leg. The penny still hadn’t dropped, but once I’d put my hand in the short’s pocket and felt the broken shell, and seen the yellowy mess on my fingers, I remembered the eggs…

 From 26/04/2015:

Finally just before the predicted rain materialised at last, I began selective weed wiping of soft rush in our wet valley bottom meadows.

I was encouraged to hear from a professional manager of small meadows and wilder terrain at the CMG meeting, that there are conditions when she has to resort to chemical use to manage certain weeds. Our own experience is that without a selective weed killer, our fields would still be shoulder high rush mono culture. So using a small window wiper with terry nappy wrapped around for extra absorbency, I set to work, with 2 sessions of tedium ahead of me?  …SDIM1757.abcjpg (2)The key is selective wiping, not spraying which would take out all the interesting wild flowers which are beginning to re emerge. So after about 4 hours worth of slow walking of the ditches, through about 7 acres, and then the upper pond field, I had all the emerging new soft rush growth covered. The regrowth in the fields themselves needs a little more growth before wiping – ideally 4 to 5 inches above grass level. This whole selective, though time consuming process uses minimal chemical.

And is this ludditic effort worth it? Absolutely, when the slash of a close range Goldcrest’s punk hair do grabs your attention from the lower branches of a grown from seed Dawn Redwood …S1030055 (2)

… and then you find a new flowering plant colonising the basal peat of those simple ditches that we dug out last autumn, and I wrote about in ‘As Dull as Ditch Water’ (Click here for details).SDIM1761 (2)

I later identified it as Round-leaved Crowfoot (Ranunculus omiophyllus). I’m guessing that seeds had lain dormant in the peat for decades, waiting for exposure and light to burst into action. I’m sure many more new discoveries await us in the years ahead in this meadow.SDIM1758 (2)And after being lulled by the backdrop low trilling of a grasshopper warbler, unseen nearby, spot a little brown flash from the side of a South facing ditch bank, topped with emerging bluebells and on closer inspection, at ankle level, discover a small nest complete with a clutch of 4 tiny buff cream, flecked eggs. Possibly a warbler’s nest? Or Chiif Chaff? I’m afraid my bird identification skills are very limited. But how’s this for camouflage? Concentrate on the small vertical fern leaf centre bottom…S1030052 (2)S1030053 (2)S1030051 (2)

We had to ask Dave to confirm that a nest Fiona inadvertently exposed when clearing a rampant honeysuckle from the wire netting support for a rose was occupied by a song thrush, (which apparently are much rarer in these parts than their Mistle thrush cousins).S1030040 (2)At the time of first discovery it contained 3 of the most gorgeous blue turquoise eggs with black flecks. Fiona added some temporary additional greenery to one side, and the eggs hatched a few days later, but when I checked this morning, the ever present magpies, jays or carrion crows must have raided – the hen had left, and the nest was bare, revealing the superbly smooth mud lined bowl.S1030046 (2)

And of added interest, though perhaps not the best choice of adornment if one were wanting to conceal a nest, were these bright pink seeds, worked into the mossy external wall. Crocosmia perhaps? Or Euonymus? Any other ideas? And why include them? Are thrushes colour blind?S1030047 (2)

And finally the last week has seen 2 more spring marker events. On the 22nd, the first male Orange-tip butterfly was spotted in the garden, pausing on it’s favoured Aubretia for a fuel stopS1030034 (2)and then last night, the 26th, the much anticipated first Cuckoo of 2015 was heard in the valley.

__________

May15th 2017

Every year sees changes in our upper hay meadow.This year, one of the most obvious has been the expansion of range within the meadow of the pretty pink flowered perennial native Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica, which has now become really well established, from an initial small scattering of seed, collected from a friend’s local meadow, just 4 years ago. This hemi-parasite has been a really popular early season nectar flower with at least 3 different species of bumblebees visiting these flowers, which are borne over many weeks, from early April. With the first flowers of annual Yellow rattle, Rhinanthus minor, opening this year by May 9th, it dovetails very nicely, to give a much longer, reliable nectar supply for these tough native pollinators.

But how do these plants fit into the ecology of meadows?

I struggled to find much about studies on Lousewort interactions with roots, although I did discover that both the genus Pedicularis, of which there are several hundred species worldwide, many in China, and Rhinathus have recently been switched from the Scrophulariaceae and into the Orobanchaceae, or Broomrapes. Broomrapes generally are obligate parasites – lacking any chlorophyll, and so are entirely dependent upon penetrating other green plant root systems and obtaining their nutrition by stealing it from them.

In this aspect of basic physiology, Lousewort seems very like Yellow rattle, both being hemi-parasitic. They both contain chlorophyll, so can photosynthesise and manufacture carbohydrates in their own leaves, but can still penetrate other plants’ root systems to obtain certain nutrients from them. Much work has been done on Yellow rattle, since as many will know, it’s frequently recommended as an aid to restoration of wildflower meadows, by reducing the vigour of otherwise dominant grasses. Indeed this is why we first imported local seeds of yellow rattle onto our meadow about 5 years ago.

However, my first recent discovery was that it doesn’t parasitise just grasses, but a range of more than 50 different potential host plant species, all of which might be found in a typical meadow – though it’s not apparently capable of damaging any native orchid species.

It does this by developing its own root system on germination of the overwintered seed in spring, and this root system then develops special structures designed as transfer organs, called haustoria (single – haustorium), which connect the host and parasite root tissues. The haustorium surrounds the host root, crushes the outer layers, and then forms a penetration peg, to tap into the host’s xylem channels which distribute fluids and nutrients up through the host’s tissues. Once it has done this successfully, secondary xylem channels develop and the parasitic rattle root can then begin the process of sucking out fluids, and more particularly nutrients including carbon and nitrogen from the host. It does this by having higher transpiration rates, in turn because the stomata or pores on the leaves of the rattle are relatively insensitive to water loss. So the water potential of the parasite tissues is kept below that of the host, and creates an effective gradient which ensures materials flow in one direction – away from the host and into the Yellow rattle. A botanical leech, if you will.

But this clearly sophisticated process of attack doesn’t work equally well on all the plant species which Yellow rattle will attack.

Meadow swards, being the diverse communities that they are, allow a single small rattle plant to have simultaneous links into up to 7 different plants at the same time – and remember this is an annual plant which only has a few months to grow, flower, set seed and then die. Grasses and legumes like the trefoils, seem to be its most useful hosts whereas many other dicotyledenous flowering plants (or forbs) can be attacked, but have developed quite sophisticated defence mechanisms.

Quite recent work has shown that in some plants, like the Ribwort or Lanceolate plantain, Plantago lanceolata, this defence entails hypersensitive host cell death at the point of  attempted penetration by the rattle’s haustoria. Essentially the plantain’s root cells are intentionally sacrificed and killed, by the plantain itself, at an early stage of interaction with the rattle’s attack, so that the rattle root can never form a viable peg penetration into the plantain’s xylem system, and so the attempted sap sucking attack fails, even before it’s begun. Though at what cost to the plantain? This year I’ve noticed a few plantains in our meadow which seem very aetiolated. Are these plants which have suffered so much root damage from this defence strategy that their own viability has been affected? Or is something else completely unrelated affecting them? I just don’t know.

In Ox-eye daisies, Leucanthemum vulgare, the plant’s defense is different and involves sealing off the attacking peg of the rattle’s haustorium with lignin, to completely prevent penetration of its xylem. A wooden wall, hastily built within the daisies’ root tissues, to repel invaders. No time to bluster, or tweet, or raise funds. Just detect the threat, and respond.

It clearly is a battlefield beneath the soil’s surface.

All of this suggests one would expect variation within a meadow of the impact of Yellow rattle, in part depending on the actual range of plant species present in different areas of sward. Some more recent work has also looked at the impact of genetic variation within populations of Yellow rattle itself, to try to explain the quantified difference in impact of Yellow rattle on some meadows where it’s been introduced. In one study, grass biomass suppression, induced by adding rattle seeds, ranged from a small 8% to a whopping 84%, whilst at the same time, the abundance of forbs increased by anything between a miserly 5% to an impressive 57%.

The concept of the impact of community genetics is a new one to me, but makes empirical sense, having observed the variability in spread of Yellow rattle in our own, and other meadows. In our case our source seed was from a local meadow in which rattle seemed to be quite a dominant force, and I’ve probably layered on an anthropogenic genetic shift by consciously hand harvesting and scattering saved seed from just the earliest flowering, and therefore seeding, plants in the meadow. For the first 2 years, until the plant became so widely distributed that hand scattering was unnecessary. This was motivated by our need to cut the meadow in stages, sometimes quite early in the season, since we currently do mainly manual hay making, so it’s impossible to clear the field in one session. We have to pace ourselves.

And this is just considering the impact of rattle genetic variation. A lab study involving parasitism of 4 different strains of barley showed big variations in how much the same strain of Yellow rattle impacted on the different barley strains’ productivity, and indeed how the different parasitised barleys created bigger, or smaller, and therefore more fecund in terms of seed production, Yellow rattle plants.

Over just a few years, our meadow has now morphed to a majority of Sweet vernal-grass flowers, Anthoxanthum odoratum, at this time of the year. Does it have greater resistance to Yellow rattle? Or just thrive better, since it’s quicker off the mark in spring? We don’t know and we’re not complaining, since it’s this plant more than any other, that gives meadow hay its fantastic scent.

Add in the impacts from mycorrhizal and other fungi which are also key beneath-ground components of a meadow, linking up plant roots and involved in mineral and nutrient exchanges, and one begins to understand that never mind how complex a diverse hay meadow might seem visually above ground, what’s going on below the surface is truly mind boggling in its complexity. If I took one message away from this brief foray into what is clearly now a hot area of research, it is that genetic diversity within plant populations in a meadow is a very good thing for long term species viability. Given the now extremely diminished and fragmented distribution of such wildflower hay meadow communities, perhaps there are great benefits in the intentional local exchange of seed material between meadow owners, to help maintain such species genetic diversity, and consequent species resilience. In the past, the natural wandering of sheep, with their seed carrying fleeces, as well as other animal movements, would have ensured such seed spreading was a constant, low frequency process, and plant populations made up from those individuals best suited to local growing conditions, would have slowly evolved.

One final point. A recent review article by Ken Thompson, referenced a pan European study highlighting just how variable germination rates for seeds like Yellow rattle were, when obtained across Europe from commercial suppliers. Apparently 3 out of 17 samples of rattle contained no viable seeds! In addition, many samples were contaminated with other species, which highlights the advantages of hand collected and locally sourced seeds, when it comes to adding species, or extending genetic diversity, in our native hay meadows.

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31/05/2017

Waves have gripped me over the last fortnight.

Made me stand and gaze. And wonder.

Not those which batter our nearby coasts, crashing on rocky cliffs, or transporting drifting fleets of jelly fish, as seen recently near Cwmtydu.But those that transform our hay meadow above the house at this time of the year, as the Sweet vernal-grass, Anthoxanthum odoratum, stems reach for the sky. When the winds pick up, it transforms a flat scene of subtle colour variations, into an active rippling floral plateau. The inflorescences of millions of grass plants in a show of spectacular synchronised dancing, with the gusting, pulsing wind ripping up over contoured hills and warmed from the South, as the master choreographer.

How do I describe the colours of this scene? It depends on the light. And the angle of view. And the time of day. And how developed the grass “flowers” are. Early on, and it’s all preparatory greens, then the anthers develop, extend, and let it all hang out and add a grey, or is that a purple, or purple brown, or rust, or white, or yellow colour to the mix? I read that Sweet vernal-grass, Anthoxanthum odoratum, (yellow scented anthers?) above, isn’t that palatable for grazing stock, (click here for more information on upland native plant grazing preferences), but our native Tor ddu sheep seem to manage it, and since it’s now the predominant grass in this meadow, post Yellow rattle, Rhinanthus minor, introduction, that’s just as well.

And what about the appropriate technical language for describing grasses? I found an excellent simple guide by Jean Turner which you can access by clicking here. This gives much of the terminology used to describe grass morphology – quite different to many of the words familiar to descriptions of our garden flowers.There are Culms, and Stolons, and Tillers to describe the leafy parts of the plant.

And Lemma, Palea, Glumes, Lodicules and Spikelets – words completely novel to me – to describe many of the features of the individual grass flowers. After all, grasses being wind pollinated have no need for showy coloured petals or sepals to attract pollinating insects, they just have to hang out their anthers and let that same choreographing wind disseminate, and waft clouds of dust like pollen grains, from one bending plant to another.

I’d never thought much about grass stem, or more correctly culm, rigidity, before these latest displays. Then I happened to grab a couple of grass culms growing just outside the back door, on the steep bank. And looked a bit closer at their physical structure.

There were the obvious nodes, which usually contain a central cross wall (or septum) at right angles to the culm, and internode sections, which seemed to vary in length as the grass reached the flowering spikelets. The diameter of the stem also seemed to vary considerably, tapering at its tip but being essentially circular, at least in Sweet vernal- grass, throughout its length. However the thickened node is clearly a key component with considerable extra strength which plays a role in giving the grass flexibility to withstand wind damage, in its springtime growth spurt.

Little research seems to have been carried out on the mechanical strength of hollow grass culms, and their septate nodes. However studies by Karl Linklas demonstrated that hollow stems can grow about 25 % taller than solid stems, for a given biomass. But a problem arises as internode (stem) length increases – the hollow stems become much more prone to permanent damage causing the stem to fall over, when stressed with side forces such as strong winds (such collapsing of tall grasses even has its own word – lodging). All such circular hollow structures begin to ovalise, as they bend under such forces, and once a critical point is reached, then irreparable damage and crimping occurs. It seems that the nodes with their cross walls tolerate much greater forces, and can flex in strong winds, allowing sufficient ‘give’ in taller grass culm heights.

In one of Nicklas’ papers, he even demonstrates that perforating the integrity of the cross wall of the node, with a tiny needle, diminishes its strength by about 35%. He proposes that the nodes act as springs, storing energy when the stem is flexed, and releasing it once the bending strain dissipates. (Click here for more.). A great example of hugely sophisticated adaptive design, in something as simple as a meadow grass trying to survive and reproduce in a demanding environment.

What controls the development of the grass as it grows into these specialised structures is something I’ll return to shortly, but firstly I must record that a meadow full of flowering grasses becomes a haven for a huge invertebrate population. Best appreciated as the sun sets, and with a hat to shield me from the still strong direct light, bending low and looking uphill, one can appreciate the thousands of insects caught, contra-jour, above the shimmering meadow. Pinpricks of mobile transluscence, shifting above the swaying stems. A bat and swallow haven.

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June 20th 2017

Whether I’ve just noticed it this year, or whether there is actually more of it, as our meadow continues to morph into a more diverse, floriferous and open ecosystem, I’m not sure. But this year has seen masses of cuckoo spit appearing on the stems of various plants in the meadows and garden. As most will know, this appears around the time that our Cuckoo’s song is diminishing as June progresses, and is the protective spittled shroud, produced by the larval form of the Common froghopper, Philaenus spumarius.

A by product of the sap extracted from the plant stems, which the larvae feed upon, it seems to be an extremely effective protective strategy, hiding it from potential predators and also protecting the juvenile form from dessication.

I don’t yet have an image of the adult to include, but it’s a remarkable insect which can spring a distance of 70 cm or so into the air – higher even than the flea, and with an extraordinary acceleration of 400 G. Or as another way of viewing this, a change of velocity as it springs into the air of 4,000 metres per second, per second (4,000m/sec squared).

To put this into perspective, astronauts are trained to withstand a force of 9 G – ordinary people would black out at forces greater than 5 G. To read a little more about how they manage to achieve this extraordinary feat, by using their long legs as catapults, and how they might even control the direction of their leaps into the unknown, click here. Which indeed is the noise you might hear if you disturb a frog hopper on a leaf stem, and it springs away from you, leaving you to marvel at such jumping finesse.

Achieved with no training.

No special fitness diets.

And no competitive targets. (As far as we know).

Simply a very efficient survival strategy honed over millions of generations and years.

The first hay has been cut in the last few days, in soaring temperatures and day long sunshine. The Red kites fly low and close, roving shadows appearing over my shoulder as I concentrate on guiding the power scythe, inspecting for cut-kill. Though one of the benefits of a small scale slow cutter, such as I use, is that collateral amphibian damage is very slight – they can easily jump away in time.

And in a valley this year very strangely devoid of lamb calls, as neighbouring farmers have dramatically reduced sheep numbers, in part as the inevitable consequence of ageing demographics, we heard the clear, haunting high burbling cry as a pair of curlews flew overhead last week. The first and only time we’ve heard this in years.

A rare and much appreciated pleasure indeed. Perhaps less intensively grazed fields may boost local numbers with time?Finally, I must record that in our hay meadow, we have moved over the last four years from 1,1, 2 to 14 (2017) and counting, the numbers of Heath spotted orchids we found flowering. This is a huge thrill occurring so soon ( just 5 years), after starting our push to achieve greater floral diversity in this field.

As a galanthophile used to studying the minutiae of flower differences, it’s also interesting to see that they’re all quite unique and distinctive in flower spike size and shape, and individual flower patterning and colour. A few examples are shown below.

Guesses for how many flowers we’ll find next year anyone?

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July 28th 2017

A significant threshold has been crossed this month, in that we’ve engaged help for the first time, from Paul with decorating our chimneys, and from William with helping me construct a hay shed, designed in the nether regions of my mind, not even on the back of an envelope, for storing our big bags of hay. A fascinating exercise in frequent, practical, unanticipated problem solving, which occurred on almost every day of the build. By co-incidence a report this week, click here, from the U.S.A, suggests that paying others to do your chores, is the secret to happiness.

Really? We don’t actually consider either of the above tasks as chores, just part of the necessary process of trying to keep the place in good order, and leaving it in a better state than we found it. However, we’re slowly realising that we just can’t manage to get everything done ourselves, and some jobs are now physically a bit beyond us. We’ve been very grateful for their help and effort, and hope that in William’s case, we can provide him with some regular work around the place as well as assisting him as he establishes his own business.

Whilst there have been single sunny days, and some fabulous cloud formations, we’ve once again been forced to cut and process hay in less than optimal conditions, turn it multiple times, and get it off the meadow in a maximum weather window (i.e. no rain falling) of 48 hours. No wonder most farmers round about now cut and process grass into haylage, or silage in plastic wrap sheaths, with the consequent loss of floral and other biodiversity.

Further serious thought about this issue has seen us exploring further small scale mechanisation with a Molon hay turner/windrow maker, which works off our 2 wheel BCS power unit, which we use for cutting the hay with a scythe. Whilst not ideal, this does save a huge amount of physical work particularly with the early turnings when the grass is still very wet. This enabled us to turn the last block of hay on our top field 5 times before stuffing into 55 big bags, and getting it all safely off the field in 48 hours from cutting, before the rain returned.

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The first day of the month saw us opening the garden for the last time this year, along with walks through our meadows, since this year July 1st was designated as National Meadows Day, for the third year running. This event has succeeded in raising the profile of wildflower meadows, and we were pleased to once again be one of just 120 venues across the UK which held events to contribute to this process. It’s now a well known fact, but worth repeating, that 97% of all traditional wildflower meadows have been lost in the UK over the last 70 years, yet they are amazingly valuable ecosystems rich in plant, animal and fungal diversity. Click here for more on the Carmarthenshire Meadows Group, set up to try to raise awareness of these environments in our county.

The last week in June was extremely disappointing with grey skies and rain, but the first of July dawned with heavy clouds retreating Eastwards, and sunshine returning.In the end, a very successful day was held, with both our morning and afternoon slots pretty fully booked, and with almost no car parking spaces left in our yard.

Visitors came from as far afield as Gloucestershire, Manchester, and Swansea and it was particularly pleasing that whilst a lot were gardeners, some had a real interest in wildflower meadows, and were keen on learning a little more about our meadows and how we manage them. We always find the exchange of ideas, experience and knowledge which comes out of these events is one of the main benefits to us, and we often get just as much out of it, as our visitors.

I was keen to share my enthusiasm as a cross over gardener, come meadow manager, of the complexity of life that a managed meadow represents. And a point I raised with both morning and afternoon groups as we walked round, was the fact that our hay meadow now has three separate locally sourced hemi-parasitic flowering plants as constituents of the meadow sward. The first two of which are significant nectar rich flowers for our indigenous bumblebees (Yellow rattle, Rhinanthus minor, and Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica).

The third, and last, to flower is the much smaller Eyebright, Euphrasia nemorosa, (and related spp.) which is really one of a large complex group of very similar looking flowers, and hybrids or species which even keen botanists can struggle to differentiate. Add in a few nitrogen fixing legumes – Common bird’s-foot and Greater bird’s-foot trefoils, Lotus corniculatus, and peduculatus, White and Pink clover, Trifolium repens, and pratense, and the myriad of, for much of the year, unobserved fungi and there is already a huge and very varied matrix of living organisms in this small meadow, apart from the grasses and mosses, and many of which are a feature of our very damp climate.I posed the question to our many visitors, do gardeners know of any hemi-parasitic plants which are widely available, or commonly incorporated, into garden planting schemes? I couldn’t think of any, and none of our guests seemed to be able to either. So there seems to be this real contrast between such an interconnected natural meadow ecosystem, on very poor soil, and a typical herbaceous planting scheme. The former has minimal external nutrient input, and indeed some significant natural plant suppression through hemi-parasitism, and regular removal of much of the vegetation through hay cropping and grazing.

The latter has plants typically set out separately, and distinct from any neighbouring plants, and often with much additional organic matter in the way of mulch or nutrient, is added. This divergence between a natural, and a more contrived community, and their very different aesthetics, intrigues me greatly.

By the end of this last day of opening for the NGS, we’d exceeded the total visitor numbers we’d managed in any of our previous years of opening, in spite of being open for fewer days, which was very pleasing. We’ve also now decided on our plans for opening next year, to take account of what we feel comfortable with. This will mean opening on very few days, in February to May only, though other dates will be available for groups of 15 or more. Please see the Visiting the Garden page for more details.

I recalled a fellow meadow owner once telling me about a technique for ageing a meadow by counting buttercups. At last this week, I managed to track down the research, originally carried out in 2009 by John Warren at Aberystwyth University. Click here to read the whole paper, which is enlightening and not too full of scientific jargon.

The basic premise is that you collect, or count, the flowers of 100 Creeping buttercups, Ranunculus repens, which is a common grassland, and indeed garden, “weed” throughout much of the UK. A normal creeping buttercup flower has 5 petals, but aberrant flower mutations occur where there are more than this number of petals.

Warren explains that since the creeping buttercup largely spreads by vegetative means with runners, and therefore relies on such asexual non-seed reproduction, then for every one flower found with more than 5 petals, you can assume that the meadow is 7 years old. So if, say, you find 14 such flowers in every 100 you look at, then the meadow is about 100 years ago.

Knowing that our meadows are likely to be quite old, we thought we’d try this out. You have to distinguish the creeping buttercup from other common field buttercups, like the meadow buttercup and bulbous buttercup, and apparently the accuracy of the system tends to break down after July (though frustratingly the paper doesn’t say whether this is the beginning or end of July!), since flower morphology naturally changes a bit with flowers which are produced later in the season.

Wandering back up from the bottom field, we walked through our “Cae efail” (blacksmith’s field) and picked the first 3 flowers we found. Much to our surprise they all had 6 or more petals. Encouraged, we continued, and the final tallies below showed firstly, that by roving independently across the field, we both seemed to find a similar ratio, of typical 5 petalled to more petalled mutated flowers. In addition, you’ll notice that Fiona was a more efficient collector. I’d only got 18 and 30; she had 36 and 65, so an average of just over 36% of more than 5 petal flowers.A little maths implies a meadow age of well over 200 years.

Warren’s paper describes quite clearly how such an obviously visible macro mutation can be maintained within a population simply by vegetative means, and that by sampling populations from across the country from meadows of known age, the simple 7 years per mutant flower formula seems to hold good.

We were clearly at the end of the creeping buttercup flowering period when we performed the count, but this is definitely something we’ll try next year in our other fields. Being able to confirm that our meadows’ ages are closely linked to the age of the construction of our house, which dates to the early 1700’s or so, is very exciting, and confirms what a special opportunity we have here to restore at least some of the meadows to a more floriferous and diverse state.

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Posted 30/04/2018

One advantage of the very slow grass growth, and the almost complete absence of slugs in our meadows so far this year (I almost need to repeat this, to remind me of this unique scenario) – clearly a big population crash after this February and March’s extreme freeze drying – is that it’s much easier to scan the turf for signs of new plant species seedlings.

A bank in our upper hay meadow which very early on in our tenure of Gelli Uchaf had the surface soil scraped down with a JCB’s bucket to fill in a track which had zig zagged up through our field, has always been more sparse in grass growth than much of the rest of the field. I guess minimal top soil was left after this process. So this area seemed like a good first place to try to establish some flowering plants, once we started on encouraging floral diversity into these fields.

Beginning 6 years ago with some Dog-violet, Viola riviana, seed capsules collected from our access track’s banks.Over the years other seed including Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica, (below).Betony, Stachys officinalis, Great Burnet, Sanguisorba officinalis, (below), Narcissus pseudonarcissus lobularis (the native daffodil), Cowslip, Primula veris, Bugle, Ajuga reptans, Fox and Cubs, Pilosella aurantiaca, Self Heal, Prunella vulgaris, have all been scattered.Then, 3 years ago a friend gave us a few heads of seed capsules of Early purple orchid (Orchis mascula). Although collected from her woodland about 5 miles away, I thought I’d give them a go on this slope, since it’s part of the hay meadow where waxcap mushrooms appear in the late summer and autumn. I simply crushed the small seed pods and tried to then shake the incredibly fine dust like seed onto this part of the meadow slope.

I’ve written before about orchid seed germination, click here for more detail, but I’ll summarise the critical point, which is why I mention the waxcaps, below.

Very fine orchid 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 own 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.

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. 

After spotting multiple small clusters of Betony leaves (above) on the slope, imagine my delight when I found some darkly spotted glossy green leaves which were possibly Orchis mascula. Yesterday I did a more systematic quartering of this slope and counted about 35 different young orchid plants. Some even seem to have tiny flower spikes developing.

A further interesting point is that the main cluster of plants, and they certainly aren’t evenly distributed over the bank being in 3 discrete patches, are at the most South Westerly end, where I definitely recall seeing waxcaps in previous years. Sadly, I can’t find a photo to include, so plan to stake out the locations of the orchids and inspect later in the year to see if they are indeed associated with a particular above ground fungal body presence.

Early purple orchids apparently have one of the most concentrated food stores in their tubers, and sailors used to take them on voyages with them for this reason, in earlier periods.

In addition, before coffee was discovered, the powdered root was ground up and used for brewing a drink with reputed aphrodisiac properties, and special “saloop” or “salep” houses were built for consuming this interesting beverage. How appropriate then for us two emigres from Shropshire (or Salop, as it’s also known) to be growing it in our meadow.

Maybe if it really takes off, we could offer it as an optional drink for garden visitors in the future, along with tea or coffee? Finally, if or when we do get some flowers, they have a scent of honey initially, but this changes to more like an unpleasant tom cat pee aroma, once pollination has taken place. Click here for more on Saloop/Salep.

I’m indebted to the wonderful wildflower.org.uk site for some of these details. Click here for more information and some photos of the flowers.

On the Carmarthenshire Meadows Group website, Andrew Martin has just reviewed a fascinating paper on the benefits to bumblebees of “restoring” hay meadows, click here for link, and in most cases this was achieved by spreading relatively large amounts of green hay from suitable local donor meadows onto “improved, and species poor” grassland sites. It’s interesting that our experience is that simple hand scattering of collected seed can also kick start this process towards floral diversity surprisingly quickly.

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Posted 29/05/2018

The additional dilemma facing us was that we then had an extended forecast period of dry, warm and fairly sunny weather stretching ahead of us. So, I started to cut some hay. The problem is that after the very cool spring, the crop at this time of the year is really light. And most plants haven’t produced flowers let alone seed yet. Which is why the strict approach to hay making would be it’s far too early to even think of doing this – many agro-environmental schemes ban cutting any hay fields before early July, to avoid impacting on any ground nesting birds, but there aren’t any of these on our land anyway.

But there is a well-known saying about making hay, when the sun shines.

The Sweet vernal grass, Anthoxanthum odoratum, flower heads are up, rusty brown. The Pignut, Conopodium majus, fronds are unfurling, and Germander speedwell, Veronica chamaedrys, and Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica, are in bloom.  Do we wait for more growth, and risk another typically wet July and August? Or start nibbling away, and at least get some hay in the (big) bag? Having cut some on 2 days around midday, around the field edges, my decision seemed justified – this is how cutting hay should be! The stems are actually dry when you cut them – not damp with yesterday’s rain, or heavy with dew, as is usually the norm here. The BCS power scythe blade cut much more cleanly, and didn’t clog once.The other benefit with sequential nibbling is that it’s much easier to manage physically, and some of the flowers will probably recover and flower later in the year. The first Yellow rattle, Rhinanthus minor, flowers opened last week too, and this is one of the plants I suspect will bounce back from an early trim, and hence extend the season of nectar and pollen for bumblebees later in the year. There are certainly some benefits compared with the conventional radical, cut the field all in one go, which is the normal practice with mechanised hay or silage making these days.

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Posted June 23rd 2018

As well as the Sea campion, I’ve noticed the Silver Y’s on G. macrorrhizum, Yellow rattle, Rhinanthus minor, in the hay meadow, and even Sweet William, Dianthus barbatus, which we’ve grown for the first time in quantity.

Not to be out done, our native Garden chafers, Phyllopertha horticola, then exploded with a swarm type mating display.I’d noticed a few in the hay meadow over the previous few days, but was out there early on the morning of June 4th. The lower East facing slope was being warmed by the rising sun and even at 8.00 am the air temperature was hot as I stood and watched as waves of these insects appeared above the Sweet vernal grass, Anthoxanthum odoratum, and Sorrel, Rumex acetosa, seed heads.

The individual beetles would clumsily cling to stems, then fly a few metres, before dropping down and disappearing into the lower grassy thatch as a cloud covered the sun and temperatures dropped slightly.

I’ve never seen anything like this before, and neither it seems had our local bird populations, but very quickly robins, house sparrows and a jay, Garrulus glandarius, realised a feast was being laid on and ignored my close presence with the camera to fly down and pick off the beetles as they clattered onto the margins of the meadow where we’d cut and removed a section for hay.

Apparently garden chafers are viewed as pests, not just because of the root eating activities of the grubs, which I wrote about last year, but also because large numbers of adults, like those I was witnessing, can damage the surface of developing apples and cause significant wastage to an orchard’s crop. The typical signs are small lesions on the fruitlet’s surface, similar to the image below.

There’s an interesting recent report from Germany about how funnel traps have been developed to catch the adults and prevent such damage in an orchard environment, click here.  One aspect of this study was what the scientists used to bait the traps to attract the chafers – a mix of volatile plant origin chemicals. This introduced me to a new to me word, kairomone. I guess many readers will be familiar with the word pheromone, which is a chemical produced by a species, and often used as a signalling chemical to alert other individuals of the same species to the presence of the animal which has produced it. Many male moths, for example, locate females pre-mating, by following pheromone scent plumes detected with their ornate branched antennae.

A kairomone is by definition a chemical emitted by one organism, which mediates interactions between different species in a way that benefits an individual of another species which receives it, and harms the emitter. So in the case of the garden chafers, the males apparently locate the females by the “scents” of plant-based chemicals which are released by the adult females which have fed on them.

Within 24 hours the weather had changed, cloud cover prevailed and the chafers weren’t obvious. In any event most of the mating had probably taken place by then and eggs will have been laid. Presumably in profusion! It’s very difficult to get impressive still or video clips of this scene – the beetles move fast, and cameras tend to focus on the many grass seed heads and stems. Before my video battery ran out, this was the best I could manage

Given the considerable damage caused last autumn by badgers ripping up turf in this meadow to eat chafer grubs as they matured near the soil surface, I think that I shall have to consider my own form of scent-based deterrence of badgers before they come into our meadow this year, or risk even greater turf damage than in 2017.

However a possible benefit of this chafer explosion may be that grasses will be weakened even more over the next 12 months, and allow further flower proliferation in the meadow, already aided by the ongoing presence of Yellow rattle, and now to a lesser extent, Eyebright, Euphrasia spp.

Within the meadow, I’ve been delighted how our orchid population has also exploded in numbers this year. Every day new flower spikes seem to appear, mainly in clusters around the field though with 3 or 4 dispersed singletons. As I write the numbers have swelled to 82, extending the exponential annual progression to 1,1,4,14,82. At this rate we’ll hope for well over 100 next year? Most seem to be hybrid forms of the Heath spotted-orchid and Common spotted-orchid, (Dactylorhiza maculata and D. fuchsii) and all have individual variations in both flowering time, colour, flower markings and numbers of flowers per spike. So again I was wrong in my earlier prediction that the spotted leaves I’d seen earlier in the year belonged to Early purple orchids, Orchis mascula! There’s a really good identification guide to the more common orchid species, produced by the Natural History Museum, which you can download as a pdf by clicking here. It’s particularly pleasing that my applications of dried seaweed don’t seem to have negatively impacted on their proliferation and that after worrying that the very first orchid I’d spotted 5 years hadn’t appeared this year, eventually it did, and this time with 3 flower spikes.

I couldn’t find any information on how long terrestrial orchids like these will survive, but having a tuberous root system, maybe quite a few years. The above individual is clearly already 5 years old, plus the time spent as a protocorm before its leaves emerged above ground. So given the increase in numbers recorded in this meadow so far, perhaps we can expect thousands in a few more years, which would be a huge delight!

Finally, I must mention that during the late evening of the chafer swarm day, with a still very warm and muggy feel, I nipped out last thing and was worried by the high noise level from the ewes and lambs, who by this time are usually completely silent.

Checking things out with a torch, I discovered several were extremely restless and vocal beneath the trees of the green lane and soon discovered why. Clouds of midges, worse than anything I have ever experienced here, descended on me in seconds. The poor sheep, recently shorn, probably had a very miserable few days, before the midges, fed and bred, completed their short life cycle.

With all this talk of recovery and explosion in numbers, so far the slugs are an exception – their numbers have remained exceptionally low, perhaps limited by the unusually dry conditions.

Much fine weather has meant more cuttings of hay, although some required bringing in early in our big bags, and then manual turning again several times after unexpected rain appeared and required bagging up too soon after cutting.

Wonderful healthy exercise? With the current forecast hinting at another fortnight of dry conditions with stiff breezes, after a lull of a week or so when dank mist and drizzle dominated, more was cut in the last 2 days. We hope we might now manage to complete the year’s harvest by the beginning of July. A uniquely long, summer dry period in our permanent residence at Gelli Uchaf.A single very successful day on the shepherd’s hut build early in the month saw the temporarily fixed roofing sheets come off, the false ribs and purlins cut, the plywood sheets flexed and temporarily fixed for the barrel ceiling, some roof insulation added and the roof sheets lifted back on and screwed down permanently – all completed with minutes to spare before William knocked off for the day. For once a DIY day which exceeded optimistic expectations.

With daily trips up to the hut to tinker, and now even apply some internal paint, we’re already benefiting from the frequent walks up “Longevity Hill” and the glorious views, including the one below on the longest day of the year.

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Posted 31/07/2018

For any meadow owners who’ve had to cut a crop for hay or haylage, it’s clearly been the best year in ages for getting it into a shed or wrapped with no problems, though perhaps quantities are reduced after the cold late spring and then very dry weather from May onwards.

But for anyone who has stock that are grazing their land permanently, there are currently likely to be huge issues with the lack of aftermath regrowth. Our total annual rainfall here, since I began measuring it, has ranged from 1600 to 2150 mm. Monthly maximas from 534 mm in December 2015 downwards. Our previous longest summer dry spell saw 95 mm fall in June and July of August 2014. This year we have had just 89 mm since May 1st.

So I’m sharing some of our experiences this year. We only take a hay crop off part of 2 (out of 6) paddocks – 1 upland sloping, 1 valley bottom wet, which we need for our small flock of Tor Ddu sheep. We do this semi-manually, by cutting with a walk behind BCS Powerscythe, turning mainly now with a mini Molon turner which fits onto the BCS power unit, which also rows the hay up. Although under some conditions manual turning works better.

The hay is then raked and manually stuffed into big bags and dragged off the fields and stored loose in small hay sheds. We’ve found it stores better out of the bags. The manual effort involved in this means, as old fogies, we can never cut more than a small amount in 1 day, since we have to be prepared to make hay in 48 hours, which has been the default maximum time between showers for many recent summers until this summer of 2018.

After experimenting for 5 years, this year we decided to start cutting the peripheral field margins on our upper hay meadow first since this always grow lusher and quicker than the central areas of this field. This began on May 21st. Stock had been kept out from early February. The crop was very light, but conditions were good for haymaking, though some overheated and needed manually re-turning (below) once the typical showers, which weren’t on the forecasts, had been and gone.

In the end we’d got all of our designated hay areas in both fields finished by the last week in June. Way too early for wildflower seed set?

Interestingly, the very early first cut areas behaved as though they’d had a Chelsea chop (in gardening parlance). Since the annual Yellow rattle, Rhinanthus minor, was beheaded before any seed was set, it regrew, flowered and set seed after the main crop in the centre of the field had finished – a great extra resource for nectar seeking insects..

Although the masses of Sweet vernal grass, Anthoxanthum odoratum, which is our primary grass species in the upper meadow, had flowered in the early cut sections, it hadn’t set seed. However, this grass species hasn’t produced much of a second flush of flowers. Instead, the later flowering grasses, (including Common bent, Agrostis capillaris, – though I’m not a grass expert!) have now produced seed heads.Even more surprising was that in one area subjected to an early cut, a single Heath Spotted-orchid, Dactylorhiza maculata, hybrid, survived, flowered and set seed, in spite of such an early assault. The later flowering Greater Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Lotus pedunculatus, has also recovered and is just now producing some flowers and greenery in areas near to the hedges, in spite of the drought.

How do other areas of this meadow look now? Some small sections with the majority of the increasing orchid count.(83 this year, up from just 1 flower, 4 years ago) are still uncut and now straw like in appearance.

The main section of this field cut in late June, (above middle left), and on an East facing slope have almost no grass regrowth at all. But there’s still greenery in this section – the Ribwort plantain, Plantago lanceolata. Dandelions, Taraxacum spp. and Fox-and-cubs, Pilosella aurantiaca.

All with deeper root systems looked slightly stunted but still green. The sorrel, Rumex acetosa, is just beginning to recover too, in this late cut area.Whilst in the earlier cut sections the closely related Sheep’s sorrel, Rumex acetosella, has flowered and set seed.

At some point we’ll need to wean our lambs onto this field, so even with our low stocking density we do need some aftermath grazing. Shifting these meadows towards greater diversity, and cutting early (at least some sections) will definitely have helped overall productivity in the very dry conditions of 2018. In addition, it may have really helped all the invertebrate life which would been more impacted with conventional removal of all the crop at one time.

Obviously, however, this piece-meal approach won’t easily work with larger machinery or with a contractor, but for any with smaller areas, say less than 2 acres, it could be an option to consider.

With the above backdrop I was interested by the recently established trial on increasing diversity in pasture swards by the University of Reading. The Diverse Forages project  began in 2017. By using standardised plots using increasing numbers of species in the seed mixes for newly sown pasture (6,12,17 species), it has a number of targets and measurements:

• Biomass yield, forage quality, botanical composition, and soil properties in a long-term replicated trial plot study at multiple sites

• A comparison of pasture resilience under waterlogged and drought conditions assessed using trial plots

• On-farm case studies from ten demonstration farms in South and South West England

• A two-year evaluation of forage nutritional value, including measurements of digestibility, nitrogen use efficiency, methane emission mitigation potential, and growth rate of grazing cattle

• A modelling exercise to determine economic and environmental impacts of the mixtures at farm-scale.

You can read a review of a discussion workshop of its first year’s results by clicking here.  

This review includes:

 “Results from the EU Cost study showed that 98% of the mixed swards tested outperformed the yield of the average component species
sown in monoculture,”

and “The SmartGrass project indicated reduced requirement for
worming lambs fed on multi-species pasture.”

and “described how one dairy farmer growing diverse forages had enabled him to more than double his soil organic matter over a number of years which in turn allowed him
to increase stocking rate.” 

Click here for more detail on the study which will run for 5 years. Although it’s clearly aimed much more at commercial farmers, than a typical CMG member, it may raise awareness of the benefits of sward diversity, and after the 2018 results are available, it may indeed highlight the fact that in extreme weather, having all your fodder eggs in the perennial ryegrass basket is a very dangerous thing to do.

Most readers on this site will of course already be aware of the huge benefits of species diversity in grassland – that’s partly really why CMG exists, but it’s great to see that some hard data on species diversity in pasture may gradually be accumulated and affect mainstream agricultural practice, once a study like this has been completed.

Reinventing the wheel perhaps?

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Posted September 8th 2018

In the upper hay meadow, the Fox- and-Cubs, or Grim the Collier, or Devil’s Paintbrush, Pilosella aurantiaca, has flowered beautifully in September and has proved to be a magnet for many bumbles, honeybees, wasps, hoverflies and even butterflies.

Forgetting to always carry my camera nearly meant I missed 2 other sightings on these sunny days – a Small heath butterfly, Coenonympha pamphilus, resting on dewy grass, in the same meadow.And even more exciting seeing a Common blue butterfly, Polyommatus icarus, work its way down the bank slope, flitting over the yellow Creeping cinquefoil, Potentilla reptans, and Tormentil flowers, Potentilla erecta, and alighting only on the Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Lotus corniculatus.

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Not to be outdone in the insect friendly flower category of meadow plants recovering from an early hay cut, to bloom in early autumn, the humble dandelion, Taraxacum spp. is at last weedling its way into my consciousness.I remember that when Richard and Kath Pryce did their botanical survey here in 2016, they mentioned dandelion diversity. As I’ve slowly worked my way over the hay meadow this last week, planting Snake’s head fritillary bulbs, Fritillaria meleagris, I’ve started to notice just how variable dandelion flowers are. And their leaves. And probably their seed heads too. Although lacking the diverse insect appeal, at least at this time of the year, that the Fox- and-Cubs has, they’re still loved by hoverflies, and some smaller bumbles, particularly B. pascuorum. I like to think that the increasing numbers of these flowers have helped the B. pascuorum to build up in numbers through the years, and now they form a significant pollinator of the autumn flowering Cyclamen hederifolium in the garden. My last bumblebee survey walk saw me counting 5 different bumbles on the Cyclamen flowers, so seed set should once again be brilliant this year, without me having to stop to wield the pollinating brush.

But back to the dandelions.

There are thought to be nearly 300 different forms, where leaf and flower variations provide the key to specific identification. Part of the reason for this diversity is that individual flowers are capable of both asexual (apomixis) and sexual seed formation. The ones producing asexually generated seed, without pollination, therefore manage to produce clonal seedlings identical to the parent.

Should seed be produced as a result of sexual cross pollination, then variants can arise.

Not only this, but the dandelion flowers can sometimes produce nectar, but no pollen, or vice versa.

In addition, they’re unusual in producing both the female and male organs – anthers and stigma/style, on the same structure.

I can quite see that since dandelions can flower in pretty much every month of the year, this will be a subject I’ll revisit. But for now, and to appreciate some of the points I’ve skimmed over here, do visit this site for some brilliant close up images of the flower’s structure, by Brian Johnston.Finally, as if this wasn’t enough, the milky dandelion sap is a potential source of latex, and apparently some are toying with the idea of making tyres from extracts of the sap.

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The last surprise from the meadow came as a result of doing a torchlight walk of the mown path counting slugs. Amazingly, when I did this earlier this week, I found just 2 slugs, but 6 toadlets/froglets, over the 330 yards. It seems that this year, as well as a complete collapse in slug numbers here, the frogs and toads have been hugely successful. How long this status quo will be maintained, I have no idea, but it’s likely to be a great year for establishing seedlings both in the garden and the meadow without the usual catastrophic slug predation.

Whilst completing the walk, I stopped abruptly after seeing a very odd 3 inch tall vertical structure to one side of the mown path. There were obvious black and white bands up the stem, and then I noticed what seemed to be a couple of flattened wings stuck to the apex.

Minutes, and many photos later it became clear that I was witnessing the emergence of a Daddy longlegs, or Mosquito hawk, or Crane fly, Tipulidae spp. from its pupal stage. The “Leatherjacket” larvae feed on roots beneath the soil, and can cause significant damage to lawns and pasture apparently. but like dandelions, I had no idea how diverse an insect group they are. Evidently there are over 15,000 species worldwide, and perhaps 300 in the UK. Click here and here for more, from the excellent sites of Leicestershire and Rutland Nature Spot, and the Entomological Society of America.   

The adult craneflies are very short lived, and have no feeding mouthparts, so don’t bite like mosquitoes. The females emerge with mature eggs already formed internally, and often mate immediately before laying their eggs in damp grass. Indeed, if you look at the video clip below, taken quite late on its emergence, you’ll see another crane fly appears to check out the emerging adult.

I’ve never seen this emergence before, and it was worth considerable discomfort gingerly lying down on my front, so soon after surgery to get some of these images (well, I think so, anyway). But I wasn’t able to stay for long enough to see the fly take off!

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Posted October 10th 2018

The other main speaker was Dr. Gareth Griffiths from Aberystwyth University talking about grassland fungi. This opened my eyes to the significance of what is almost completely hidden out of sight beneath our feet, yet plays such a significant role in the whole of life on earth.

Gareth has opted to study waxcaps in his research, in part because the global system for designating the marker fungi species of diverse, old grassland (the CHEG system, after the 4 genera involved – Clavaroids, Hygrocybe, Entoloma, Geoglossom) was developed by an amateur mycologist based in Lampeter, West Wales, Maurice Rotheroe.  Click here for more on his interesting background – journalist, come naturalist. Gareth was indeed inspired by Maurice, and has kept Wales at the global forefront of knowledge of this subject. Astonishingly though, there are currently no undergraduate degree courses available in mycology in the UK. So, an area of symbiotic biology of vital significance to most plant growth and healthy soil ecosystems, and therefore underpinning much of food production on the planet, pales into real insignificance when global research funds and energies are allocated.

Perhaps because it is indeed out of sight beneath our feet.

Better to fund all that analysis of who did what, where and when, and make sure one can destroy an enemy should the need arise. Really?

Perhaps the latest alarm call from the IPCC will change minds, though I somehow doubt it. Click here for their summary.

Gareth began by explaining the essence of the carbon cycle which fuels all life on earth, and the critical role that fungi play in this. Here’s a quick résumé.

Plants capture the energy of the sun through photosynthesis and fix it in the form of carbohydrates. Three of these are complex polymers – cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin – which are specific to plants, and form the components of typical plant cell walls (typically in an approximate ratio of about 4:3:3 – depending on plant type). These complex polymers of simple sugars, often with thousands of repeated, but bonded simple components, are sufficiently challenging structures that animals still haven’t evolved a way of degrading these molecules themselves.

In the case of cellulose and hemicellulose, several grass or plant eating animals have evolved digestive systems entirely reliant on microbes – both bacteria and fungi, in their intestines (either in the rumen, or caecum), which can break down the cellulose in plant cell walls into the component simpler molecules, like glucose, which can then be absorbed from the gut and used for animal growth.

Lignin however was a tougher digestive nut to crack, being the hard, dark brown material, which gives woody plants their rigidity. Gareth explained that during the carboniferous period (of about 60 million years duration, and which ended about 300 million years ago), plants evolved lignin, but there was simply no way of degrading it in the earth’s ecosystems. The result being that when plants died the leaf and woody debris just accumulated and gradually built up, in due course becoming the deposits of oil and coal which have fuelled man’s increasing energy demands over the very recent past. As the leaves drop this autumn and the yard and meadows become littered with tree debris, what a sobering thought as to what would happen if this material wasn’t so efficiently recycled out of sight.

Times changed when fungi eventually evolved the enzymes capable of breaking down lignin. A complex soup of various extracellular enzymes, produced principally by white rot Baciomyecetes fungi are now thought to be the principal drivers which degrade the roughly 20% of organic matter in typical soils which derives from all the lignin in plant cell walls – in dead leaves, twigs, logs, and roots. This gradual but continual fungal degradation releases the carbon accumulated in plant cell growth back into simple forms, which are then available for both animal and other plant growth. The carbon cycle is far too complex to pursue here, but click here for a good review by NASA.

Gareth also mentioned that the fruiting bodies of mushrooms represent only about 1% of the total mass of the fungal organism, which has a huge and often very long-lived network of mycelia strands below the ground surface, often itself connecting with the roots of many plants, and involved in complex two-way exchanges of nutrients with plant roots. It’s now widely accepted that probably 90% of plants have root interactions with such AM or arbuscomycorrhizal fungi.

Wales is a global hotspot for grassland waxcap species. I’d always thought that this was a consequence of the very damp local conditions, but Gareth explained that it was also partly because of the hilly terrain and “poor” soils locally, which has meant that areas of the landscape have simply never been ploughed or received fertiliser treatments. Both of which can very quickly completely destroy the underground networks of many of these colourful waxcap fungi. As part of his work, he’s been to visit the longest running ecological survey of grassland at the internationally renowned Rothamsted research institute in Hertfordshire. Here, in the “Park grass plots”, annual monitoring of many distinct plots created from a single meadow back in the 1860’s has conclusively shown that plant species diversity has diminished over the years, and many grassland fungi disappeared very quickly in response to applications of nitrogen, lime or phosphorous. However, amazingly, Gareth still regularly finds, in autumn, fruiting bodies of some waxcap mushrooms on the two control plots which have never received any artificial applications over all these decades. These are nearly unique waxcap records, from the counties surrounding London. They have simply been wiped out by “agricultural improvements” from all other agricultural land.

So what?

Well, it seems that in terms of total soil organic carbon storage, nothing apparently beats diverse old permanent grassland, managed as it typically is with livestock grazing and maybe a hay crop. Even converting such land into forestry, which is currently happening apace in many areas of Wales, will reduce the ability of a given acreage of soil to sequester carbon. In major part, this ability to store carbon, hidden, and out of sight beneath our feet, is exactly what the grassland fungi are doing in their complex interactions with plants’ roots. Meanwhile, scientists are striving to develop technological solutions to try to capture the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in our warming atmosphere, and store it underground. Without apparently much success, so far.

Strange world, eh?

Finally, and most intriguingly, Gareth mentioned some of his research looking at the concentrations of the heavy isotopes of carbon, C, and nitrogen, N, in different animal and fungal tissues. The higher up the food chain an animal is, the greater the proportion of these heavier isotopes found in tissue samples. For example in a marine environment the plankton will have low levels, plankton feeding shellfish will concentrate these isotopes and have higher levels, fish which eat shellfish higher levels still, and a predator like a Polar bear will have the highest levels of both heavy N and C, in their body tissues.

Gareth found that most saprophytic fungi, which help to decompose plant material do indeed have higher levels of the heavy carbon isotope, but much to his surprise, the waxcap mushrooms have dramatically higher heavy nitrogen levels. Gareth thinks this implies that these fungi have a role in decomposing decaying animal matter, hence are saprobic, but as yet he has no conclusive evidence of how they are doing this or what they are feeding on. Click here for more.Part of the problem with researching these fungi, is that it’s proved almost impossible to cultivate the fungi in the laboratory, in spite of years of trying. A marked contrast to many of the other fungi which form part of an approximately £42 billion industry serving human consumption. By coincidence Kew Gardens have also very recently released a review document on the state of the world’s fungi. Click here for an interesting read.

There is a great review article, co-authored by Gareth and outlining aspects of grassland fungi management which was published in British Wildlife magazine which you can read by clicking here.

My own excitement with finding grassland fungi in most of our meadows as we’ve changed the land management over the last few years, is now matched by thoughts about what gardeners can learn from some of these concepts, about the huge role that often hidden fungi will play beneath the soil surface in our gardens, and how we can best nurture and respect these.

Are applications of high nitrogen material, or high phosphorous material always a good idea, since they will severely impact on many fungi?

Is soil disturbance through digging rational?

Do bulbs add an additional level of carbon sequestration to a garden environment?

As our garden moves in many areas into a more mature, settled type of semi-woodland ecosystem, topped up with natural leaf litter, and the occasional sprinkling of wood ash or dry seaweed, I’m convinced that beneath the soil surface, increasingly complex webs of activity between fungi, and bulb, plant and tree roots are indeed creating an incredibly complex internet of all living things – whether I fully understand it, or not. Should you google this term, you’ll find a cool half a billion search options, including an article, click here, which uses the phrase in a different, though intriguing sense, and explains that we’re on the cusp of availability of portable devices enabling anyone to genome sequence any organism anywhere, and upload the data to the cloud.

Not quite what I envision with the term, but might it mean that amateur DIY sequencing of, say, fungal mycorrhizae linking in to bulb roots, will soon be an option for the keen gardener scientist?

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Posted October 16th 2018

I wrote last time about an inspirational talk on grassland fungi, and how it has opened my eyes to the critical role of fungi in natural ecosystems. A few days ago, we had a second slant on fungi from a talk by Bruce Langridge of the National Botanic Garden of Wales, who’s been instrumental in raising awareness of fungi at the NBGW over many years now.

Featuring a range of different fungi fruiting bodies covering a gamut of sizes and forms, Bruce made the comment that when he took on his role of Head of Engagement at the NBGW he knew nothing about fungi, having had a botanical background. However, the fact that the NBGW has nationally significant waxcap mushroom permanent pastures, meant that he became increasingly fascinated by the mushrooms he began to find there, and having got his eye in, he now keeps finding new examples whenever he’s out and about.

I’d picked a selection of the most recent fungi from our own meadows, above, to take in for people to look at during this meeting at Cothigardeners, and it was a special delight that Fiona had found, for the first time a small cluster of Golden spindles, Clavulinopsis fusiformis, just the day before.

With renewed enthusiasm after the talk, and in the peak season for grassland fungi, I clearly had my eyes tuned in as I walked up our path through the upper hay meadow the following day, where something small and orange caught my attention.

I’d never seen this type of fungal fruiting body before, and thinking it might have been a form of Earthtongue fungus emailed some photos to Pat O’Reilly who lives nearby and has written extensively on fungi, to see what he suggested as an ID. Click here for more on Pat’s knowledge of fungi. Shortly afterwards I also put the photos and description onto iSpot.

Within 24 hours two possible ID’s were suggested, one a rare form of Microglossom Earth tongue fungus, the other the wonderfully named Scarlet Caterpillarclub fungus,  Cordyceps militaris. So called, because this is a fungus which specifically attacks the underground larvae or pupae of grassland moths, a so called entomopathogen. Once a fungal spore has germinated on the moth larval body, it has the ability to pierce the defensive chitinous external layer, invade the circulatory fluid system and then begin to grow a mycelium structure throughout all of the caterpillar’s body tissues. It then devours the caterpillar’s body, kills it, and eventually if environmental conditions are appropriate, will produce a fruiting body similar to the one shown here.

Armed with this name, and life cycle, I carefully dug round the fruiting body, and teased away the soil for confirmation – the photos below show the dark caterpillar sprouting the fruiting bodies, with what look like 2 or 3 more fruiting bodies at an early stage of development.

These fungi are not found very often – in part no doubt because they are quite tricky to spot, but also because they could easily and quickly be destroyed through slug damage. Most of our grassland mushrooms seem to be magnets for any slugs still left in the meadows, and hence don’t normally survive intact for many days. The fact that the fruiting bodies were in the shorter grass of the mown path, and also that slug numbers have collapsed so dramatically this year in our meadows, probably explains why I did manage to find it.

Globally there are currently over 400 species of Cordyceps, and this particular one, and a Chinese cousin C. sinensis, have been recognised for some time as containing chemicals, particularly cordycepin, with a huge range of potential medicinal uses from cancer suppression through immuno-stimulation and even as a pre-Viagra treatment for erectile dysfunction. Click here and here. So much so, that for a number of years it’s been commercially grown on artificial media to enable harvesting of exactly the tiny fruiting bodies shown above. It’s fascinating that with so much Asian awareness of its therapeutic potential value, I’d never even heard of it before, let alone come across it.

Some intriguing thoughts occurred to me as I researched this.

Firstly, whether there are any such fungi which attack slugs in the same way? I couldn’t find any records at all however, and given this lack of slug predation, might slug slime have some protective anti-fungal properties? Click here for an insight into current research on this, and how slug slime’s antimicrobial properties might even be a valuable counter to human problems with MRSA in the future.

Secondly, given the apparently high heavy nitrogen isotope content of waxcap mushrooms, which I mentioned in my previous post, as discovered by Gareth Griffith’s research, might these fungi be secret slug killers, or consumers? Might the reduction in slug numbers I’ve described in part be because of the increasing numbers of waxcaps which we now find in our meadows? Pure speculation on my part.

Who knows?

Fortunately, the fungi survived trampling by our ram lambs which have been in this meadow for the last 2 weeks, and I’m assuming that perhaps neither the colour, form or smell of these tiny structures has figured on their radar, unlike other objects encountered as they inquisitively explore their current pasture.

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Posted in May Garden Views 2019:

The garden itself progressed beautifully through the month, and the dry weather meant that once again, as in 2018, we began cutting some top, and wet meadow, “hay” around May 18th – a very light leafy crop, but which allows quick aftermath regrowth and a Chelsea chop effect for many of the meadow flowers, extending the season of pollen and nectar interest for insects.

 

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Posted June 25th 2019

We’re at that time of the year when our focus is easily distracted away from the garden and into the meadow. In part because we have to try to work out when we’re likely to get weather appropriate for hay making. In part because the almost daily changing scene is fabulous, with colours and impressionistic intermingled patterns, created by the plant palette, changing light, and weather conditions.

Until a few days ago, although we’ve had brief bursts of sunshine, we’ve had no run of 3 dry days in a row, which is what we really need to make hay.

Then the weather gods relented and off we rushed, though this year it’s been a wrench to cut plants still in their flowering prime. We’ve now got vastly more meadow buttercups and white clover in flower, all being worked by bumblebees, but we simply have to cut some at this stage. We can’t manage to process huge areas of hay at one time with our labour intensive, semi-manual approach, and cutting now should still mean some flowers emerging at the tail end of summer before we need to graze this field.

In contrast our commercial friends clear whole hillsides in a couple of days, though the harvest is shockingly flower free in these days of haylage, silage and NPK fertilisers.5 different vehicles in use on the hill above, starting at dawn on a Sunday morning to shift the above crop and clear the field in just a few hours.

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Posted July 22nd 2019

The meadow here has continued to delight us, and in spite of the fatigue that hits as we close in on the end of haymaking, the speed of progression of floral diversity in our meadows is thrilling.

A feature of haymaking this year has been an incredibly tame robin which has appeared in both our hay meadows, once we get the forks and rakes working. Its keen vision enabling it to spot small caterpillars amongst the drying hay.

The last photo shows a turned down bag I used to collect seed shaken from hay cut the previous day to transfer to other fields to increase plant diversity.

I was chatting with a fellow local meadow owner recently about how tricky it is to capture the appearance of a meadow with still images, but I think this year I’ve got a little closer, since the light has often been gorgeous at different times of the day. Although many of the images need enlarging, to really pick up the details.

In addition, thanks to the NGS and also the Coronation Meadows website, our mini break incorporated a couple of visits to wildflower hay meadows that were truly glorious and on a large enough scale to provide real vistas.

First, was the beautiful house gardens and location at Hurdley Hall Gardens, Churchstoke, Montgomery, which we took in on our journey North with a minor detour. Click here for more details. The main meadows were created only 3 years ago by importing green hay from a Coronation Meadow site just a few miles North, and simply scattering it onto the existing pasture, allowing most of the seeds to fall to the ground in their new location. The pictures show just how successful, and fast this technique can be at transforming ordinary pasture into a sea of flowers.

Secondly, I’d found that the named coronation meadow for Northumberland (Barrowburn Farm) was only about 45 minutes from our B&B base at Thistleyhaugh Farm, a very special place with wonderful hospitality from Enid and Janice on the family farm. This has been in the same ownership for over 120 years and is the only organic and pasture for life farm in the whole of the county.

Barrowburn Farm meadows near Alwinton, lie in the stunning Coquet valley in the North West of the county, just a couple of miles from the Scottish border. Click here for more. The land is owned by the MOD, and to the South are the Otterburn ranges, so the frequent red flags and warning signs meant we kept to the footpaths.

The coronation meadow site notes that these meadows are some of the finest, not just in the UK, but the whole of Europe, and so persuaded us to pursue the single track, dead end road required to reach them. Very much off the main tourist track, it felt much like parts of the countryside around us. Beautiful, and ignored by the masses, since there’s very little there, and it’s a long trek to find anywhere that even serves a cup of tea.

There aren’t any identifying information boards at the meadows, or even signage with footpath routes, so it would have been an advantage to have had an OS map with us. But there is some simple information by the nearest car park, at Wedder’s Leap. So called, because local legend recalls a fellow stealing a sheep (wether, or wedder) and trying to cross the nearby swollen stream whilst still clutching the animal. He fell and was dragged away with the sodden woolly beast to his death.

How appropriate that on the way back from the walk we found a stand of Melancholy thistles, Cirsium heterophyllum, growing beside the stream at the site of his demise. So called, because in times past, the prickle free plants were used to treat melancholia, or depression. In Nicholas Culpeper’s herbal of 1653 he wrote “the decoction of the thistle in wine being drank, expels superfluous melancholy out of the body, and makes a man as merry as a cricket; … my opinion is, that it is the best remedy against all melancholy diseases”.

We didn’t make it up into the hills above the farm, but for an idea of how spectacular the scenery is in winter, click here for a brilliant WordPress blog on the 9 mile circuit by “Mart In The Hills”, which you can complete from the same car park. He also records the site of a murder scene in the hills above the farm.

Like all meadows you have to get up amongst the flowers to really appreciate just how beautiful they are, and how like all meadows the plant mix is pretty unique to the site, a significant feature being the beautiful small blue Geranium sylvaticum.

On our way back from the hay meadows site, we’d planned a longer circular walk up into the hills above Alwinton. Click here for the route.

Two and a half hours of glorious walking with no other people seen. We saw hares, herons and even an oystercatcher. Most stunningly, the hillsides and valley bottoms  were covered in wildflowers, even where grazed by sheep. The smell of nectar from the white clover and wild thyme filled the air. Pignut,  Conopodium majus, and Chimney Sweeper moths, Odezia atrata were in abundance.

Hugely inspirational for continuing the process of getting more flowers into all our fields, and avoiding the overstocking so prevalent in Wales, which means we never see scenes like this locally.

Even the streams were flower filled.

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Posted August 10th 2019

With such a lovely summer, and many opportunities for small scale hay making, there’s been masses of collectible seed produced by different meadow grasses and flowers.

This year we’ve used green hay from our upper, more florally diverse meadow to begin to spread more flowers into our other fields. It’s surprising how even our very young visitors enjoyed helping Grumpy with sticks or boots, flicking the seed laden green hay around. In addition, I’ve spent a lot of time and effort hand collecting particular favoured species’ seeds and scattering them around – selfheal, Prunella vulgaris, eyebright, Euphrasia spp., cat’s ears, Hypochaeris radicata, bird’s-foot trefoil, Lotus corniculatus and orchids.

In addition, I’ve collected seed from Snake’s head fritillaries, Fritillaria meleagris, capsules in the meadow and Camassias currently growing in the garden. On the advice of a friend who’s had great success naturalising these, the seeds of these bulbs were laboriously “sown” rather than simply scattered, by working across the upper hillside, sloping meadow with a lawn edging half-moon, and about every metre or so, making a shallow groove/slot in the turf and sprinkling a few seeds in. Really a two person job for a dry day, and as we removed swathes of hay, William and I worked our way up the hill in this way.

With about 7,000 gathered fritillary seeds, and about a half dozen per slot, you can imagine that this is tedious work. However the plan is that if a fair proportion of these mature into flowering bulbs in 3 or 4 years’ time, I’ll simply then allow any seed to fall naturally.

Or better still cutting and turning for hay should then more easily and quickly spread these lovely flowers around. As well as creating the chance to harvest green hay, complete with this sort of diverse seed mix.

I recently bought a copy of Bob Gibbons’ lovely book “Wildflower Wonders of The World”, which features 50 wildflower rich sites from around the globe. Well worth acquiring for an inspirational read.

The flora of the Burren from Ireland; a scene of the machair from the Outer Hebrides; and the coastal flora of the Lizard in Cornwall are the only images of wildflowers from close to home, which seems a real shame. Bob gives advice for visiting all of the sites included in the book.

But isn’t there a need to enthuse UK residents with the awe inspiring images of such natural plant communities without hopping on a plane to a distant land to experience being amongst such beauty?

This week has seen yet more pressure heaped upon traditional British pasture land management grazed by herbivores which are subsequently harvested for meat, by the mainstream media’s reporting of the latest IPCC climate change report – “Climate Change and Land”, click here.

I’m hoping for even more below the surface sequestered carbon, in the form of all those extra bulbs which should develop in just a few years. As well as providing a vibrant long season of interest above ground with huge appeal for invertebrates, birds, and herbivores, and a visual feast for any who explore the meadows.

However, the rabbits may put paid to my best efforts. Time will tell.

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In a final reference to quality time spent with delightful young visitors, it was wonderful to be able to demonstrate to keen youngsters from the next generation just why yellow rattle is so called, and then after climbing longevity hill, observe them whizzing down the hill from the Hut. Suddenly they peeled off ahead of me, into the regrown aftermath from the very first cut of hay, and spotting a single big yellow rattle flower, took a while to work out how to pull off the seed heads on a plant still a little firmly anchored in the soil, and to its adjacent, parasitised grass roots.

We also had fun catching grass hoppers, something I haven’t done for a long time, but in my own teenage years I recall doing so on a few family caravan based holidays, where we used them as bait for wild Austrian trout, in rushing alpine streams.

There’s a good guide to identifying different grasshopper species, click here, and this year a quick recce seems to have identified at least 3 species in our meadows. (Field, Chorthippus brunneus, Meadow, Chorthippus parallelus, and Common Green, Omocestus viridulus, in the images below). As well as having certain distinct physical features outlined in the above link, they also all create different stridulation sound patterns – made by rubbing legs and wings parts together.

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Posted September 29th 2019:

In a previous post I hinted at a very good year for waxcap mushrooms in our meadows, and given the number I was seeing from walking our meandering upper hay meadow mown path, I thought a more detailed count would be worthwhile. It seems that our meadows are developing into quite significant bastions for these globally extremely rare and really colourful mushrooms, which I’m guessing many readers will never have seen “in the flesh” so please bear with my nerdy enthusiasm.

I began in our upper hay meadow with contour following passes across the field at roughly 2 metre spacings. This sort of “eyes down” walk is necessary to avoid missing any fruiting bodies, which otherwise can easily remain hidden amongst grass that hasn’t been grazed yet since the annual hay cut.

The numbers recorded have amazed me. The first effort on August 30th yielded 492 fruiting bodies in what I recorded as 72 distinct patches or colonies. The majority (over 380) were the vibrantly orange coloured Fibrous waxcap, Hygrocybe intermedia, above. Though 3 other species were present in smaller numbers, with a few unidentified specimens.

The equally bold and appropriately named Golden waxcap, H. chlorophana, above, was the next most numerous with 65 mushrooms.

Then 12 much smaller Glutinous waxcaps, H. glutinipes, above, and finally.

12 Citrine waxcaps, H. citrinovirens

Many of the smaller, younger fruiting bodies were only just showing through the ground hugging, mossy basal layer, which is present in most of this meadow. It seems that this is critical in creating a much warmer, and moister micro-climate for them to develop successfully. So don’t rake or scarify your meadows, if you want waxcaps to thrive.

We rarely find any in more recently mown areas. Apart from sheep grazing from October to early February, the upper hay meadow is un-grazed, and cut once, in stages, from mid-May onwards. It occasionally has wood ash spread on areas of it, and on two occasions had a light top dressing of dried seaweed meal.

Last year this meadow produced a heavy crop of field mushrooms, Agaricus campestris, from a different area of the meadow. This year, so far, I’ve only found 2 field mushrooms.

Most of these mushrooms are very short lived, so just 4 days later, many of the Fibrous waxcaps had disappeared or were shrivelling to a brown black, with perhaps just 29 new ones having popped up, although this was very subjective, being judged by the undamaged appearance of any “new” ones.

But I reckoned there were now an additional 124 Golden waxcaps and a further 16 H. citrinovirens.

Many of these mushrooms are quickly damaged by slugs, but since the “Beast from The East” in March 2018, and then the very dry summer last year, our meadow slug population is a tiny percentage of what it has been in the past.

We always start to see a few Fibrous waxcaps as we mow the field in sections from late June onwards, but it’s clearly impossible to assess just how many might be present earlier in the year, beneath the uncut sward.

I thought I’d weigh a few typical mushrooms, which seemed to average about 10 g apiece.

So maybe a standing crop of about 5 KG of waxcaps in this fairly small, less than one acre area, on just one day. Using Gareth Griffiths’ (the waxcap expert from Aberystwyth University) estimate that the biomass of typical fungal fruiting bodies is only about 1% of the total fungal biomass, that would imply about 500 KG of fungi in this meadow! Not bad for carbon sequestration either. And that’s just from these early species – no sign on this date of any Pink waxcaps.

With drier weather, a follow up count on September 11th yielded far fewer new mushrooms: Fibrous 30 in 15 patches, Golden – 18 in 5, Citrine – 9 in 3; Glutinous – 1 in 1; and the first Pink waxcaps, H. calyptriformis – 3 in 1.

After a wonderful sunny hot week in Devon, the rain arrived with a vengeance, and as well as a singleton of an additional species in this meadow, probably a Spangle waxcap, Hygrocybe insipida.

2 further species were found in our lower wet hay meadow. Firstly (probably?) Orange waxcap, Hygrocybe aurantiosplendens.

and also (probably) Pale waxcap, Cuphophyllus pratensis.

Yesterday in the rain, on September 28th, a hurried count in our steep small field which is only ever grazed by our sheep, and not cut for hay, gave a total of an astonishing 786 Pink waxcaps.

All this before we head into the peak waxcap month of October. I did find an interesting piece of work by Griffiths et al on how sward management can impact on waxcap populations. Click here for more. This seems to demonstrate that regular short mowing produced the highest numbers of fruiting bodies. It’s clear from the images in this steep sloping meadow that the Pink waxcaps seem to be performing very well in spite of the long grass in this field this year.

Two other interesting observations are that the different meadows, and/or their management seem to favour different waxcap species.

Fibrous waxcap predominates in the upper hay meadow, Pink waxcap in the steep sloping meadow; and currently Glutinous waxcap is the predominant species in the lower wet meadow.Our 3 other fields all have waxcaps in them, but currently not enough for me to justify the time needed for a detailed count.

Secondly, in both the steep meadow and the upper hay meadow, which have a very similar aspect and slope, the Pink waxcaps are predominantly in the lower third of the field, and generally away from the hedgerows.