Sunday 19 June 2016

Summer Meadows: Wildflowers, Butterflies, Bees and Moths

Common blue butterflies
Where I live is arable country, and there aren't too many traditional, flower-rich meadows left.  I knew the local landscape had changed hugely since the second world war but I didn't realise exactly how much until I came across some statistics recently. Essex is a county that has an above average loss of wildflower meadows - it's reportedly lost 99% of wildflower meadows since 1945 (that's 99% in the lifetime of many people living today, an incredible stat to think about) and it's losing 0.61 flowers every year.  The main reasons are (unsurprisingly) intensive farming and development.
Common spotted orchids
Some of the flower-rich meadows that are left are under the care of the local Wildlife Trust - and it's an area of these meadows I like to go and wander through when they look their best, which is now, in June.  I appreciate them even more now I know how many have been lost to the local countryside.
A local meadow of wildflowers including common spotted orchids
They are such peaceful places. I could happily spend hours in them just investigating all the flowers and the insects. I always come away from them so relaxed. I really don't need a session in a spa to unwind - just an afternoon in a wildflower meadow in June!

The flowers I found there include common spotted orchids, southern marsh orchids, ragged robin, and yellow rattle, which is a bee-magnet,

Common Carder Bee on Yellow Rattle
There are also several types of butterflies such as common blues, small heaths and green hairstreaks;

Green hairstreak
And there are moths flying about too, including cinnabars, yellow shell and silver y;

Yellow shell moth

Silver Y

A few years ago I tried to cultivate my own mini cornflower meadow on the smallholding. I knew the bees would love it. But although this mini-meadow was beautiful one year (the second year), I found it too much hard work to maintain. Our soil is very fertile and nettles, docks and grasses quickly take over. When we bought our land it'd been left to grow wild, but the previous owner had once kept pigs on part of it and I imagine that in its history it's been used for livestock and vegetable/crop growing, so the soil has been continually enriched.

Beehives nearly smothered by grasses and ferns after just a few days of rain
The yellow rattle I saw above is used to control vigorous grasses in wildflower meadows. A semi-parasitic plant, it feeds off the nutrients in the grasses that threaten to swamp everything else. But I'd need a lot of yellow rattle to do well here - and I wonder if would it thrive in the soil and tackle the nettles? (I'll be watching Caroline's lovely blog Ragged Robin's Nature Notes here where yellow rattle has been planted, to see if it does just that. )

Despite the difficulties, I do have small areas where some wildflowers are spreading. There's a meadow adjoining us where there are a few wildflowers and some, such as bird's-foot trefoil, are spilling out onto our land. Foxgloves have sprung up everywhere, too, including in the hedge;

I love the way the wildflowers bring in the wildlife. The herb robert I have growing around the house has done this. When it first appeared, I decided to just leave it alone because it mixes in well with the geraniums (and the rose).  It's now recently gone to seed and I'm thrilled to see that this seed is attracting a pair of bullfinches; a bird I've been so keen to attract here. No photos of them yet as I've only seen them through the window, but I hope to get some soon.

And maybe one day I'll discover a wildflower growing on my own land that isn't common for this part of the world. If I did, I'd be over the moon!

Saturday 4 June 2016

Swallows in the Kitchen and Putting up Swift Boxes

When we converted our barn to our home, we forgot to tell the local swallows. Not that swallows have ever nested in the barn (they're well catered for in the old barns along the lane) but they do like to play around it. They have aerial games of catch just above it, where one drops a feather and another one picks it up (the adults play at this when they first arrive back here in the spring). And over the years, the swallows have also liked to investigate the barn by swooping in and out of it.

But now the barn is a house, there can't be any more playing in there!

The newly arrived swallows haven't realised this, of course - and twice recently a playing pair have flown right inside when the kitchen door has been wide open. The last time this happened, I was gardening just outside and the birds flew straight over my head and into the kitchen. In folklore, a swallow in the house means 'joy'. Well, that may be so, but I only saw chaos! The two birds flew around chattering and trying to find their way out. One found managed it quickly, but I had to rescue the other one.

I held the bird for a moment before releasing it. It's incredible to think that not long before it had just flown all the way back from Africa. What a wonderful little creature it is.

I'd love to have swallows nesting on the smallholding, but as they seem happy with various sites around here I believe it's other birds that need the help - like the returning swifts. Increasingly, old houses with eaves where they can nest are being pulled down - and these are being replaced with new (ironically) environmentally friendly houses that don't accommodate them. And even in the older houses, local householders are putting up wires and nets to prevent birds nesting there.

In the past, people were obviously far more relaxed about living with birds nesting in their roof. Gilbert White, the eighteenth century naturalist wrote in 1778 of his village in Hampshire:

"The swallows and martins are so numerous and so widely distributed over the village, that it is hardly possible to count them; while the swifts....about half of which reside in the church, and the rest build in some of the lowest and meanest thatched cottages."

It seems that even ordinary folk in their humble cottages accepted these birds in the roof.

Spotting house martins nesting last year on a murky day in Cornwall
My local community's attitude to birds' nests and houses has only recently changed. I remember as a child house martins nesting next door and sparrows nesting under our roof. But I don't know of any house martins nesting around me now, despite living in a village full of old buildings - and I only know of two buildings in this area where swifts are nesting (one of these is a church, the other the old, converted workhouse building).

So to help the swifts, I've put up some nest boxes on our house.

To tempt them in, I've been advised to play a CD of swift calls because swifts like to nest where other swifts are already nesting. I wasn't sure about playing this, but it's actually very soothing to listen to - a bit like listening to a recording of the dawn chorus. I play it from the bedroom window in a short burst on fine evenings and passing swifts coming in from the fields do seem interested.  High up in the sky, they fly around for a bit when it's playing (this makes me feel like a sort of  Pied Piper.) I won't tempt swifts to change nest sites (they are very loyal to their sites) but I hope to interest those who are looking for somewhere new to nest, particularly young swifts looking for next year. These amazing birds will remember potential nest sites when they come back from Africa in the spring.

Hopefully with Swifts nesting at home I'll manage better photos of them!
On the other side of the house, we've put up nest boxes for sparrows. We only have a couple of sparrows here in the lane, and I hope that providing a nest site will help increase their number.  But this year the sparrows haven't nested there. Instead, they've been commandeered by something else altogether..

We have lots of blue tit boxes here, but obviously this pair found the sparrow box much more desirable. The young must be ready to fledge because they're at that noisy (and inquisitive) stage where they keep sticking their heads out the nest hole.

But next year, hopefully, the sparrows will find the box instead.