Making a Difference

An account of how changes to a meadow to encourage wildflowers has made it a butterfly haven in the summer

Can we make a difference by making places more wildlife friendly?

 

When we moved to mid Wales at the start of 2017 we chose a property that had a fairly large garden and also a field alongside, and it was always our intention to try and improve the habitat quality.  I have already mentioned in previous blogs, some of the changes that we have made in the more formal part of the garden and how the diverse range of flowering plants has encouraged creatures like bees to come into the garden including a number that are uncommon in the county and even some new species for Montgomeryshire.  However, it is hard to be sure whether this has increased their populations or just drawn them into the garden from the surrounding countryside so I thought l would tell you what has been happening in our field.

The Meadow in Summer with white umbels of Burnet Saxifrage

The Meadow in Summer with white umbels of Burnet Saxifrage in the foreground © Tim Ward

Creating a more species rich wild flower meadow may not involve big changes

 

When we first took over our field it was not looking very healthy.  We understood that for many years, the field had been left unmanaged apart from being topped once a year in the autumn with the mowings left to compost in situ.  The result of this was that the sward had become very dense and dominated by coarse grasses such as Cocksfoot and Yorkshire Fog; with any wild flowers few and far between.  However, in the more inaccessible places, where the topper couldn't mow, there were signs that many of the more typical meadow grasses like Sweet Vernal Grass and Common Bent as well as some wild flowers like Ladies Bedstraw and Burnet Saxifrage, had managed to survive.  Also, when I looked at an old first edition OS map, it showed that the field boundaries were largely as they were in the latter part of the 19th century and that the a couple of scrubby areas in the field had also persisted relatively unchanged.  This gave us some encouragement that it might be possible to transform it into our vision of a wild flower meadow alive with insects on a warm summer's day.  We were fortunate that we were able to find a local contractor that would cut the field and also take away the grass, which is very important in order to prevent nutrients from being recycled and reduce soil fertility, enabling the typical meadow grasses and flowers to flourish.  To encourage any wild flowers that were present to set seed and to keep the grasses short during autumn and winter, we needed to have the hay taken at the end of summer which usually means that it does not have any value for feed.  Despite this we were lucky enough to find a local farmer that could use some of it for bedding instead of straw so it wasn't all wasted.  Over the past three seasons the transformation each year has been gradual but significant with the coarse grasses declining and the finer species becoming dominant over much of the meadow.  After the first cut we sowed some seeds of Yellow Rattle to reduce the grass vigour and these are gradually spreading around and already becoming quite dominant in some places.  

Bird's-foot Trefoil with meadow grasses

Bird's-foot Trefoil with meadow grasses © Tim Ward

Harebells

Harebells © Tim Ward

Changes can happen relatively rapidly

 

Now, in our third year the meadow looks completely different with a spring flush of Lady's Smock, Pignut and Bulbus Buttercup as well as the inevitable but lovely dandelions.  The once scattered small patches of Lady's Bedstraw and Burnet Saxifrage have now become large swathes of yellow and white in the summer which combine well with the nectar rich flowers of Black Knapweed, so loved by bees and butterflies.  Also, of special importance for some species, a range of vetches such as Birds-foot Trefoil and Meadow Vetchling are now present in good numbers over many areas of the field. Creeping and Marsh Thistles also provide a rich source of nectar for insects and the creamy white and pink umbels of Hogweed are a great source of pollen and often covered with dozens of insects.  These later plants are often considered problem weeds but the declining nutrient levels appear to ensure they are kept in check and don't dominate the less vigorous grasses and flowers.

Butterflies on Marjoram (Common Blue, Meadow Brown and Hedge Brown)

Butterflies on Marjoram (Common Blue, Meadow Brown and Hedge Brown) © Tim Ward

The change in plant communities seems to encourage more insects

 

In July and August, the meadow butterflies are at their most abundant and I have noticed good numbers are now present throughout the field but especially in the sunny and more sheltered spots and along the hedgerows.  At the start of July, the first Ringlets appear followed by Meadow Browns and then by the end of the month the Hedge Browns join in to bring numbers to a peak in early August.  Other smaller and less abundant meadow species such a Small Skippers and Common Blue add to the diversity of the summer display along with Small Tortoiseshells and Peacocks where there can find places to nectar or nettles on which to lay their eggs. As the butterfly numbers have increased, it has highlighted how few of them are in the surrounding fields and roadsides and I decided that it would be interesting to see if I could quantify the difference.  As you might imagine it is not easy to measure how many butterflies are in a particular area of habitat because the number you see is very dependent on a lot of factors especially the weather.  In order to achieve some kind of standardization Butterfly Conservation came up with a transect methodology where counts are made while walking a specific route through a habitat, optimized in a way to avoid repeat counting of the same butterflies. By walking through each habitat at a standard pace these counts can be reported as 'number seen per hour' to enable butterfly density in different sized areas to be compared.  Normally a habitat is surveyed multiple times each year to build up a full picture but for a simple comparison between our field and a neighbour’s, I thought doing one survey at each site on the same day within the space of a couple of hours would give a good picture.

Male Hedge Brown

Male Hedge Brown  © Tim Ward

Female Common Blue

Female Common Blue © Tim Ward

Essex Skipper – A recent coloniser of Montgomeryshire

Essex Skipper – A recent coloniser of Montgomeryshire   © Tim Ward

Walking through a meadow filled with butterflies is a wonderful experience

 

The results were even more startling than I expected with over 10 times as many butterflies present in our field compared to the adjacent one as well as many more species.  This is even more surprising as the neighbouring field was relatively unimproved with no pesticides used on it for at least 20 years and no recent applications of fertilizer.  The main differences were that it is regularly grazed by sheep although much less than most of the fields around us, bracken is present although not dominant in the areas surveyed and no activities have been undertaken to reduce soil fertility.  Based on my general observations in the local vicinity I suspect some of the other more heavily grazed improved grasslands have even fewer butterflies.

A comparison of butterfly population densities

A comparison of butterfly population densities © Tim Ward

Although this was not a controlled experiment, I strongly believe that it demonstrates that in a relatively short period of time, the small changes we have made to our meadow have significantly increased the abundance of a wide range of meadow butterflies.  It also shows how rapidly certain insect species can increase their abundance if more suitable habitat conditions exist even if their numbers are significantly depleted in adjacent habitats.  After only three years, the transformation of the meadow has only just stared, so it will be interesting to see how the plant and animal communities change over the next few years

A selection of video clips of butterflies in the meadow. Includes Hedge Brown, Meadow Brown, Essex Skipper and Common Blue

So, in answer to the question I posed in the title of this month’s blog: I think I can definitely say a loud "YES".  I believe that we certainly can make a visible difference in a relatively short period of time by what we do in our gardens and surrounding land by creating habitats more suitable for wildlife.  The bigger challenge is to find a way to make these changes on a wider scale and make them into a network of joined-up-habitats.