Saturday, 20 August 2016


It's late summer and the hay has been cut, leaving our fields looking like lawns, except that some large patches have been deliberately left uncut to provide a refuge for all the insects that have been made homeless. An additional benefit is that those plants that flower in late summer get to set seed.

Small white butterfly on fleabane.
I'm struck by the dazzling combination of yellow and purple along the water's edge. It's not a colour combination that I would choose to dress in, or to decorate my home. Perhaps it reminds me too much of that dessert we had at school dinners, prunes and custard. In nature it seems to work much better. Think of spring-time primroses with bluebells, lesser celandines with violets or cowslips with early purple orchids; they all work well together.

Today the purple is provided by purple loosestrife that grows in tall spikes above golden yellow fleabane. Both plants are buzzy with bees, but a few late butterflies are still on the wing and a few fresh migrants are still coming in.

Common blue butterfly.
Fleabane is quite a common plant in wet meadows. The field we call Pumphouse Level (just south of Anglian Water's Offord Pumping Station) is absolutely covered in it this year.  The name derives from it's insect repelling properties. Fleabane used to be hung in bunches or stuffed into mattresses to keep fleas and flies at bay. It fell out of fashion as cleaner houses and more modern insecticides came into play. However, Pyrethrum is a close relative that has white flowers and is grown commercially in places like Kenya to make an insecticide.

By contrast, there is another fleabane that grows in the driest parts of the reserve. Purple fleabane grows along the dusty edge of the Heron Trail where it is almost insignificant, but worth seeking out.

A very battered comma butterfly.
I found a pristine common blue butterfly on the yellow fleabane near the visitor centre and a lonely small white. I was hoping for a clouded yellow, but I have not seen one of these migrants this year.....yet! In fact, I had not seen many migrants until this week when I saw a hummingbird hawk moth at Diddington and several painted ladies on our Buddleia.  Two years ago, I found a clouded yellow on the fleabane in the disused field behind the old Lafarge plant. Now is the time to look.

Another plant that flowers late is hemp agrimony. It grows to over a metre high and its pink bunches of blossom are fragrant enough to pull in pollinators from a long way off. Although past its best, it will still attract butterflies through 'til September. Unfortunately, many of the butterflies are past their best too. Comma butterflies have scalloped wings that look like they have been chewed on by a bird, and the one I found obviously had been.

Wasp spider top side.
The raggle-taggle weedy patches around the meadow don't just attract butterflies and bees. All the insects that lived in the hay meadow in summer need a place to mature and lay eggs. Grasshoppers, crickets, beetles and leaf-hoppers are all very mobile and can escape the mower, but they need a refuge. And what of the animals that prey upon them?

The same wasp spider from below.
Wood-mice, voles and shrews move into the long grass where they may be joined by the harvest mice that live around the margins of the field. Even while the hay is being cut, foxes move in to pick up any slow movers and buzzards march about on the ground after the tractor packs up. They are not only looking for mice; bee and wasp's nests are uncovered by the mowing. After dark the badgers move in to suck up earthworms and dig for honey, although their main food right now seems to be blackberries.

Recently a new predator has moved into the meadow. The large and glamorous European wasp spider is a fairly new arrival to the UK. A few of the big, showy females have been found in our long grass over the last few years. Despite their flashy appearance they can be really difficult to spot. I found one in the meadow near the boardwalk, but she was showing her darker underside, which made her almost invisible. It was the strong web that gave her away. The web needs to be strong because this spider specialises in crickets and grasshoppers.

All of the photos above were taken during a walk around the meadow trail that lasted less than an hour. This was on a day that people were telling me that the Reserve was disappointingly quiet and that there was nothing about!