28 December 2012

Forever green

At this time of year, ivy becomes much more noticeable in hedges and trees. Once the summer cover of leaves has fallen, ivy is revealed as dark silhouettes in the midst of hedgerows with its dark evergreen leaves gleaming in strong contrast to the twiggy winter outline of the deciduous trees and shrubs. 

Ivy flowers in early autumn and is a valuable late source of nectar, particularly for flies and wasps which are often attracted in considerable numbers so the whole ivy plant is seemingly a ‘buzz’.

The flowers fade to yellow circular ‘styles’ which occur in globe like clusters – resembling yellow fairy lights, that bring a sparkle hedgerows in the dark days of November and December. 

As December progresses the berries of ivy begin to develop and ripen, turning from a pale green to a dark almost black. Once ripe the berries are much favoured by birds, especially the wood pigeon. On a winter’s day, often the only noise to be heard in the hedgerows of the meadows is a wood pigeon as it clatters and flaps about in ivy, clumsily gathering a feast!  

Ivy is also a very valuable roosting and hibernating habitat for birds and insects. The waxy evergreen leaves provide weatherproof shelter and can also be rich frost-free pickings for insectivorous birds like long tailed tit, wren and robin. 

Of course at this time of year, there is a long tradition of using ivy, along with other evergreens like holly, to ‘deck the halls’. Being evergreen, both holly and ivy have strong associations with midwinter as evergreens are a sign of life and hope at a time of year when all around seems dark and dead. 

4 December 2012

Salt of the earth

The Suffolk Wildlife Trust native Hebridean sheep that aftermath graze the meadows are very hardy and able to get a balanced diet from browsing a wide range of plants. This includes grazing on woody material, so they do a great job trimming up along the hedge and fence lines, preventing scrub encroaching into the grassland. 

The diversity of the herb-rich meadows really helps to provide the sheep with their ‘five a day’ and a good range of essential nutrients and trace elements.

However, the availability of nutrients and trace elements can also be affected by the local geology and soils. For example, in Suffolk, some of our soils are naturally deficient in Selenium. In sheep, lack of this element can cause poor growth and white muscle disease. So to counteract such deficiencies we provide the sheep with mineral blocks (salt licks) to ensure their nutritional needs are met. 

It is always interesting to observe that, on the herb-rich meadows with surrounding native hedges, the mineral blocks don’t seem to be very quickly used – which may demonstrate the value of the diversity for providing a well-balanced diet for livestock - Another string in the herb-rich meadow’s bow and reason why they are important!

4 November 2012

No smoke without fire

When the clocks change and day length shortens, the fiery yellow and orange of turning autumn leaves gives a welcome flame-like light along hedgerows and roadsides.  Every now and then, these shining colours are muted by a silvery haze, almost like wood or bonfire smoke, where the ethereal seed heads of wild clematis clamber over the hedge.

The smoke-like appearance of the seedheads is rather apt, as in the past, dry lengths of stem were smoked like cigars - hence colloquial names for the plant like Boy's bacca, Shepherd's Delight and Poor Man's Friend (Grigson 1987). The hollow stems apparently had the quality of drawing well without bursting into flame!

More familiar names are Old Man's Beard reflecting the seed head's resemblance to a beard, and Traveller's Joy as it is a common and delightful plant of waysides and roadsides. As a vigorous climber that ramps along hedgerows I always think it is a very able  traveller or rambler in its own right.

The seeds too are good travellers, with the feather like appendages on each seed allowing the seed to 'fly' far and wide on the breeze.

19 October 2012


On an early October morning with a heavy dew, the meadows are transformed by a mist of spiders' webs.The fading glory of the summer flowers is veiled, 'Miss Havisham'-like, clothed in an intricate network of cobwebs.
Even the burning colours of the autumn hawthorn berries are muted by the spiders' threads and 'everyday' plants like spear thistle appear in a different dimension - the ordinary becomes extraordinary in the eye of a close-up lens.

2 October 2012

The last flowers of summer?

One of the characteristic plants of the aftermath growth at Martin's Meadows is the Meadow saffron or Autumn crocus.

The common names for this plant provide some useful clues about where you might expect to find it, the flowering season and its resemblance to the crocus that is the source of the spice - saffron.  However, the common names are also rather confusing as the plants at Martin's Meadows  are neither a true crocus or the source of saffron.
The plants are in fact Colchicum autumnale - whilst saffron is a true crocus species: Crocus sativus.
As all parts of Colchicum are toxic, the consequences of confusing the two, may prove very undesirable and rather greater than just struggling to correctly name it!

Although the Colchicum is not suitable for eating, it is believed to have medicinal properties and is often mentioned in herbals as a former cure for gout. The plant is believed to be native in the west of the British Isles but it was almost certainly introduced to sites in Suffolk for its medicinal properties, albeit many centuries ago (Sanford 2010).

The plant produces leaves in the spring, but interestingly these die back by early summer and the flowers appear separately in the autumn. As all parts of the plants are toxic, we have to be careful to ensure that the leaves have completely died back before cutting the hay, so that no leaves are harvested. During aftermath grazing the sheep very carefully eat around the flowers - obviously able to discern what is good for them and what is not.

The flowering period very much depends on the growing season, with flowers appearing as early as mid August and as late as the end of September.  Flowering this year has been late, probably delayed by the cold wet conditions during the summer.  For such apparently delicate structures, the flowers seem to be very robust - able to withstand heavy rain and lasting for a few weeks if conditions are cool.

12 September 2012

A late bite

Every year, when doing the hay cut we leave a percentage of the meadows uncut, to act as a refuge and continuing nectar supply for insects. We leave different areas uncut each year so they do not scrub over.
At Martin's meadows this year,  the uncut  area  is in the part of the meadow where Devil's bit scabious  - Succisa pratensis is particularly abundant.

The reason why this late summer flowering plant is known  as Devil's bit is not entirely clear with the various explanations having been lost  or changed in the telling through the years. However, there is a common theme relating to the belief that the very shallow, short rootstock of the plant had been bitten off by the devil - either because eating it gave the devil increased power, or because the devil envied the plant's virtue and beauty so tried to destroy it at the root.

Of course it is not always known as Devil's bit. There are many other local names for it  that reflect it's flower and flower bud shape such as Batchelor's buttons, Blue buttons, Blue bonnets and Blue caps and an East Anglian name for it is Curl Doddy (meaning curly head) according to Geoffrey Grigson's - The Englishman's Flora.

Whatever name the plant is known by,  it is certainly adds a late summer charm to the meadow and is a great late season nectar source for insects fuelling up before autumn and winter.

28 August 2012

Chewing it over

At Winks (Metfield) meadow, the grassland management alternates from year to year - hay cutting one year followed by summer grazing the next - though it does not always follow this pattern exactly as the amount of growth and keep varies from season to season. Summer grazing may either be cattle or sheep or a combination of the two.
This summer is a grazing one, and as I write this, a small flock  is contentedly munching away.
As Winks meadow is so herb-rich, I always imagine the grazing and indeed the hay must be something of a delicatessen for the livestock  - with a wonderful mix  of subtly different flavours and aromas with which to stimulate the palate! The scent given off by the freshly crushed herbs and grass beneath ones foot fall or where the sheep have been lying down is often very sweet.
The sheep also seem to be very selective, able to carefully eat around the plants that they favour less or perhaps are more palatable at a slightly different time. I was very struck by the way they had eaten the sweet grasses but were able to leave the diminutive fairy flax - may be it is a bit wiry!
One thing the sheep seem to do very well is tackle some of the less desirable species such as creeping thistle and  the blackthorn suckers that creep in from the edge.
Winks meadow is a little too far away from the main area that the Suffolk Wildlife Trust flock can graze, so we are grateful to local farmer -  John Sanderson - for arranging the grazing with his sheep. 

17 August 2012

Taking a breather

At this time of year, the meadows begin to take on a slightly different feel.  The promise of spring has passed and many of the wildflowers and grasses have gone over and set seed. Most of the hay has been cut and the early season hum of pollinating insects seems to have been replaced by the click and whirr of grasshoppers and crickets or the buzz of wasps and hornets as they begin to feed on the early blackberries and ripening plums and bullaces in the hedges.
The vibrant greens of spring and summer growth  have given way to the deeper greens of lengthening shadows and mature leaves against a back drop of the most fantastic Suffolk August skies.
The meadows feel as if they are quietly resting in the late summer sun.

28 July 2012

The sweet scent of hay

One of the highlights of hay-making season is the sweet scent of newly mown grass and well-made hay.  It is hard to convey the scent on a blog, but perhaps the pictures of my dog Ellie go some way to demonstrate  just how good it is! 


Mowing at Martin's meadows
At last -  at the end of last week the weather was set fair - time to make hay whilst the sun shone!
It seems that every hay field in Suffolk was a whirr with cutters, turners and balers. After such a wet June, everyone needed to take advantage of fine weather to harvest hay before the arrival of rain showers forecast for the weekend.
The Suffolk Wildlife Trust meadows were no exception, with all systems go from morning 'til night.

The process started with cutting last Saturday, then turning to allow the hay to 'make', followed by rowing up ready for baling.

Turning hay at Mickfield
Mown hay
Baling at Martin's meadows

The final and perhaps hardest work is loading the bales for carting back to be stored in the barn - but the satisfaction of looking at a stack of sweet smelling hay is some compensation for the aching limbs, as is knowing it is all over until next year!

Bales awaiting collection

My thanks must go to everyone who has worked so hard to help get such a lot done in such a short time - a good team prepared to pull together when the weather is right is invaluable for hay making.

Bales loaded and ready to go off to the barn
Last load of the evening

7 July 2012

Dyed in the Wool

A few days ago I called in at Martin's Meadows - the Dyer's greenweed (Genista tinctoria) was in full bloom and a buzz with bees.
A native of old grasslands and green lanes of the  boulder clay this member of the pea family really shines out in the meadow.  It's rich yellow flowers were once used for dyeing   fabric - hence its name.In addition to being an uncommon native plant in Suffolk, Dyer's greenweed was once widely cultivated. The account of the species in Martin Sanford's excellent  'A Flora of Suffolk' (2010) includes reference to Dyer's greenweed being cultivated and harvested in fields near Debenham in the 19th Century, with the resulting harvest going off by the cart load to be used for cloth dyeing in Haverhill.
Having been fairly widely cultivated, it is likely that the current Suffolk population of the plant is a mixture of both the true native and relics of cultivation.
It only occurs in one meadow at Martin's meadow (the most easterly one), but it does seem to be slowly spreading which is certainly good news for the bees who seem to absolutely love it.

26 June 2012

A sea of green

It is the height of the grasses season at the moment. Often overlooked in favour of the more colourful meadow flowers like ox-eye daisy, buttercup, sorrel and orchids - the grasses put on a more subtle display. Yet look closely and they are just as beautiful and varied. (Picture to the left  - from left to right - wall barley, sweet vernal grass, red fescue, false oat grass, cock's foot, soft brome, rough meadow grass, Yorkshire fog, perennial rye grass, quaking grass, yellow oat grass - note: not all 'hay' grasses)

The grasses are also the 'main stay' of the meadows. Without them there would be little or no 'keep' (grazing or hay for livestock). Broad leaved herbs are of course an important part of hay/grazing providing variety and flavour, but it is the grasses that have the main feed value and best storage qualities. Well made hay is very much sought after and its ability to be stored makes it a vital for feeding livestock during the winter.

The timing of hay making is all important and varies around the country, depending on local climate and soil.  Ideally the hay is cut just as the grasses begin to flower, but before all the 'feed value'  and energy in the stem  has been used up by the grasses forming seed.

We are just entering the stressful time of year when hay-making begins, with anxious hay makers constantly looking to the skies to see if there is any dry weather on the horizon.  Harvesting and making hay requires several days of good dry weather - to cut, turn and allow the hay time to 'make' before it is baled and safely stacked undercover. Whilst the high rainfall in recent months has resulted in good hay growth - some fine weather to 'make hay whilst the sun shines' is now much needed. Fingers crossed!

25 May 2012

Buttercup blog part 2

Following on from my last post, I thought I would just add a couple more buttercup pictures I took at Martin's Meadows today.
The summer weather that has arrived this week has really moved the flowering season on a pace and the meadow buttercups seem to have reached their peak in a matter of days.

As we walked around the edge of the meadows, Ellie caught a buttercup in her collar - an excellent  photo opportunity and from the slight yellow glow beneath her chin I would say she definitely likes butter!

18 May 2012

Buttercup blog

We are in the midst of 'buttercup month' at the moment.

On the  drier grasslands (e.g Hutchison's meadow and many churchyards and road verges), bulbous buttercup - Ranunculus bulbosus has been in bloom for a week or two, adding some welcome yellow 'sunlight' to the rather rain swept days of April and early May. A frequent companion of one of the earliest flowering meadow grasses -  sweet vernal grass - Anthoxanthum odoratum, bulbous buttercup is easily distinguished from other buttercups, by it softly lobed leaves and its down-turned or reflexed sepals.

Often at least a fortnight of so later, meadow buttercup - Ranunculus acris begins to flower - carrying its much taller flowering heads up into the hay. It also has a much more cut or dissected leaf.

 Meadow buttercup is the buttercup that creates the beautiful haze of yellow seen in hay meadows - often flowering at the same time as common sorrel - Rumex acetosa - the yellow buttercup contrasting dramatically with the red sorrel.

For me, 'buttercup month' also means returning to the office after a meadow visit  with my shoes or boots covered with yellow dust from the petals and pollen!

25 April 2012

A snake in the grass

This month, the meadows begin to 'move' as days lengthen, the soil warms up and April showers and downpours provide welcome moisture. However, growth is slow, the 'spring flush' of grass is yet to take off. Early and low flowering species like barren strawberry, bugle and germander speedwell are still clearly visible and cowslips are often the tallest flowers in the meadows.
This is an ideal time to see Adder's tongue - Ophioglossum vulgatum. This curious low-growing fern  occurs in old, undisturbed grasslands - its simple, lime-green leaves often forming quite large colonies of no more than a few centimetres high. The sporangia from which spores are released arise from the centre of the leaf  like a snake's tongue - hence the name Adder's tongue.

5 April 2012

Blackthorn winter

The first week of April has brought a few hours of welcome rain, not enough to remedy the drought, but enough for the meadow grasses to begin to show signs of green. The rain has been followed by what always feels very typical of Suffolk spring weather - bright sunshine to draw us outside, but a keen north easterly wind to remind us not to leave our coats at home!
Cold snaps like this often seem to coincide with the Blackthorn flowering and the first cowslips opening - hence the expression 'Blackthorn or Cowslip Winter'. I don't know whether this is a Suffolk expression or one in wider usage - but it certainly seems to hold true most springs.
Another early flowering grassland plant in flower at the moment is field woodrush or as it is sometimes known 'Good Friday grass'. It certainly lives up to this name as you can invariably find it in flower on Good Friday despite the timing of Easter varying from year to year.

26 March 2012

I called in at Mickfield meadow last week on a bright but cold spring day. One of the oaks in the meadow was full of chattering fieldfares gathering for their journey - the onset of spring here, being the signal for them to head to pastures 'north'.
The meadow has hardly moved since autumn, the soil temperatures still too low for much growth. But in a sheltered, sunny corner, barren strawberry and dog's mercury flower at the base of the hedge and the first blackthorn flowers emerge.
Walking back to the car along the nearby green lane, I was struck by the contrast of the vibrant almost iridescent green of the 'early to grow' rough-stalked meadow grass and lesser celandine, in comparison to the as yet leafless hedge. But spring is definitely underway - the path was scattered with bud frass, where the pussy willow has burst into bloom and a bumble bee meandered past me, in pursuit of some early pollen and nectar.

20 February 2012

Fending off the cold

I called in at our Winks Meadow reserve today. It was a typical early spring Suffolk day, with a very cold wind sweeping across the 'high' claylands of the former Metfield airfield.
The meadow as yet shows few signs of spring, but amongst the winter grasses, the cowslips are beginning to prepare. It occurred to me that their tight clusters of flower buds - hunkered down in the basal leaf rosettes - resembled my hands clenched against the cold!

13 February 2012


The recent spell of snowy weather made getting out and about to the meadows very tricky. All but Hutchison's meadow are off minor roads that were either snow bound or treacherous with ice. However, by the third day the road to Monewden was passable with care, so I called in at Martin's meadows to take a few photos of the grassland beneath a blanket of snow.
It was quite magical to arrive and find the snow completely undisturbed except for a few pheasant and rabbit prints and the detail of the orchard trees really stood out against a snowy back drop.
Even with snow on the ground, the hazel catkins in the orchard were a welcome sign that spring is just around the corner, whilst a cluster of ladybirds very wisely remain in hibernation.