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!