Rainbow over Tysoe Hill

Golden Rainbow

A golden glow on the fields, for me, so clearly identifies both the British countryside and the time of year. The last few days have felt like autumn, for the first time this year – the hedgerows are bright with rose hips, may haws, sloes on the blackthorn, and blackberries on the bramble.  The first leaves are turning, and thankfully, gloriously, we have had some rain.  Not enough for the soil to ease and soften, but enough for rainbows and a whisper of hope.

Rainbow over Tysoe Hill

Rainbow over Tysoe Hill

This is a panorama taken of Tysoe Hill, just next to Sun Rising Hill, between delicious bursts of torrential sweet rain.

Wildflowers and Grasses in Seed

Grasses and Seedheads

Visitors to Sun Rising who have been coming for some years will notice that we’ve not yet cut the wildflower meadow, despite it having now gone to seed.  There are areas of wild grasses, too, that in previous years would have been cut by now.   Indeed, it is around this time that we’d be holding a volunteer day, inviting you to help with raking up the hay …

This year, in the drought, everything has gone to seed early.  As a result, the seeds are generally smaller and there are fewer of them.  That’s a serious problem to the great multitude of little creatures who depend on the oily protein-rich harvest of the meadow, not least to build up fat reserves so as to survive the coming winter.  It’s one reason we are loathe to cut it before we need to: there is a great deal of life still depending on it.

Wildflowers and Grasses in Seed

Wildflowers and Grasses in Seed

Another reason is that, actually, without the heavy rains that would weigh it down, causing the stems to fall and mat, it still looks really beautiful.  In this photo you can see the edges between predominantly pale-golden grasses and the darker swathes of wildflowers.  With the trees in the dark green, late summer leaves, even grey days are lifted by the gentleness of the meadow.

Male and Female Common Blue Butterflies on Birdsfoot Trefoil

Blues and Yellows

Apart from the occasional oxeye daisy, devilsbit scabious or knapweed, most of the wildflowers at Sun Rising have now gone to seed.  With the scorching heat of the dry summer months, this has happened a good few weeks earlier than in previous years.  Although we are gently beginning some harvest clearing, strimming areas of tall grasses, fescues and bents, that have started to fall and look tatty, the meadow is still so full of life we are loathe to cut and bale it yet.  On a still day, if you spend a few minutes, you’ll see butterflies, moths, bees, beetles, spiders, wasps, all still busy in the thick vegetation of the meadow – which may be very dry at its tips, but is still damp in the dark depths at soil-level.

Male and Female Common Blue Butterflies on Birdsfoot Trefoil

Male (left) and Female (right) Common Blue Butterflies on Birdsfoot Trefoil

Where we have cut, or where grasses have fallen, there is new growth too.  You’ll see scabious, knapweeds, oxeye daisies, coming through with fresh new growth, inspired by the few days of rain we have just had.  And, most importantly for the common blue butterfly, there are still patches of flowering birdsfoot trefoil.  If you watch carefully, you’ll see these little blue butterflies mating and laying eggs on this their favourite plant.  It is a wonderful sight, offering the hope of a multitude of fresh new blues emerging from their little green cocoons next spring …

Common Ragwort, Small Copper and Various Flies

Beauty and Controversy

Ragwort is a plant that has its supporters and its opponents.  It is true that it’s poisonous, as are many wild plants, and like many poisonous plants it has a bad taste, so animals tend to avoid it.  The problems arise if it’s mown, ending up in hay used as fodder for cattle and horses.

Ragwort is also a wonderful plant for butterflies, moths, bees, and other pollinators.  Flowering later in the season, when many other plants have gone to seed, it is a really valuable source of food for insects.  The ragwort at Sun Rising is covered with butterflies at the moment – yesterday I saw common blues, commas, gatekeepers, various whites and small coppers (shown here) in good numbers, all dancing over the ragwort and pausing to feed.  As well as butterflies, there were many different kinds of bees, hoverflies and other flies. There is one moth, the cinnabar, that prefers the common ragwort to any other plant.  If you look closely, you’ll find its black and yellow caterpillars on the plants now; it’ll pupate in the autumn, the beautiful black and red adults emerging in May.

Common Ragwort, Small Copper and Various Flies

Common Ragwort, Small Copper and Various Flies

Yes, we do have ragwort at Sun Rising.  From June until the end of the season in October we map where it is growing, so that when the meadow is cut we can remove any that would otherwise end up in hay used for fodder.

A few visitors ask why we don’t just pull it out when we see it.  The reality is that ragwort roots very deeply and when pulled it’s easy to break the roots, effectively increasing the number of plants.  To reduce or remove it, it’s more effective to leave it to die back after it’s gone to seed and, when the soil is moist, dig it out using an appropriate tool like a ragfork.  Seeds may be shed, but they more easily germinate on disturbed ground, for example, where livestock hooves leave holes in the turf.  It seldom germinates in areas already thick with vegetation, so at Sun Rising you’ll see it on the edges of our undisturbed meadow.

Please note, too, that uprooting any wildflower is illegal – unless it is on your own land or you’re authorised to do so – including ragwort.  And don’t worry: we are keeping a close watch on our ragwort, not only to ensure that it is under control, but also to enjoy the glorious wildlife that so clearly needs and appreciates it.

Gatekeeper at Sun Rising

The 2018 Big Butterfly Count

Butterfly Conservation’s annual survey of our nation’s butterflies has just begun …

Gatekeeper at Sun Rising

Gatekeeper at Sun Rising

Running from 20 July to 12 August, this is an opportunity for everyone to get involved, learning about butterflies, identifying butterflies, and counting butterflies.  It doesn’t take long to download the chart or get the app, then spend just 15 minutes watching butterflies, making a note of every one that you see.

Check out Nick Baker’s YouTube video or go straight to the Big Butterfly Count website.

You can do the survey as many times as you like, and the times when you see no butterflies are as important to record as those when you see plenty.  It all goes to help the charity know how to help conserve our beautiful and ecologically important butterflies.

You can do it in your own garden, local park, at Sun Rising or another favourite spot … What a great excuse to take time out of a busy life, a busy mind, in a busy world, and simply watch the butterflies.

A Pocket of Betty's Meadow

The Wealth of the Meadow

A wildflower meadow is difficult to photograph, but up close, in detail, it is just wonderful – it never ceases to fill me with wonder.  The areas of established wildflower meadow at Sun Rising are now at moving through their richest few weeks.  Some of the early flowers are still there, such as the buttercups and common spotted orchids, and the later flowers are now beginning to bloom, the knapweeds, bedstraws, mallows and betony.  And of course, every meadow has its grasses, and the variety here is a delight.

A Pocket of Betty's Meadow

A Pocket of Betty’s Meadow

When counting species, we usually mark out a square meter or some similar standard measure.  Here’s a square of Betty’s Meadow: I didn’t take this picture particularly to show the biodiversity, I simply loved the mix of texture between the smooth white of the oxeye daisies and the greeny-white blur of the hedge bedstraw.  But how many species can we see here, as well as the oxeye daisies and hedge bedstraw?

There is common knapweed, greater knapweed, at least one type of buttercup, birdsfoot trefoil and/or meadow vetchling, common sorrel, crested dogstail, timothy, meadow barley, false oat grass, yorkshire fog, at least one kind of meadowgrass, and I know (but can’t see clearly) there is grass vetchling, red and white clover, not to mention the butterflies, moths, bees, hoverflies and other tiny flies, all the froghoppers, caspid bugs, beetles, ladybirds, meadow ants and spiders … And underneath it all, the field voles and mice, scurrying about filling their bellies with the ripening seeds.

Six Spot Burnet Moth Caterpillar

The Cycles of the Six Spot

This week is National Insect Week – and because some of you still find insects a little creepy (crawly), I thought I’d show you some amazing photographs of the cycle of six spot burnet moth, in the hope that you may be inspired to explore further.

We begin with the lovely little yellow and black caterpillar (or larva), which feeds on the birdsfoot trefoil and clover in our wildflower meadow.  It has been hibernating all winter, so fattens itself, growing bigger, through the month of May:

Six Spot Burnet Moth Caterpillar

Six Spot Burnet Moth Caterpillar

The caterpillar then creates a cocoon in the meadow, spinning silk from its spinneret, a gland near its mouth:

Six Spot Burnet Moth Caterpillar beginning its Pupating Process

Six Spot Burnet Moth Caterpillar beginning its Pupating Process

Six Spot Burnet Moth Pupating

Six Spot Burnet Moth Pupating

The cocoon dries and, inside it, the caterpillar becomes a pupa, transforming.  In June, it will emerge from the case in the new form of a beautiful black and red moth:

Six Spot Burnet Pupal Casing

Six Spot Burnet Pupal Casing

OK, that does look a bit creepy – that’s what the moth has left behind. The moth itself is much prettier!

Six Spot Burnet Moth on Knapweed

Six Spot Burnet Moth on Common Knapweed

And apart from feeding on the flowers of the meadow, drinking in the nectar with its long proboscis, what does the moth do? It doesn’t live very long, its main aim simply to start the cycle all over again:

Six Spot Burnet Moths Mating

Six Spot Burnet Moths Mating

Crab Apple in Blossom

The Pinks of Nature

When creating and tending a nature reserve, there are surprising gaps in colour.  When it comes to choosing a memorial tree for a woodland burial area, those more used to garden flowers and trees than native species will often ask for a tree with pink blossom, but there are very few.  The native bird cherry and wild cherry are white, as are the service tree, blackthorn and viburnums.  Hawthorn can have a pink tinge, and now and then the wild crab apple …

Crab Apple in Blossom

Crab Apple in Blossom

A wonderful element of the native species trees is that they have such a wide gene pool.  The field maple can be have soft smooth bark or be very ridged and craggy.  The same is true of the crab apple: some are almost thorny with tiny hard fruits, while others are far closer to the domestic apple.  Some have pure white open flowers, and others have smaller pink blooms.  The tree in the photo here is one planted back in 2006, and at nearly 12 years old is, I think you’ll agree, just glorious.  Being in the heart of the growing woodland only adds to its charm, the flower-laden branches reaching through the neighbouring dog rose, oak, cherry and birch.

Cowslips near the Roundhouse

When I Was A Lad

Standing looking out over the wildflower meadow at Sun Rising, when someone says to me, “I’ve not seen a sight like that since I was a lad” or ” … a girl”, I know we’re doing something right.

As the cowslips reach their best – and there are more of them every year – it’s an expression I often hear, and it warms my heart as much as it does the person who says it.  They are usually somewhere over 70, and what they recall is an England before the war, before every scrap of land was ploughed for food and sprayed with chemicals.  We have lost so much of our native wildflower meadow, blinkered attitudes prioritising food production over the health of land and its inhabitants.  Conserving what is left of our ancient meadows is one important task, but creating new meadows of wildflowers is as crucial.

Cowslips near the Roundhouse

Cowslips near the Roundhouse

I’m looking forward to seeing our much larger new area of meadow in a few years’ time.  It’s still bare seeded soil now, but in the seed mix there are cowslips, and when they establish they will be even more brilliant than these.

Native Daffodils in Memorial Woodland

The Place for a Daffodil

Daffodils are a true delight.  In a dreary grey spring, when bright days are uncommon and for the most part there is drizzle, mud underfoot, and damp in the bones, the joy of these golden yellow flowers is enormously appreciated.  They bring sunshine down to earth.  It is no wonder that growers want to create so many varieties, with myriad hues of cream white to vibrant orange.

Native Daffodils in Memorial Woodland

Native Daffodils in Memorial Woodland at Sun Rising

At Sun Rising, the daffodils are all the native Narcissus pseudonarcissus, the Lenten lily, the old wild species.  Or, they should all be – each year we dig up bulbs of cultivars that families have put in, by mistake, or hoping to sneak them in, but for the integrity of the nature reserve can’t be kept.  The Lenten lily is a soft lemon yellow daffodil, with a richer yellow  trumpet. Although they are beautiful in clusters out in the meadow, and indeed they are native to grassland and woodland, somehow I think they always look more at home beneath the trees.  Perhaps it is simply that they look wilder there, amidst strands of last year’s dried grasses and old leaves – they look peaceful and at ease.