Brimstones

Brimstones are one of the first butterflies to be seen in the Spring. Shaped like a leaf, the male is often buttery yellow and it is thought most likely that it is because of them that Butterflies got their name.

Brimstone
Brimstone Butterfly

They lay eggs on only one type of plant – the Alder Buckthorn – and the females will fly miles to find them. We planted 25 whips of these trees earlier this year specifically to help these butterflies.

Its lovely when things go to plan and I was delighted when I discovered recently that every single one of the 25 young trees had small Brimstone caterpillars on them. It had worked!

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However, these are only very small young trees and the caterpillars have been growing bigger every day leading to problems:

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Many of the Alder Buckthorns now have no leaves left on them whatsoever. Stripped clean. I have been moving caterpillars to trees with more leaves so that they still have something to eat but I hope that we have enough Alder Buckthorn leaves available for all the caterpillars to get as big as they want to get to before they pupate.

When you start noticing a bit more of whats going on in the natural world around you, there seems to be no end of things to worry about…

 

 

Butterflies in the meadows

2016 was a dire year for butterflies. I am hoping that this warm dry Spring means that they are having a better time this year – the lack of rain that is such bad news for the 200 new trees that we have planted will hopefully be having its compensations elsewhere.

The Marbled White, an iconic Summer butterfly here, is surely just about to emerge but, until it does, here are some that have already appeared:

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Small Skipper
Small Skipper male
Small Skipper

 

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Common Blue male
Common Blue female
Common Blue female
Brown Argus
Brown Argus
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Small Blue (it’s tiny)
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Painted Lady (has flown all the way from Morocco to join us here in the meadow)
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Small Copper
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Speckled Wood

And some day-flying moths:

Burnet Companion
Burnet Companion
Yellow Shell
Yellow Shell

Looking forward to seeing what else turns up as the Summer goes on.

 

 

Colonisation

Last weekend we were marvelling over dragonflies emerging out of the old pond. Now we are watching these wonderful animals starting to colonise the new pond.

A male Broad Bodied Chaser has made the new pond his territory. He is always there, either patrolling it round and round, or waiting at the edge of the water

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Isn’t he the most magnificent thing?

He is waiting for a female to arrive.

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Female Broad Bodied Chaser – photo taken at the old pond just after she emerged last week.

As we were watching, a female did arrive, he pounced on her, they mated in the air and she immediately went to lay eggs in the pond – holding on to the edge of the pond with her front legs while repeatedly energetically dipping her abdomen into the water.

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Broad Bodied Chaser female laying eggs

The male returned to his stake out to see who else might come along.

A different dragonfly arrived today and was repeatedly attacked by him, leading to pitched aerial battles. In between these air attacks, she got down to laying her eggs. She had a different technique – she would hover about a foot above the water and then point her abdomen downwards, dab it into the water quickly and go back up to a hover.

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I’m afraid this is the best photo I managed to get of her – she wouldn’t keep still.
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This photo is even worse but does show her egg laying

I have looked this dragonfly up in my book and I am reasonably confident that this is a Red Veined Darter although it doesn’t help that my photos are so poor. Red Veined Darters are reasonably scarce to be a bit exciting and are migrants into the country, but I will check this identification out with someone who actually knows what they are talking about.

Yesterday I saw a third type of dragonfly laying eggs into the pond – the Emperor.

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This is the other species of dragonfly that were emerging out of the old pond last week. The Emperors egg laying technique was different again – she was stationery at the side of the pond as she laid which was so much easier to photograph.

So, the new pond is going to be busy with life before too long. Here is is at the moment:

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We are letting the vegetation grow up naturally and eventually come into balance and enjoy each stage as it slowly does so. Trying not to mind how untidy it is!

Wild Beekeeping

We are dipping our toes into the art of Wild Beekeeping. Its a complicated business mainly because the poor solitary bees are plagued by all manner of other insects who want to take advantage of the hard work the bees have put in. Its a battle, and one the bees often lose.

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Smearing the new box in mud as recommended in the instructions

There are observation panels on each side so that you can see whats going on.

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Having learnt last week that the bee observation box that we already had is not actually good for bees because the glass tubes are not porous leading to fungal problems, we have now bought a new,  award-winning box. This is designed by an enthusiast who has tried to address many of the problems the bees face when bringing the next generation into the world.

Within an hour there was a Red Mason Bee bringing in mud to start her nest:

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The instructions recommend that there are plenty of pollen flowers nearby and also wet mud. The further the bees have to fly for these things, the longer they are away from the nest and the more opportunity for the predators to nip in and lay one of their eggs on the lovely heap of pollen that the bee has gathered. With this in mind, we have put an upside down turf dipping into the nearby new pond so that it will constantly wick up water and remain wet for the bees to use.

Looking in the box that we already had, we see that the leaf cutter bees have now emerged because one has started building a nest in one of the tunnels:

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A Leaf Cutter Bee’s nest at the top and a Mason Bee’s nest below with the yellow pollen heaped into each chamber.

There is much to learn about all this that we don’t currently know. At the end of the Summer, we are going to be harvesting the cocoons out of the new box and keeping them safe from predators over the winter and control the emergence of the bees next Spring – a bit of a daunting thought but we have a comprehensive set of instructions now to guide us. It will be interesting to see how it all goes.

 

 

Elderflowers

There is a 100m stretch of hedgerow in the first meadow that has unfortunately been planted up with a mix of plants that includes Elder. The problem with this is that Elder is much more vigorous than the other plants on the mix and so it outgrows everything else and dominates. When the Elder loses its leaves in the winter, there are then big holes in the hedgerow where the Elder trees are.

However, having lots of Elder trees also has its compensations and one of these is the making of Elderflower liqueur!

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Gathering the flower heads from an Elder down by the pond

I have not made this before but found a recipe on the Country Living website and decided to give it a go. It involved cutting 15 flowers and giving them a shake to remove insects. Well, there were very few insects on the flowers but, the ones that there were, were certainly not removed by shaking. So I tried washing:

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This also did not remove the insects. After all, if shaking and washing did remove them, they’d have been long gone by now with the wind and rain.

So I picked them all off by hand. I then mixed them with a litre of vodka, 350g of sugar (so much sugar) and the zest of a lemon.

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And out them into a lidded pot.

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It would have been so much better if I’d had a Kilner jar that was properly leak proof because this pot is not and every time I shake it I get vodka running down my arms. However, the pot now needs to go into a cool, dark place for at least a month being shaken every little while to dissolve the sugar.

Once that time is up, it is sieved through muslin and decanted into sterilised bottles.

Looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

The Plants of May

At this time of year the meadows are absolutely beautiful. Here are a few of the interesting plants that are growing:

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White Helleborine

This is a Orchid, growing in one of the copses of trees. The plants take 8 years to develop from seed and another 2-3 years to flower after that and so its been here ¬†long time (..although its the first time we’ve noticed it). It self pollinates and so can grow deep in woods where pollinators don’t tend to go. Because it doesn’t need to attract insects, the flowers are not showy but I think it does understated elegance very well indeed.

Here is another intriguing plant. Its the Broomrape (Orabanche minor) growing in many of the larger patches of red clover. This plant lacks chlorophyll and so has nothing green about it – it doesn’t photosynthesise but is parasitic on the clover, taking its nutrients from their roots.

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The parasitic Broomrape

The Corsican Pines are busy making pollen. Here is what happens if you brush against one at the moment:

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I think this is next one of the most lovely plants that grow here, the spectacular looking Hoary Plantain, Plantago media. Its a chalk downland specialist and the flower spikes look like a bunch of sparklers. Its wonderful, I always stop to admire it as I walk by. I read that it has a reputation as an astringent for treating wounds and that the Romans used it for toothache.

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Hoary Plantain

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The Kidney Vetch is the sole food plant for the larvae of the Small Blue Butterfly – a very rare little butterfly that we have a number of here this year. As far as we can see we only have one Kidney Vetch plant growing and so all the female Small Blues must be laying eggs on this one plant and it should soon have a lot of their caterpillars on it. We will keep an eye on it and see what happens next.

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Kidney Vetch

And, finally, the most lovely stand of Flag Irises down at the pond. Beloved by bees and beloved by me.

 

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