Cutting Hay While the Sun Shines

Last weekend we spent two nights in a woodland cabin in Norfolk, close to the wild and lovely Yare river that heads east from Norwich and enters the sea near Great Yarmouth.

It was so restful to tip back in those comfortable chairs on the deck of the cabin and contemplate the sky through the rustling treetops. We have resolved to try to reproduce this in a small way in our own wood back home and I have ordered two similar chairs to facilitate this.

One of our favourite reserves, the Ted Ellis reserve at Wheaten Fen, is on the banks of the Yare:

Although now into September, the reserve was still thronging with invertebrate life.

Black-and-yellow Longhorn Beetle
Black-tailed Skimmer
Willow Emerald Damselfly- a recent colonist of the UK with its population centred around Suffolk
There was quite a lot of this beautiful plant on the reserve. On further investigation, however, I see that it is Orange Balsam. Like its cousin Himalayan Balsam, it is unfortunately an invasive species spreading its seeds along the British waterways

I love the round tower churches of East Anglia and I understand from the Round Tower Churches Society that one hundred and eighty of them still survive there.

The Church of St Peter and St Paul at Burgh Castle
The round tower Church of St. Edmund at Fritton – and this church is thatched as well

One of the loveliest gravestones I have ever seen was in the graveyard of this church in Fritton:

Carved by the Norfolk stonemason Teucer Wilson, it marks the grave of a woman who loved nature. Bird ringers, whom she called ‘the bird boys’, visited her land for many years to ring the Swallows and Barn Owls that shared her home with her.
There was a large flock of Goldfinch eating thistle seeds at Charlton Marshes, a Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserve near Lowestoft

Now that we are back from Norfolk, we urgently need to get going with the annual cutting and clearing away of the meadows before autumn progresses much further. The plants and grasses have to be dry so that they don’t stick to the tractor – but is there going to be a sufficiently favourable weather window to get all this work done? I certainly hope so.

Working away at the first meadow. This meadow is half the size of the second one which is yet to be started.

We call it the tractor but it is really a powerful sit-on lawn mower with an ability to collect up the cuttings – a very important aspect of managing flower meadows. It is easily capable of cutting the meadows but it is never a speedy job. This year we are composting a few loads of the meadow cuttings to make a mulch for the garden. This is an experiment and I worry that it will have just too many seeds that will then germinate in the flower beds once the mulch has been applied.

A pair of breeding Magpies will hold a territory of about twelve acres all year round. But the number of breeding territories is a limiting factor meaning that twenty-five to sixty percent of Magpies do not breed because they don’t have a territory. These non-breeding birds form a flock with a home range of about fifty acres and perhaps this is one such flock that we saw in the meadows this week:

A flock of eight Magpies

Here in the meadows this summer we did have an active Magpie nest in a copse of trees and young were successfully fledged:

Collecting mud for the nest in March
A fledgling Magpie begging for food back in July
Feeding young on the gate in July

These young birds stay in their parents territory until September or October when they go off and join the non-breeding flock which feed and roost together. A high percentage of the young birds fail to make it through their first winter but, if they do survive, then they are likely to live for about three years.

Until the mid 19th century, Magpies were very common in Britain and they were popular with the farmers because they ate the insects and rodents that harmed the crop.

Photo from last month

But from then until the First World War, heavy persecution from gamekeepers caused their population to plummet. Since the second World War, though, numbers have increased and in fact trebled from 1970 to 1990, helped by the birds moving more into urban areas away from persecution and where there is plenty of food. The population has been relatively stable since 1990 suggesting that they have now reached their ecological equilibrium.

I have found it helpful researching and understanding these birds a bit more because I am not very fond of Magpies. They strut around like sixth form prefects with all the power gone to their heads and they just seem to be too successful here. Their biggest crime in my eyes is the way they predate songbird eggs and nestlings. However, the BTO analysed thirty-five years of its bird monitoring records and found that songbird numbers were no different in places where there were lots of Magpies to where there were few. Availability of food and suitable nesting sites are probably the main factors limiting songbird populations rather than the density of their predators.

A photo from last year with an adult bird in a Magpie’s beak

Actually they are indisputably beautiful birds:

Here is a Magpie with a Hawthorn berry. I am always interested to see which berries get eaten quickly and which are less popular – Hawthorn berries invariably go first. Sloes on the Blackthorn bushes seem to hang around until last, often lasting right through to the next spring.

We have planted a lot of Guelder Rose trees in the meadows because we had noticed elsewhere that the berries were very popular with all sorts of winter thrushes and, excitingly, Waxwings. The Guelder Roses in the meadows are now laden with a heavy crop of berries this autumn, ready for the thrushes’ arrival in the country shortly. We are yet to see a Waxwing here but perhaps this year will be the one.

Ready for the Waxwings!

In the meadows, there are three of these log structures built for beetles. The logs have been dug deep into the ground and are in the shade so that they don’t dry out and we hope that beetle larvae will now be living on the rotting underground wood:

This week the badgers provided us with a bit of evidence that this might indeed be the case by excavating around the base of the stack, presumably to get at the beetle grubs:

Badger diggings in amongst the logs

Spurred on by this apparent success, we plan to bring back additional logs from the wood this autumn and build a few more of these stacks.

Some other photos from the meadows this week:

I like to think that this is the Herring Gull fledgling of the pair of birds that have made the meadows their home, the female of which is colour-ringed. If my theory is correct, the adult bird here must be its father rather than its mother
And here is the youngster having an argument with a Magpie
Sparrowhawk at the hide pond. Look at those powerful feet
Sparrowhawk on the gate
Young Kestrel on the perch.
The farmer was harrowing the field next door and the sky became filled with Black-headed Gulls
Common Darter
A small caterpillar shelters amongst the spines of a Teasel head….
…it is the caterpillar of the Double-striped Pug moth
Wall Butterfly basking in the sun
An adult Box Bug

Over in the wood, a Tawny Owl has been visiting the shallow bath on a few nights recently:

It has also been perching up by one of the Tawny Owl nest boxes, although sadly showing no apparent interest in the box itself:

No, not a vulture! This Blackbird is moulting its neck feathers and looking most strange
Two juvenile Bullfinch

I finish with the breaking news that the last two days since our return from Norfolk have been hot and dry and the first meadow is now almost finished. A few areas are left uncut each year on a rotational basis:

Now, on with the second one before this weather breaks!

3 thoughts on “Cutting Hay While the Sun Shines

  1. Your little break away looks most idyllic. The orange balsam looks very pretty but if it is anything like the pink it must spread like wildfire. There is a lot of pink near where I live unfortunately, despite balsam bashing days. It looks like you are learning to like the magpies. X

    1. Not sure I will ever get to the stage of liking Magpies but it definitely helped to learn a bit more about them. I had never heard of Orange Balsam before and I can see why people wanted it growing in their gardens – but what a problem these Balsam plants have turned out to be.

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