Part Two – Mammals and Invertebrates
The first part of this review covered how the birds, amphibians and plants had fared during the extreme summer drought of 2022. In this second and last part, I now move on to the highs and lows for the mammals and invertebrates of the meadows:
In all the years we’ve been here we had only had a couple of sightings of a weasel. But throughout the second half of this year we have been treated to frequent views of a lovely little weasel as it went about its business across a gate.
These predators of small rodents are only 20-27cm long themselves and that’s including their tail. We have seen it hunting both during the night and by day and it has continued to appear now that it is winter.
It has been an honour to be part of this animal’s territory this year and we hope that this will continue.
I’m sorry to say that the badgers have had a really tough year. They thrive when there is soft ground so that they can get at the worms that make up 70% of their diet, and so they were never going to do well in a drought. But all started well enough and, at the beginning of the year, we had three badgers, one male and two females, living in their sett dug into the cliff. In early February they mated which was a sign that cubs had just been born underground:
On 22nd February we got our first sighting of two tiny cubs as the mother moved them between burrows:
Over the next few weeks, the cubs were carried between burrows several times more, getting larger with each new sighting. We realised that there were two separate litters, one with just one cub and the other with two.
In mid April, the cubs were officially allowed above ground, initially under the close supervision of their mothers:
As they grew a bit older, the three cubs went around together in a gang:
However, once the cubs started to be weaned off their mothers’ milk, they needed to find food for themselves. By now the drought was well underway and the young badgers struggled in these conditions. They were often seen out during the day trying to find some food:
For a long time now, we have put peanuts out at dusk. These are nutritious and energy-packed and badgers absolutely love them. In previous years the parent badgers have brought their cubs to the peanuts but this didn’t happen this year. The adults continued to come on their own and we didn’t know what else we could do to help the cubs.
One day the dog told us that one of the badger cubs was sleeping above ground under a bush and quite a long way from the safety of the sett. We thought that there had to be something badly wrong and called out the RSPCA.
We were so impressed with the RSPCA. An inspector came out promptly, captured the little cub and took it off to a vet in Canterbury. The vet checked it over, declared it to be fit and healthy and the inspector then drove it back to us and released it close to its sett just as dusk was falling.
However, in the end, I regret to report that all three of the badger cubs died – presumably as a result of starvation in the extreme weather conditions. It was completely heartbreaking but I still don’t know what more we could have done.
As the summer wore on, I realised that we now only had two adult badgers as well. This is all a sorry tale but other parts of the country were less hot and dry than ours and I really hope that badgers did better there.
We regularly see several different foxes but there is one pair in particular that has lived here for several years and reign supreme as the Fox King and Queen of the Meadows.
It is always interesting to see the range of prey that these foxes catch. We saw a lot of rabbits in the mouths of foxes:
Also quite a few birds such as this pheasant:
Since we are on the coast, we also see the foxes with fish from time to time. This is a dogfish:
The pair of foxes had only one cub this year:
The cub was successfully raised through the summer, although it has now dispersed. But I am happy to report that the One-eyed Vixen and her mate are both still here and I’m looking forward to seeing what they get up to this year.
Although the meadows appear largely green and grassy in the winter, in the spring and summer they are transformed into glorious flower meadows, rich in invertebrates. There is so much that we don’t know about the complex worlds of these invertebrates, but every year we do learn a little bit more.
Twenty-three butterfly species are seen here each year but this year we added a new species to the list. In the heat of July, a swallowtail was feeding on red valerian:
This year we had brimstone caterpillars feeding on the alder buckthorn that we planted specifically for them about five years ago:
One brimstone caterpillars was attacked by a green lacewing larva, a predator of aphids ands other soft-bodied invertebrates like caterpillars. The lacewing larva’s hollow maxillae can be seen sticking into the caterpillar, through which it pumps in digestive juices, breaking down the caterpillar’s tissues. The resulting nutrient soup is then sucked back in through the maxillae.
The next morning the caterpillar did indeed look pretty well digested:
The meadows have a precious population of a rare little butterfly, the small blue. These butterflies had a good year:
In July the kidney vetch had finished flowering and I tried to find a small blue caterpillar feeding on the developing seed. I had to inspect a lot of flowers, but I was successful:
Common blue butterflies are also found in the meadows
The larval food plant of the common blue is usually bird’s-foot-trefoil, a plant that grows in plentiful abundance here. But common blue butterflies have three generations each summer and, in the south of England, the second and third generations can be badly affected by drought, which causes the trefoil to die back prematurely. The drought in the summer of 2022 was of a scale never previously seen and it will surely mean that there will not be many common blues here in 2023.
By July, the second generation of common blues were on the wing but the meadows were yellow and parched. Any bird’s-foot-trefoil was completely withered away and the butterflies had nowhere to lay their eggs that would provide food for the caterpillars of the third generation.
As we stood and surveyed the meadows and took the photo above, we noticed that the dried-up, yellow grass was studded with little gemstones of blue. In fact we counted at least fifty roosting common blues in quite a small area, all part of the doomed second generation with nowhere to lay their eggs:
The patches of marjoram growing in the meadows, however, did very well in the dry conditions:
Scabious is always very popular :
I didn’t run the moth trap very much in 2022, but we did still see moths around the meadows. It was a very good year for hummingbird hawk-moths which were often seen feeding on the red valerian:
Several were even rescued from the house over the course of the summer:
The sussex emerald is an extremely rare moth that breeds on the shingle below the meadows. One morning we saw one of these moths up here and pursued it with a camera. Although it hid from us behind a leaf, the red checkerboarding at the edge of the wings is diagnostic:
The crimson speckled is another seriously rare immigrant moth for the UK that was spotted in the orchard in October, when hot southerly winds were blowing up from Africa and the Mediterranean. Until this autumn, there had only been two hundred UK records for this moth in the last century. But in October quite a number arrived on plumes of hot air up from the south and we were delighted to see one of them here.
In September, our eyes were opened to the ferociously predatory behaviour of devil’s coach horse beetles when we saw this one carrying a desperately flapping moth:
In the late summer we were watching a wasp nest that was dug into a chalk bank and where a steady stream of wasps were emerging carrying boulders of chalk. Presumably mining operations were going on underground to make the nest cavity bigger:
One day we saw a large hornet mimic hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) attempt to parasitise the wasp nest. These hoverflies lay their eggs in wasp nests, which then hatch into larvae that live off the wasp larvae and the general nest detritus. However, the hoverfly was too big to fit through the narrow entrance into the wasp nest – she got herself wedged in there several times before giving up and flying away. This got us speculating that, although the wasps are clearly very capable of excavating large caverns in the chalky soil, they deliberately keep the gateway very narrow to stop such parasites gaining access to their nest.
For several years we have had a little owl box up in one of the copses of trees:
In the blasting heat of July, I was sheltering in the shade of these trees when I noticed that a colony of honey bees had moved into the box.
As the summer progressed, it started to look as though the population of bees was growing too large for the box to contain them:
By the end of the day, the swarm had moved off to the new location that the scouts had found. The remaining bees in the box continued on with a queen of their own. They will be overwintering in there now, huddled together in a ball, shivering to keep warm and eating their stores of honey to give them energy.
2022 was a very challenging year and the severe lack of rain will have caused so many profound problems that reverberated up and down the food chains of the meadows. The badgers and the common blue butterflies are just the tip of the iceberg, I’m sure.
But as I look out over the meadows today, they are green once more. The overwintering animals are tucked away somewhere safe and perennial plants have withdrawn back into the earth, ready to poke their heads up again as winter retreats. For now, everything is quietly slumbering out there whilst the weather rages and blows – but spring will be here soon and all will begin again. Nature needs a chance to recover after the ravages of last year and I hope that 2023 gives it that chance.
A very Happy New Year from us here in East Kent.