Making Green Hay While the Sun Shines

Natural England is making something rather wonderful happen here in East Kent. Dan Tuson, Conservation Adviser for Natural England, has been working with farmers in the area for many years to create flower-rich grasslands and restore biodiversity. There are now around a hundred farms involved in the East Kent Landscape Recovery Project with the aim of creating wildlife-rich landscapes hand-in-hand with food production.

This week we attended a green hay spreading demonstration since this is something of potential use in our own meadows to increase plant species diversity. The event was held at a local farm that has been working with Dan for a long time.

Taking a look at the species-diverse meadow that was about to be cut
Dan Tuson, local conservation hero, standing in one of the wildflower meadows he has helped create
Using the flail collector attachment to cut the meadow

Spreading the cut hay onto the receiving field. Ideally this field would have been harrowed, or broken up in some other way, so that about 50% of the surface was bare soil before the hay is spread. Then animals would be let into the field to tread the seeds into the ground
A second tractor was towing a bale chopper attachment to demonstrate an alternative way to spread the green hay. This machine is ordinarily used to break up a bale of straw and fire it out of a chute into a cowshed over the winter
Transferring the cut hay from the flail collector into the bale chopper. Unfortunately they were not quite the same size but a tarpaulin ensured that nothing was wasted
The green hay in the bale chopper about to be spread
The bale chopper trundles off and does its stuff – firing out a fine jet of green hay across the receiving site

Of course the six acres of our meadows wouldn’t require such large machinery to be involved but many of the same concepts apply, just on a smaller scale. We have come away from the morning with a lot more knowledge and several ideas that we hope to put to good use.

In the nine years we have been here, the wildlife has largely left us alone and has not stung or bitten us, but this year, for the first time, I have been under attack from a little bug. I will feel a sharp pain on some bare skin, look down and find an innocent-looking small insect there. I had no idea what it was, but the next day the area will be swollen, red and very itchy. I lost patience and squashed one, bringing it in for identification – I definitely wanted to know what creature this was.

Photographed next to a small fingernail to give a sense of scale

It is Campyloneura virgula, a predatory mirid bug. It lives on a range of trees throughout the UK but particularly hazel, oak and hawthorn and eats small insects such as aphids and red mites. What I don’t know is why it is biting humans, although I can see the mouthpart that it is drilling into me in this next photograph of its underside:

As usual, biting and stinging insects only ever target me, Dave being left completely untouched. Why is this?

An interesting thing about Campyloneura virgula is that males are extremely rare, giving rise to the supposition that this species might reproduce parthenogenetically making males somewhat redundant.

Males are definitely needed in the world of dragonflies and damselflies, though.

Mating common darter dragonflies at the hide pond, the red male on top
After mating, the male continues to grasp the female by the head, ensuring his continued possession of her…
…and then they fly off together, the male dabbing her down into the water as they go so that she can lay her now-fertilised eggs

Blue-tailed damselflies have also been very active down at the ponds this week:

The female is at the bottom. Blue-tailed females come in several different colour forms and this greenish one is ‘infuscans’
In the pair at the top, the female is the blue ‘typica’ form

Pond skaters are mating at the pond as well.. are gatekeeper butterflies in the hedgerows:

I have at last seen a brown argus in the meadows:

Last week I had seen a butterfly that looked really similar to this one from above, but the underwings had an extra spot that told me that it was in fact the brown form of a common blue:

Photo from last week

The butterfly seen this week did not have this additional spot, so I can feel confident to record that a brown argus has finally been seen here this year:

Beautiful magpie moths are easily disturbed from the hedgerows at the moment:

A kite-tailed robberfly has caught itself a fly:

And this common candy-striped spider (Enoplognatha ovata) has ensnared an enormous meal in its rather insubstantial web:

I love this photo of this male sparrowhawk as a magpie approaches overhead:

It’s always a surprise to see how long a sparrowhawk’s wings are:

Here he is on another day and it’s just possible to see that he has caught a small bird on the ground. The feeding cages are one of his favourite places to hunt:

We haven’t seen kestrels much this summer so far, but this female has recently started to spend time here. She has had success with a vole:

I was delighted to see that she is the female that was ringed here in the meadows in September 2019:

She is ringed on her right leg
Photo from September 2019 when she was being ringed as a young bird. I remember that she also took a chunk out of John’s hand in the process

This week she sat for a long time on the perch looking for voles until the dog came past and disturbed her:

A nice photo of a pair of our resident foxes:

The One-eyed Vixen’s mate is usually a most handsome animal but this year he has been suffering from mange. He has been treated but I have been scrutinising his recent photos to assess if his mange is getting any worse. Do I need to try again?

Now that it is August, John the bird ringer tells us that warblers have started moving south and they hope to put some ringing nets up in the meadows next week. He has also sent me some of his recent photos that were taken out and about in East Kent this summer:

We would love to see a turtle dove here one day
We do get reed warblers in the meadows on migration
A highlight of last year was when a juvenile cuckoo landed on a perch in the meadows as it prepared to leave the country en route to Africa. We haven’t seen one this year though

I finish today with the wild parsnip area in the first meadow that has finally been cut, although there is still a similar-sized patch in the second meadow that needs sorting.

The grass has been so oppressively long this year that this cut area almost feels like a relief. But it has lent the meadows an autumnal air and, still in mid August as we are, I’m not sure that I’m ready for that. I have resolved afresh to really appreciate these last few weeks of summer before they are gone.

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