Nature Notes – August 2018

At the time of writing we have just ended a record hot, dry period (it would be misleading to call it a ‘spell’). Grass fields were completely dried out, and almost white. Some deep-rooted plants such as thistles survived better than most, and provided at least some flowers for the summer butterflies. By now there are also Bramble flowers for the Skippers, Meadow Browns and
Gatekeepers.

These are smaller than Meadow Browns, with brighter orange wing panels, but I have had the impression that this year they are even smaller than usual – perhaps extremely dry
conditions prevent the caterpillars, feeding on grasses, to grow to their normal size.

The bright yellow ragwort has been particularly prominent. This must be one of the most hated of all wild plants, as to grazing animals, especially horses, it is extremely toxic. Although most animals, including Rabbits, manage to graze around it, it can be particularly dangerous if cut and dried in hay. There is an insect which has evolved to capitalise on this poison, a brightly coloured moth called the Cinnabar Moth. This is coloured, a deep glossy bottle green, with striking crimson stripes and spots. It flies by day, and can easily be mistaken for a butterfly. Bright colouring also extends to the caterpillar, a common insect on Ragwort, and occasionally on its relatives – I have found it on the common garden Groundsel. The familiar black and yellow stripes are a common example of a warning colour that many insects use to advertise that they are poisonous, distasteful, or dangerous in some other way. (Fill in your own examples here). There are even many insects which mimic these colours as a deception, fooling predators that they too are dangerous. In the case of the Cinnabar caterpillar the warning is genuine, as it incorporates into its body some of the poisons from its Ragwort diet.

Churchyard maintenance here went as planned in July, so the turf is now short and neat (and unnaturally pale from the drought). However, a cut at this time also removes later flowering plants
which are a valuable resource for insects in the late summer. We are considering the idea of leaving a less conspicuous part of the plot uncut, so that species such as the tall, purple Knapweed, alias Hard-heads, can continue in flower to the benefit of the later butterflies – more about these anon.

For instance there was a showing this year of flower heads of the handsome blue Feld Scabious, familiar from its many garden varieties, which I had not seen in the churchyard before.

Finally, Hedgehogs.

These are popular in Sweffling, and a number of neighbours have had success in encouraging them by offering supplementary food at night. I have not done this up until now, but in July we came across a family of small Hedgehogs in the garden alongside the drive. Things were so dry that I feared they would struggle to find food, so we took the step of putting out water and a small amount of food each night. This was taken within minutes, and has been all taken every night since. They were never all together, so it is hard to say how many there are, but we have seen at least four. {P.S. Milk, once popular, has been shown to be very harmful to Hedgehogs. We have been using dried mealworms, and a proprietary semi-moist brand of Hedgehog food called ‘Spikes Dinner’. Yes, it does exist, although other brands are available! Available from reputable pet food stores everywhere.}

Geoffrey Abbott