Saturday, 28 July 2012

High summer

IN a corner of Wiltshire where the Cotswolds limestone reaches its southern most limit, there is a small grassland site with abundant wild flowers and some rather special butterflies: marsh fritillaries.

Although ploughed, maybe 100 years ago, the grassland is unimproved and full of flowers.  As it is ungrazed, upright brome grass dominates and tries to smother out everything else, but it has not quite succeeded.  The presence of devil's-bit scabious means that this butterfly has found a foothold here, along with other more common insects.  As it is so late in the adults' season the individuals that I found were all were looking tatty and washed out, but were still a pleasure to see in the hot evening sunshine.  They fly very fast and so are a devil to catch up with, but just occasionally they alight together on one flower and get distracted - just enough time for a snap.

Marsh fritillary

Six spot burnet moths - the most common day flying moth in this sort of habitat
Marbled white butterfly
Marbled white in flight
Small skipper
Small skipper

Gatekeeper butterfly
As the season progresses different flowers on limestone grassland come into their own.  Harebell has a fairly long flowering period.

Yellow rattle, which is an attractive flower found in old grassland, is a hemi-parisite, feeding of grasses through its root system, but also having chlorophyll like most plants.

Yellow rattle
Black knapweed
Goat's beard seed head

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Summer chalk downland

OUR excitement was quite hard to contain when the sun (as predicted) made an appearance on Sunday.  In anticipation of this rare event we had decided that it would be great to get out onto some downland and, for the first time this year, catch a glimpse of the the wonderful range of specialist flowers that grow on the National Nature Reserve at Pewsey.

These hills are slap bang in the middle of Wiltshire; they provide spectacular views of the vale below, as well as being a botanist's dream - its also a great place to fly a kite or have a picnic...

Having worked as a botanical field surveyor on the downland in the County in my past, this habitat has to be right up there as one of my favourites.  Although it was too windy for butterflies, it hosted a spectacular array of wild flowers.  As the season progresses different plant species come into flower and set seed.  In spring the yellow cowslips dance over the short sward, but now the colours are varied and spectacular.  Anthills are clothed in purple thyme and white squinancywort.  

Wild thyme with harebells leaves between
Standing proud are the much rarer round-headed rampion and the common small scabious.  The sawwort flowers were still in tight bud in the main, but their characteristic serrated-edged leaves were a give away to their identity.

Round- headed rampion
Small scabious
Clustered bellflower and thyme and (yellow) rockrose
 Not all the exciting and rare plants are amazing to look at.  The bastard toadflax is a small creeping thing with tiny white flowers - it is frequent on this site but very rare elsewhere.   It requires quite specific grazing management, as do all the downland flowers.  I have seen it growing in Switzerland in the Alps, but there it was less choosy - it was growing in a road gutter!

Bastard toadflax
 The high winds that whipped up made it particularly hard to photograph the frog orchids.  This is about the only in focus image that I managed to capture:

Frog orchid
It is hard to display the diversity of the flowers the the pictures below might give you some idea:

There were a surprising number of boletus sp. mushrooms growing over the site - this may be due to the dampness of the year.

A few butterflies were brave enough to venture out in the more sheltered combes such as these the meadow browns, marbled white and ringlets

Whilst many of the orchid species were over for another year on the site, the fragrant orchids were still putting on a good show:

Fragrant orchid
Its a shame that we've only been able to visit this site so late in the year, relatively, but it was still wonderful!

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Wonderful sand martins

OUR day out on the beach and cliffs of north Devon last week started with a real treat: a flock of very confiding sand martins swooping only feet away, including under a two foot high bridge below our feet!  But they are sooooo fast.  I took lots of pictures and found the limit of my camera, lens and my skill...



Exmoor National Park

ON the last day of our mini-holiday to the SW of England, we visited the northern edge of Exmoor National Park.  The first walk of the day was from Hunter's Inn to the coast, along the Heddon Valley.  The unusual feature of this valley is the exposed scree slopes where the loose substrate makes it hard for many plants to get a purchase.  Only the colonisers who can cope with little soil thrive; amongst these are wall pennywort, common stone crop and sheep's-bit.  The first two of these can be found on many dry stone walls, a man-made habit that emulates this scree environment.
Wall pennywort
Common stonecrop and sheep's bit

The valley also hosts outstanding stunted and twisted oak woodland.

We later went on to visit the open countryside too.  At the other extreme of habitats the boggy moorland supports heather, rushes and grasses, and is actively managed by sheep grazing.  This keeps the dominant plants at bay and allows the more delicate species such as lousewort and heath spotted orchid to prosper.

Finally on almost every hedgerow the stunning foxglove spikes stand proud.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Clyst Valley foxgloves

I'M slightly obsessed with foxgloves  - they are summer and holidays for me.  Here, under an overcast sky, some fine examples in a south Devon valley.