Sophie Cunnington - Yellow Wagtail Partnership Project Officer
Finally, we are starting to emerge from our winter hibernation of short days tucked inside woolly jumpers and big coats to exploring the outdoors in sunglasses and sandals (or at least at the time of writing).
And the wildlife has definitely heard this call too. The lengthening days and the heat from the sun’s gaze have already begun to wake much of the life across the Yellow Wagtail Project area, where many species are already preparing for a busy summer ahead in the meadows and pastures.
No two meadows or pastures are alike. Look closely and you will see that adjacent fields are completely different with unique compositions of plants and insects, largely due to their past and current management. But this means that they support a huge array of live from the miniscule creatures in the soil to birds and the cattle that graze the meadows.
Invisible to most of us, other than those with spades and microscopes, the billions of organisms deep in the soil are hard at work, breaking down and recycling nutrients and consuming each other. When the cattle are let back onto the meadows to graze, they will be followed by dung beetles. Poised to claim their dung as soon as it splats on the ground, these beetles will hide it in burrows below the pat for their larvae to feast upon.
Grasses, sedges and rushes are preparing to shoot up in a race for the sun’s rays. The cowslips have already started to appear in great numbersand brimstones are making a joyful appearance around the base of Wittenham Clumps. In a few weeks’ time, some meadows willlight up as king cups and buttercups take over in bands of bright yellow. They will be joined by the delicate white and purple of lady’s smock and maybe be snake’s-head fritillary or two.
Small flocks of yellow wagtails will soon be seen before they start to claim their breeding territories in the arable fields behind. As we welcome their arrival after their perilous journey from West Africa, we will also welcome the house martins, swallows and swifts. They will swoop low over the River Thames and adjacent fields, feasting The meadows and the cattle that graze them with Wittenham Clumps in the distance. Credit: S Cunnington. upon thousands of tiny insects to rebuild the fat reserves they used over migration; and the cuckoo will call, hidden in the trees overhanging the river.
By May, the deep purple of vetch, the pink of ragged robin and the yellows of bird’s-foot-trefoil and yellow rattle will decorate the fields, while small and large whites dance above.
Rolling into June, the bright eyes of the oxeye daisies will emerge amongst the pink of knapweed and the delicate blue for-get-me-nots that scatter the ground. Some meadows will develop patches of white as the meadowsweet bursts into full bloom, perfuming the air with its fresh, sweet, cucumber fragrance. Meadow browns, skippers, commas, blues and the odd fritillary will flutter over the grasslands and through the hedges.
In the early morning sun, dogs will run mad as they get their first taste of freedom ofthe day. Families will set up picnics along the riverbank and take a dip to escape the late morning heat. Cyclists and walkers will make the most of the beautiful days and fresh air. Dr Robin Buxton and I will be trundling through the meadows and pastures as we survey the many insects that call these fields home. We will look to the skies in the hope that one of Knepp’s storks will make an appearance for the third year in a row.
Midges and flies will emerge from the soil hoping to reproduce before they are snatched up by a hungry house martin. Ground beetles that could be mistaken for jewels will scramble through the vegetation. Damselflies will flitter around the river and Earth Trust’s newly created ponds.In late June the hay will be cut in the meadowsand left to dry in the summer heat. Seeds will fall to the ground in the hope of germinating next spring. As the sward recovers from its cut, wild angelica will make its debut.
By late July the cuckoo’s call will have silenced, as they migrate back to Africa, afterthe female has found someone suitable to adopt her chick. By now many other birds will be fledging the nests and their parents trying for a second brood. The cattle will be lazily grazing in grasses that are almost as tall as them, occasionally spooking a skylark into the sky. Robin and I will continue our fieldwork, surrounded by the hum of grasshoppers, each one going silent as we inch towards it.
When August comes round, many of the plants will begin to wane due to exhaustion from the heat and the energy sapping business of flowering and producing seeds. But the grasshoppers will still be going strong, humming louder than ever, as if in A swollen thighed beetle on an oxeye daisy. Credit: S Cunningtoncompetition with their neighbours. Female spiders will bulge in their webs, fecund with eggs. There will be a drone of dragonflies as they zoom around like missiles. Soon the skies will fall silent as the swifts depart.
As September rolls in, more migrant birds prepare for the long journey to their wintering grounds. Flocks of up to 30 yellow wagtails will congregate around the feet of the cattle, catching flies, until they too make their way South.
This is when Robin and I move our attention to the hedgerows, ladened with blackberries and apples. We imagine how many crumbles we will need to eat to recuperate from a hard season of fieldwork.
I am very lucky work in such a wonderful area. But these meadows and pastures are only brimming with wildlife thanks to the considerate management from our partners and graziers, who farm their land in a way that allows nature to thrive.
Once upon a time, many other places were like this too. In the last 50 years, the UK has lost over 97% of its meadows, largely due to land conversion and agricultural intensification. This has had a detrimental effect on the species that call these habitatshome. But we can turn things around by farming in ways that benefit nature and by supporting farmers who are working to make this transition.
To find out more about how farmers in Oxfordshire are farming to support biodiversity, keep an eye out for our most recent newsletter which will also share tips on how we can support farmers who are farming with nature in mind.