Posted 13th Jun 2014
There are lots of attention-grabbing insects in summer – bright blue butterflies, burnished burnet moths and rattling grasshoppers – but how many of us look for other surprising stars of the sunshine? The Wildlife Trusts offer their 10 top meadow and grassland species to look out for in celebration of their Our Meadow Wildlife Weekend happening from 14th to 15th June
Wherever you live in the UK, there is a meadow near you. It might be an upland fell or dale, a coastal dune slack, a river valley water-meadow, a patch of waste ground on the edge of town, or a priceless chalk grassland nature reserve. Summer is by far the best time of year for exploring your local meadow. Now wildflowers are blooming, butterflies are on the wing, grasshoppers are singing and birds are raising their young. Other sensational species to look out for include:
Yellow meadow ant
This attention-grabbing insect is found in lowland grassland all over the UK. It lives in colonies of thousands of females, whose burrowing through the topsoil in search of their minute invertebrate prey tills the soil and aerates it. The yellow meadow ant also contributes to the conservation of one of the loveliest butterflies of our southern chalk grasslands. Worker ants are attracted by volatile chemical released by caterpillars of the chalkhill blue and often take the caterpillars underground, keeping them safe as they develop.
Meadow pipit (pictured at top of page)
This bird makes a virtue of being nondescript. It has neither the buttercup crown of the yellowhammer, nor the carmine blush of the linnet’s breast, not even the free-wheeling song of the skylark: it is simply a plain olive bird with a slim bill and black streaks on its pale breast and flanks. But, the meadow pipit is one of the commonest and most characteristic birds of rough grassland all over the UK. In early summer males sit on fence posts and low bushes, giving their strident, pulsing songs, and are often moved to launch into exuberant parachuting song-flights.
Bush crickets (pictured right)
Some wildlife is best found by sound. Bush crickets are related to grasshoppers, though they have much longer antennae. Several species live in UK meadows, including two which have recently colonised large areas of the country. In the late 20th century both Roesel’s bush cricket and the long-winged conehead exploded across southern Britain and they are still spreading. They are the ultimate kids’ insects as, without the aid of a bat-detector, their whining late summer songs (made by rubbing their wings together) are inaudible to most adults. Once heard, the next challenge is to locate the green insect in the long grass without scaring it into falling silent.
Groundhoppers (pictured below)
Though also related to grasshoppers, the tiny groundhoppers are not known to make any noise at all. Like grasshoppers, their antennae are short and forward-pointing. Groundhoppers differ from grasshoppers in that the roof-like shield which covers the thorax (known as the pronotum) extends the whole length of the insect’s body. These minute hoppers favour bare, sunny places in grassland, very often muddy places close to water and, unlike grasshoppers which only overwinter as eggs, they live as young adults through the winter. Two species, the common and slender groundhoppers, are widespread in the UK, though it takes sharp eyes to find them.
Everyone knows about rabbits. Everyone sees them all the time. But do we stop to look at them and their fascinating behaviour? Though introduced to the UK, they have lived here for at least 1,000 years and are instrumental in maintaining several of our grassland habitats. Rabbits are social, matriarchal, territorial, fast-breeding and highly attractive to predators such as stoats, polecats and foxes. What’s more, in summer their little youngsters are making their first forays into the world, so there is always something to see. If only we took the time to watch them.
June meadows froth with brightly coloured flowers, each demanding the observer’s attention. Among the most dramatic are the numerous orchids which flower now: purple spires of marsh and spotted orchids in damp meadows and the enamelled buttons of bee orchids in sandy grassland. But everyone knows those; so why not look for an overlooked orchid? Try to find the pale green blooms of a common twayblade, each flower on the spike shaped like a tiny man in a huge hood. You’ll know you’ve found a twayblade because of the two broad, oval leaves from which it gets its name. It’s a common but neglected species in grassland found all over the UK.
Mother Shipton (pictured left)
Meadows are great habitats for many species of moth. Among the most widespread and the most delicately patterned is this one, so called because its pattern of cream and brown squiggles is said to resemble the mysterious but famously ugly 16th-century prophetess of the same name. The lovely adult moth flies by day in May and June, in many types of meadow all over the UK’s lowlands. Its caterpillars, also brown and cream, feed during the summer on clovers and grasses.
Yellow dung fly
Where there is a meadow in the UK it is most likely that, thousands of years ago, forest was felled and subsequently livestock grazed. Meadows are kept open to this day by grazing livestock and where there are grazing animals, especially cattle, there is sure to be plenty of dung. Where there is dung there will be organisms that eat it. In summer meadows one conspicuous insect found on cow pats is this one. It is the bright yellow males which spend the most time on the dung, waiting both for females and for the other insects on which they prey. Once mated a brownish female lays her many eggs, like tiny white scales, on the dung, on which the larvae will feed.
Shrews (pictured right)
The feistiest of the UK’s mammals, shrews are secretive and difficult to see. However, like bush crickets they are easily heard by young ears as they bicker over territory in the long grass. Three shrew species are found in mainland UK, two of which – common and pygmy – can be abundant in meadows. These tiny insectivores do everything fast: they rarely live longer than a year, but may have two or three litters of half-a-dozen young, which themselves are independent when just a month old. Though their squeaks are readily heard, almost the only way to see shrews is to take part in a live-trapping event run by a licensed small mammal trapper.
Meadows and grassland are dominated by grasses. Yet, somehow we ignore the grass; preferring to look at the pretty flowers or the brightly-coloured butterflies which live within them. This summer why not look at the grass too? It’s no surprise that in grassland there are many species; indeed wherever you are in the UK there are species which define your local grassland type. So get out and look for the slender foxtails of timothy grass, the bristly heads of cock’s-foot, the shiny green leaves of ryegrass and many other local rarities.
In most of the UK, meadows came about through people felling forests thousands of years ago and subsequently grazing livestock over many centuries. Meadows are what scientists call a plagioclimax: a habitat maintained – and prevented from becoming something else – by the activity of humans and their livestock. As meadows are more open than woods they generally favour sun-loving species of flower and invertebrate.
Since these habitats were largely shaped by centuries of grazing, conservation organisations continue the same management today. Meadows are therefore also great places to look for our tough native breeds of domestic sheep, cattle and horses.
To get involved visit www.wildlifetrusts.org/weekends.
Images courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts: Tom Marshall, Bruce Shortland, Jon Hawkins, Philip Precey, Robert Thompson, Paul Adams