The Festive season brought with it some properly wintery weather at last with a bitter hoar frost, pea-soup freezing fog and a daytime temperature of -5.2c in our garden when I (very briefly!) popped out to take this photo the other day
I love observing nature and the changing seasons during my Norfolk countryside dog walks accompanied by my ever-faithful canine companion Starrydog. I especially enjoy taking photos of Norfolk butterflies, wildflowers and other flora and fauna that I happen across while exploring local nature reserves. Visit my Norfolk nature photo blog to keep up to date with my photographic adventures and enjoy my butterfly photos.
"So fair and foul a day I have not seen..." grumbles the ill-fated Macduff at the beginning of Shakespeare's Macbeth Play. It felt a little like that in Norfolk this weekend
I enjoyed two dramatically different walks among birch trees within twenty four hours; my first a gloriously golden morning showing off Autumn's golden cloak in all its finery and then, courtesy of Storm Angus, a brief, soggy wind and rainswept excursion which made Litcham common feel very much like a blasted heath.
A wet spring and mild autumn lacking the autumn storms we've had of late has enabled us to enjoy a glorious long-lived golden autumn foliage season this year. But with harsher, stormier weather approaching it may be time to say one last goodbye to autumn's rich vivid beauty and face the cold embrace of stark, hollow Winter, who, after lurking in the wings for a while and is now stretching out its dark frosty talons.
Autumn time has its own slightly melancholy beauty, accompanying the aura of damp and decay are beautiful jewels, be they vivid russet and gold foliage, dewdrops on spider's webs, the first frost on wild grasses...but there are more subtle treasures to be found by the more sharp-eyed nature observer, such as this beautiful little amethyst deceiver toadstool.
Often found near Beech trees, with whom it has a symbiotic relationship, Laccaria amethystina is a little woodland mushroom which takes its first name from the rich colour of the violet gemstone and its second because, though technicaly edible itself, its hue and shape is variable and it can look deceptively similar to a rather poisonous mushroom called Lilac Fibrecap.
Autumn seems to get later and later each year, perhaps a sign of the times in these days of global warming. The leaves here in Norfolk are only just colouring up, so to capture the mood of autumn here is a shot from my garden instead. It's a wild carrot seed head photographed against a backdrop of autumn flowering pink sedum in my butterfly and bee flower garden in gorgeous soft golden light we had yesterday afternoon before the clock change.
Its been a "Staycation" holiday week for me, and when you are a little under the weather and even the weather's a little under the weather, then the soft golden light at the end of the day and pretty little signs of autumn in the hedgerows and country lanes always give me a lift.
Here a few shots from an evening stroll along the Nar Valley Way. The local barn owl and muntjac deer made a few appearances too this week, though the owl remains camera shy.
Some friendly September weather did seem to bring out a small flurry of late emergences in some species who had a tough year like small coppers. Finger’s crossed for a better season next year!
At last! Today, a gorgeously golden August bank holiday Monday, I was in Small Tortoiseshell heaven in my back garden with my Olympus 300m lens. With our wildflower meadow newly shorn, I could enjoy wonderful close up views of a late summer brood of Tortoisehell butterflies. They were a beautifully vivid, rich russet-orange colour as they flitted gracefully between the edge of our wildlife pond and our white buddleia, sweeping in to nectar on the pond side water mint. One butterfly cheekily nectared on a water mint flower so close to the water line that it had a narrow escape from becoming dinner with our rather noisy resident frog.
But I’m lucky to be enjoying this sight, because, despite this week's flurry of emergences, today the Butterfly Conservation Society issued a press release about their worrying decline. The Small Tortoisheshell’s population has plummeted by 73% since the 1970s.
Like many butterflies, habitat loss is an issue, but in addition the growing numbers of a parasitic fly, Sturmia bella may also be a contributory factor.
Due to their complex lifecycle, butterflies need caterpillar food plants for their larval stage, as well as nectar from flowers and fruit after they metamorphose into butterflies. Small Tortoiseshells, like several of the nymphalidae butterfly family, use nettles as their caterpillar host plant.
Gardens are increasingly playing a vital role as a habitat in our rapidly changing environment, so if you are a gardener, allowing a generous patch of nettles somewhere sunny at the edge of your garden really could help a struggling butterfly to recover, and when emerging Small Tortoiseshells grace your flower borders, make late summer days in your garden even more beautifully golden.
Sometimes muted grey skies can be a blessing in disguise, as was the case with this shot. High contrast full summer light can be tricky to contend with during the day. This soft pastel palette of sea lavender in Holkham bay was only possible thanks to some heavy leaden grey cloud skies creating soft even light conditions. Taken with the new Olympus 300mm pro-lens.
Creative Low Maintenance Alternatives to Paving or Astroturfing your Lawn
With our our increasingly busy lives and long commutes, many people have come to dread the idea of spending precious family and leisure time mowing their lawns every week in high summer and look for alternative solutions. So much so that sales of block paving, pea shingle and even artificial plastic astro-turf are soaring. But what is the best option for our health and the environment? Is there a solution that is both low maintenance and eco-friendly as well as being aesthetically pleasing?
Concerns with block paving as an alternative to grass turf
Traditionally, those suffering lawn mower fatigue looked to block paving and over the years many a front urban garden vanished in favour of parking driveways, but in recent years flooding has become a real issue, particularly in urban areas due the sheer amount of lost drainage due to block paving in of gardens. According to a report by the Committee on Climate change, in the 5 years to 2013, around 55 million square meters of block paving was installed in England, 92% of which was non-permeable. As climate change started to take its toll and our British weather became more volatile the issue became increasingly important. So much so that in a bid to halt the trend, official planning permission is now required to install non permeable paving with no drainage.
Interestingly hard landscaping may not be just be bad for the eco-system and wildlife but also, it's been discovered in research studies, for our human psychological and physical well being. Numerous studies have found positive correlations between green spaces and our mental health and negative links with concrete jungle urban environments. So wildlife aside, installing hard landscaping may also not be the most healthy way to get the most out of our precious outdoor space for our own psychological wellbeing. The good news is that there are some beautiful, natural, wildlife-friendly alternatives out there, that are far more attractive than block or shingle hard landscape replacements and yet are vastly easier and less effort to maintain than a traditional turf lawn.
Issues with artificial lawns as an alternative to grass turf
Recently a new kid arrived on the lawn replacement block. Artifical turf. Superficially an attractive option. Cheaper, also maintenance free, permeable and, being green plastic kind of natural looking from a distance. Sales sky rocketed. Sometimes made of recycled rubber and recycling's good right? Well... no, not exactly. Plastic is never the good guy and buying and laying plastic imitation lawns in your garden can still create lots of environmental problems.
Experts say artificial lawns are a real threat to wildlife, and on closer inspection don't have eco-friendly credentials. They consume fossil fuels to manufacture and many are shipped long distance so have a large carbon footprint and of course, being essentially plastic, don't biodegrade and eventually pollute the environment. The issue of habitat loss for burrowing bees, worms and other insects that birds rely on for food is a major and growing problem in an increasingly intensively built urban environment. More worryingly some potential health concerns have been raised about the safety of some materials used, there have been claims of materials being used in them potentially causing cancer or other serious health risks (see “further reading” section below for links). So, on closer inspection the plastic turf alternative doesnt seem to tick the human health box either.
Low mow flower lawns as an alternative to grass turf
Paving and artifical grass aside, varity is the spice of life in the ecosystem and, while better than man made coverings, a standard turf or grass lawn is a monoculture habitat that offers relatively poor biodiversity. Aside from the odd snail or earthworm for blackbirds or crows to forage it has little ecological benefit to wildlife.
Aesthetically, aside from being green rather than synthetic, lawns are also pretty bland don't offer a great deal of visual stimulation for the human eye either. As awareness grows of flooding and ecosystem impact and potential health issues around artificial surfaces, people are starting to look into greener, healthier alternatives that avoid resorting to higher maintenance traditional turf lawns. At the same time wildlife gardening is increasing in popularity as we become more conservation minded.
With a little imagination a dull lawn could be transformed from a mowing and weeding nightmare into a low maintenance artistic and aromatic patchwork quilt of low growing wildflowers rich in biodiversity that will shelter and feed bees, insects and butterflies. And require far less summer mowing maintenance to boot. Many of the plants suggested are native or long naturalised so will cope with our long dry summer weather, or shade far better than garden centre grass mixes will do. And if you need to install a driveway there are many hexagon shaped green-driveway options to use with the low mow flower ideas below.
Low Mow Flowering Lawn Ideas
Probably the star performer for an alternative to turf lawn is white clover, perhaps with a sprinkling of purple-blue selfheal and speedwell dropped in, but there are a whole host of options including the lovely idea of fragrant and herbal flower lawns grown with chamomile, thyme or mint, an innovation first dreamed up by the Elizabethans.
Depending on what flower lawn mix you sow, you may still need just one or two mows on a high setting in spring, but from then on you can leave the sward completely alone through the main summer period, sit back and enjoy the flowers before mowing again once or twice in autumn.
Below is a list some of the best known low growing flower-lawn options to go for sorted by colours, but many other wild flowers will adapt to low growing and flowering height with an early mowing regime. You could even plant in some spring bulbs for extra colour.
Blue / White / Pink Flowers for Alternative Low Flowering Lawns
White clover (trifolium repens, native, flowers: white, Jun-Oct)- a star lawn alternative, tough and resilient and simply wonderful for garden bees. It is a caterpillar host plant for 14 moth species, in particular burnet, heath, mother shipton and silver y moths. It has a prolonged flowering season and the leaves of this legume stay green during the height of summer unlike most lawns. Note that its relative red clover grows much taller than the white.
Selfheal (prunella vulgaris, native, flowers: blue/purple Jun-Oct ) – a good companion to clower, this semi-evergreen herb with beautiful violet flower spikes can flower well into October. As its name suggest, the herb has a long history of medicinal use for healing wounds.
Germander Speedwell (veronica chamaedrys, native, flowers: blue Apr-Jun) A host plant for the heath fritillary butterfly, this variety of speedwell displays bright blue flowers in spring and its name references its historic status as a good luck charm for travellers, to speed them well on their way. Other creeping speedwell varieties include Common Field Speedwell (v. persica) , Grey Field Speedwell (v. polita) Green Field Speedwell (v . agrestis)
Ground Ivy (glechoma hederacea, native, flowers: lilac, Mar-Jun) nothing to do with its larger relative it looks a little like bugle and is low growing spring flower oft seen with primroses.
Bugle (ajuga reptans, native, flowers: purple Apr-Jun) a member of the mint/dead nettle family with purple flowers on little stalks in spring
Yarrow (achillea millefolium, flowers: white to pink, Jun-Oct) a pretty feathery leaved plant in the daisy family with erect flower spikes that flower low with mowing. Great for butterflies and plume moths.
Sweet Violet (viola odorata, native, flowers: lilac to deep purple, Mar-May) low growing spring flowers. Sweet violet spreads via rhizomes. Its relative common dog violet flowers a little later.
Yellow / Orange / Red Flowers for Alternative Low Flowering Lawns
Bird’s foot trefoil (lotus corniculatus, native, flowers: yellow to orange, May-Sep) – Not everyone’s cup of tea with its vivid yellow “bacon and egss” but this is an excellent moth and butterfly caterpillar host plants used by Common Blue, Green Hairstreak, Dingy Skippers and Clouded Yellow butterflies.
Creeping Buttercup (ranunulus repens, native, flowers: yellow, May-Jul) one of Britains native buttercups. Leaves are comparatively large and it does have quite a vigorous creeping habit so be sure you want plenty of glossy yellow flowers before including it in a mix.
Daisy (bellis perennis, native, flowers: white-yellow, Apr-Oct) Every perfect flower lawn should have some. No British summer is complete without at least one daisy chain and a game of “she loves me, she loves me not”.
Scarlet Pimpernel (anagallis arvensis, native, flowers: red, May-Oct) Made famous by the French rebel, this is a delicate tiny little red flower that opens in the morning when the sun shines and will close up in less clement weather.
Dandelion (taraxacum officinale, native, flowers: yellow Apr-Oct), a marmite plant hated by many traditional gardeners for its habit of invading lawns, but a whole field full can be a sight to behold.
Cat’s Ear (hypochaeris radicata, native, flowers: yellow May-Oct), often confused with dandelions as it alsow grows as a rosette, but its more delicate and low growing with flowers on spikes and is very popular with meadow butterflies like skippers and meadow browns and gatekeepers.
Fragrant or Herbal Flowers for Alternative Low Level Lawns
Creeping Thyme (thymus serpyllum, naturalised, flowers:May-Aug ) – a fragrant creeping herb that originated in the mediterranean and was brought to Britain by the Romans.
Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, native, flowers: Jun-Aug) – another aromatic plant used for tea, this herb became the height of fashion in the Elizabethan era and it was the Elizabethans who first came up with the idea of planting it en masse as a feathery soft lawn fragrant underfoot. A non flowering cultivar is also available.
Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii, naturalised, flowers: purple Jul, Aug) – Introduced from Corsica, Sardinia a low growing mint family plant.
Green / Non Flowering Low Level Lawns For Shade
Moss (bryophyta)- overlooked and underrated, particularly good for shady areas, it is a gorgeous rich green and bouncy underfoot.
Traditional Wildflower Meadows
If you don’t need a low level lawn-like effect and the height of plants is no issue you could even consider a wildflower meadow patch. For the extra effort of an annual cut you could grow a traditional natural grass and wildflower meadow with endless choice of taller flowers. A summer wildflower meadow mix has a cutting regime timed as a hay cut in late summer. Or if you love to see birds in your garden you could consider a dense flower meadow mix for birds and bees. These are designed to be left overwinter for seeds and require a late winter cut around February after the birds have foraged the seedheads.
Abandon your both your lawn mower and the mortar!
So there are a whole host of options that can mean your mower is left to gather dust in the garage most of the year, leaving you free to enjoy your low flowering non turf lawn for its natural beauty and the wildlife species it brings into your garden. Not all lawn alternatives will tolerate heavy footfall, so a little thought research and tailoring is required to find the right option and perfect blend for your area.
But whatever you do – throw that block paving brochure into the recycling and start growing an exciting low maintenance beautiful space for wildlife!
Astroturf health and environmental concerns
Emorsgate Seeds offer a ready made flowering lawn mix (EL1) and have written a short article
Reading University research shows what can be done creatively
The Committe on Climate Change’s 2014 Paving Survey Report
Research into the effect of green spaces on mental health
Wildlife Meadow Matting for Birds and Bees
A slightly bizarre blog post title, I know. The connection is that these were the first two subjects that I photographed with the newly launched Olympus 300mm f4.0 pro lens. In old money that gives an effective reach equivalent to some 600mm, a wildlife photographers dream lens. But I wondered if a bokeh was possible, whether the images would really be as sharp as Olympus claimed, and whether the lens might be suitable for long lens macro photography.
Some pretty wild carrot flower seedheads, known as Queen Anne's lace, were my first attempted subject. Immediately I took the lens cap off I had a nasty shock. The lens simply wouldn't focus. The focus point refused to stay still, it bouncedaround lly all over the place. Feeling deflated and not a little seasick from the circular motion I went to do a little investigation and realised that I needed to upgrade my camera's firmware to support the latest in camera focus stabilisation.
That done. the camera's focus improved dramatically and behaved beautifully again. I finished taking my shot of the wild carrots' dainty seedheads and was pleasantly suprised at the sharpness and bokeh I that was able to achieve.
That still left the question of whether, with the predictably long minimum focus distance of 1.4m, the 300mm lens would be at all suitable for larger less tolerant butterflies and dragonflies, some of my all time favourite macro subjects to photograph.
An obliging red admiral butterfly very much preoccupied with nectaring on my garden privet hedge allowed me to put the lens through its paces. Because of the long reach, it was a little challenging to get the focus spot on and the 1.4m minimum focus distance was, as expected a real constraint, so I am still dreaming of a nice 100mm f4.0 macro with a minimum focal range more like 40cm. Even so I did get some lovely shots rich with detail and could see this lens working nicely with tree top species.
The Nar Cottage wildlife garden is starting to become quite mature now, so we were really excited today to spot a new species to the Garden...and a first sighting for me to boot!
Our first ever four-spotted chaser dragonfly (Libellula Quadrimaculata) was perched up by our our wildlife pond, looking glamourous as he posed.
We were even more delighted when he suddenly started zooming round and hooked up with a mate who then started ovipositing, so hopefully in a few years time we may see some more!
Butterflies are having a bad year so far and are thin on the ground, so I have been entertaining myself with other little beasties.
This beautiful, iridescent emerald-coloured beetle is a member of the flower beetle family with a rather grand, royal sounding latin name Oedemera nobilis. It has several fun but less flattering English names too such as thick-legged flower beetle or swollen-thighed flower beetle, although only the females have the fat thighs.
Despite their imposing looking mandibles, adult emerald flower beetles are herbivorous and feed on flower pollen and nectar. This female thick-legged flower beetle is pictured on a Common Rock Rose (Helianthemum Nummularian) up at Ringstead Downs in North Norfolk.
A Red Poppy for the Somme
In a momentous week that has witnessed a constitutional crisis in the UK and political skulduggery to rival Machiavelli, perhaps the most important event of all was remembering that, only a hundred years ago, Britain was in a state of war with another European country. Our grandfathers were about to face the onslaught of the Battle of the Somme, the most fatal of all battles in the “War to End All Wars”.
A simple common red poppy (papaver rhoeas) blowing in the wind serves to remind us that many, many men gave their lives for our freedom. The peace , prosperity and personal liberties that our European generation has enjoyed until now was won only through the greatest of sacrifices that most of us in our modern lives can’t even imagine – the blood spilled by our forbears.
Our week’s events, when viewed from this bigger perspective, suddenly seem to be all about petty self interest and almost inconsequential. But we can’t afford to take the life we lead today for granted, things could easily be far worse. Intolerance is a slippery, treacherous slope and can at first seem quite innocuous.
Above all we should not forget what the European project was all about when it first started.
Just one little word....
Recently I visited Foxley Wood NWT while volunteering with Norfolk Butterfly Conservation Society on a Hawk moth event. As I arrived I spotted this beautiful Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza Fuchsii) nestled in a corner of the grassy verge.
I simply couldn't bring myself to leave without stopping to admire and photograph the group of delicately coloured Common Spotted Orchids. They must like damp weather as they have done very well here this year!
The name "Common Spotted Orchid" really doesn't do this humble, yet beautiful plant justice. There's nothing common about this diminutive Orchid at all; in fact this flower is the epitomy of subtley, daintiness, elegance and refinement.
The Yellow Iris, or Yellow Flag, Iris Pseudocorus, is one of surprisingly few native British pond Irises. The vibrant and beautiful Yellow Flag makes its home in the damp clay and loamy soils of wetlands and marshes. It thrives in the Fenland habitat of the Norfolk Broads and is widespread across the county.
Yellow Flag is rich in wildlife value, is popular with bees and hoverflies which pollinate its hermaphrodite flowers, The drooping yellow tepals provide a landing platform for insects. The dark yellow patch in the centre, surrounded by a zigzag line acts as a guide directing the insect towards the nectar source. It also acts as a caterpillar host plant for seven moth species including the Belted Beauty Red Sword-grass and Water Ermine. The remaining four moth caterpillars live inside its thick reed-like stems.
Frequently known as "Daggers" it has several other traditional names including Segg, Swordgrass also referencing its blade-like foliageas well as False Acorus, Fleur-de-lis, Water Flag.
It has a long folklore tradition, being said to be the original inspiration for the fleur-de-lis used in heraldic designs. In Ireland it was believed to avert evil and bunches were hung up outside doors during the feast of Corpus Christi. The rhizomous roots yield a black dye and ink and are extremely acrid. Traditionally the dried roots were also used medicinally as a cathartic, emetic and as an astrigent to halt bleeding, while the roast seeds were used to make a form of coffee, though there is uncertainty as to its toxicity. The plant also generated a pleasant essential oil, which was often used to dilute that of the Sweet Flag, Acorus calamus, giving rise to Yellow Flag’s alternative name of False Acorus
Sadly this species tends to gets overlooked by mainstream garden centres in favour of more popular blue-coloured Irises, which are actually Asian in origin, not native to the UK so do not afford the same value to wildlife.
With a little care Yellow Flag Iris can be a wonderful addition to most wildlife garden ponds. In particularly favourable conditions the Yellow Flag Iris will thrive and can become a little over vigorous, so growing it in containers is a good idea to avoid it taking off too dramatically, if you have a smaller ponds or bog gardens.
Fortunately my pond margin has plenty of room and mixed companion planting is providing competition from other marginal plants such as Purple Loosestrife, Meadowsweet, Water mint, Reedmace (Typha), true Bulrush (Scirpus Lacustris) to name but a few. So far this approach seems to have kept the pond margin mix nicely balanced.
Alternative names: Daggers, False Acorus, Flagon, Fleur-de-lis, Jacob’s Sword, Segg, Swordgrass, Water Flag, Water Skegs, Yellow iris, Yellow Flag
Moth Caterpillar host for: Belted beauty, Crescent, Crinan Ear, Red Sword-grass, Rush Wainscot, Water Emine, Webb’s Wainscot
Meanwhile our faithful broad-bodied chaser dragonflies have returned for another season. This yellow coloured female has been busy making herself at home in our new, wildlife-friendly meadowmat flowers in the sunny, sheltered west-facing Old Rose Garden…
Its been a big week for Nar Cottage's wildlife garden as we discovered that our first "home grown" dragonfly had completed its three year lifecycle. This photo is of an emperor dragonfly nymph "exuvia", the exoskeletal shell left behind after the nymph transforms into a dragonfly and emerges as a winged adult. The Emperor's emergence happens overnight so sadly we didn't see it happening.
Emperors are know as early pioneers of new ponds and were one of the very first visitors to our brand new, bare-earthed pond back in 2013. Three years on and our pond looks very different, teeming with aquatic life and surrounded by lush native plants and wildflowers creeping to cover much of its surface.
The Emperor dragonflies never returned after that first season, but we continued to see lots of Broad-bodied Chasers, Southern Hawkers as well as damselflies about. Emperors will predate upon other chaser dragonflies, so I hope our population of those survives its emergence!
Spring has well and truly sprung with a couple of weeks of glorious weather in the UK and the continent. Here a small selection from a short trip to the beautiful Eifel Nationalpark on the German-Belgian border, with lush meadows dripping in springtime wildflowers and vivid dappled green woodland trails bursting with life...
Apple tree blossom on a hot sunny circular walk around a 45 thousand year old Meerfelder Maar - a volcanic crater and lake or "Maar".
Sometimes its all about the light, about the light, and mossy woodland...
No really, "Big shaggy moss" is the name of Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus, which grows on calcareous ground in woodland, and also on acidic ground in woods of native pine (Pinus). It can also be found in open grassland on chalk, on sand dunes and in churchyards, so is a natural contender for the Corsican pine and sand dune habitat of Holkam and Wells-next-the-Sea beach and SSSI.
At last...! Some milder days in between the blustery weather, ones when you can really feel the sun on your back. Slowly more signs of spring are present. Insects start to emerge from their overwintering. Though I've yet to photograph my first butterfly of the season (a brimstone on 25th March) I've enjoyed watching out for the early emerging bugs, bees and, that renowned augury of springtime, the first amphibian frogspawn.
My first sign of early spring insect life was this female Minotaur beetle. One of 8 British "Dor" beetles, she emerges in March and roams woodland and pastureland. Despite their size and fearsome looks, Minotaur beetles are herbivores feeding on ruminant dung. After mating she will dig a burrow up to a metre long to lay her eggs.
My second insect sighting was while out gardening. I saw the most gigantic queen buff-tailed bumblebee crash land and nectar furiously on my white crocus. She clambered across our daisy-filled "Meadow Mat" at a surprising rate of knots, looking like she was on a mission, perhaps seeking a nest site to establish her colony for the season. Sometimes known as the Large earth bumblebee from their latin name Bombus terrestris, Buff-tailed bumblebees are one of the earliest bees to emerge in spring and also among the largest to visit gardens in Europe.
Looking closely you can see some mites hitching a ride on her thorax. Unlike some mites, they are not parasitic but are in fact harmless detrivores, who survive by living in the bumblebee nest and providing a cleaning service to the colony, feeding on old beeswax and other detritus.
And last but not least, frogspawn arrived to our pond on the 26th March this year, 4 days later than last year and in smaller quantities. With a greater amount of protective pond plants established, hopefully the tadpoles will stand a better chance this year against our hungry newt population.