Tag Archives: butterflies

Time for a great British meadow revival

If you were a time lord and could travel back in time to say the 1950s the British countryside would be awash with a mosaic of meadows. They were a staple of the farming system which was full of wild life.

In the last six decades things have changed pretty drastically. Haymeadows have declined by around 90%; a common yet sad stat for many of our fragile habitats. The green revolution in farming (ie more intensive farming) and other changes in land use created the perfect conditions for a slow long decline.

And yet it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a gradual, very British, revolution taking place. Conservation organisations like the National Trust, Plantlife and the Wildlife Trusts (supported by lottery funding and public support), are at the forefront of introducing a change in the way that land is managed to re-introduce haymeadows. They clearly see the value of a habitat that creates a place for wildflowers and insects to flourish.

Visiting a haymeadow in the summer when its just about to peak is a wonderful experience. The plethora of grasses gently sway in the summer breeze, wildflowers add a splash of colour like a Monet painting and butterflies bask in the sunshine. Its one of those experiences that just captivates you.


A local meadow in Bath, helping to create rich habitats for local wildlife

This slow change in the way that we see the land has also arrived in our towns and cities. At a time of challenging budgets for local authorities creating a network of meadows makes financial sense and enriches the local green spaces. In Bath over the last couple of years mini-meadow projects have been popping up across the city.

These wild places are great for people living in urban areas to reconnect with the natural world. Often small patches of green, they add a vibrancy, and a sense of why nature is so important as a tonic for our busy screen based lives.

April and May pictures 074

At Bath City Farm, thanks to funding from Natural England, a haymeadow is being re-created on a steep sided hill. When you wander around the nature trail, you will in June, come across a field full of buttercups and with this new meadow project the diversity of flowers will only grow.

Meadows can have a slightly romantic feel to them; those sun-kissed days full of dappled light and the lush warm colours. And yet they provide a really important place for nature to call home. Its time that the Great British Meadow revival really took hold so that they once again become a common sight across our wonderful landscapes.


Its time to save our butterflies

The world of butterflies in the UK has changed pretty drastically in my life time and not for the better.

adonis blue swellshill rodborough common 20 8 13 matthew oates

Adonis blue sparkle on a late summers day

Over the last 40 years 75% of resident and migratory species of butterflies have declined, according to a new report by Butterfly Conservation and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. The abundance of these symbols of summer must have been a wonderful sight when I was born in the 1970s.

It really saddens me to think of this loss and what it says about the state of the natural environment. Finding places full of butterflies is becoming a rarity and when you do experience it, as I did on the Isle of Wight in September, it is a mind-blowing experience.

The cause of this dramatic fall in butterfly numbers is clear: an intensification of farming, habitat loss and a changing climate.

Butterflies are brilliant indicators of what is happening to the countryside and coast. And its not looking great.

I don’t want to be part of the generation who lets species of butterfly become extinct in this country. To see less of these little beauties on the wing from spring to autumn was be a massive loss for our quality of life in the UK.

Collard Hill

Things can change for the better as shown at Collard Hill in Somerset where the Large Blue was successfully re-introduced.

My kids love butterflies. Like so many children they are a great way into nature: watching them flutter by or landing on a flower. I remember the squeal of delight from my daughter when one landed on her hand when we were on holiday last year. And we’ll often see them fluttering across our garden on a sund-drenched day.

There is a need for all of us to shake off the complacency about nature. We can and must do something to reverse the fortunes of butterflies. If they continue to decline other species will suffer a similar fate.

Doing more to make our gardens more wildlife friendly and thinking about taking a landscape approach to nature conservation can help.

I don’t want my kids to grow up in a world where they miss the beauty and wonder of living with butterflies. It would make the world a poorer place and if we all do our bit now then things can change for the better but we must act before its too late.

A butterfly oasis

On the south west corner of the Isle of Wight is a butterfly oasis. Not since a trip to the Pyrenees in France four years ago have I seen so many butterflies in such a short space of time.

Yes on a lovely summers day and in the right spot you might see a pretty health number of these symbols of summer. But to be almost tripping over them and not knowing where to look as there are so many butterflies is a rarity.

Adonis blue sparkle on a late summers day

Adonis blue sparkle on a late summers day.         Photo: Matthew Oates

Walking up a chalky track which forms part of the Tennyson trail on a glorious September day I was blown away by this wonderful spectacle. The warmth of the day had created the perfect conditions for lots of zig-zagging butterflies flying across the track or those chilling out and soaking up the sun.

As we headed west towards Compton Down I caught sight of an Adonis blue, then a Common blue and to complete the trio a Chalkhill blue; all in a matter of minutes. Everywhere you looked there were butterflies.

Chalk downland is the perfect habitat for butterflies but you have to get the management right. Compton Down on the Isle of Wight is one of the top, if not the top, sites for butterflies that the National Trust looks after. Grazing the slopes, in this case using Galloway cattle, forms an important part of creating the perfect conditions for butterflies to flourish.

By the time we’d reached the top of Brook Down I felt slightly punch drunk with it all. This was the best butterflying that I’d done in the UK and all in barely twenty minutes. I can safely say that I’d walked through a wildlife paradise.

Celebrating everyday green spaces…

You can hardly call it a wood really, more of a patch of woodland at the top of a sloping green space. And yet in this area, sheltered by trees and thick with ivy and saplings, is a magical world, which could be miles from anywhere and yet is surrounded by housing.

Summerfield wood, as I’ve grandly called it, is at the end of a terrace of Victorian houses; and you’ve guessed it, it’s called Summerfield Terrace in east Bath.

Its a place that is passed by countless people everyday and yet it remains and feels like a hidden gem. Visible to the passer by as they wander past oblivious to its natural wonder. I probably walk past it a handful of times a week and I always think of the importance of this placed to nature and for the people that do use it whether to walk a dog, try to climb a tree or run down its gently slope.

During the winter months this small everyday green space is defined by the architectural brilliance of the naked branches of trees. The scrubby cover that mammals and birds love doesn’t exist and with a little rain it becomes wet under foot. It’s packed full of character, which is easily missed.

But when you get to autumn a lone mature apple tree, weighed down by the fruits of the harvest, hints at a possible agriculture past or perhaps a garden long gone, the only visible footprint of its existence this quintessential of English trees. 2014 was a good summer for this fine tree thick with a bounty of apple richness waiting to be harvested and covered in lichens and mosses in fifty shades of green.

On a visit to this woodland last summer, barely half an acre in size, I observed the comings and goings of a speckled wood butterfly seeking out its patch of warm sunshine to bathe its weary wings. Something that will live long in the memory, feeling as though it was exclusively for me.

So many places like this exist in Bath, in England, in the UK. They remain un-noticed by the many but hopefully loved by the few. And that is why we need to open our eyes to see places and make sure that we protect and care for them; otherwise that could be gone in the blink of an eye.

For me its these green spaces littered with trees, teaming with insects and home to the high pitched squawks of magpies that are the really special places. An oasis of calm and a place to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life in the city; a kind of paradise potentially lost here in Fairfield Park in Bath. And with views across towards the world famous Solsbury Hill and a steep tree covered hillside which come alive when drenched in beautiful morning sunlight.

You can create your own footpath through the dense undergrowth the cracking of the sticks as you make your way through, the laughter of my children as they hunt for ladybirds or snails to add to their collection. This very urban wild time as rich in sensory experience as any trip to a nature reserve. A place to discover the richness and intensity of nature on your doorstep; a place to return time and time again. Each passing season brings a new discovery and a reason for returning – making its a destination or place to call in on a journey.

The wildness of Stonehenge

Its a place embedded in the national consciousness. Even if you’ve never been to Stonehenge you know what it looks like from school or seeing it on the telly and are probably aware of its special place in the story of these islands. Its likely that you know quite a bit about the back story of the stones and the amazing feat of engineering to get them to where they’ve been resting for thousands of years.

Seen from afar or as you pass by on the A303 they look quite small. In a moment they’ve gone as you head east or west. And yet these stones have been standing there as the landscape has changed beyond recognition with a fundamental change in the way that we live and work the land during there history.

Visiting Stonehenge for the first time – properly, on foot – you begin to get a real sense of their place in the landscape. They are part of a rich and very old tradition of ancient Britons.

There is always a danger of modern life or modernity overwhelming icons such as Stonehenge (and this is a place that really does deserve this phrase); slightly taking them for granted or forgetting how important they are to the history of the people who once roamed and worked the land.

It’s a place for me of contrasts: a place of wildness, windswept landscapes against a juxtaposition of somewhere where people constantly visit. You can feel real connection to the hundreds of generations that have come before us.

Perhaps less well-known is the richness of the wildlife that calls the countryside around the stones home. Much of this land if cared for by the National Trust. Work to restore grasslands over the last decade has begun to pay dividends, adding to the intensity of the Stonehenge experience.

Poppies and wildflowers greeted my first immersion in the landscape of ancient Britain. The place seemed to be awash with skylarks filling the air with their poetic melodies, climbing and descending above the gently swaying grassland.

As the sun overcame the thin clouds the atmosphere changed. This is a place where shadows can envelope the landscape and there is no hiding from the elements, what-ever the season. This brings a ruggedness of wilder places without the summits but equally awe-inspiring.

With the warmth of the June day butterflies began to come out and play buoyed by the rays of sunshine. Adonis blue, brimstones, possibly even a dark-green fritillary. One field seemed to be awash with adonis blue on the wing and taking a breather.

The more we walked the happier and more connected to Stonehenge I became. You can only get the real story of Stonehenge by walking through the wider landscape – soaking up the sounds, the changing of the light, the nature that calls this place home.

A walk on the wild side…in Bath

When we think of nature we tend to automatically think of rolling countryside, wonderful woodlands, stunning coastline or nature reserves. Much of the wildlife that features on telly tends to be in the beautiful British countryside. Quite rightly we focus on some of the special and amazing nature that calls the country home.

And yet we could be missing a trick. Nature can be found everywhere. Often in the most unusual places. Wildlife has an ability to find new homes and of adapting to new places. If wildlife feels threatened or has a lack of food sources then it has a tendency to be able to move into villages, towns and cities.

As soon as you open your front door its likely that you’ll come into contact with nature. Eighty per cent of us in the UK now live in urban areas. And yet we are in danger of missing the amazing nature that also calls the places that we call home.

A weed in the crack of a pavement, lichen found on a walk, blackbirds and their cheery tunes, cabbage whites flittering between gardens and celandines in green spaces. They might not be sexy species but its still nature that we can enjoy, celebrate and want more of where we live. Abandoned industrial spaces, grass verges, roundabouts, parks, lanes linking roads: there are all ideal habitats for nature to flourish.

At the back of our garden there is a lane that runs for several hundred metres. Its often over-grown and allows people to get to where their cars are parked. But this is an idea corridor for nature to move around; the flowers grow there thanks to the distribution system of bird poo, mammals are likely to scamper up and down this pathway in the twilight hours. Shrubs, small trees, grasses; they’re all fantastic places for ladybirds, spiders and beetles to flourish.

Last year I often saw buzzards soaring high above our garden. The swallows have started arriving signalling the slow march from spring to summer. And the occasional owl can be heard hooting on a clear and still night.

Taking the time to look and listen shines a new light on where you live. We need to remember the importance of urban gardens as habitats for song birds. That small parcels of woodland provide deadwood for insects. And that we need nature in our daily lives to recharge our batteries; and that you don’t need to travel deep into the countryside to find a wonder of wildlife.

I’ll be helping to leading a wildlife walk around Fairfield Park in Bath on Sunday 4 May starting at 2pm outside the Fairfield Arms.

Weather and wildlife in 2013

Perhaps seven is THE lucky number; well for nature at least. After six fairly ordinary and often awful summers 2013 finally gave us the return of the Great British Summer. This was a godsend for wildlife that had suffered at the hands of wet and windy summer months as the seasons seemed to merge into a state of confusion.

The balance sheet for nature in 2013 was a pretty healthy one – with more winners than losers. Yes the big challenges remain around the loss of habitat, the impact of climate change and the unpredictability that is extreme weather – but we need to celebrate the positives aswell as the negatives.

For me the overall winner of the last year was that symbol of summer – the good old butterfly. I can’t remember a better year for them. On a local walk into the countryside just outside Bath to a stream at the bottom of a valley we counted twelve species fluttering gently on a warm sunny day in a matter of minutes. Yes the long term trend for butterflies is challenging but 2013 gave us and them a welcome respite: helping to lift the spirits and nourishing the soul.

The seasons of change – spring and autumn – seemed to defy logic in their length. Bluebells just about made it into June in some places and autumn colour crept into December – the burnt orange leaves of a local oak tree clung on raging against the windswept autumn days.

Apples bounced back after a pretty torrid 2012, wasps returned to bother summer picnics and after the boom year for slugs last year it was a case of bust for them in 2013. Fungi was a real winner as were most warmth loving insects.

At the bookends of the year we had heavy snow last winter – a challenge for over-wintering birds looking for food and the snowdrop season was late and long as a result – and the arrival of storms and torrential weather conditions causing flooding in the final quarter of 2013.

2013 must give us hope about the resilience of nature and its ability to bounce back. We all need to do our bit to help encourage and support nature in our back gardens, local green spaces and through the work of the nature conservation movement.

Nature provides a welcome tonic to the challenges and routine of everyday life and by opening our senses to the world around us it can help to give us the refreshment that we need for body and mind.