Nature Notes – June 2018

This seems a good time to include a piece about the Sweffling churchyard, which has been in such good colour this spring.

Many village churchyards, as well as their obvious function, can be important as veritable nature reserves. This is because in places they have simply been mown, or perhaps grazed, for hundreds of years, since the Middle Ages in fact, and so they represent a habitat which has been relatively unchanged for all this time. In the case of Sweffling this means a type of sandy grassland which, with its association of wild plants, now occurs nowhere else in the village. To maintain this, we are managing it with a cut in summer – around haymaking time – when all the spring flowers are over. This means that for a short time the sward may look a bit untidy to some eyes, but I have no doubt that it is worth it. There will also be an extra cut in time for the winter so that it won’t look so rough.

Some churchyards have plants which look more unusual, such as the splendid orchids at Cransford, which make it easier to justify leaving it unmown. Sweffling has nothing so conspicuous. But the overall effect can be very pleasing, and there are plants which are hard or impossible to find anywhere else here. Earlier in the spring there was a good display of Meadow Buttercup, not unusual but very attractive. Then came another yellow flower, but much paler, the Mouse-eared Hawkbit, a relative of the Dandelion with small leaves silvery on the undersides. This is mixed with a small, delicate white cow-parsley with fine, feathery leaves, the Pig-nut or Earth-nut. Pig-nut (my preferred name) has a large underground tuber which as boys we used to dig up and eat, either raw or roasted on a fire. As I remember, they taste very good, rather like chestnuts, but I expect a reprimand from the Hedgerow Health and Safety Bureau for saying so. Other plants include some of the fine heathland grasses, a small Woodrush, a small, pink Vetch, yellow Ladies’ Bedstraw and more. Look out for them.

With the warm sunshine, Dragonflies around the pond are emerging in force. By now there will be many of the bright blue Damselflies as well as the earlier red ones. The first real dragonfly is the Broad-bodied Chaser, whose male is a pale powder-blue. I watched the first of these emerging – the fully grown larva crawls out of the water up a rush or other stem. Its case then splits down its back and the adult dragonfly slowly pulls itself out. It spends a few hours gradually hardening and darkening before it can fly away, but it will take a couple of days to develop the full colour.