Whilst I rarely question how much I love my job, some days are undoubtedly better than others. At the lower end of the scale I would include any day spent digging holes into the solid rock of the Cotswold escarpment, any day spent entirely indoors, any day spent spraying chemicals and any day spent in the pouring rain cleaning out slurry from a cattle grid. Fortunately this last has only happened once but for obvious reasons it looms large in my memory. There are far too many days at the higher end of the scale to name but today was certainly one of them. First on the list was a walk around my favourite site to remove all the grazing signs following the departure of the cattle last week. This also gave me a great opportunity to have a look at the effect the cattle have had over the winter and they have done an amazing job.
The herd of around fifteen cows and calves at foot has grazed right across the whole site, even getting stuck into some of the denser thatchier bits and creating a lovely mosaic of longer tussocks mixed in with short open areas. This kind of patchwork of different sward heights is perfect for two of the key species on the site, the Duke of Burgundy butterfly and the glow worm, not to mention a whole host of other wildlife.
The Duke of Burgundy is fairly typical of many of the UK’s rare and declining species in that it is extremely pernickety. To cut a long story short, the female will only lay her eggs on cowslips or primroses growing in semi-shade on ideally NW facing slopes.
Several of our sites still support Dukes and Rudge Hill is one of them so around this time of year I start to get a bit obsessed with cowslips as their fresh new leaves begin to unfurl like wrinkly old friends. Are there as many as last year? Are they too early? Are there enough in the most sheltered parts of the site? Are they the right kind of cowslips? Are they too late? What if the Dukes start to emerge now whilst the leaves are still so small? What if we get a dry spring and they all shrivel up too soon? What if we get a wet spring and the Dukes don’t get a chance to fly? Sad I know but such are the intricacies of cowslip farming which is effectively what Duke management is all about. I have also tried for the last few years to be the first person to see a Duke on Rudge Hill but every year someone far more nerdy than me beats me to it – maybe this year I will take the title? The first Dukes have emerged as early as the 5th April before but this is unusual and this year, given the relatively cold spring we are having I expect them to appear a bit later in the month to coincide with the flowering of the cowslips. I am not brave enough to immortalise any firm predictions online but today I found the first cowslip flower so perhaps we will start to see Dukes in a couple of weeks’ time, depending on the weather.
Tiny pockets of early dog violets are beginning to pop up across the common, food for the caterpillars of butterflies such as dark green fritillary which will appear later in the year to search for the leaves amongst the long grasses.
There were also dozens of beautiful cobwebs strung with dew this morning. A bit of research has failed to enlighten me as to what species constructed the webs but they were so densely constructed that they flashed with a bright silken sheen as I moved my head around to admire them. Each web led to a slight funnel where the occupant lay in wait for any passing prey. I didn’t feel mean enough to try and tempt any out with a blade of grass, particularly as my spider ID is very poor so it probably wouldn’t have helped. I am however going on a spider ID course next month so will hopefully be a bit wiser and a bit more willing to waste a spider’s time after that!
Being the first week in April I walked the first butterfly transect of the year this afternoon which, as expected, only turned up the occasional peacock and finally a comma just as I was about to finish. As I walked the transect queen bumblebees buzzed out from beneath my feet, heading off into the blue sky to prospect for nest sites and feed on the haze of golden willow catkins above me. Birds more than made up for the absence of butterflies with skylarks and meadow pipits heralding spring on the upper slopes of the common whilst the first chiffchaff of the year announced his arrival in the woods on the periphery. Halfway through the transect a beautiful green woodpecker bounced across the track in front of me, resplendent in his spring finery, calling after me with a laughing yaffle from a nearby treetop once he felt that the dog and I were a safe distance away.