Macro Monday: the life of a Moravian meadow

Macro Monday 21st December 2020

Today is the winter solstice. The darkest and shortest day of the year is the perfect time to look back at one of my fondest summer macro memories. It might also cheer some of you to see photos of sunnier, warmer times, teeming with wildlife.

In August 2016 my friend Peter Beckenham and I travelled to South Moravia in Czechia. This trip was completed by train, with a route of London-Brussels, Brussels-Cologne, Cologne-Prague sleeper, Prague-Brno and back. I really recommend this (maybe not right now) as a much better way to travel than flying. You see more, go to more interesting places and reduce your environmental impact.

For macro photography I was using a Nikon D750 and Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro lens. Most of the photos seen here were taken at f11.

I have posted about the amazing wildlife and landscapes in South Moravia, a region in Czechia, close to the borders of Austria and Slovakia.

Moravia is home to varied landscapes, rivers, wetlands, mountains and woodlands. It of course suffers from the vagaries of intensive agriculture, particularly because of the impacts of the Soviet Union. But its protected landscape system is strong and there are many committed environmentalists who spend much of their free time recording species and promoting and educating people about nature.

The reason I know about these meadows is purely because of local ecologist, conservationist and educator Zuzana Veverkova. Zuzka has taught me so much about European nature, landscapes and cultural heritage. All the thanks here go to her.

The meadow is at the end of a street in the Kyjovka valley. It is surrounded by woodlands, largely managed for forestry and intensive arable farms. Zuzka works to enhance the landscape by advising on the creation of meadows, orchards and other sustainable landscape models which will provide habitat for the rich biodiversity of the area.

You didn’t have to be in a meadow to find diverse invertebrate life. In Zuzka’s post box (attached to an external wall of the house) a colony of European paper wasps had built a nest. They are ready to sting you, so I observed from a distance. They were feeding on umbellifers in the slither of garden in front of the house. We don’t have this species in Britain.

Another species of wasp, but instead an ichneumon (probably a Gasteruption species) was foraging on the flowers.

The wasp action didn’t end there. A red sand wasp had burrows in the soil. I’ve mainly seen this type of wasp on heathlands in the UK. They’re rare because of their dependence on a single habitat type, one of which, in heathlands, has seen a lot lost to forestry and development in the UK.

It was pretty incredible to see that the wasp had caught a honey bee as prey and was leaving it to one side while it went about its business.

The meadow itself, where the ‘garden’ insects are likely to have been visiting on longer foraging trips, was not far away. Here is my friend Peter Beckenham pretending he lives in the meadow. Pete is a bird-nerd and he had plenty to find in this area. He heard a common rosefinch calling in the trees in the distance, a species I haven’t seen yet.

When Zuzka introduced us to the meadows, she immediately found something cool for us to see. This is a European praying mantis. I feel like the mantis could be mistaken for a puppet master here, directing the movements of Zuzka’s hand. They do of course have some sinister behaviour anyway.

The meadows were kitted out with flowers, matching some of the most diverse grasslands Britain has to show, if not more so. Of course continental Europe has far richer grasslands than Britain due to geological processes, connectivity with a wider landmass and probably climactic reasons. We have also ploughed up 97% of ancient grasslands in the Britain. But this wasn’t even a nature reserve. In the UK people fight campaigns over much less diverse habitats, which is still very important.

We visited in August, so there was some quite mild weather which meant the insects were less active. That is perfect for taking photos because the animals are slow and usually perched somewhere helpful. This is a cricket.

On a flower stem this cricket was poised, its wing casings apparent here in their translucent green.

It was very easy to miss this long-horn moth, having attached itself to the sepals of this scabious flower. These are day-flying moths, which include some very beautiful species.

An ermine moth was nectaring on this umbellifer. They look like dalmatians.

I felt sorry for this shieldbug with a red spider mite attached to its head. iNaturalist suggests this is a species in the Carpocoris family.

Nearby was a green shieldbug hiding away in the florets of field cow wheat. I love the colours in this photo and it’s definitely one I consider a ‘portfolio’ image.

One morning in the meadow, after a night of rain, I found hundreds of small blue butterflies perched in grass heads. A Czech user on iNaturalist suggested this is silver-studded blue. I find some blue butterflies really difficult to identify. This image conveys the beauty of a macro lens: a sharp, thin field of view, with a dreamy blur of green in the background.

Far from being a wilderness, the meadow was on the edge of a municipal part of a village that was growing, but slowly. I spent my final morning of that trip taking photos in the meadow. What you can’t see in this image are swallows flying low across the top of the sward. A special memory! Then again, they were eating my subjects…

Thanks for reading.

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North Downs diary: Where the buttercups erupt

North Downs diary, Coulsdon, May 2016

Buttercups cover the secret meadows of Happy Valley, an almost unthinkable break from the towering darkness of Devilsden Wood. There the bluebells are going to seed, the yellow archangel flowering on the edges of the track where the buttercups erupt. With a macro lens I stalk the flowerheads for insects. There is a note of impatience. A sawfly buries itself between the petals and stamens of a buttercup. It is powdered yellow by pollen. A variable longhorn beetle with demonic elytra grapples with stems of ribwort plantain. I rock back and forth turning the focus ring to try and get a picture of its eyes, my camera firing off shots in hope. It’s never easy. Micro moths stir at each step. One rests finally and I frame it against a buttercup background, blurred, it could be the sun rising.

The meadows are edged by hedges and woods, nuthatches call, chiffchaffs sing. A song thrush moves through its repertoire, conjuring mimicry and melodies that could be tens of species to the uninitiated. Blackbirds draft a soundscape that I cling to, I never want this hubbub of thrush music to end. I love the margins of woods, especially when they are met with meadows as full with life as this. I know a trick: lie down, cover your face and be still. See what comes your way. Flies teem around my ears, on my clothes. I spy them cleaning their legs in the corner of my eye. From this perspective my walking boots toe a roof of flowers. Three swifts appear from over the woods and for the first time I hear their wings, a rippling sound I forget almost instantly. Beetles whirr and slap down onto my hat. An animal arrives in the grass behind my head and, spooked, it escapes. A gull calls and I look up to see fifty or more rising on warm air. A single swallow travels across. It must be good here, why else would they cross the Sahara.

North Downs diary

Restoring the Magnificent Meadows of the Cotswolds

In July 2015 I volunteered with the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) to help with the harvesting of wildflower seeds from hay meadows and other species-rich grasslands. The Magnificent Meadows project is partnered nationally between the AONB, the Wildlife Trusts, Plantlife and the RSPB. I was helping Conservation Officer Eleanor Reast and volunteer Will Bowers. Since 1945, 97% of British wildflower meadows (hay meadows, water meadows, chalk and limestone grassland) have been lost. There are many reasons for this and there are a number of projects to raise awareness and physically restore this near-obliterated habitat. The loss has been catastrophic for invertebrate populations, namely the bees which are popular whilst their misunderstood habitat continues to decline. I don’t mean honeybees specifically, they play an important role in pollination but the biggest and most concerning losses are to bumblebees, with some of the rare species now confined to coastal meadows and grasslands. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust estimates that bees provide £560million to the UK economy through pollinating high value crops. But bumblebees are only a fraction of British species: there are around 250 species, 32% of which are threatened with extinction. Solitary bees make up much of the numbers here, with an amazing array of species having taken to different niches and areas of our landscape, giving us mining, mason and leaf cutter bees. Wildflower-rich meadows, along with woods, should be the fulcrum of support for our rural wildlife, instead the former has been near-destroyed and millions of pounds are now rightly being invested in their regeneration. At the same time government continues to build on remaining rich grasslands and open up more areas for fracking.

The AONB is vast and the job of Eleanor and her colleagues is not a simple one. The project aims to work with local landowners both to collect seed from their meadows but also to re-seed new grasslands where the soil conditions are suitable. Flower-rich grasslands are generally nutrient poor, this means that they haven’t been fertilised with chemicals or dung (also human excrement as I learned in the Cotswolds). This is vital because if the soil is too nutrient-rich, dominant species like nettle, bramble and hogweed will begin to overtake. Species-rich grasslands are often also rich in waxcap fungi. However, according to George Peterken, the nitrogen emitted into the atmosphere by car engines and through aviation is leading to rainfall that is actually fertilising grasslands and reducing the range of fungi as well as wildflowers. Orchids are impacted here as some species have intricate, symbiotic relationships with fungi, and the loss of fungi can therefore impact the meadow ecosystem in subtle ways.

Harvesting the meadows required a Land Rover to drag the seed harvester around the landscape and a trailer to get the thing out there. I spent most of my time trying to sift the collected seed of knapweed, yellow rattle, orchids and scabious, or else trying to photograph insects.

We were visited by BBC Countryfile’s Ellie Harrison, who is also the President of the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. Ellie is helping with the Magnificent Meadows project and was keen to see, first hand, how the work was going. Seeing Ellie driving the vehicle, though only briefly, through the field made me think of how meadows challenge our notion of the ‘natural’. They are man-made habitats which have been around in their current form for at least 6000 years, when the Neolithic farming revolution reached its nadir or height, depending on your viewpoint. Much of the meadows and farmland we have today will once have been covered by wildwood, a habitat of nature’s own making that is lost to us in Britain thanks to thousands of years of deforestation by humans. Peterken suggests that meadows originated from woodland glades that once would have been kept open by aurochs (wild cows), deer and other large grazing animals. Something close to these old wildwood meadows are wood meadows still found in Estonia and Sweden.

The seed had to be emptied onto the blue tarpaulin which was then sifted out using the homemade wooden frames and wire sieves. There was a lot of insect by-catch, most commonly grasshoppers and crickets, unfortunately losing one leg most of the time, and a few dead meadow brown and marbled white butterflies, and silver-y moths. Don’t be upset though as these are common species in the Cotswolds which will, in the long term, be able to increase in number when the meadows diversify over a wider area of the AONB.

The meadows were generally ‘over’ but there was still a lot of insect life. I think this is a stripe-winged grasshopper.

Bumblebees were busy and looking worn from their summer work. This ‘rather faded’ common carder bee was on common knapweed.

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There were a number of wildflowers still in bloom, like this white variation of greater knapweed.

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It was not entirely possible to gather seed every day. We tried to harvest at Leckhampton Hill, a site with very rich and beautiful limestone grassland. Only minutes after arriving and bringing the mower on site, a torrential downpour hit and the grassland become impossible to harvest. We had to return, seedless. I took the chance to look for insects and found a gathering of longhorn moths, Nemophora metallica. I like this little punk of a micro-moth, it looks quite tiger-like to me. I’ve had to invest in the Field Guide to the Micro-moths of Great Britain and Ireland to acquaint myself with them.

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The seed had to be spread out in the barn after harvesting. Will and I (mostly Will, whose practical skills were, for a 21-year-old, amazing and embarrassing) raked out the seed onto tarpaulins. Will diligently turned the seed so that it would stay cool. If it got too warm and mound-like it would effectively begin to compost and decompose.

Here you can see the most sought-after seed, that of yellow rattle, a wildflower which is parasitic on the roots of grasses and so can help other less dominant, nectar-rich species to move in. Eleanor said that you only need a single yellow rattle seedling to establish for the plant to take hold in a meadow. Of course the conditions have to be right, this is a plant that likes calcium-rich limestone grassland like meadows being protected and enhanced in the AONB.

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When the seed was ready it was the job of Eleanor and volunteer Will (and me) to hand-sow the seeds, carrying them from point to point in dumpy-sacks. It was a real challenge to get it right and it will take years for the plants to establish. It’s a project that needs patience as much as it needs meadows to harvest.

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My final day of harvesting took place in Tewkesbury, an area of rolling hills with hay meadows and arable land lined by trees and hedges in the valley. The weather was warm and dry and therefore perfect for harvesting. We harvested from a slither of the hillside which was designated as a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) but was in fact somewhat ‘rank’, meaning it was not so floristically diverse and instead was clogged with grasses. I did, however, find some wonderful (for spider-lovers) and a little horrifying (for bee-lovers) insect-life.

Capsid bugs are a large family of insects with 229 species, known as the Miridae, but they’re quite easy to encounter if you have a macro lens for your camera or some other form of magnification. This capsid bug was traversing the stamens of knapweed.

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The SSSI was edged by a line of trees and dense bramble. Hidden away in the bramble was this funnel-web spider that Will found. It had created a tunnel (or funnel) from which it could prey on insects. There were plenty of potential meals to be had.

A lot has been said about the importance of meadows for bees and butterflies. Bees are also important for the other creatures that prey on them. I watched this spider wrapping a solitary bee in its silk. The bee fought to try and free itself, but the strength of the webbing is not something that can be broken by a solitary bee. It was unpleasant to watch but also fascinating. You can be sure this is a scene that has been occurring for centuries in the meadows of the Cotswolds, with balances maintained within the ecological network by predators like these grassland-dwelling spiders. Nature’s beauty is indeed subjective. Don’t confuse this, though, its full-scale importance to us cannot be put in material or capitalist terms.

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Away from the harvesting there were a few signs of good government policy in action. Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) is a boring-sounding scheme which is being undertaken in different forms across the EU where farmers and other landowners receive funding from government to seed wildflower-rich margins, plant woodland, reintroduce grazing to ailing grasslands and replace lost hedgerow. This field had sidings of oxeye daisy, poppy, cornflower and a range of other native wildflowers which have been lost from British farmland in the past 60 years. Sadly, at the same time the Tories caved in to unrelenting corporate and National Farmer’s Union pressure to allow bee-killing pesticides once more, flouting an EU ban.

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Another national meadow project is Prince Charles’s Coronation Meadows scheme in partnership with the Wildlife Trusts and Plantlife. The heir to the throne loves the place so much he hung out with Eleanor in July. As for me, I got the chance to visit one near Morton-in-marsh. It was mostly covered by greater burnet, a member of the rose family that likes wet meadows and margins. The flowers were not at their full pomp in July, though the gentle spots of burnet and devil’s-bit scabious pointed to the richness of the meadow, the orchids having flowered and gone.

There were lots of insects feeding on the still flowering burnet, like this hoverfly, a member of the Sphaerophoria family.

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And this male red-tailed bumblebee was working hard on this greater burnet flower. He had a fine yellow-beard.

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I’d like to thank Eleanor and Will for all they taught me about meadow restoration and the laws of the Cotswolds. Eleanor and her colleagues obviously work incredibly hard out there trying to improve the landscape for future generations of people and wildlife. It is no simple task but hopefully it will make a big difference in decades to come meaning more bees, butterflies and beautiful, vital wildflowers.

Photography: Evening meadows

Evening meadows

Evening meadows, Farthing Downs, London, June 2015

It’s that time of year when the meadows are reaching their height. Here you can see the yellow rattle in flower, soon field scabious will appear to be fed on by burnet moths and bumblebees.

Please click through for more of my pictures of Farthing Downs on Flickr