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Hay meadows, butterflies and bracken bruising

Conservation Officer Julie Garlick reveals what she’s spotted out and about in the National Park in July.

July, for me, is all about hay meadows. They’re at their absolute best – crammed with flowers and buzzing with insects. As you walk through one at this time of year, you hear the dry seed heads of yellow rattle against your legs and you disturb butterflies amongst the long grasses. Skylarks, bumblebees and grasshoppers add the soundtrack to this summer scene. Bliss.

Flower-filled meadows near Mynachlogddu
Flower-filled meadows near Mynachlogddu

How depressing then that this scene has all but disappeared from the British countryside. It’s widely believed that 98% of hay meadows have vanished since the 1930s. Most children nowadays have never experienced the joy of running through fields filled with flowers and bugs, with the sounds and smells that go with them. It’ll be hard for future generations to protect what they’ve never known.

The National Park Authority does what it can to conserve the meadows that remain, through agreements with the people that own them, and we also encourage landowners to create new ones. The Authority manages much of its own grassland in this way, such as at Carew Castle, St David’s Airfield and Skrinkle Haven. Churchyards, if managed sympathetically, can also act as a refuge for this now rare habitat.

Carew Castle’s colourful meadow of buttercups and sorrel.
Carew Castle’s colourful meadow of buttercups and sorrel.

You’ll have to be quick though if you want to see these meadows in all their glory, as July is also the time when they’re traditionally cut. For the last few years, the unsettled summer weather has made it tricky to make good hay, but the dry weather this year has been more helpful. Unfortunately, it is now so dry that the grass has largely stopped growing and is starting to burn off, losing its nutritional value. The hay-cut is therefore well underway.

Annual rake-off at Stackpole Church, with Park staff, volunteers and church wardens.
Annual rake-off at Stackpole Church, with Park staff, volunteers and church wardens.

The good weather is giving butterflies a welcome respite after several poor summers. The butterflies I’m seeing in hay fields at the moment are mostly meadow browns, ringlets and skippers. I had an amazing butterfly experience the other day while I was on the coast path near Strumble Head; in only about 100 yards I saw around three dozen Dark Green Fritillaries fluttering and skimming around the vegetation. I’d walked into a breeding zone. I’ve never seen so many of these large, bright orange butterflies in one spot before! This stretch of the coast is one of the best places to see them.

Dark green fritillaries mating.
Dark green fritillaries mating.

These fritillaries are usually found in areas of bracken, but only where the bracken is sparse enough to allow violets to grow beneath. Once it becomes tall and dense, it shades out virtually everything else, so this is why our Wardens are busy ‘bracken bruising’ for landowners at the moment.

Bracken rolling above Marloes beach.
Bracken rolling above Marloes beach.

The aim isn’t to eradicate the bracken but just to thin it out. Like with other plants which can take over – bramble, gorse, nettles – they do have value for wildlife. It’s just a matter of getting the balance right.


National Park Nature Diary
Published 03/08/2018



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