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The Secret life of a Midsummer Meadow

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Posted: Thursday 3rd August 2017 by WildBlog

By Eric Heath, Head of Land Management

At this time of year, haycuts are being taken from meadows across the UK and many specialist grassland plants will have flowered and set seed. Once this has happened, the vegetation can be cut and stored for winter livestock feed but the plant can thrive the following year.

Over the last few months, meadows have been a hive of activity, with flowers and grasses rapidly growing in the long summer days and a host of pollinators and other associated insects thrumming around these fields. These in turn bring bats, birds and small mammals, attracted by the wealth of food these insects and plants provide. When looking at a meadow, it’s easy to forget the heavy lifting being done by species which almost never see the light of day. And it’s amazing to reflect that more creatures live in the soil than any other environment. Here’s a brief introduction to some of the wondrous events occurring just below the surface.

We’ll start with the soil. The texture and chemical composition of soil are the major factors (besides climate) which determine which plants grow in which locations. Soil has its origins in the weathering of solid rock and many different organisms including lichen, bacteria, fungi and plant roots contribute to the decomposition of rock and the subsequent release of useful mineral and nutrients into the soil. This weathered rock material is mixed with organic matter to create our soils.

Around Bristol much of the bedrock is limestone. As this weathers it produces calcareous soils which support the incredible diversity of our chalk grassland meadows. Weaving through the soils are the roots of plants which are busy pulling up the water and minerals plants require for photosynthesis. Some organisms have incredibly intimate relationships with plants. One of the most important are the soil fixing bacteria which live within specialised nodules in the roots of a range of plant species (particularly the pea family). These bacteria are protected and supported by the plants, and in return they fix atmospheric nitrogen into a form which the plants can use.

Besides water and minerals, the other vital substance that plants need below ground is air. This is why compaction of the soil is such a serious issue, as it squeezes all the soil particles together, dramatically reducing the air available to plants. The earthworm is therefore the unsung hero of the meadow providing several vital services. Perhaps the most important service is improving the soil structure by creating tunnels. These tunnels allow oxygen and water to disperse through the soil, making them more available to plants. Earthworms also play an important role in breaking down organic matter and mixing up soil layers. At night, earthworms will often rise to the surface of a meadow and feed on decaying leaves, sometimes pulling them back down their tunnels thus increasing the organic content of the soil. There are around 16 species of earthworm in the UK.

So, next time you gaze across the swaying masses of grasses, poppies, cornflowers, ox-eye daisies and other plants abundant in a wildflower meadow, spare a thought for the invisible activity happening beneath your feet. It’s what’s making the meadow vibrant and thriving.

Many of our nature reserves including Dolebury Warren, Browne’s Folly and Justin’s Meadow at Ashton Court have grassland meadows which are great to visit at this time of year. Have a look at our website for more information about our reserves and how to get there.

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