Meadow Making at Blackwater


I don’t suppose it looks very much in this image above: a recently cut field about a third of a hectare in extent and some of the resulting hay piled 3m high. But this modest scene is the culmination of the year’s work at Blackwater.

For three years I have received fantastic support from Nigel Middleton and Neil Chadwick of the Hawk and Owl Trust and their Baling for Biodiversity project. They are both based at Sculthorpe Moor, a rich wildlife area near Fakenham. Essentially lottery money has allowed them to purchase and put to use across Norfolk a set of Austrian-made medium-scale hay-cutting and baling tools. Last week they visited to implement the third such hay cut at Blackwater. I am trying to reduce the tall herb, in part simply to keep my paths open. But a petrol-driven brush cutter is really no match for the two-metre tall jungle that eventually overtakes Blackwater each summer and I need the horse power delivered by the H&OT machinery to get to grips with it. Here are the brilliant Neil and Nigel in action, firstly with the mower itself, which is unfazed by the densest vegetation.




Then once the ‘forest’ is felled, Neil returns with the band-rake, which whips the hay into more manageable lines (coles as they are called in Orkney). What the Hawk and Owl Trust team achieves in three hours would take me more than three days.


The overall goal is to vary the vegetation patterns on the site. The tall herb largely comprises Great Hairy Willowherb, Meadowsweet, Hemp Agrimony, Purple Loosestrife and Angelica, with Common Hogweed earlier in the spring. These are fabulous for insects including Emperor Moth and Elephant Hawkmoth, both of which I found breeding this summer. Here are the caterpillars of the first on meadowsweet and the second on willow herb. emperor moth caterpillarhawkmoth, elephant caterpillar 01

However the longer-term goal is to restore a shorter finer, sward to parts of the meadow. Having both types of vegetation will bring much greater variety to the site and return plants that were once common in Norfolk and now are rather special. The first evidence that the plan is working came this June. By chance, I’d been given some Ragged Robin and a single Common Spotted Orchid (Chinese Water Deer ate the flowerhead in the week it was set to bloom! And don’t worry these pot-plants were grown from seed by friends in their Broadland garden) and these were duly introduced, only for me to find self-seeded Ragged Robin in the same week. I love Ragged Robin and even as I type there is one flowerhead still in bloom at Blackwater. Just in case you have forgotten how beautiful this star-like pink flower can be, here it is.

ragged robin

The next phase of the meadow making works, following last week’s hay cut will be the spreading of Yellow Rattle seed on part of the site. These wild flowers seeds can be bought from various suppliers and I chose a Somerset company in the hope that their source will be a peat-based area that will yield plants that are well suited to conditions at Blackwater. Yellow rattle is a hemi-parasite taking some of its nutrients from associated grasses and it plays a role in sapping the taller, more dominant species of their energy. In this way it helps to keep the ground more open and allows a wider range of shade-intolerant lower-growing meadow plants to get a hold. Eventually I want to end up with two basic fen vegetation forms. the tall herb, with all its prolific late-summer flowers and then an earlier, shorter meadow sward with plants like Ragged Robin, Fleabane, Yellow Rattle, Common Knapweed, Soft Rush, Marsh Thistle and, if we are really lucky, more self-seeding orchids.

Aside from the sometimes overwhelming challenge of doing all the work myself (and if there any willing volunteers then please contact me! I am looking to develop a skill-swap programme, where people give labour and I offer identification courses across a range of groups of animal. Please shout if you are interested.) I routinely ponder whether it would not be better simply to let nature takes its course? After all, that is what has happened in the 30-40 years prior to us buying it. What is the point in intervening in a piece of ground that simply aspires to be woodland; firstly sallow scrub and then probably closed alder, oak and ash woodland? My argument – or should I say the thought that keeps me going – is that I want all three. One part is just being left to grow up into wood and I may help it along with some oak and alder plantings at some point (using oak saplings grown from acorns off the 350-year-old oak in our village that is mentioned in the last entry in my book Claxton, Jonathan Cape 2014). I want the reedy tall herb which is great for Common Whitethroats, Sedge and Reed Warblers as well as a moth I found in June and was identified by Martin Harvey. It’s called Reed Dagger (below), which is a nationally scarce species.


Then I would love a different kind of meadow with more delicate fenland flowers. One underlying motive is to have flowering plants running in succession from March right through to September and so maximise the richness of Blackwater for insects and invertebrates generally. In this way all three basic habitat types will ensure as rich a community as possible.

Already, even in just three years, the efforts have been rewarded this year. In the spring I had four unusual species that are range-restricted at a national or a local level. These included three moths. They are in sequence the Black-bordered Piercer, which occurs only in early May on the trunk of my one mature oak.

black-bordered piercer Pammene argyana 07

Then scarcer still were the Black-headed Gold (see this short piece and the Red-tipped Clearwing (memorialised here The first has only about a dozen Norfolk records and the second about twice as many local records.

black-headed gold Micropterix mansuetella


clearwing, red-tipped  02

Perhaps most exciting of all was this little digger wasp (below: notice the strangely mottled eyes) called Gorytes laticinctus. The second part of the scientific name roughly means ‘banded’. Can we call it the Bander Digger Wasp for now? It too is nationally scarce. But it is not only the rare things from which I take huge pleasure. I cleaned out one of my  dykes and for the first time I got Common Frogs and breeding damselflies. I built my mound of grass cuttings taken off the meadow and I got my first breeding Grass Snakes (see my Guardian piece on it It is these small advances, this acquiring of new neighbours, which is the motive behind Blackwater and all of the work.


digger wasp Gorytes laticinctus  03

Finally i must add huge thanks to the Hawk and Owl Trust for all their help, especially to Neil Chadwick, Nigel Middleton and Lin Murray.  Thanks also to experts like Ian Dawson, Martin Collier, Jeremy Halls, Martin Harvey, Richard Mabey, Peter Marren, Nick Owens and Pam Taylor, without whom I could never identify many of my Blackwater beasts and blooms.