I think of July as ‘peak green’ on the farm. Everything is lush and leafy. We let everything do its thing, only mowing grass, and trimming the hedges in areas that need access.
The meadows are fading now having bloomed in their full glory for about a month. They have a new sort of beauty as they begin to go to seed and dry out. They take on a sepia tone in the sunlight and all you can hear as you walk through are grasshoppers and crickets. Butterflies are feasting on pollen but as we noted earlier in the summer our visiting bee population is sadly small this year. We’ve had reports locally of colonies of bees kept adjacent to industrially farmed fields, dying within hours of the crops being sprayed. Tragic but true.
The meadows will be left for a few more weeks yet before we harvest. The seed heads on all of the flowers need a chance to dry out and drop so we can begin the process of regenerating the meadow for next year.
One of the great conservation stories of this season has been this caterpillar (pictured). These are the caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth – so named because of it’s stunning red and black markings. This species is a BAP Priority species (Research) – which means it is under threat and requires conservation action. Why are they threatened? Well the answer lies in the sensationalised story that is Ragwort.
Cinnabar caterpillars are reliant exclusively on ragwort, the tall, bright yellow flower in this photo. Ragwort is seen as a dangerous weed and is ruthlessly pulled up from farmland which has resulted in an 83 percent decline in the moth over the last 35 years. Why is ragwort so loathed? This is a good question, and it stems almost entirely from the fact that it contains toxins which in quantity are poisonous to animals. Except of course to the Cinnabar caterpillar, which loves them, eats them and in turn evolves into a moth so toxic that predators are warned away by its distinctive red colour. A stop light for any creature considering it as a snack.
So to ragwort. In a survey back in 2014 The British Horse Society overestimated the toxicity of ragwort by some 10,000 times – you can read about it here. What those claims did was terrify horse owners into believing the almost certainly fatal consequence of their horses and ponies eating even the tiniest amount of the plant. The result is that there is a massive decline in ragwort as people pull it out indiscriminantly, and with it a decline in the moths that rely on it.
In fact a horse would need to ingest 5% of its total bodyweight in growing ragwort for it to prove lethal and most horses will avoid it anyway because it tastes bitter. A bigger threat is ragwort in hay because the plant loses its bitter taste once cut and dried but it doesn’t lose its toxicity. But even so the PR campaign against ragwort hasn’t the statistics to back it up, there’s an excellent feature on the Friends Of The Earth website about it here:
Our donkeys live happily in a field with ragwort and they leave it untouched. It is illegal to pull up wild flowers of any sort without the landowner’s permission. And no-one has permission to pull up ragwort here at Swallowtail Hill because we love the cinnabar caterpillar and its vibrantly coloured moth.
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