I recall a fellow meadow owner once telling me about a technique for ageing a meadow by counting buttercups. At last this week I managed to track down the research, originally carried out in 2009 by John Warren at Aberystwyth University. Click here to read the whole paper, which is enlightening and not too full of scientific jargon.
The basic premise is that you collect, or count, the flowers of 100 creeping buttercups, Ranunculus repens, which is a common grassland, and indeed garden, “weed” throughout much of the UK. A normal creeping buttercup flower has 5 petals, but aberrant flower mutations occur where there are more than this number of petals.
Warren explains that since the creeping buttercup largely spreads by vegetative means with runners, or asexual non seed reproduction, then for every one flower found with more than 5 petals, you can assume that the meadow is 7 years old. So if, say, you find 14 such flowers in 100, then the meadow is about 100 years ago.
Knowing that our meadows are likely to be quite old, we thought we’d try this out. You have to distinguish the creeping buttercup from other common field buttercups, like the meadow buttercup and bulbous buttercup, and apparently the accuracy of the system tends to break down after July (though frustratingly the paper doesn’t say whether this is the beginning or end of July!), since flower morphology naturally changes a bit with flowers produced later in the season.
Wandering back up from the bottom field we walked through our “Cae efail” (blacksmith’s field) and picked the first 3 flowers we found. Much to our surprise they all had 6 or more petals. Encouraged, we continued, and the final tallies below showed firstly that roving independently across the field we both seemed to find a similar ratio, of typical 5 petalled to more petalled mutated flowers. In addition you’ll notice that Fiona was a more efficient collector. I’d only got 18 and 30; she had 36 and 65, so an average of just over 36% of more than 5 petal flowers.A little maths implies a meadow age of well over 200 years…
Warren’s paper describes quite clearly how such an obviously visible macro mutation can be maintained within a population simply by vegetative means, and that by sampling populations from across the country from meadows of known age, the simple 7 years per mutant flower formula seems to hold good.
We were clearly at the end of the creeping buttercup flowering period when we performed the count, but this is definitely something we’ll try next year in our other fields. Being able to confirm that our meadows’ ages are closely linked to the age of the construction of our house, which dates to the early 1700’s or so, is very exciting, and confirms what a special opportunity we have here to restore at least some of the meadows to a more floriferous and diverse state.
I’d be delighted to hear from any other members, either this year, or next, on how they get on if they carry out this count on their meadows.
Margaret Bide, a CMG member just over the border in Cellan, recently came up with a great idea for anyone interested in contributing, at this September’s meeting at Myddfai. A sort of hay sample / display.
All meadows are unique environments, and individual hay samples should reflect this.The idea is that anyone could bring along a sample of hay taken from their meadow, perhaps with a photo or two of its site of origin and some brief location details.
I was lucky enough to be able to visit Margaret’s meadow which she’s managed for over 30 years, and it was instantly obviously very different to all of ours, with many more taller grasses, and a great floral mix too. Margaret is going to manually cut, and dry indoors a sample taken from a 1 metre square patch, since she struggles to find anyone to process her crop these days. Perhaps folk could bring along a sample in a suitably large airy bin liner type bag, to minimise mess? I’ll try to remember to bring a dustpan and brush!
Introduction to scything course
Cae Blaen Dyffryn, nr Lampeter, Carmarthenshire
Thursday 24th August 2017, 10am – 4pm and
Saturday 26th August 2017, 10am – 4pm (repeat)
– see the events page for more details.
I’m very grateful to all the folk who let me know that the beetle I featured in the last post was a Devil’s Coach Horse, or Common Black Cocktail, Ocypus olens. A bit more research revealed that in Irish mythology, where it’s known as the Devil’s beetle, or Dar Daoul, it was thought to imbibe evil powers by eating the bodies of sinners, (not too far fetched centuries ago, since it does indeed consume carrion with its powerful mandibles) and then be capable of killing someone with just a look.
Or even turn its mythical powers to your advantage, and here’s a hint for those doing the manual scything – apparently some Irish reapers imprisoned beetles in the handles of their scythes to improve their scything skills…
Thanks for reading, and remember I’m always happy to receive any suitable articles or photos to include as blog posts. Please send them to me…
Julian Wormald… firstname.lastname@example.org