Things to do in January Number 3: Grasses in the snow

Snow changes everything, if only for a few days. You can walk through the fields and see exactly who has been where – in which spot the blackbirds have chosen to dig for food, which gap in the hedge the rabbits run through, where the heron stalks along the canal in the early morning. Here’s a slightly unusual one but it struck me how obvious all the grass seed heads are when walking through the snow up to Belmount Tower. Usually half the battle with grass ID can be spotting the distinctive heads against the mass of green and brown around them but they stand out beautifully against the white. Here are a few which should be easy to see!


Cock’s foot – Dactylis glomerata

Cock's foot – Dactylis glomerata panicle

So called because of the spur which you can see at the base of the seed head, this grass is a common find where management isn’t too heavy. In this case, it is doing well in a field with a low level of sheep grazing but roadsides, wastegrounds and field edges are other good places to find it.


Crested dog’s tail – Cynosurus cristatus

Crested dog's tail - Cynosurus cristatus panicle

This is a common, tufted perennial grass which is finer than some of the more boisterous grasses such as the cock’s foot above or the tufted hair grass below. Its distinctive feature is a line which runs from top to bottom and, a little like a parting, the seed grows one way or the other. This is distinct from some other similar grasses which grow all the way around in a cylindrical cone, a little more like a pipecleaner.


Tufted hair grass – Deschampsia cespitosa

Tufted hair grass – Deschampsia cespitosa panicleicle

This grass is large and imposing, growing in a tussock and sending its seed heads up and out a metre from the base. Its leaves are a good give-away if you’re in doubt – squeeze the blade between thumb and finger and you will find that it runs smoothly in one direction but drags with impressive friction if you try it the other. This grass is generally found in damper ground – this could be alongside rushes in a marshy grassland or simply a part of the field where the water collects.


Purple moor grass – Molinia caerulea

Purple moor grass - Molinia caerulea panicle

I think that this grass is purple moor grass – another large, tussock-forming species which can be up to a metre tall. Like the tufted hair grass, it is often found in slightly damper locations and is most commonly associated with acidic habitats such as moorlands, as the name suggests.


Common bent – Agrostis capillaris

Common bent – Agrostis capillaris panicle

This is a common grassland species which is likely, along with crested dog’s tail, to be one of the main constituent species within this field. It has a fine, spreading panicle (the term for the entire cluster of flowers) and likes nutrient poor conditions. Again, its prevalence will be down to the right level of management (grazing) to keep the nutrients low.

The official grassland managers (with voluntary assistance from the rabbits and deer of course)
The official grassland managers (with voluntary assistance from the rabbits and deer of course)
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2 thoughts on “Things to do in January Number 3: Grasses in the snow

  1. sophiecussen January 24, 2013 / 8:00 am

    That was really interesting, the photo’s of the various grasses look really striking against the white snow.

    • Grantham Ecology February 11, 2013 / 5:09 pm

      I’m glad you liked it! Surprise return of the snow again today, doesn’t look like it’ll hang around quite so long this time sadly.

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