Green winged orchids at Muston Meadows

Only a few miles to the west of Grantham along the A52, you might be surprised to learn there is a National Nature Reserve – Muston Meadows NNR. The fields are cited as one of the finest lowland meadows in England with over 30 species of grasses and over 100 species of flowering plant – this page from Natural England has further details.

The meadows are possibly at their best to the end of May or early June, before the first cut, when a wealth of wildflowers including vetches, pignut, yellow rattle and pepper saxifrage as well as the beautiful quaking oat grass. However, the stand-out species of the meadows is the green winged orchid to which the reserve is home to a colony 10,000 strong.

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The green winged orchid (Orchis morio) is a rare species whose decline is linked to the decrease in the availability of nutrient poor grassland habitats – such as those found at Muston Meadows – in which it thrives. The green-wings refer to the green veined sepals which you can see in the image below; this differentiates the orchid from the early purple orchid which has similar purple flowers. They can also be distinguished by the lack of spots on the leaves which are notable in the early purple orchid. This specimen was low growing, perhaps only 6cm tall, so a keen eye may be required to pick them out away from the main patches.

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Muston Meadows can be accessed through a gate directly off the minor road between Muston and Stenwith which passes along the eastern boundary of the reserve. There was always a sign which indicated the entrance although this was missing on my visit last weekend (19th May 2013) so keep an eye out for the kissing gate opposite the entrance to the Sustrans cycle path which leads off to Redmile. The meadows are a fragile habitat and Natural England do ask all visitors to keep to the public rights of way.

While you’re there, also look out for skylarks, a wealth of butterflies and hares which can often be seen especially after the first cut when the grasses are low.

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Reptiles in Grantham

One of the main aspects of my job as an ecologist is conducting reptile surveys – sadly I’ve never conducted one in or around Grantham but I would love to know what can be found in the local area. If you have seen any reptiles, I would love to know – as would ARG UK who have the Record Pool where you can record your sighting.

The standard way to survey for reptiles is to lay down sheets of refugia – often metal tins, carpet tiles or pieces of roofing felt are used – in suitable reptile habitat, then come back and check to see any reptiles which are either sheltering underneath them or using them to warm up as the sun heats the refugia. This works very well with some species but is less successful at detecting others, such as adders. An alternative way is to approach suitable basking spots, such as log piles, stones or nice south-facing ground early in the day (before it gets too warm and the reptiles move off to forage) and see if you can spot one before it spots you!

Grass snake

The one species I have encountered around Grantham is the grass snake, this is a non-venomous species which is often found associated with water where it hunts amphibians and small fish. One individual I have seen in the Grantham area was along Grantham Canal on the approach to Denton Reservoir and most recently another along a footpath which passes through Croxton Park but I would not be surprised if it were also present within the town of Grantham itself. It is quite an adaptable species and can often be found in gardens, especially if you have a pond. If you do see one, you have no reason to fear it although its main defence mechanism is to secrete an awful smelling substance which you will be able to smell on your hands for a good while after so please don’t touch! They also do a rather disturbing (and in my opinion overacted) job of playing dead, only uncoiling and moving away when they are sure the danger has passed.

The most characteristic feature of a grass snake is the yellow patches on its neck. It could be confused with the adder, but lacks the zig-zag pattern on the back as well as the red eyes. The only other species you may encounter which looks similar is the slow worm but this is a smaller creature (actually a legless lizard rather than a snake) which is a brown/gold colour. This page has some great pointers to help you identify a grass snake.

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Common lizard

The common lizard is another species which may occur in the Grantham area although I do not know of any confirmed sightings since 1979. This is the only lizard you are likely to encounter in this part of the country and is therefore difficult to mistake for anything else! They are small and often shy creatures whose presence is most often only registered as a rustle in the undergrowth as they scurry out of sight. They are quite a common species in some parts of the country and can certainly be found in north Nottinghamshire around the Sherwood Forest area.

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Slow worm

The slow worms is actually a legless lizard – this website on Rushcliffe Wildlife suggests they are present in small colonies only a few miles to the north of Grantham. In some parts of the country they are very common with strongholds in the west country where they are regularly encountered in gardens, most often when sheltering under rocks or logs, and are a welcome addition to the pest-control brigade, feeding on small invertebrate prey including small slugs.

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Adder

The final species which could possibly be encountered in the vicinity of Grantham is the adder – our only poisonous snake. These have been recorded historically but not for almost 40 years now – the last record relates to Salter’s Ford Valley from 1979 according to the data search in this document which I turned up through a quick google search. The habitat typical of adders includes open heathland and moorland as well as rough countryside associated with forest edges. Due to the intensity of agriculture around Grantham, these populations are likely to be isolated and decreases in the availability of habitat in the last 40 years may well have resulted in the population dying out. There is a possibility that they may persist in some of the more isolated locations out to the south of the town towards Stamford.

They will bite if harassed (or trodden on) so do take care if you see anything which you suspect may be an adder. However they will only do so under provocation and in self defense – they will not attack people without good reason! Reports of adders along canals and waterways such as Grantham Canal are almost always a mid-identification of a harmless grass snake which has a great affinity for water where it will swim to hunt. More details on identification can be found here.

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The other native species – smooth snake and sand lizard – are very specific in their habitat requirements and would not be found in or around Grantham.

I hope this quick guide is useful and don’t forget to record any sightings of reptiles or amphibians in the Grantham area on the Record Pool.

Weeds in Harlaxton (the tyranny of the Best Kept Village inspectorate)

The most recent issue of the Harlaxton Voice, the monthly newsletter for the village of Harlaxton a couple of miles to the west of Grantham, outlined the issues raised by the ‘Best Kept Village’ inspectors in 2012. Amongst their criticisms (although they were overall very impressed with the village), was the number of weeds. Many people may agree but I would offer a different view; I would hope that the village does not take this complaint too much to heart.

Harlaxton Monument; aubretia growing along the kerb edge, dandelions and daisys in the grass along with planted daffodils. Which are the weeds?
Harlaxton Monument; aubretia growing along the kerb edge, dandelions and daisys in the grass along with planted daffodils. Which are the weeds?

I took a walk around the Harlaxton between the rain showers today for a quick survey of the unauthorised village vegetation. There are garden escapee’s; valarian growing in the walls, forget-me-nots forgetting to keep within the beds they were planted in, yellow corydalis and the beautiful and characteristic aubretia which bubbles and tumbles down the walls as you drive through. I would suspect that the committee would approve of these plants, they look sufficiently ornamental and their establishment within the village adds to its character.

Forget-me-nots (garden escapes)

Then there are the colourful flowering species which may split opinions a little further; dandelions imitating the sporadic sun in the otherwise dismal tarmac, broad-leaf willow herb, purple-flowered violets, buttercup-yellow lesser celandines, yarrow, herb-robert and purple toad-flax. These all take foothold in tiny patches of soil where you would never expect a planted seed to grow; they live against the odds where little else could. My personal favourite is the exquisite creeping toadflax which creeps out of the gaps in the walls and trails down, a native accompaniment to the bolder aubretia.

Dandelion growing in a crack in the pavement - a splash of sunshine with surprisingly few friends!
Dandelion growing in a crack in the pavement – a splash of sunshine with surprisingly few friends!
Delicate bittercress flowers growing at the base of a wall
Delicate bittercress flowers growing at the base of a wall

Finally are those which would be sprayed off by most without a second thought; spear thistle, common chickweed, groundsel, cleavers, bittercress and ivy-leaved speedwell. These do flower but generally they are so small and unappealing to the casual observer that they would be dismissed as scrubby vegetation. But look a little closer and these too are beautiful plants.

Weeds are defined as plants in the wrong place but the wrong place depends upon the viewpoint of the observer. There is no reason why our pavement edges should be sprayed clean of those opportunistic plants which have found a way to take a temporary root, add splashes of green to the tarmac and provide nectar sources for pollinators such as butterflies and bees. The inspection committee were pleased with the ‘tended beds’ – small squares of soil with specimen plants placed in the centre which I personally find rather dull. Are the daisy’s in the grass considered weeds? Some would say yes, some would say no. Weeds are a matter of aesthetics and I would hope that the village does not pander too much to the view of the itinerant inspectors who will not be visiting again for another year. I would say that the right place for our native wildflowers is wherever they can survive in our otherwise often too inert landscape but I suspect this is a minority viewpoint.

The Best Kapt Village Inspectors' ideal?

The Best Kept Village Inspectors’ ideal?