EDGMOND WILDLIFE GROUP - PLANT OF THE MONTH
FEBRUARY 2021- GRASS
by Paula Doherty
Come February I’m often thinking about getting out to cut the grass for the first cut of the year. But, in recognition of the fact that long grass, which is a rare habitat these days, supports hundreds of creatures I leave several areas uncut all year. I have a large garden and can leave quite large areas long and enjoy the billowing grass, the wildflowers and the many insects taking advantage of the food and shelter. But a small garden can still provide a small oasis of shelter for wildlife.
Not cutting grass as short, or as frequently, allows grasses and other plants such as buttercups, daisies and plantain to flower and seed and provide food for insects and birds. Those of annual meadow grass, plantain and buttercup are particular favourites.
I have also planted wildflowers in my uncut areas: knapweed, wild scabious, oxeye daisy and lady’s bedstraw all provide a pretty backdrop to a thriving world of invertebrates. These, in turn, provide food for birds and mammals. Leaving some areas uncut throughout the year allows invertebrates to shelter and breed. Species of moth and butterfly, as well as craneflies and sawflies, find this invaluable. These then provide a source of protein-rich food for mammals and birds and are particularly important for the survival of young chicks in the spring.
The meadow brown butterfly is one of Britain’s commonest and most widespread butterflies and it roosts and lays its eggs in tall grass clumps. Long uncut grass also provides a great habitat for moth caterpillars which are blue tits' favourite food. So voracious is the appetite of a large brood of blue tits that the family is capable of eating more than 10,000 caterpillars before they finally leave the nest!
Spiders can spin webs from the tall grass to catch flies and there can be hundreds on webs that show up in the early morning dew in autumn. Hunting spiders will creep through the grass and catch unwary insects while also falling prey themselves to hedgehogs and blackbirds. In just two years I now have an established colony of meadow ants in one of my patches which will help to provide food for Green woodpeckers in the future.
Over time, cutting the grass once a year and removing the cuttings will reduce the fertility of the soil and enable other flower species to establish. Some grassland areas may contain orchids and other scarce plants that have been suppressed by the regular cutting. This was observed in the graveyard on the north side of St Peter’s church a few years ago when an orchid popped up in the long uncut grass.
Although they breed in ponds, amphibians spend much of their time on land. Their terrestrial habitat requirements are simple – they need cover to provide damp resting places and to support the invertebrate prey on which they feed. Areas of long grass will provide a refuge for amphibians such as frogs and newts and provide them with invertebrates on which they feed.
Wildlife gardening is about creating places for animals and plants to thrive. You can practice this on a large or small scale to make any garden a potential haven for wildlife. Close-mown lawns and carefully weeded borders offer few opportunities for wildlife, but if you are willing to make some simple changes to even a small area, you can improve your garden’s benefit to wildlife enormously.