Butterfly Cafe with a View

From Nigel Spring –

This is part 2 of a four-part article.  Since 2012 a team of volunteers and contractors working through EuCAN Community Interest Company and Butterfly Conservation has been working on the chalk downland sites between Lyons Gate and Godmanstone to remove the invading bushes and trees that are threatening to destroy the last vestiges of this incredibly biodiverse habitat in this area of Dorset. The plumes of smoke from the hillsides on Thursdays between September and March cannot have gone unnoticed.

Chalk downland is possibly the richest habitat in Dorset – one quick glance at the grassy sward on the slopes round the Cerne Giant will reveal perhaps a dozen obvious species of plants; if you look closely and count the species in a square metre you should be able to distinguish well over twenty, even thirty if you can identify the different grasses. They won’t all flower at once – the Cowslips, Early purple orchids and several violets tend to be first to bloom, while the vetches, Fragrant and Bee orchids and yellow dandelion-like flowers come out later and the Devilsbit scabious, Harebell, Clustered bellflower and Autumn hawkbit blooms signal the end of the summer.

Bee Orchids

Bee Orchids (Ken Dolbear)

Many of these plants are the caterpillar foodplants of the specialist butterfly and moth species that are so characteristic of this habitat. Blues like the Chalkhill and Adonis Blues need Horseshoe Vetch for their larvae; Birdsfoot Trefoil (sometimes called Eggs and Bacon) is the foodplant of the Common Blue, Dingy Skipper and the Burnet moths (those dayflying beetle look-alikes that buzz about the slopes in June and July)

.Adonis Blue butterfly                             Chalkhill blue

Adonis Blue (male)                                                       Chalkhill Blue (male)

Small Blues favour Kidney vetch and the Duke of Burgundy Cowslip or Primrose leaves. One of the scarcest butterflies to be seen on the slopes of Giant Hill in May and June is the Marsh Fritillary whose caterpillars need Devilsbit scabious: the female lays her eggs in batches of 50-200 and the larvae live in crowded clusters on the leaves of the plants. In recent years this species has done very well on some of its local sites.

Marsh Fritillary

Marsh Fritillary

As well as being important for butterflies and moths, the chalk downland on Giant Hill also supports good populations of Glow-worms, specialist bee and wasp species (not the stinging sorts!) – including the beautiful little bee, Osmia bicolor, which lays its eggs in the empty shells of downland snails (featured in 2014 in a wonderful short film on the One Show), not to mention the many species of ants (one of which, the Yellow Meadow Ant, lives in colonies in the grassy mounds that are a feature of our ‘warty’ downland slopes).

Osmia bicolor

Osmia bicolor

Further information can be found on the EuCAN website http://www.eucan.org.uk/uk/dorset/cerne-valley-project/

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How can Humans Eat Grass?

Every summer I mark GCSE Biology examinations, and every year I end up really depressed when I mark the agriculture or food question.  In a nutshell, the average British 16 year old – if what they write in this national examination is to be believed – has learnt that livestock farming has nothing good to offer society.  According to the 1500 or so exams I have read in the last three years, the majority of British 16 year olds believe that

  • farmers rear animals indoors because they enjoy (or at best don’t care) making animals unhappy,
  • everyone, human and livestock, would be better off if we were all vegetarian because then food would not be wasted on animals:  humans could eat animal food and that would be much more efficient,
  • possibly best of all would be if we grew all our protein in large silos in the form of fungus (this is what makes Quorn) because it protects farmland and has a much higher protein content than meat.

As is so often the case, there are grains of truth in all these which have been grotesquely distorted.  Some may be put down to adolescent inattention or intellectual incapacity, but strikingly similar arguments crop up in batches and frequently, which implies that the teacher has at best a poor understanding of the topic and at worst an ‘agenda’.

Aberdeen Angus in the water meadow, Lleyn sheep on the hill

Aberdeen Angus in the water meadow, Lleyn sheep on the hill

This photograph would not be possible in a society where no one ate meat.  I have read exam scripts in which it appears young people are being encouraged to think that if no one ate meat then farm animals would be left to live to a ripe old age in bucolic bliss.  They are also being given the impression that all livestock are fed entirely on grains which could also feed humans.  This may be true of the great stockyards of the United States, but in this country a significant part of the nutrient intake of cows and sheep is grass.

Feeding livestock with grass is a way of using land which could not be used for anything else.  The water meadow could flood.  The hill in the background is rather steep.  So both would probably be unsuitable for arable crops.  And even arable fields periodically need a rest:  a grass ley provides this as part of a crop rotation.

There is a ‘grain’ of truth in the argument that feeding grain to livestock is not the most energy-efficient (in terms of calorific content) way of growing food.  Dairy cattle in particular need extra inputs to enable them to make the many litres of milk that they produce each day.  Maybe the best compromise would be to keep using these excellent converters of grass into human food, but moderate our meat and dairy product intake whilst doing a better job of consuming the ‘5 a day’ of fruit and veg!