Ecology, Wales

On the Verge…

What’s this? A fritillary? No — look at those eye spots, it’s a wall butterfly (Lasiommata megera).

They live in short grassland especially where the sward is broken by rocks, furrows and walls (they like Wales), they are seen on grassy railway embankments and green verges, usually alone. Perhaps you’ll see a male flitting along looking for a female or resting with its wings folded together, showing the mottled grey underside, camouflaged on a rocky outcrop. This one was enjoying the May sunshine with its wings outstretched on the edge of a country lane that has a wide verge (the long acre) waiting to flutter up to waylay a passing female.

Their numbers are dwindling and they represent a high conservation priority as, although widespread in coastal England and Wales, they are rapidly declining. Rare now in central England it was presumed due to loss of habitat because of building and changes in farming, less grazing and the use of insecticides to protect arable crops. But there may be another reason: there is evidence that warmer temperatures are causing generations to hatch out too late in the year to survive.

About three years ago everyone here was complaining bitterly about the council not cutting the verges regularly anymore. This year the verges are blue with a resplendent crop of wild hyacinths, self sown or grown from dormant bluebell bulbs which lay waiting for a reprieve from incessant mowing. It’s an austerity bonus! Good for bees!

As our lonely wall butterfly flits off to find a mate it reminds us of the enormous value of our 937 square miles of verges in the UK — twice the size of Exmoor and the New Forest put together — let’s mow them all just once a year and stop spraying and, while we’re at it, please can we turn off all the street lamps!

A483 verge near Garthmyl


Taking the lid of a habitat


oldbilluk (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Thanks to oldbilluk for this fantastic Barn Owl (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Our recent wild-fire damaged the Barn Owl habitat — here is how it should look — tussocks of grass growing through a thatch of the previous years’ hay.



After a dry week this loose weave of hay had dried out surprisingly and fire spread rapidly.


Aftermath of the grass-fire

From the other side of our valley you can see (in the bottom/left) where the flying ember ignited the hay on the opposite side of the track — then it spread in minutes across the fifty yards or so of rough grassland, up the hill (to the top/right of the picture).

Where the weave is trodden in the animal runs, trampled by badgers, foxes, rabbits, squirrels, hares, domestic cats and dogs and the occasional stray sheep, the drying and, in consequence the burning is less. Now you can clearly see evidence of the frenetic activity (mainly nocturnal) that shapes this landscape.

But look more carefully.

The fire has taken the lid off the vole habitat

The fire has exposed the labyrinth of  passageways, burrows, tunnels and store rooms beneath and within the sward — vole sized ones and tiny shrew sizes scamper-ways, occasionally enlarged by pursuing weasels or torn open by buzzards.

I have found caches of lightly roasted hazel nuts, larger ones presumably hidden by squirrels but fortunately no bodies — it seems the fire moved quickly and superficially and, I guess (well, I hope), the residents fled to their basements!


This little chap (vole deceased!) was not so lucky — photographed by Tom Brandt (CC BY 2.0)