Back from the Brink

A message on behalf of the Gloucestershire Branch of Butterfly Conservation…

As many of you may know, the  ‘Limestone’s Living Legacies’ Back from the Brink (BftB) project is due for completion at the end of August, after four and a half years.  In order to celebrate many of the things undertaken during this time the BftB team are inviting you to join them for an Online Celebration Event on Monday 26th July 10am-1pm.

This event is being held via Zoom and will bring together the Back from the Brink partners for a morning celebrating the project’s achievements over the past four years. It will also be an opportunity for the team to say thank you to everyone who has supported them since the project started in 2017.

Please click here to see the events flyer for further details and please feel free to forward this on to anyone else who might be interested. To book your place please reply by email to Jen Gilbert, BftB Cotswolds Community Engagement Officer [email protected] or use mobile 07483 039321.

We hope to see you there.

County Bird Recorder – can you help?

We are looking for a volunteer to help our county bird recorder, Richard Baatsen. Currently Richard (who is a volunteer) receives, collates and verifies over 100,000 bird records each year, so it’s not surprising he is looking for a bit of help! Many of the records arrive via email.

We are looking for someone who can manage the incoming emails within a shared email box and turn them into proper records (a line on a spreadsheet) to be fed into the database. You do not need to be an expert on birds. The person we are looking for should be organised and be able to help mould how emails are responded to and dealt with.

A little spreadsheet knowledge is required but help with this will be available. Grid references are used so that sightings can be mapped; these are easily looked up using a website so nothing to fear there. But you will have to find the location on the map. That is the tricky bit – and of course you may need to correspond with the person who sent in the record.

The role could expand into other areas if that is what you would like, and could include writing up work instructions and following up on rare and scarce sightings to get them fully documented and help writing a monthly round-up/summary.


You would need to commit to 3-4 hours a week, (or more if that’s what you would like)

Manage Email inbox on a shared email account (polite and encouraging responses)

Enter bird records on an Excel spreadsheet template (help given)

A little bird knowledge would be helpful

Be able to look up map grid references on a website (very simple).

If you think you might be interested, please contact Richard for a chat about the “job”… his email is [email protected]

Floodplain Meadow Water-dropworts

(Some of these notes first appeared in the members only Gloucestershire Naturalists’ Society Facebook Group, GNS Playground, on 5 July 2019).

There are three water-dropworts (Oenanthe species) commonly found in the floodplain meadows of the Severn and Avon in Gloucestershire. They are difficult to tell apart, especially when the basal leaves have disappeared, which often will have happened by mid-June.

They have slightly different habitats and time of flowering, but this can’t be relied on. At the wettest end, in places where water lies all winter or the edge of a pond, is Tubular Water-dropwort (Oenanthe fistulosa). This tends to be the latest to come into flower, often in early July. Its characters include a very reduced number of partial umbels – sometimes just two or three, the stem is constricted at the nodes, and the upper stem leaves are very reduced – a bit like a stick drawing of a leaf. Narrow-leaved Water-dropwort (Oenanthe silaifolia) is the plant of the wet meadows and is the earliest to come into flower, often in mid-May. In the driest fields on the floodplain and unimproved fields and road verges off the floodplain, is Corky-fruited Water-dropwort (Oenanthe pimpinelloides) which flowers from about mid June.

It is easy enough to decide which of the the latter two you have if you are comparing them side-by-side, but when you only have one plant in front of you you can begin to doubt yourself. These notes may be helpful.

A consistent character is the stem at the base of the flowering shoot. If it squashes easily between the thumb and forefinger it is O silaifolia. The stem here is fairly silky to the feel and only gently ridged. If it gives very little when squashed between the thumb and forefinger and feels hard and ridgy, it is O pimpinelloides.
At the other end of the plant, looking at the biggest head of flowers, if you can imagine getting your fingers between them then it is silaifolia. If in the biggest head of flowers the partial umbels are touching or almost touching then it is probably pimp. This character is even better developed as the fruits ripen.
A clincher difference between these two – in silaifolia the fruits of the partial umbel splay out into a gentle dome. In pimp they stay pretty much upright, so that looking from the side you can see a row of individual fruits in profile.

Juliet Bailey
21 June 2021

Our Wild Bees

Our wild bees and other pollinators are so important, but they are still the unsung heroes of the environment, gardens and countryside  and continue to decline in number and range.

On 7th July, GNS will be hosting Roselle Chapman – ‘Our Wild Bees – An illustrated talk on the wild bees of the UK’. As usual this event is free to members and £2 to non-members. Head over to the events page for further information and tickets.

Meadow Foxtail and Sweet Vernal Grass in May

The earliest grass to flower in quantity in the Gloucestershire meadows is Meadow Foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis) sometimes joined by Sweet Vernal Grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum).

Meadow Foxtail is the first thing to poke up its head above the general level of the sward, and the dense waving flowering heads in May, can give the meadows a dark shimmering haze at about knee height.

In the meadow photo, Meadow Foxtail is the one waving its heads in the clouds, with Sweet Vernal the main grass flowering in the lower storey. The buttercup is Bulbous Buttercup, also an early flowerer.

Up close, the reason for the name Foxtail is obvious, and the flowerhead can be seen to be packed quite densely and neatly usually into a parallel-sided cylinder. Sweet Vernal can have the same overall shape but is looser and tattier. Sweet Vernal is a much shorter grass – usually only up to mid-calf height.

Get really close, with good eyesight or the help of a hand lens, and the individual components making up the flowering head look very different. From the photos with the pulled-apart heads, it can be seen that the spikelets of Sweet Vernal are lopsided, and they are on short stalks up to about 1mm long joining to the main stem. The spikelets of Meadow Foxtail are flattened but elegant and almost symmetrical, joining the main stem with virtually no stalk.

Fun Facts:

  • When in doubt, chew it!
    Pull a grass stem so that the lower part of the stem comes out clean from its sheath. Chew it. Wait a few seconds and see what taste sensation you get. Meadow Foxtail is pleasant enough, but nothing special. Sweet Vernal has a rich sweet perfume – the scent of “new mown hay” due to the chemical coumarin. Hence the name – Sweet because it is sweet, and Vernal which means spring-time.
  • In the past, both grasses have been sown by farmers, Meadow Foxtail has early growth, good yield and stock find it highly palatable. However, it takes several years to establish well so isn’t suitable for modern requirements in a temporary grass field. Sweet Vernal was widely sown because of its fragrance but is no longer considered an agricultural grass as it does not produce much matter and is rather stemmy. Apparently, stock don’t like it much.

Juliet Bailey
May 2021

Meadow Sweet and Great Burnet

Find a meadow with a lot of Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) and Great Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis) and you have hit botanical gold. These are the key species that shout “floodplain grassland of good quality” in Gloucestershire. Sure, you’d hope to find other indicator species as well, but these get you off to a flying start.

They are easy enough to identify in summer when they are tall plants in full bloom but surveyors should become familiar with what they look like earlier in the year, in April and May, when they are just ankle-height leaves.

The photo with the 10cm ruler shows one leaf of Meadowsweet on the left and one leaf of Great Burnet on the right. They are compound leaves, so the separate green portions are all just leaflets of a single leaf.

These two species often grow together, and in spring you might need to look carefully to decide which you have.

The Meadowsweet leaf is coarser with pleated leaflets and the parallel side-veins on the leaflets showing clearly.

The Great Burnet leaflets may be folded in half, but won’t show the concertina folding. The leaflets are often heart-shaped and attach to the main leaf stem via a bare stalk. The veins are not nearly so obvious.

Both can have quite a lot of red pigmentation on the leaf stem and leaflets when young. Great Burnet leaflets in particular can look almost silver when they catch the light.

Fun fact:
Meadowsweet was one of the mediaeval strewing herbs that were scattered on the
floor of the halls. This wasn’t particularly the flowers, which are foamy and white
and have a honey smell, but the leaves and stems which have a pleasant but strong
odour of ripe cucumber with maybe a nip of antiseptic. Great Burnet leaves also
smell of cucumber, but to me it is a less complex scent, perhaps like under-ripe
cucumber skin.

Juliet Bailey

‘Woodland Wild Flowers’ book offer

GNS member, Alan Waterman, has a new book titled ‘Woodland Wild Flowers’ being published on May 6th, and is making copies available at a discounted price for GNS members. If interested, please contact Alan directly as per the above.

The Cuckoo Flower

Cardamine pratensis, Cuckoo Flower also known as Lady’s Smock.

This is a flower that blooms in early Spring in damp rich soil, especially on road verges and in damp fields. It is abundant in the meadows of the Severn and Avon floodplain.

It comes up every year (ie it is a perennial) from a short underground stem (a rhizome).

It is a crucifer, meaning it is a member of the cabbage family and it has four petals in the shape of a cross. They come in various shades of lilac, pink or white.

Cuckoo Flower is easy to see in April but by mid May when the flowers will have faded and the surrounding vegetation will be taller it can be hard to find. The trick at any time other than early spring is to recognise the leaves at the base of the plant which have paired leaflets and a round end lobe, very different from the skinny leaflets on the stem of the flowering plant.

  • Fun facts:
  • The Gloucestershire local name is Cuckoo Flower because it comes with the Cuckoo.
  • It is one of the food plants of the Orange Tip Butterfly that lays its eggs on the flower buds and the caterpillars feed on the developing seed pods.
  • Shakespeare refers to it in the song from Love’s Labours Lost

When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he:
“Cuckoo; Cuckoo, cuckoo!” O, word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

Love’s Labours Lost, William Shakespeare

April Curlew news

An update on the ongoing Curlew Meadows project, from Mike Smart.

A good deal has happened in the Curlew population of the Severn and Avon Vales in the last couple of weeks, so I thought it was time for an update.

Firstly, a disappointment: we have not succeeded in re-sighting the ringed bird, possibly one of those raised from eggs at Slimbridge in 2019, so cannot say whether this really is a bird returning to the Vales to breed; it may still be found, so we are keeping a careful watch.

The Coombe Hill public enquiry continues (its final session will be on World Curlew Day, 21 April), and the Inspector’s report and decision is not expected for some weeks afterwards.

The weather has remained very dry, though those watching Curlew at first light have noted the very sharp early morning frosts; this may have delayed nesting a little. The communal night roosts noted in March have declined in importance, most of them now holding birds only in single figures, as the birds begin to spend the night close to their nest sites. Pairs of birds have been seen walking together (the grass has not yet grown too high, though it will do so very soon). They often indulge in courtship chasing, where the male chases the female at some speed, its wings raised and quivering; this is sometimes, but not by any means always, followed by mating. Some have already begun laying: a first nest was found on 13 April, a nest with a single egg, giving a good indication of the date of first laying.

We expect the nest formation and egg-laying to speed up considerably in the next few days. We shall be aiming to find as many nests as possible, both by traditional fieldcraft (watching them back to their nests from a distance with a telescope) and by using heat-seeking drones to identify nest sites.

The biggest development has been in catching Curlews, for colour ringing. To understand their behaviour and actions, we need to be able to distinguish one individual from another, which means marking them with colour rings that can be read in the field. Our previous attempts to catch them with mist nets at roosts were unsuccessful, so we have been trying a different technique, with the help of Tony Cross from the Mid-Wales Ringing Group and the Curlew Country project. Tony uses a “whoosh net”, which is a placed flat net on the ground, propelled by strong elastic; the birds are attracted in by a stuffed decoy Curlew and by recordings of the bird’s song. It is extraordinary to see how rapidly the birds react to an apparent intruder in their territory – the males especially, but we have also caught several females. You set up the net, retreat to the car, pull the string, and almost every time, catch a bird.

The net set, ready to catch, with the decoy in the catching area.

So far, we have caught five adults in Gloucestershire, while Tony has caught another three in Herefordshire. The Gloucestershire birds are marked with a yellow inscribed ‘flag’, each one different from the other, and easier to read than the rather small rings used on the 2019 Slimbridge birds. We hope to catch more in the coming days, marking some with flags, but also marking some with satellite tags, so that we get even more information on their movements.

Finding Curlews and their nests remains very difficult. At some traditional sites we have not yet had many signs of the presence of Curlews; have they failed to appear this year, or are we just failing to pick them up? They can be very secretive, and we could be overlooking them.

A male Curlew, caught with a whoosh net.

The male is distinguished by his smaller size and shorter bill, more sharply curved than the bill of the female.

As always, our observations depend on the efforts of a large number of observers, and on the kindness of farmers and land-owners who allow us to  visit their land. Many thanks to both.

Best wishes

Mike Smart

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