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

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

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

Project overview

The Background

The GNS “Curlew Meadows” project is a development of the long-standing concern to conserve the
fauna and flora of the Severn and Avon floodplain hay meadows, which extend from Gloucestershire
into Worcestershire.

Around 2000, Natural England and the Environment Agency set up the ‘Severn and Avon Wetland
Management Partnership’ which identified some floodplain meadows suitable for restoration and
helped farmers to recreate wetlands on their land.

In 2002 the British Trust for Ornithology organised the second survey of “Breeding Waders of Wet
Meadows” (a year late because of Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001); the first survey had been held
in 1981, and the third is this year, 2021. The 2002 survey documented the continuing decline of
breeding waders (traditionally Lapwing, Snipe, Curlew and Redshank) in the Vales. After 2002, GNS
members and other local ornithologists attempted to keep a record of breeding waders each year,
with the results being published in the Gloucestershire Bird Report. The story is a gloomy one: the
last drumming Snipe in Gloucestershire was recorded in 2003, Lapwing nests have continued to
decline both on arable fields and on pastureland, while breeding Redshank are now confined to a
very few sites. Curlew which generally nest in slightly higher, drier hay meadows have fared slightly

Particular attention has been paid in the last few years to these Curlews, and also to the botany of
the hay meadows in which they nest. From 2015 onwards, more intensive surveys of nesting Curlews
have been made in the Severn and Avon Vales, and indeed in other areas of lowland England where
small groups of nesting Curlews still survive: the Wye Valley in Herefordshire, along the Upper
Thames, Somerset Levels, North Wiltshire and Salisbury Plain, New Forest, Brecklands. It is
estimated that there are no more than 300 pairs of Curlews remaining south of Birmingham (in
addition of course to the much large numbers nesting in upland Britain). A 2015 article in the journal
‘British Birds’ suggested that the decline of Curlews, caused largely by the poor production of chicks,

made them the most important bird conservation issue in the UK. Mary Colwell’s book “Curlew
Moon” gives the background to this decline. A workshop was held at Slimbridge on World Wetlands
Day (2 February 2017) and this led to the creation of the ‘Curlew Forum’ which promotes
conservation of lowland Curlews across southern Britain and has a website at www.curlewcall.org.

GNS and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust

GNS decided to support a project to conserve Curlews in its area, the first time that the Society has
used its financial resources in a major targeted plan. The first Curlew surveys aimed to monitor
Curlew nests from a distance, without disturbing them or opening the way for nest predators like
foxes, badgers or crows. But the Curlew Meadows project aims to be more interventionist and to
take positive measures to improve chick production, such as erecting electric fences round nests,
taking eggs and raising them in incubators so that the chicks might be released, erecting signs calling
on dog-walkers to keep their animals under control. At the same time, more intensive studies of the
botany of the hay meadows were undertaken.

In the last couple of years (despite the intervention of COVIDcovid), these plans have progressed.
The studies of Curlews have developed in collaboration with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust
(which in 2019 released 50 young Curlews from eggs taken at airfields where the eggs would
otherwise have been destroyed to prevent bird strikes); intensive searches for nesting Curlews in the
Vales are proceeding in 2021.

GNS and Floodplain Meadows Partnership

The botanical surveys have made spectacular progress, in coordination with the Floodplain
Meadows Partnership, and the extent and quality of the hay meadows along the Severn have now
been recognised, with the prospect of new Sites of Scientific Interest being created to conserve

Future measures

It is clear that these meadows, their fauna and flora (not forgetting the invertebrate life, as yet little
studied, though the Gloucestershire Invertebrate Group is becoming involved) depend on the
maintenance of traditional floodplain farming practices (wet in winter, late hay cut in summer,
aftermath grazing), so all. All these conservation efforts rely heavily on the support and interest of
the farming community in the Vales, which is gratefully acknowledged. Further survey is required,
plus greater interaction with the local communities and land managers. This will inform the practical
measures to conserve the flora and fauna including advice on when and how to manage the
meadows to help the wildlife.

Get Involved

Naturalists, land managers, individuals and organisations are welcome to become involved –
whether as surveyors, promoters, funders or land managers. Contact Juliet Bailey or Mike Smart of
the Gloucestershire Naturalists’ Society – Juliet on jabailey99+cm@gmail.com and Mike Smart.

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