Saturday, 29 April 2017

Counting snakes

Well, not quite. Last Sunday I embarked on a great trip north to Clattinger Farm on the Wiltshire/Gloucestershire border for the annual Snake's head fritillary count. I'd never done it before, but always wanted to.

I should explain. They are beautiful flowers found on tradition hay meadows - so-called because the drooping shape of the flower resembles a snake's head, and the chequer-board pattern on the petals is reminiscent of a dice-box (Fritillus being the Latin for this). Although I'd always though of them as native, apparently they have Asian origins and were actually introduced in the 1600s. Nevertheless, their scarce distribution and association with a very rare habitat has made them highly-valued as a native species.

Clattinger Farm is a Wiltshire Wildlife Trust reserve, a SSSI and SAC (nationally and internationally important and protected), and managed as a traditional floodplain hay meadow. Apparently, the history of management here is so clear we can be confident it has never had chemical pesticides or fertilisers. This has preserved a diverse flora - when we visited to count the frits, also present were loads of cowslips and a sprinkling of beautiful green-winged orchids.

Because we've had such a dry winter and spring, the frit flowers had gone over quite a lot by the time it came to count them. They have been counting them here - as part of a Floodplain Meadows Partnership study - since 2012, complementing the existing datasets from nearby North Meadow (an NNR managed by Natural England). Hence, counting them the same time every year is important, and then helps track whether flowering time is earlier, or height of plants is affected by dry weather, for example. Following the floods in 2012, the spring frit display was atrocious - I think they only found one plant. However, one thing they have found is that they can go through a period of dormancy and come back the following year in bumper numbers. This gives hope in times of uncertain weather conditions from climate change.

The quadrats we were given to check for presence of frits yielded very few - I need to come back next year to see whether I am lucky enough to survey during a bumper year. Nevertheless, it was a lovely day calmly counting amongst the tranquility and nodding heads of cowslips and vibrant purple spikes of the orchids.

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