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Grasslands like meadows and parks are not just home to wildflowers, they are also an important habitat for a colourful type of fungi which prefer farmland to forests – waxcaps.
Every autumn one of the UK’s most colourful natural displays takes place: jewel-coloured waxcaps emerge through the grass across our countryside, cities and even some of our gardens. Let’s find them!
Waxcaps are types of mushrooms known for their shiny-looking caps. Together with other types of fascinatingly named fungi called pinkgills, earthtongues, club and coral fungi – they form a group called “grassland fungi”.
Waxcaps and grassland fungi come in a rainbow of different colours including vibrant violets, yellows, greens and pinks.
They also come in weird and wonderful shapes, which can help you to identify the species you’re looking at.
Chris Jones is the Warden at the Kenfig National Nature Reserve, one of our Dynamic Dunescapes sites, and has worked as a practical conservationist for over 25 years.
Kenfig is one of the largest sand dune systems in Wales and provides a unique habitat for a variety of rare and specialised species, including over 20 species of Waxcap fungi.
‘Waxcap fungi are commonly found in grasslands and meadows, and they are known for their ecological importance. They are often found in areas with short, grazed vegetation, but they can also occur in disturbed habitats, such as lawns and roadside verges.
Waxcaps are mostly found in the late summer and autumn, typically from September to November, depending on the local weather – but you can find them all year round.
The meadows where waxcaps are found are known as ‘waxcap grasslands’. These grasslands need specific conditions for waxcaps to thrive and are becoming rare.
On waxcap grasslands, waxcap fungi form partnerships with plants, where they exchange nutrients with the roots of host plants, benefiting both the fungi and the plants. This only happens in habitats with a high level of biodiversity, which the aims to identify.
Waxcap fungi are fascinating not only for their vibrant colours but also for their significance as indicators of healthy grasslands. Their conservation is important for maintaining biodiversity and preserving these unique and beautiful fungi for future generations to enjoy.
Many waxcap species are considered rare or threatened, primarily due to habitat loss and changes in land management practices such as tree planting and intensive agriculture. If you find any, please record them on the Waxcap Watch app.
I LOVE Waxcaps, they are AMAZING! It is ridiculously hard to pick a favourite, but if I had to choose it would be… all of them.’
This autumn, help Plantlife find Britain’s most colourful and important fungi – waxcaps.
This summer Plantlife Cymru have worked closely with Carolyn Thomas MS, our Species Champion for Butterfly Orchids, to raise awareness of the importance of grasslands far and wide across Wales.
Species Champions are Members of the Welsh Senedd, chosen to represent threatened species found in their constituency and champion them both within the Senedd and across Wales. Carolyn Thomas MS is deeply passionate about supporting our wildlife, from nature friendly green space management to improving protections for our precious biodiversity.
This year, Carolyn was able to join us and North Wales Wildlife Trust for the big Butterfly Orchid count in our North Wales nature reserve Caeau-Tan-y-Bwlch, in June. Participating in the count meant she was able to contribute first-hand to the monitoring and understanding of a rare and beautiful species.
We counted the highest number of Greater Butterfly Orchids ever recorded at the reserve in over 40 years – some 9,456 flowering spikes of this rare plant were found within the diverse upland hay meadow near Caernarfon. Carolyn reflected on this important day in her Senedd statement on 28 June:
“Last Saturday, as the Butterfly Orchid species champion, I took part in a Butterfly Orchid count at a wildflower meadow, owned by Plantlife Cymru and managed by the North Wales Wildlife Trust. The meadow was rich in diverse species, which has created habitat in return for many animals and insects, such as butterflies, ladybirds, damselflies, crickets, spiders and tiny frogs. The place was alive and very beautiful.“
Another visit to a beautiful meadow just outside Mold in north Wales on National Meadows Day gave us the perfect opportunity to discuss some of the threats that our species-rich grasslands face. Our Species Champion was able to see first-hand how a lack of management was allowing scrub to encroach onto the valuable grassland habitat, but also to hear how the efforts of volunteers were protecting the grassland that remained.
Staff and volunteers from Plantlife Cymru and North Wales Wildlife Trust also talked about how incredibly precious fragments of species-rich grassland can too easily slip through the nets of protection and face damage from neglect, but also from development, agricultural use and inappropriate tree planting.
There was also plenty of time just to appreciate the joy of being in such a beautiful place! We were able to admire both Greater and Lesser Butterfly Orchids, as well as Common Spotted Orchids, carpets of Betony and Lady’s Bedstraw, and we were even treated to the sight of a Slow-worm. Some early Field Scabious was just coming into flower, and sheltered sunny meadow areas were alive with butterflies and moths.
In her statement to the plenary ahead of the visit which you can watch here, Carolyn emphasised to the Senedd the vital nature of thriving green spaces and advocated for the protection and restoration of our species-rich grasslands.
Thank you, Carolyn for supporting us in our mission to support grasslands and the wealth of species that rely on them!
Discover how you can identify the mosses where you live, and read about Lizzie's challenge to learn 10 mosses!
Grasslands like meadows and parks are not just home to wildflowers, they are also an important habitat for waxcap fungi.
Ever wondered why we need to go out and count rare plants? Meg Griffiths reflects on a summer of lichen hunting for the Natur am Byth! Project.
Our Welsh reserves are home to a huge variety of wildflowers, but both are nationally renowned for their Butterfly Orchid populations.
Meg Griffiths shares how and why we count the 2 types of Butterfly Orchid species at our nature reserves in Wales, and how it will protect these rare plants for the future.
We are well and truly into summer, and we’ve already witnessed a spectacular succession of wild plants flowering over the last few months. Now that we’ve waved goodbye to the anemones and hawthorn is beginning to fade, we’re welcoming the orchids.
Butterfly orchids are delicate, elegant plants, with a single floral spike bearing many pale, creamy green flowers. Each flower resembles a tiny moth (or butterfly) in flight, with its wings outstretched. They are sweetly scented and can be found growing in a diverse range of habitats, from moors and bogs to woodlands, but most commonly they are found in undisturbed grasslands and meadows.
There are two species, Greater Butterfly Orchid Platanthera chlorantha and Lesser Butterfly Orchid Platanthera bifolia. The differences between them takes an expert eye to spot, and are to do with the angle between the pollen bearing organs of the plant (the pollinia).
Both species are pollinated by moths. At night, the first signal a moth will pick up on is the fragrance of the orchid – once closer the pale flowers will stand out against the darkness.
Unfortunately, both species are experiencing dramatic declines nationally. Greater butterfly orchid is faring the better of the two but is still classed as Near Threatened in the UK. Lesser butterfly orchid has been assessed as Vulnerable on the UK Vascular Plant Red List and has disappeared from over half of its previous range in the last 50 years.
Declines across both species are because of changes in agricultural grassland management – these species need consistent management over a long time to thrive. Damaging land use change could include too much (or too little) grazing, drainage of fields, and even addition of chemical fertilisers. Orchids rely on a soil fungus to survive, and agricultural chemicals can kill off this unseen life support network.
Thankfully, as their habitats are safe and protected within our reserves, these species are still thriving. To be sure of this, every year we participate in the butterfly orchid count to monitor how our populations of these beautiful plants are faring.
This year’s butterfly orchid numbers for Plantlife’s reserve in North Wales, Caeau-Tan-y-Bwlch. This reserve is managed by the North Wales Wildlife Trust who we are so grateful to for all their hard and effective work.
This year’s butterfly orchid numbers for Plantlife’s reserve near Lampeter, Cae-Blaen-Dyffryn.
Monitoring how they are faring is an important part of understanding our reserves and making good management choices. Both our Welsh nature reserves are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and both list the Butterfly Orchids as a notified feature- so there is a legal duty to ensure the populations remain in good condition
We want to be able to demonstrate that the way we are managing land is benefitting them, and counting the number of orchids each year, and gathering supporting habitat information, can help us adjust our site management when we need to. This enables us to give the orchids the best possible chance they have going forwards.
What do the peaks of the Eryri mountains and our garden lawns have in common?
Robbie Blackhall-Miles, Plantlife’s Vascular Plant expert, explains how grazing works to protect our most species-rich habitats.
In Britain, agriculture is a dominant force in the plant communities we have, and our farm livestock is key in replicating the impacts of the constant movement of the wild herds of grazing animals that once roamed our countryside. Many, if not all, of our plant communities rely on some form of grazing or vegetation removal to ensure that they survive.
An understanding of conservation grazing, hay cutting and scrub management can help our most species rich habitats thrive.
Overgrazing is one of the key issues for Arctic Alpine species for example, but of course it is not necessarily the only problem. For some, like plants that live in Calcareous grassland, under grazing may as equally be an issue. Or maybe it’s the fact that the plant community isn’t being grazed by the right type of animal? Or is it that it isn’t being grazed at the right time of year? Or that when its grazed there isn’t enough of the animals that need to be grazing it? Or maybe too many? So many questions!
It’s a question I often ask myself, and one that came up when we developed the Tlysau Mynydd Eryri Eryri’s Mountain Jewels project that forms part of Natur am Byth!. With 10 very different plant species and 2 invertebrate species, we must think about multiple different ways to ensure these are all looked after.
For our tall herb species such as Alpine Saw Wort Saussurea alpina and the Eryri Hawkweed Hieracium snowdoniense we almost certainly need to consider grazing in the Autumn with cattle and maybe a short pulse of grazing in early May.
For the Thyme rich calcareous grassland, with its complement of rare eyebrights (like Welsh Eyebright Euphrasia cambrica), that is so important for the Eryri Rainbow beetle Chrysolina cerealis we probably need sheep right up until late April and then not again until a period in late August or September.
For Mountain Avens Dryas octopetala (pictured) we probably don’t want any grazers near it until the winter. If trees or brambles start to dominate a habitat, then we need a herd of goats but if we want some montane scrub of Juniper and Willow with tall herbs around the edges then the goats mustn’t get near.
By having a combination of all these grazing animals managed and moved into just the right places at just the right time of year we can certainly have a good ‘go’ at getting the conditions right for everything.
What is interesting about this question though is that it is also applicable to our lawns. #NoMowMay encourages us to leave our lawns un-mown for a whole month. We can extend it into ‘Let it bloom June’ but by then the daisies, dandelions and other short turf flowers of early May will have gone over and been outgrown by a multitude of other species.
How can we ensure we please all the species so we can please all our pollinators? Well, we can make a very good go at it by simulating some of those grazing animals with our strimmer and our lawnmower.
To create just the right tapestry of lawn heights in the garden we can use our mower to create paths through our meadow lawns, changing the flow of the paths (maybe missing out some of the special plants that may have colonised the uncut lawn) on a regular basis. This random cutting aims to simulate grazing animals moving through the landscape.
We can even simulate the different types of grazing animals by choosing different heights to cut the paths. If you want daisies again make like a sheep and cut it short, if you want Knapweed and Oxeye daisies to reflower later on in the season you can be a cow and cut some of them before they finish flowering, if you get brambles or nettles then browse them down to the floor like a goat.
By leaving some patches long, some patches medium height and some patches short you will make an interesting mosaic of different lawn habitats that suits as many different species as possible. At the end of the year, before the grass starts to go brown and drop its seeds, one of the most important things you can do for your lawn-meadow is to graze it down completely (just like a huge herd of bison on migration would do) and reset the process for next year’s #NoMowMay fun.
Whether its management of montane grassland and scrub for rare Arctic Alpines or a #NoMowMay lawn, conservation management is an important tool in ensuring we try to please all the species all the time as much as we possibly can. It isn’t a perfectly exact science, and it changes from year to year, and species to species, but the principles are there and for grasslands it’s really just all about the grazing (or mowing).
In the UK we have over 45 species of orchid – which might be more than you thought!
Learn more about this wild and wonderful family of plants with Plantlife wildflower expert Sarah Shuttleworth.
Orchids are part of the largest and most highly evolved family of flowering plants on earth. They are usually highly specialised to a specific habitat, with equally specialised relationships with pollinators, and fungi which live in the soil.
The majority of species reproduce via tiny seeds that are known as ‘dust seeds’ which need perfect conditions to germinate – with some species even relying on specific types of fungi in the soil for them to grow. This means that conditions in the soil and habitat need to be exactly right for an orchid species to thrive, hence why we don’t encounter them all the time.
One UK orchid has gained huge notoriety for its rarity, the Ghost Orchid Epipogium aphyllum. This species is currently regarded as extinct but with hopes for its re-discovery. Occurring in Beech woodlands in deep leaf litter where gets its energy from decaying matter, it’s appropriately named for its pinkish white ghostly appearance rising from dead leaves.
Although orchids are not the most common plant you will find, they do occur in a huge variety of habitats. Traditional hay meadows and pastures can host several species, the most common of these are
Many orchids also specialise in woodlands, for example Early Purple Orchid Orchis mascula, Helleborines Epipactus sp and Bird’s-nest Orchid Neottia nidus-avis (pictured), a fascinating yellow orchid without any chlorophyll that depends entirely on getting its food from decaying material in the leaf litter. There are also species that grow in fens and bogs, pine forests, heathlands and dunes.
The majority of the time due to the specific requirements for growth, orchids tend to be associated with long established habitats, that haven’t had lots of disturbance. Therefore, a nature reserve can often be a useful place to look.
The best time of year to look for orchids tends to be late spring and early summer. Quite a few UK orchids have spotted leaves, making them even more distinctive and easy to spot.
They are perennial plants, and in the UK are formed of a spike of flowers on a single stem. They all share a similar flower structure, despite the huge variety in their appearance. There are 3 sepals (outer protective petal-like parts) and 3 main petals, with one that usually forms a lower lip known as the labellum. This lip is often the largest and most distinctive ‘petal’ structure of the flower.
Often their intricate design and some species astonishing mimicry to tempt pollinators is one of the most intriguing features of these plants. With Bee and Fly Orchids imitating these insects to attract them to land on the flower, mistaking them for a potential mate, and thereby pollinating the flower.
The key features of orchids for identification other than habitat, are the leaves (shape and markings) and the lower lip of the flower (labellum). The easiest species to start with are Early Purple Orchid, Common Spotted Orchid, Bee Orchid and Common Twayblade. This is because they are relatively more common than other species and most can occur in grassland and woodland habitats.
Early Purple Orchids are out amongst the bluebells in older woodlands amongst the Bluebells or edges of woods around mid-May. They are a fuchsia pink/purple colour with minimal patterns on the lower petals, and have spotted leaves at the base.
Green-winged Orchids can be found in species-rich, old meadows, often popping up with lots of Cowslips in mid-May. They don’t have spotted leaves and have green streaks on the pink/purple wing like petals.
Early to mid June is then the best time to look for Common Spotted and Bee Orchids in the species-rich grasslands. They have spotted leaves that occur up the stems, and much paler flowers than the Early Purple, that are streaked and patterned with dark pink.
Bee Orchid is very distinctive with its mimicry of a bee flower and unmarked green leaves.
Common Twayblade has two large, rounded leaves that grow opposite each other, with the flower spike starting as a knobbly spike between the two leaves, growing taller to display small green flowers that appear to have two dangly legs.
It is always exciting to find any kind of orchid, and worthy of a photo! Just remember to be careful not to tread on any nearby orchids that are just coming up. Share the photos with friends, as you never known who doesn’t know that our wonderful UK orchid species even exist.
FSC Orchid Guide
The Orchid Hunter by Leif Bersweden
Britain’s Orchids A Field Guide to the Orchids of Great Britain and Ireland by Sean Cole, Michael Waller and Sarah Stribbling
Three Hagges Woodmeadow Site Manager Kara shares what volunteers do, from coppicing to nature surveys, and how you can get involved.
For getting up close to our tiniest wild plants and fungi, you'll need a hand lens. Learn how to use one and get top tips on buying your own.
As the days get longer, the weather kinder, life starts to unfold and blossom around us. This spring, have you thought about getting out to visit one of Plantlife’s wonderful Welsh nature reserves?
We are fortunate to have 23 around the UK, including two sites accessible from south and mid Wales for you to discover.
Written by Jonathan Stone
Lugg Meadow extends to around 132 hectares in the floodplain of the river Lugg, east of Hereford. It is a living survivor of an ancient land tenure and farming system. Recorded in the Domesday Book, this is ‘Lammas meadow’, opened for communal grazing on Lammas Day (1st August) after the hay crop has been taken. In medieval times ownership would have been divided between dozens of owners, and the land doled out in strips marked by ancient dole stones. Today, larger parcels belong to a handful of different owners.
Look out for chequered purple, pink or white Snake’s-head Fritillary Fritillaria meleagris in early spring, with its bell-like flowers nodding on thin stems. As spring progresses the impression is of a mass of yellow buttercups almost as far as the eye can see. The flora includes two distinctive members of the carrot family. Pepper-saxifrage Silaum silaus, with its yellowish flowers, is characteristic of old meadows, whilst Narrow-leaved Water-dropwort Oenanthe silaifolia, with white or pinkish flowers, is a nationally scarce species only found in lowland England. Another grassland species is Wild Onion or Crow Garlic Allium vineale, so called because its leaves smell of garlic when crushed.
A host of other meadow species include Oxeye Daisy Leucanthemum vulgare and the thistle-like purple heads of Common Knapweed Centaurea nigra. In damper areas, visitors might see the frothy flowerheads of Meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria and the tattered, pink flowers of Ragged-robin Silene flos-cuculi. By late June, the meadow has turned into a swaying hay field, but there is still colour among the hay. After harvest there is less interest for the botanical visitor, but Purple-loosestrife Lythrum salicaria and Flowering-rush might be spotted in wet ground by the river.
The great expanses of open grassland are an important breeding habitat for Curlew Numenius arquata and Skylark Alauda arvensis. Winter floods, which bring fresh supplies of nutrients to the meadow, create a seasonal lake attracting roosting gulls and visiting wildfowl.
There is plenty of space to park in the lane by the entrance off the A438, opposite the Cock of Tupsley pub. Grid ref: SO535403. Postcode: HR1 1UT.
N.B. access to the south of the A438 is restricted to public rights of way only from March to July, in order to protect ground nesting birds. Also, do be aware that, especially during winter months, both the upper and lower meadows may flood to a depth of over a metre for long periods of time.
Contact: Jonathan Stone, Nature Reserve Manager (South & West) email@example.com
Written by Lizzie Wilberforce
Cae Blaen-dyffryn is a small, species-rich grassland lying in the hills above Lampeter, in Carmarthenshire. The whole nature reserve is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because of the importance of its species-rich neutral grassland, and Lesser Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera bifolia) population.
The reserve is sloping and affords good views across the surrounding landscape. In the spring, the grassland is just starting to come into its own, and you will find species like Red Clover Trofolium pratense, Common Knapweed, and the abundant yellows of Cat’s-ear Hypochaeris radicata, and Bird’s-foot Trefoil Lotus corniculatus coming into bloom. You may also find the basal leaf rosettes of both species of Butterfly Orchid.
By June you will find Butterfly Orchids are in full flower with their delicate, white-flowered spikes, along with the pinker flowering heads of Heath Spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza maculata and Southern Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza praetermissa. In total we have recorded over 200 species of flowering plants in this one field, and you can find orchids in the thousands.
There are no public rights of way into the nature reserve and access is via stock gate from the A482 itself. Park safely in nearby lanes and access the site from the main road; please take care on the roadside. No dogs please. Grid Ref: SN605443, postcode SA48 8EZ
Contact: Lizzie Wilberforce, Plantlife Cymru Lead
Lugg Meadow after a hay cut
Cae Blaen-dyffryn Aug 21, image by Lizzie Wilberforce
Only 3.2% of England’s land and sea is protected. This is why nature reserves are so important.
They are protected havens for wild plants and wildlife. Will you help keep them flourishing?
Discover 4 new walk ideas and Scottish spring adventure inspiration from Plantlife Scotland’s Communications and Policy Officer, Erin Shott.
Look, the seasons, they are a-changing and I don’t know about you, but I am so looking forward to that sweet, sweet spring time weather. After the cold winter days and long winter nights, I am so ready to get out there and breathe in the freshness of spring.
I would highly recommend taking a visit to one of Scotland’s rainforests if you have the opportunity. The high rainfall, and mild temperatures result in lush mossy areas just bursting with lichens and bryophytes it really does feel like I’ve stepped into a fairy tale. And if that doesn’t attract your attention then you’ll be impressed with the sheer abundance, diversity, and rarity of the species of Scotland’s rainforest.
It won’t be my first visit to the temperate rainforest; however, I’ve visited Glen Nant in the past. Plantlife has a downloadable handy wild plant walk leaflet for the Glen Nant Important Plant Area (IPA), so it was a solid motivation for a visit for me.
But I hear you ask, what if I don’t want to visit a rainforest site? Looking for something short and located in the central belt?
Then download and check out North Berwick Law, our guide is for a nice 1 mile hike up one iconic hill in East Lothian. Plenty of opportunity to spot wild plants too, like Meadow Saxifrage Saxifraga granulata, this snow-white species is found in dry grasslands, or the hilariously named Cuckooflower Cardamine pratensis, due to its delicate purple flowers starting to bloom just as the cuckoo first begins its call.
If you’re the Munro bagging type, then check out the Ben Nevis IPA, a delightful 10-mile hike that is absolutely rich in Bog Asphodel Narthecium ossifragum a plant once used for its potential as a natural dye or the delightfully carnivorous Round-leaved Sundew Drosera rotundifolia (image by Michael Scott) which have long red-coloured stalks that are often seen with globules of ‘dew’ hanging from them. These globules are a polysaccharide solution to trap and digest their prey.
If you’re keen to spend a day out in the Cairngorms, take some time to discover Anagach woods IPA. Download your a free guide here. Soak in the wonders of the Caledonian pinewoods, maybe you’ll spot the rare and iconic Twinflower Linnaea borealis? This special plant is a focal point for our Cairngorms Rare Plants Project. You might also find some Wood sorrel Oxalis acetosella, with its clover-shaped leaves (that taste like apples), this springtime bloomer has delicate white flowers with lilac coloured veins.
The nature and climate crises are inseparable challenges: healthy species and habitats provide essential solutions to climate change, absorbing carbon and increasing resilience. Yet many carbon-focused initiatives are blind to the importance of plant and fungi diversity or can even do more harm than good, causing damage and destruction to our most precious wildlife.
Nature-based solutions to climate change rightly focus on trees, wetlands and peatlands, but often overlook the importance of the world’s permanent grasslands. From the smallest British wildflower meadow to the great steppes, savanna and prairies, these grasslands are home to thousands of species, many of which are threatened and endangered.
Grassland ecosystems are often undervalued in climate mitigation strategies. Yet they store between 25-35% of the world’s land based – or terrestrial – carbon, 90% of it underground. While grasslands, savannahs and rangelands store less carbon per area than forests, their underground stocks are considered safer in areas of high fire or future logging risks. Grasslands with high biodiversity can sequester even more carbon and be more resilient to the effects of climate change.
In a briefing and case studies published jointly with WWF, we demonstrate how grassland protection and restoration can support a sustainable and equitable food system, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sequester and store carbon, provide resilience to extreme weather events, support food security and rural livelihoods, improve health and wellbeing, and boost biodiversity.
For Plantlife and its partners, this highlights the fact that wild plants and fungi are at the heart of tackling the biodiversity and climate change crises together. To promote the wider recognition of this internationally, Plantlife has worked across the world to build a growing global network of Important Plant Areas (IPAs), which contain some of the best wild plant and fungi species and habitats. You can explore the world of IPAs through our interactive story map.
We are calling on governments around the world to align their climate and nature goals in international agreements as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. With ambitious goals in place, we need local communities, leaders, and governments to identify and recognise those precious sites for wild plants and fungi, and then collaborate on their protection or restoration – for nature, climate and people.
Grasslands, savannahs and rangelands are huge carbon stores, vital global resources forbiodiversity, food and freshwater security, and offer many ecosystem services to support climatemitigation and adaptation.
Case studies on the importance of grasslands ecosystem in the UK, Brazil, Mongolia, Ethiopia and Kenya.
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