No, I’m not talking real rainbows…the rainfall over Surrey has been really low this month, and the sight of yellow lawns and falling leaves might well be a lasting one!
I’m talking grasslands, chalk grasslands again, but this time a bit different from the ones found in Guildford. This is Sheepleas reserve, managed by Surrey Wildlife Trust, a 300 acre SSSI (“Site of Special Scientific Interest”, a conservation designation which indicates a site of great geological and/or biological value). Located between Guildford and Leatherhead, it offers a great view on London’s landmark buildings…spot the Shard!
The walk crosses a woodland, before arriving to a shrubby area. Some colourful plants there, like the very recognizable Rosebay Willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium), a species of St. John’s wort (Hypericum sp) and the Dark Mullein (Verbascum nigrum, a tall herb with bright yellow spikes and strange pink and hairy stamens).
Under some small trees, I spot the locally abundant Rock Rose (Helianthemum nummularium). This is a member of the Cistaceae, a mainly Mediterranean plant family which loves dry and poor soils. The pink one is Malva moschata (Musk Mallow, as the flowers have a musky scent), a perennial often found in hedgerows or roadsides.
The walk then leads to a flower-rich meadow, with hints of blues, pinks, reds, yellows and whites…
Blue and white forms of the same plant, the Clustered Bellflower (Campanula glomerata) :
There is another, frailer Campanula species growing there, the Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia). The yellow flower on the right, an umbellifer, is Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa). It seemed much loved by insects, like this seven-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata).
Flower variants are common in these diversified grasslands : this is another example, with blue and white form of the Small Scabious (Scabiosa columbaria) :
There are some more unusual plants too, like the Common centaury (Centaurium erythraea) or the Red Bartsia (Odontites vernus). This is a hemiparasite, a plant which takes part of its water and nutrients from “hosts”, in this case grasses :
Speaking of parasites, I was very excited to see for the first time the Dodder (Cuscuta epithymum), a low-growing plant with reddish stems. Dodder is a holoparasite (it does not possess chlorophyll and relies entirely on its hosts such as gorse, clover, heather or grasses for food). Contrary to other holoparasites like Broomrapes which suck nutrients through the roots of their hosts, Dodder is a stem parasite : its suckers (called haustoria) pierce the stem of the host and suck nutrients from the sap….Bon appétit!
Many Cuscuta species are considered as vile crop pests in the world, but in the UK, Dodder is actually in decline, and now classified as VU (Vulnerable) on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red list.
In 2012, Sheepleas was selected as one of Surrey’s Coronation Meadows. The “Coronation Meadows” Project was launched by HRH the Prince of Wales in collaboration with the charity Plantlife, to highlight 60 grassland sites of particular beauty and value (marking the 60 year’s since the Queen’s Coronation). The aim of the project is to help manage and conserve these sites, but also to use seeds coming from these sites to recreate grasslands areas that have been lost.
97% of the UK’s wild flower meadows have been lost since the 1930s, so I can only hope that they succeed!