Wasps approaching their Nest at Sun Rising

The Wonderful Wasp

Back in the spring, a large wasp was seen buzzing around the cabin.  A queen of our most common social wasp, Vespula vulgaris, she was looking for a place to start a nest.  When she had made her decision – between the oak boards by the back door of the cabin – we debated whether we should let her stay.  We decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Wasps approaching their Nest at Sun Rising

Wasps approaching their Nest at Sun Rising

They have such a bad reputation, but these social wasps really are wonderful!  Along with many other insects that we civilized humans don’t like, they play a crucial role in our environment.  The adult wasps only eat sugars, where possible wild sugars from flower nectar (but any sugars will do), and in their search for flowers they act as pollinators in the same way that bees and other insects do.  They also capture a huge number of small spiders, greenfly, aphids, caterpillars and other insects, which they feed to their young in the nest.  They play a crucial role in balancing our ecosystems: they are one of nature’s pest controllers.

So our busy queen laid her eggs, tucked away between the boards.  Soon, the first young worker wasps (infertile females) were buzzing around, and as the summer grew warmer we had a happy stream of wasps to-ing and fro-ing from the cabin wall.  Now and then they would buzz over, complaining about our proximity, but on the whole they got along perfectly well right beside us.  If we didn’t pay them much attention, they didn’t pay us much either.

Yes, they do sting, but only if they feel threatened or confused, only in defence.  We’ve been stung twice, and it’s irritating and itchy!  When a wasp stings, it emits a scent that other wasps will smell, making them alert to the possible threat, so it’s important to step away.  We may not understand why they feel threatened, but we have to accept when they do.  We adjust our behaviour, giving them space to feel safe once again.

Mostly wasps sting in late summer and early autumn.  This is because the nest’s social structure is changing.  As summer nears its end, a small number of the eggs in the nest will develop into fertile males, called drones, and fertile females.  The particular hormone that maintains the colony’s cohesion stops being produced, and these fertile wasps begin to swarm out of the nest.  There’s a feel of uncertainty around the nest: they need more space to explore, more quiet to feel OK.   

Once they’ve mated, the drones slip away to die, their work complete.  In the nest, as autumn chills arrive, the worker wasps and the old queen also die.   It is only the young pregnant females who survive: they will find somewhere quiet, alone, sheltered, to hibernate through the winter.  Not all will make it – but those who do will emerge in the spring to look for somewhere new where they might set up their own nest.  

Nature isn’t always easy, but learning how it works does help.  I’ve enjoyed our summer, with our busy, curious, helpful, beautiful – albeit sometimes grumpy – housemates.  

Main Car Park Resurfaced with Gold Gravel

Introducing the Crunch

When we first created the main car park and laid the stone tracks at Sun Rising, the question of what material to use was a key issue.  We decided to go with the most local stone: Hornton ironstone, from the quarries just up the hill.  This would bring to the natural burial ground the rich red-gold of our Cotswold stone, minimise any necessary miles of haulage, and keep business local.  It was a little chunky for a while, but with vehicles driving over it, with frost and sun, the stone gently broke down, creating a perfect surface.  Most of the tracks through the site have also reached – or are on the way to reaching – that state too.

The main car park, however, gets too much use.  Instead of remaining perfect, the ironstone started to break down to the point where, in wet weather, it was getting muddy with puddles.  In icy weather, it could be slippery.  A further coating of small stone was a short-term fix, these breaking down into dust all too quickly.  Last winter, although the land desperately needed rain, the dry weather helped us get through without too many problems.  A solution needed to be found.

Main Car Park Resurfaced with Gold Gravel

Main Car Park Resurfaced with Gold Gravel

Over the past few days we have resurfaced with a ‘gold’ gravel, again from a local quarry.  Our hope is that this will remedy the situation with regard to those cold and wet weather problems of mud, puddles and ice.  We hope you like the look of it too: it is lighter than the ironstone, but not too bright, and over time the ironstone dust should darken it further.

We are aware, however, that there are a few setbacks to gravel.  Although it is not thick, it can be harder to walk on for those with limited mobility and tricky for wheelchairs: please let us know if you need help.  Heavy vehicles can leave ridges, but we’ll keep an eye on this and rake when and where we need to do so.  Finally, and what we were hoping to avoid, there is a crunch.  Cars and feet are no longer quiet as they were on ironstone.

However, that crunch does create a marked difference: when you walk through the gate into the burial ground, you walk from gravel to ironstone.  As such, you go from noise to a quiet underfoot. It’s a quiet that somehow amplifies the peace of the nature reserve.  In that respect, it’s rather wonderful.

If you have any queries, or concerns, do let us know.

Path through Growing Woodland

Going to Seed

There comes a point in life when age creeps up and very few of us can maintain the elegance of younger years. As I look over the wildflower meadow now, into the woodland and along the hedgerows, it is clear that summer’s glory is now behind us. The meadow is going to seed and starting to look rather tatty. The dark green leaves on the trees are starting to lose their lustre. The paths, enjoying the mixture of sunshine and showers, are still lush and growing, but elsewhere the grasses are drying and falling. It’s all past its best and autumn is on the way.  I can relate to that very well …

Path through Growing Woodland

Path through Growing Woodland and Drying Grasses

This week the serious end-of-season clearing will begin.  The new wildflower meadow, between the roundhouse track and the pond, will be cut.  Although not everything has gone to seed, important for our timing is the need to cut the creeping thistle.  What has established well this year will come back next year.  Once the meadow has been cut, we’ll see the patches that remain bare, not having recovered from last summer’s extensive drought: we’ll reseed where it seems sensible.

The established wildflower meadow, together with areas of grassland, will be cut over the coming few weeks, in between the still-welcome bursts of rain.  Before we know it, September’s golden sunsets will be with us, with ripening apples and blackberries.  For now, though, in the midst of nature’s late summer tattiness, we continue to celebrate each little butterfly and hoverfly, dancing silently over the drying seedheads.

Rosy-striped Knot-horn (Oncocera semirubella) at Sun Rising

Our Little Rare Rosy

Throughout the year, our wonderful moth-ers (as opposed to mothers) come to run surveys at Sun Rising.  During the summer months, that is every month, the last one being at the end of July.  Everyone will be aware that there are far fewer moths than there used to be in this world, so every little whisper of good news that emerges from one of our surveys is well worth shouting out about.

Two moth species were found at Sun Rising that have never before been recorded in our little square of England!  The Pyrausta nigrata has a common name of the wavy-barred sable.  It’s a beautiful little moth, dark chocolate brown with tan flecks and a white wave across the wings, and we suspect it has been drawn to the site by the growing patches of wild marjoram.

Rosy-striped Knot-horn (Oncocera semirubella) at Sun Rising

Rosy-striped Knot-horn (Oncocera semirubella) at Sun Rising

Oncocera semirubella is an even more important find: the rosy-striped knot-horn moth, this is an exquisite pink and gold moth which feeds on birdsfoot trefoil and clovers.  This one is a Notable B species on a national level, which means it is really rather rare throughout the country.  We’re very happy to have it!  The photograph above was taken by one of our fabulous moth-ers, Peter Beasley.  Thank you, Peter!  It’s an exciting find and worth celebrating.

Lammas Meadow Flowers

Lammas Meadow

The first of the cereal crops are now beginning to be brought in around us.  Before long, the vast combine harvesters will be humming through the day and night.  The barley is almost ready, and some fields are already cut to stubble and dotted with huge round bales.   It is Lammastide – the festival when our ancestors celebrated the first loaf of the new harvest.

Harvest is reflected here at the natural burial ground and nature reserve: the high point of summer has now passed.  Over the past three weeks, we have been topping the grasses in new woodland burial areas where they were tall and thick, but most grasses have now dropped their seed and are naturally beginning to die back.  The same is true of the midsummer flowering plants, the oxeye daisies, vetches and trefoils, all of which are mostly gone to seed.  Later flowers, the knapweeds, betony, meadow vetchling and field scabious are still in flower, drawing in sunshine and rain amidst the browning meadow.  There are pockets of wild basil, lady’s bedstraw and the last of the roses are blooming.  In the newly developing meadow, the white and pink yarrow is vitalised with splashes of the last annuals – blue cornflowers, bright yellow corn marigolds and scarlet poppies.

Lammas Meadow Flowers

Lammas Meadow Flowers

In the growing woodland, the guelder rose is starting to fruit, with rich deep orange berries.  Provoked too by the lack of rain over the last 15 months, the first leaves of the viburnums, cherries and birches are beginning to turn.  On wet days, with heavy cloud, we can almost begin to feel autumn coming.  But not yet!  We aim not to cut the meadow for another month, allowing all the wildflowers to go to seed, by which time it will look wonderfully tatty!

As July slips into August, it is a softer, slower time than the hectic growth of high summer, yet it can also be heavy and chaotic in places.  These are days when perhaps we must find extra patience with ourselves, and with others.  It’s a time to pause, watch the butterflies, and just let life be a little messy.

Wildflower Meadow at Sun Rising, with a view to the Roundhouse

Our Wonderful Green Flag

Once again, we are really pleased to be able to announce that we have been awarded a prestigious Green Flag.  This means that Sun Rising has been judged as one of the best ‘green spaces’ in the country, with the highest environmental standards.

Wildflower Meadow at Sun Rising, with a view to the Roundhouse

Wildflower Meadow at Sun Rising, with a view to the Roundhouse

We first won an award in 2015, and this year our scores are once again extremely high.  The Green Flag Awards have a meticulous process, exploring the whole management system of a site.  Two experienced judges go through the management plan, maintenance strategies, and ideas for the future.  They look at sustainability and measures to protect and improve the environment.  They are keen to discover the visitor experience, access, health and safety, and opportunities for volunteers.

Of course, there are always ways we can do better.  The wildflower meadow in the photo is still in development, the butterfly stones are being created, and infrastructure improvements are ongoing.  If you have any suggestions, we are always keen to hear!

Path Mown Through Grassland

Caring for the Grassland

In the countryside around us, the harvest has begun: meadows are now being cut, the long grasses strewn, turned to dry in the sunshine, then rowed and gathered into great big bales.  You can sometimes hear the whirring of the bale-wrappers as they cover the large bales in plastic for haylage.  Although the machinery is bigger, the process quicker and no longer labour-intensive, cutting the meadow for hay that will feed livestock through the winter is a practice that’s been going on for many thousands of years.

For the first 12 years at Sun Rising, we had an arrangement with a couple of local farmers: at some point between mid June and mid July they would come in and cut the main area of grass beyond the burial areas.  However, as we have developed new wildflower meadow, planted more woodland, put in tracks, set the standing stones and so on, gradually we’ve been taking land away from that hay crop, and this year we are beginning a different way of managing the site – without farming.

Path Mown Through Grassland

Path Mown through the Grassland to Tyr’s Stone

The grasses in the midst of Sun Rising, still uncut, are now taller than they’ve been for decades, perhaps even centuries.  And they are truly beautiful!  Many are hard to identify until they flower and seed, but if you walk along one of the paths now you’ll find a good number of species: the dusky pink Yorkshire fog, the tall and tatty false oat grass, the fanned-out crested dogstail, the long-awned meadow barley, the soft heads of meadow foxtail, the deep blushes of red fescue, the delicate sprays of common bent, the stiff stalks of perennial ryegrass, the slim green fingers of timothy … Of course, there are buttercups in there too, and the occasional patch of creeping thistle.  Grassland hasn’t the rich diversity of the wildflower meadow, but it is still a really valuable habitat that, if cut in June or July for hay, is effectively destroyed.

From hereon the grass at Sun Rising will be managed in cycles, small areas cut every 3 – 4 years and late in the summer. This will give the grassland birds, like the skylark, an extended season to breed more successfully.  It’ll give moths and butterflies, like the rustic shoulder-knot, common wainscot, and meadow brown, a chance to complete their breeding cycle in safety and peace.  It’ll give the wildlife generally a much larger area within which to forage, rest, hide and play.  We’ll keep you informed about the changes over the course of the year, and let you know the results as the seasons flow on.

Sun Rising Roll of Remembrance 2019

Roll of Remembrance

At our Roll of Remembrance, the names of every person laid to rest here at Sun Rising, or remembered with a tree or plaque, are read aloud.  It’s a beautiful and moving event, affirming that each individual is still held in our thoughts.  For us at Sun Rising, importantly, this includes not just those graves that are regularly visited, but those with family who live too far away, or those with no remaining family or friends.  We care for each grave equally, and at the Roll we say their names aloud.

Sun Rising Roll of Remembrance 2019

Sun Rising Roll of Remembrance 2019

This year we had over a thousand names to read, which we did in three 20 – 30 minute sessions, with four of us reading.  It would have been wonderful if we’d had a glorious sunny day, but it was wet, grey and blowy, so the number who came to hear was fairly low.  However, everyone knew how important this rain is – the ground only just beginning to soften after so little rain for the last year.  

And of course, it being Sun Rising, we had a wonderful refreshments stall with myriad cakes, traybakes and muffins.  What about these cupcakes, handmade for the occasion?  Just wonderful.  The refreshments stall raised over £500 for The Friends of Sun Rising, helping secure the long-term care of the natural burial ground and nature reserve.  Thank you so much to all our marvellous volunteers.

Cupcakes made for Sun Rising Roll of Remembrance 2019

Cupcakes made for Sun Rising Roll of Remembrance 2019

Yellow Rattle and Poppies in Betty's Meadow

The Summering Meadow

With sunshine and showers, our areas of established wildflower meadow here at Sun Rising are now growing fast.  With half a dozen identifiable grasses, and more coming through, the yellow rattle is also at its height.  This little plant is crucial for meadows like ours: being semi-parasitic, Rhinanthus minor actually weakens the grasses.  In earlier times, it was a serious pest for farmers, reducing their hay crops significantly, but for us it is a blessing.  Taking some strength out of the grasses, it gives more space for the wildflowers we are looking to encourage.  This year, the yellow rattle is doing beautifully in the meadow.  After such a dry year, the grasses are not overwhelming, and it’s found its place. 

You’ll see more poppies (Papaver rhoeas) in the meadow this year too.  These are a most peculiar plant – however often we (or families) sow seed, it nearly always fails.  In some years, I can sow half a pound of seed and just a few will reluctantly germinate in the stony tracks.  This year, there are a few patches that have come through.  As an arable weed, poppies require disturbed ground to germinate, so where they’ve been sown on new graves they are unlikely to come back next year.  They give a lovely bright colour at this time of year, when the meadow is otherwise mainly green and yellow.

Yellow Rattle and Poppies in Betty's Meadow

Yellow Rattle and Poppies in Betty’s Meadow

Look a little closer, and you’ll see the pink of the common vetch, and the deep red of the flower buds of the birdsfoot trefoil.  There have been brimstone and orangetip butterflies, peacocks, small tortoiseshells, small whites and small coppers, for a while; this week we spotted the first common blues.  In another week or so, the oxeye daisies will burst into flower, then the scabious, knapweeds, vetchlings and cranesbills.  It’s a wonderful time of emergence.  Even when the grey skies (and still very much needed rains) are leaving a dreary pall over the day, there’ll plenty to lift the soul.

Andrena haemorrhoa

The Coming and Going of Bees

Many visitors will have noticed that our honeybee hives are no longer at Sun Rising.  It was a difficult decision but a mixture of weather and the abundance of oilseed rape crops locally was making the normally happy bees rather tetchy.  Then a handful of people were stung, so we have had them taken offsite.  There is always a balancing with bee hives in places where there is public access, and the balance just slightly tipped.

Although we’re sorry to have no honeybees, we do have a huge variety of wild bees, all busy getting on with the job of pollenating the flowers and topping up on energy for their own benefits.  There are bumblebees, mining bees, carder bees and many more.  This one is an orange-tailed early mining bee, Andrena Haemorrhoa, covered in dandelion pollen.  They are only seen through spring and early summer, being the first of the mining bees to emerge from its underground nest. 

Andrena haemorrhoa

Orange-tailed Mining Bee on a Dandelion

We’re talking with our beekeeper to look at options with the honeybees.  It’ll be lovely to have them back.  When the oilseed rape has gone, and they’re feeding on the wildflowers, it is possible we’ll have a few hives return.  We’ll let you know.