Amphibians and Reptiles
Outside of the breeding season which is in early
spring, wet meadows will harbour Common Frogs and Toads, feeding on the abundance of
invertebrate life. Grass snakes may also be found, feeding on the frogs which are its main
food. In drier meadows, Slow-worms (above) and Lizards, both mainly living in the boundary
habitats around the meadow, may also hunt in the meadow itself. Slow-worms are slug-eaters
while Common Lizards eat a variety of invertebrates, particularly spiders.
Few birds are exclusively associated with meadow
habitats. Most are opportunists, perhaps more commonly associated with other habitats such
as the hedgerows surrounding the meadows. They exploit the food value of the meadows at
particular seasons. The seeds of the grasses and herbs in the meadow, which are allowed to
mature before cutting, provide a rich resource at certain times of year, while the
invertebrates in the meadow are a similar prize for insect-eating birds. Examples of such
birds would include Goldfinches, feeding on thistle seeds and Starlings and Rooks
searching the ground for leatherjackets.
||Wet or water meadows support a variety of
breeding birds, particularly Snipe and Curlew.
birds such as Pheasants and Grey Partridge may utilize hay meadows for nesting,
particularly around the marginal areas. Grey Partridges were at one time one of England's
most common birds. Changes in farming practice, including the loss of most of the low
intensity grasslands, has resulted in serious loss of suitable habitat for these birds.
The practice of early cutting of fields
for silage and of cultivating right up to field margins means that any ground nesting
birds in such fields do not have either enough time to safely rear their chicks, or enough
invertebrate-rich areas to provide food for them. Were it not for game-bird shooting, it
is likely that Grey Partridges would have followed the fate of the Corncrake, which is now
virtually extinct in Britain. Grey Partridges are now only common on estates which are
specifically managed for the benefit of game birds. Corncrakes similarly suffered from the
loss of traditionally managed agricultural habitats such as hay meadows.
Two Birds of Prey are particularly linked with meadows
because of the high numbers of small mammals such as mice and voles, which they contain.
These are the Kestrel and the Barn Owl. Kestrels may often be seen hovering above the
grass verges of roadsides, which can be thought of as narrow strips of meadow, acting as a
partial substitute for the real thing. Short-tailed, or field vole populations are high in
meadows, where they create tunnelling runs through the grasses which are their food. They
are diurnal, which means that they feed at any time of day. They mark their runs through
the grass with urine trails. These trails reflect ultra-violet light which Kestrels are
thought to be able to pick up, so locating their prey in the long grass.
||While Kestrels will be out
hunting in daylight, later on you may be lucky enough to see a Barn Owl sweeping across a
meadow in the late evening in search of mice, voles and shrews.
Barn Owls (left) are a species in decline, again largely as a result of changes in farming
practice. The shift towards much greater intensity, with the consequent loss of
habitats such as meadows which are rich in prey species, means that fewer individuals can
be supported. Loss of breeding sites and the use of fungicides have also been implicated
in their decline.
|A wide variety of mammals take advantage of the bounty
offered by a meadow. Rabbits are common and may play a major part in keeping meadow
vegetation down through grazing. The presence of rabbits will attract foxes which use the
hedgerows around fields as highways.
The soils of meadows
contain high numbers of earth worms and so moles will also be present, tunnelling
underground and feasting on the worms. The worms actually provide food for a surprising
variety of mammals. Foxes will also eat worms, learning elaborate techniques from their
elders to successfully extract them. Badgers will often dig up large sections of fields
looking for them, while they are also one of the common shrew's main foods.
Small mammals such as long-tailed field mice (also
known as wood mice), bank and field voles and shrews are common in meadows. Field mice are
generalist seed and insect eaters, although in times of insect abundance they may switch
their diets to take in more insects. Bank voles feed on herbs, leaves and seeds, while the
field vole specializes in eating grasses. They particularly favour 'soft' grasses
such as Agrostis and Festuca species, but also eat other grasses such as
the Sweet Vernal-grass and Yorkshire Fog commonly found in meadows.
||Where mice and voles will eat a variety of plant
materials, shrews are entirely predacious, eating small invertebrates. The combination of
their small size and hence large surface area for heat loss, together with the fact that
they are warm-blooded mammals which have to keep a constant body temperature, imposes a
need for almost constant eating on shrews. They must have a consistent supply of food to
drive their high metabolic rate. They will consume nearly their own weight in food daily
and failure to eat for more than three hours can be fatal.
Larger mammals such as Roe Deer will
graze in meadows, particularly when the first spring flushes of grass start to grow. Their
dung further adds to the diversity of the meadow. The adult insects which emerge from the
dung of grazing animals, having successfully completed their lifecycles within the dung,
are important sources of food for bats. Greater Horseshoe Bats in particular, will hunt
down the line of hedgerows and into the meadows after dung flies.
Changes in modern farming practices mean that meadows
are now a relatively rare habitat. It is clear from the previous discussions on the
wildlife of meadows that their loss severely impacts upon a great diversity of plants and
Continue to:- The Decline of Meadows