Pixton Meadow

The main focus of today’s walk was the lovely meadow at Pixton, just north of Emerson college. It is looking great at the moment, so it was an ideal opportunity to focus on a particular habitat that is only 30 minutes’ walk from the centre of the village. Though there were plenty of other things to see as well, it was also a good excuse to spend some time looking more specifically at grasses and their relatives, the sedges and rushes. There are about 40 sedges in Sussex and twelve rushes, though rather more grasses. We only saw a tiny proportion…

It was useful to start with a quick introduction to the basic morphology of these plants, since they are a bit different from other flowering plants, and the terminology is different too.[1]

Unsurprisingly, the walk from the car park at Emerson immediately gave us the chance to look at some examples in the shady woodland edge, which are likely to be plants that we walk past without noticing most days. We started off with the common Rough Meadow-grass (Poa trivialis) and the delicate Wood Melick (Melica uniflora) and contrasted them with Wood Sedge (Carex sylvatica) in the families Poaceae and Cyperaceae, respectively. Also on the bank was Southern Wood-rush (Luzula forsteri), which is in the order Liliales, so less closely related to the other two. We also picked up Smooth Tare (Vicia tetrasperma) and False Fox-sedge (Carex otrubae) which is a new record for the tetrad.

Picture of False Fox-sedge (Carex otrubae)

False Fox-sedge (Carex otrubae)

Pixton meadow is only a short walk from Emerson, and is a nice example of a particular grassland type, as described by the National Vegetation Classification (NVC). Plants don’t just grow anywhere, and groups of species tend to grow together, and these are called plant communities. Building on earlier work in the UK, and especially on extensive studies of plant communities in Europe, the NVC was commissioned in the 1970s to build up a picture of the range of different floristic communities across the country, and was published in five volumes. It was a huge undertaking, gathering a vast number of site surveys and then analysing them all statistically to assess what plants are associated with others.[2]

Picture of Crested Dog’s-tail (Cynosurus cristatus)

Crested Dog’s-tail (Cynosurus cristatus)

Pixton, then, is an example of Cynosurus cristatusCentaurea nigra grassland (named after the constant species Crested Dog’s-tail and Common Knapweed) and is a common plant community associated with well-drained pastures and meadows on broadly neutral soil, typically in lowlands. The NVC gives it the number MG5 (ie Mesotrophic Grassland)[3], and it has a number of different sub-types, though as George Peterken notes, there is a considerable variability in the character of this community across the country, and many ‘dialects’ that the NVC doesn’t record.

This community is the result of traditional pasture management, with usually annual mowing for hay, and typically some light grazing. It does not have additional fertiliser added. Though not part of the farm itself, Tablehurst farm cuts it each year. However, though this was once an extremely common type of meadow throughout lowland Britain, nowadays it is getting scarcer as a result of more intensive agricultural practice.[4] It is estimated that MG5 now covers less than 6000 hectares in England, which is only 0.06% of non-urban land. It is also a plant community that owes its existence to human management over a long period of time and which, if it wasn’t mown or grazed, would change to Arrhenatherum elatius grassland followed by scrub and eventually woodland.[5] Alternatively, if it was intensively grazed and fertiliser added the character of the plant community would change radically and it would become one of the less species-rich grassland communities containing lots of Perennial Rye-grass (Lolium perenne) which we can see in many places in and around Forest Row.

Picture of Pixton Meadow

Pixton Meadow

So, the NVC indicates that there is a group of fairly constant species which normally occur in this community:

  • Red Fescue (Festuca rubra)
  • Crested Dog’s-tail (Cynosurus cristatus)
  • Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)
  • Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)
  • Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus)
  • Cock’s-foot (Dactylis glomerata)
  • White Clover (Trifolium repens)
  • Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra)
  • Common Bent (Agrostis capillaris)
  • Sweet Vernal-grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum)
  • Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)

MG5 grasslands are species-rich and average about 23 species in a 4m2 quadrat,[6] including the following, which we saw:

  • Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
  • Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus acris)
  • Bugle (Ajuga reptans)
  • Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)
  • Catsear (Hypochaeris radicata)
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
  • Common Fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica)
  • Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
  • Lesser Trefoil (Trifolium dubium)
  • Common Vetch (Vicia sativa)
  • Glaucous Sedge (Carex flacca)
  • Field Wood-rush (Luzula campestris)
  • Lesser Stitchwort (Stellaria graminea)
  • Common Mouse-ear (Cerastium fontanum)
  • Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsia)
  • Perennial Rye-grass (Lolium perenne)
  • Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris)
  • False Oat-grass (Arrhenatherum elatius)
  • Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense)
  • Rough Meadow-grass (Poa trivialis)
  • Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys)
  • Imperforate St John’s-wort (Hypericum maculatum)

It wasn’t just plants that we were looking out for though, and Tom soon heard the call of a Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa). Furthermore, with all this rich flora it also meant that there was a good selection of insects which soon attracted all our attention.

One of the first in the net was the parasitic ichneumon wasp Amblyteles armatorius which was all over the meadow. It certainly wasn’t around a week or so ago when we last looked.

Picture of Amblyteles armatorius

Amblyteles armatorius

The butterflies are changing there too. Today we didn’t see any Small Copper or Small Heath, which have been prevalent recently, though Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus) was still about. A new butterfly for the meadow that has just appeared this year was the Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina), and the common moths that we saw were Burnet Companion (Euclidia glyphica), Yellow Shell (Camptogramma bilineata) and zillions of Straw Dot (Rivula sericealis), plus the caterpillar of the Six-spot Burnet (Zygaena filipendulae).

Picture of Yellow Shell (Camptogramma bilineata)

Yellow Shell (Camptogramma bilineata)

Picture of larva of Six-spot Burnet (Zygaena filipendulae)

Larva of Six-spot Burnet (Zygaena filipendulae)

There was a huge number of flies, most of which we ignored as impossible to identify, though Tom and Alastair spent some time carefully identifying the horsefly the nasty Notch-horned Cleg (Haematopota pluvialis); a few minutes later I was then bitten by it or one of its relatives. The other flies that we looked at were rather more pleasant, namely the hoverflies, and we got positive identification of a couple: Helophilus pendulus and Meliscaeva auricollis, aided by the good folk on the UK Hoverflies FB group, especially Roger Morris, one of the authors of the essential book.[7]

Picture of Helophilus pendulus

Helophilus pendulus

Picture of Meliscaeva auricollis

Meliscaeva auricollis

The obscure, quirky find of the day may well have been Haplothrips leucanthemi the thrips species that inhabits Ox-eye Daisy.

Picture of Haplothrips leucanthemi

Haplothrips leucanthemi

Meanwhile Tom caught the rather stunning White-legged Damselfly (Platycnemis pennipes), which is certainly uncommon.

Picture of a female White-legged Damselfly (Platycnemis pennipes)

A female White-legged Damselfly (Platycnemis pennipes)

Finally, we finished off with some soldier beetles, and caught Cantharis pellucida and C. nigra, though there were certainly several others which got away.

So, a very productive and fun afternoon which has further underscored how rich a habitat the meadow is, and it is changing from week to week. It will be interesting to keep re-visiting it over the rest of the summer.

People with a butterfly net

Out with the butterfly net

26 June 2015: See also a short film of the meadow made the day after the walk.


[1] See the summary of grass biology, structure and tips for identification: Jean Turner. ‘Grass Identification.’ Offwell Woodland and Wildlife Trust. Web. 9 June 2015. <http://www.countrysideinfo.co.uk/grass_id/index.htm>

[2] For a short background see: George Peterken. Meadows. Gillingham: British Wildlife Publishing, 2013. 60-62. The big book is J.S. Rodwell (ed.) British Plant Communities. Vol. 3. Grasslands and Montane Communities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

See also the summary listings of the communities on Wikipedia: ‘British National Vegetation Classification.’ Wikipedia. Web. 9 June 2015. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_National_Vegetation_Classification>; and the ‘official’ pages about it: ‘The National Vegetation Classification (NVC).’ Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Web. 9 June 2015. <http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-4259>

[3] ‘Mesotrophic grasslands in the British National Vegetation Classification system.’ Wikipedia. Web. 9 June 2015. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesotrophic_grasslands_in_the_British_National_Vegetation_Classification_system>

[4] Proctor, Michael. Vegetation of Britain and Ireland. London: Collins, 2013. 181-184.

[5] Jefferson, Richard. ‘National Vegetation Classification: MG5 grassland.’ Natural England. 2 April 2013. Web. 9 June 2015. <http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/6626052>

[6] Jefferson, Richard. ‘National Vegetation Classification: MG5 grassland.’ Natural England. 2 April 2013. Web. 9 June 2015. <http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/6626052>

[7] Ball, Stuart and Roger Morris. Britain’s Hoverflies: A Field Guide. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.


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