Eyebrights in old hay meadows
The hay meadow survey season has come around again. My job at this time of year is to survey lots of upland hay meadows in the north Pennines (the bits of the Pennines in Durham, Cumbria and Northumberland), to advise on their management and to find species-rich meadows to use as a source of 'green hay' for introducing seed to other meadows being restored nearby. Species-rich upland hay meadows ('MG3b' in the NVC) differ from southern or lowland meadows in having lots of wood crane's-bill and other northern montane species.
Wood crane's-bill in an upland hay meadow in Weardale
In a lot of the meadows the sheep have only been put out about 2 weeks ago and this week more and more species have been coming into flower. The meadows will probably be at their most colourful next week. The picture below shows a close up of a fairly common type of vegetation that we get in the north Pennines meadows. This is what I call MG6+. It is semi-improved and so lacks the special northern montane species. It is often quite herb-rich with more than 60% cover of herbs, but it is not really species-rich, being dominated by a few common species like red clover, buttercups, pignut, ribwort plantain and often a lot of yellow rattle. This vegetation is a bit too rich to fit in to standard MG6 and not rich enough to be called MG3 or MG5 so I call it MG6+.
Colourful MG6+ vegetation in a meadow in Teesdale
Just before the season started this year I got my eyebrights determined by the BSBI's eyebright expert Alan Silverside. My job gives me the opportunity to access lots of meadow on private land most of which may never have been visited by a botanist. So, it is worth making the effort to try to work out some of the critical groups or at least to collect specimens so that an expert can identify them.
Euphrasia arctica arctica
It seems that the eyebright I have been finding most frequently in these meadows is Euphrasia arctica arctica. This is an 'old hay meadow' specialist. Until a few years ago it was thought that this sub-arctic taxon (whose main stronghold is the Faroe Islands) was confined in Britain to Orkney and Shetland. However it turns out that it probably occured throughout the range of Euphrasia arctica in Britain (i.e. most of the northern half and upland areas in Britain) but has largely died out in most places due to both loss of old hay meadow habitat and being hybidised out by the more competitive, 'weedy' Euphrasia arctica borealis.
As with other eyebrights, hybrids are common which makes identification a bit of a nightmare! I can't distinguish between true Euphrasia arctica and hybrids so I collect specimens and allow the expert to identify them properly. In the field I can only split the upland hay meadow eyebrights into 2 main groups - The Euphrasia arctica types and the Euphrasia rostkoviana (officinalis) types which are much rarer. Last year I found Euphrasia rostkoviana montana (Euphrasia officinalis monticola) 4 times out of about 250 meadows surveyed. It has very large flowers for a Euphrasia and has long hairs with tiny glands on the end.
This is now a UKBAP species as it has suffered a massive decline and grows only in upland hay meadows which have themselves suffered a massive decline. Its current range in Britain is Wales, Yorkshire Dales, north Pennines, Cumbria and the Scottish Borders. Alan was delighted to see this again as there had been no authenticated records from the Pennines for about 30 years and he thought it may have gone completely extinct in the Pennines. I will be looking out for it carefully again this year.