An uncut lawn makes natural history 

The Southern Emerald Damselfly Lestes barbarus

The southern emerald damselfly (Lestes barbarus) found by Rupert Evershed in his garden - the first ever recorded for Hertfordshire. - Credit: Rupert Evershed

The naturalist and author, Mark Cocker, describes summer as reaching a point “when all the forward momentum of the season seems to have largely gone…soon to start the inexorable downward journey into that vast delta of colour we call autumn.”

As I write, swifts, possibly as many as one hundred birds, feed silently over the garden, high against the still, grey sky.

Within weeks they will have slipped away, almost subconsciously, taking with them some of the fruit of our land and a portion of summer.

But like a retreating tide, each day brings new discoveries and this last week I made one very special discovery.

As regular readers of my Nature Notes will know, a year of lockdowns and restrictions have given me new focus in the wildlife of my garden.

While restrictions have for the moment lifted, old habits die hard, and I am rarely seated in the garden without my binoculars and camera to hand. 

Over the last year this has led to me recording an extraordinary list of birds, including some that are rare in the county and also appreciating at a new level the variety of plant and insect life present.

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Inspired by the hashtag “nomowMay” campaign I left a strip of lawn to grow out.  I scalloped the edges so that it looks ‘meant to be’ and am now, in late summer, reaping the rewards.

Like the local cereal crops in the fields, the long grass has dried to shades of ochre and now buzzes to the sound of bees and grasshoppers.

Five or six yellow flowering ragwort plants stand tall with at least two succumbed to the munching mouths of stripey Cinnabar moth caterpillars – just one of the 30 or so species supported by this infamous ‘weed’.

The flowers and tall grasses have also attracted butterflies – large and small whites, ringlets, meadow browns and my garden’s first ever large skipper butterfly.

A small skipper butterfly

A small skipper butterfly of the kind Rupert observed in his garden. - Credit: Archant

There’s no doubt now that this uncut strip will become a regular feature of the garden with the plethora of insects in the long grasses regularly being skimmed by hunting dragonflies – emperors, brown and southern hawkers and common darters among them.

The Southern Emerald Damselfly Lestes barbarus

The southern emerald damselfly (Lestes barbarus) found by Rupert Evershed in his garden - the first ever recorded for Hertfordshire. - Credit: Rupert Evershed

It was as I habitually cast my eye over the swaying grass that I noticed a tiny damselfly alight on a tall stem.  I took a couple of photos of it and admired its metallic green thorax, as if someone had glued green glitter to its back.  I thought nothing more of it but decided later to post the pictures on Twitter and enquire as to its true identity. 

A reply came back that it appeared to fit the bill for the common emerald damselfly. I looked it up on the excellent British Dragonflies website and sure enough a similar-looking damselfly was shown.

However, I couldn’t help noticing that another, the southern emerald damselfly, seemed to be a closer match and so I tweeted my thoughts again. 

All of a sudden, I was catapulted into a moment every naturalist dreams of being part of – when natural history is made. My photos confirmed that the damselfly in my garden was indeed a southern emerald, not only a rare find but the very first record ever for Hertfordshire!  If the decision to leave my lawn uncut was ever in doubt now it was fully justified.

I doubt I will see it again as they are apt to fly long distances, covering large areas and giving the damselfly its other name: the migrant spreadwing.

I feel honoured and privileged to have been the first to witness its arrival in Hertfordshire but also a little humbled that it was me, the blissfully unaware novice, and not one of the many odonata experts hunting for it.

This little damselfly, uniquely beautiful in itself, also connected me and my garden with that ever-growing variety of species that are expanding their range northwards, probably due to climate change.

That more ‘southern’ species are making their way to our shores is a sign and barometer of the changing world in which we live: the season is changing, not just for this year but possibly on a global scale, for all years to come.