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Thoughts, news and updates from members of the Plantlife team.

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 5

Arrival of the meadow making machines...

September 25 2015 - 07:42

They say that fortune favours the brave. As the machines arrived early one morning, I had to take a very deep breath. “We’re doing the right thing” I told myself.  The big day had arrived. It was time to scalp our meadow.

The sheep and cattle had done a fantastic job grazing the grass down, but much more drastic action was now needed. Experience making meadows elsewhere has shown us that, as long as the soil isn’t too fertile and there aren’t too many ‘weeds’ in the soil seed bank, the harder you hit the pasture at the start of the restoration the better the results in the end. Over the years a thick layer of ‘thatch’ had built up in our field – a deep mat of interwoven dead grass forming a barrier over the soil. We needed to remove as much of this thatch as possible and break open the soil surface so that seed from the Coronation Meadow can find bare soil in which to germinate. So we moved the livestock into the ungrazed upper field, where they tucked into thick grass, and unloaded the machinery.

Boys love their toys, and so do many grown men. Andrew Kehoe of Kehoe Countryside – the contractors doing the work for us - certainly had lots of toys. There were shiny new tractors, a set of Einbock harrows, a mini-digger, a muck-spreader and quite a few trailers. The most important machine, though, was a bit of kit I’d not seen before – a Ryetec flail mower. Mounted on a tractor, this was manoeuvred into position at the top of the meadow. A few seconds later the peace was shattered as it roared into life, and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

The Ryetec is basically a large hedge cutter that sits on the ground. Pulled across the field by the tractor, a cylinder of heavy duty cast iron hammers rotates at high speed, ripping and cutting away the grass down to just above soil level. All the material is collected in a hopper. I was astonished at the job it did. The thick grass sward was replaced by what I can only liken to a heavily warn-out rugby pitch, with grass less than an inch high and lots of bare soil. Needless to say, the hopper was full after one length of the meadow and it tipped out a huge pile of dirty grass. I gulped. Where on Earth it would all this material go? There was no time to worry about that though – the Ryetec was off again!

As the Ryetech worked across one side of the field, the Einbock harrow was manoeuvred into place on the other. This did a slightly different job. Dragged behind a tractor, its sprung metal tines ripped at the ground, pulling out the thick thatch and tearing open the soil. On long grass it collected a huge amount of material, but didn’t quite get the effect we were after.

The harrow really came into its own though when it worked behind the Ryetec. Here, it left deep scratches in the earth, perfect for the seeds to drop into.

By the end of the day, our grassy field had been utterly transformed. “We want lots of brown earth” Andrew had said that morning, and that’s exactly what we had. Importantly though, the grass hadn’t been simply been stripped. The roots are still there, under the soil surface, and will grow back. It’s just that when it does, it won’t be as thick. There will be room for the wildflowers to grow now.

Up the Orme

Why the north Welsh headland is one of Britain's best botanical landscapes

September 22 2015 - 13:45

It’s 6 o’clock in the morning and I’m on a train heading north towards Llandudno. Such an early start is a real joy because this journey is taking me to the Great Ormes Head, one of the 24 Important Plant Areas (IPAs) in Wales. My predecessor, Dr. Trevor Dines, said I would fall in love with the place and he wasn’t wrong. Just ten months ago I made my first ever visit here and wondered at its beauty, the setting and its grasslands and heathlands, although admittedly they were not at their best in November!

The Great Ormes Head is identified as an IPA because it contains some of the largest and potentially best species rich limestone grasslands in the UK. It’s also home to our only native cotoneaster, the Great Orme Berry Cotoneaster cambricus. The range of species found here is amazing from the early flowering and reclusive Hutchinsia, Hornungia petraea, to the magnificent Dark Red Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine (below, © Chris Channon).

As well as being an IPA it’s also a Special Area for Conservation, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Local Nature Reserve and contains a National Nature Reserve with the marvellous name of Maes y Facrell meaning ‘field of mackerel’!

The reason for my journey today extends back to 2001 and the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The grazier of the Great Ormes Head at that time had to restrict the movement of his flock of sheep, gathering them from across the Orme and confining them to the walled enclosure of Parc Farm – a large farm on the top of the Orme. It was the beginning of the end of a shepherded flock grazing the wider grasslands, as the farmer found them to be much more manageable when restricted to the enclosed farmland of the summit. 

Above: Welsh goats grazing on the Orme. © Paul's Imaging Company

Moving forward to 2014 and I started to understand the Orme better through Conwy County Borough Councils’ Warden, Sally Pidcock who has worked there for 16 years. A call from Sally in March this year revealed that Parc Farm was being put up for sale by the current owner. This was a hugely important opportunity. Since the foot and mouth outbreak much of the Orme has become severely undergrazed with threats to some of its botanical interest. This was a chance to try and resolve the shepherding of livestock on the site as Parc Farm owns all the grazing rights to the 292 hectares of unenclosed land on the Great Orme. Within a few weeks, myself and others at Plantlife put a strong case together to convince the National Trust to consider taking it on given its botanical importance – it must surely be one of the top five sites for plants in Britain. 

Fortunately their offer was accepted and a whole new chapter for the Great Orme is now opening up with Plantlife Cymru playing a key role in working with the National Trust to improve the condition of the grasslands and heathlands and to address the opportunity of a site visited by 600,000 people each year.

Above: Great Orme. © Ashley Perkins

So today is the first partnership meeting where all those organisations with an interest will meet and try and come up with proposals to be incorporated in a future management plan. It’s going to be a long day, as I won’t get home till 10 pm, but it will be tremendously fulfilling!

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 4

Time to bring in the grazers...

September 18 2015 - 14:01

Grass is amazing stuff. As soon as our meadow was cut for hay it started to grow back - a lot. After just a few days the apparently dead, brown stubble changed into verdant green pasture. There must be something special in this Welsh rain to make it grow so fast.

But all this growth isn’t good for meadow restoration. When the seed arrives, we have to get it down into contact with the soil to germinate. It’ll also need lots of open space to grow and not be crowded out by the grass. We need something to keep the re-growth in check. It’s time to bring in the grazers. 

It has been said that meadows make animals and animals make meadows. It’s an intimate link at the heart of every meadow – if they’re not cut and grazed at the right time each year they quickly lose their diversity of flowers. But different animals graze in different ways. Sheep use their teeth, cutting the grass like scissors. I always think of them as woolly hairdressers, clipping and trimming the grass into neat and tidy short-back-and-sides. Cows are very different. They use their tongues, grabbing and holding tussocks of grass before slicing and pulling off mouthfuls. They’re less fussy about what they’ll eat and they leave a rougher sward. This makes them better suited for wildflower meadows but, for this particular job – a hard graze of the re-growth - we need both sheep and cows. 
 
So with the grass rising rapidly above our ankles a friendly local farmer delivered 45 yearling ewes:

At this time of year there are lots of lambs around so farmers are very keen to get some extra grazing fields. A hardy and productive cross between Highlanders (a breed from New Zealand) and Welsh Mountain sheep, they’re giving the grass a fantastic short-back-and-sides.

Now for some cows. It started at Eglwysbach show - one of those wonderful local agricultural events where the local farm community come together to celebrate the year and compete with their jams, extraordinary vegetables, and livestock. Looking around the cattle, we saw suddenly saw some Highland cattle. With all that long ginger hair – more teddy bear than bull - it was love at first sight. A few days later I met the manager of the Moss Hill Coronation Meadow and happened to ask whether he knew anyone around that had Highland cattle. “Yes, my colleague Geraint Hughes” came the reply. “He’ll probably be doing the seed harvesting from this meadow for you soon. He’s got a herd of them and I think he has some for sale”. Fate is sometimes sealed with remarkable coincidences.    

So, early one Saturday morning in torrential rain, we made our way into the hills above the Conwy valley with Geraint and his wife Eleri to meet their fold of Highland cows. I didn’t realise they came in various colours - red, yellow, black, white and brindle – all of them magnificent animals. Small and docile, they’re a tough and hardy breed, making them ideal for people new to keeping cows. Then we were introduced to two heifers (females that have not yet had a calf) for sale: Cadi - a red one year old - and Breagha - a yellow two year old. By that afternoon the deal was done. We owned our first cattle!

Gulp. 

Of course, you can’t just buy cows and bung them in a field. We’ve been thrown into the deep mire of agricultural paperwork – registering our land as our own holding, registering our herd, registering with animal health, registering on-line so we can record movements of individual animals between farms. All necessary to keep track of our animals in the face of things like foot-and-mouth and TB.  
 
And all utterly worthwhile when Cadi and Brea arrived a few days later... 

They wasted no time setting to work on the grass. In fact, Cadi didn’t even get all the way through the gateway before tucking in!

Both cows are halter trained (they’ve competed in the show ring in the past) and are very tame, so we’re now getting used to leading a couple of cows for a walk around the meadow each evening.  A very novel experience indeed.   

I love the fact that this meadow restoration adventure has reconnected me with my farming roots. I know two cows don’t make me a farmer, but I’m as excited about our new cattle as I am about the flowers that’ll grow in the meadow. They’re real characters and they’ll play a fundamental role in the story of our meadow for years to come.   

With the grazing in place and the grass under control, we’re now playing a waiting game with the weather. If we can just get a few dry days in a row, we can bring in the meadow making machinery. 

The Oliver Rackham Memorial Walk.

Tim Pankhurst remembers a giant of woodland conservation.

September 10 2015 - 14:02

Last April, one Friday after work, I drove out to Hayley Wood, the Befordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust’s first nature reserve, to join an organised walk.  It was just lovely, the woodland floor scattered with pale yellow oxlip and the creamy white of wood anemone, pinpricks of violet hinting at the bluebells to come and the coppiced hazel dotted with delicate green breaking buds. 

But this wasn’t just a regular spring walk; it was an annual fixture with the Cambridgeshire Conservation Forum (CCF) and was meant to be led by Professor Oliver Rackham, who sadly died in February this year.  

It was Oliver of course who made Hayley famous with the publication in 1975 of the seminal work Hayley Wood, its History and Ecology. He is perhaps more widely known for the magnificent The History of the Countryside and other works of consequence, but it really all began at Hayley, which was, in 1964, one of the first of the country’s ancient woods to have coppicing revived specifically for conservation purposes.  Although, by the time it was published, restoration coppicing was gathering credibility as a management approach and being applied elsewhere, Oliver’s book spread the word more widely and, more importantly, provided a foundation stone in the evidence base justifying the work.  It is easy to forget just how deeply unpopular ‘cutting down trees’ was back then and people needed to be persuaded that it was the right thing to do. Restoration coppicing is now a well established and widely applied conservation approach, in great part due to Oliver Rackham’s work at Hayley Wood.

Above: Coppiced woodland at Plantlife's Ranscombe Farm Reserve in Kent.

So the CCF, in essence the community of the conservation bodies based in Cambridge, decided to hold the very well attended walk in honour of Oliver and we had a very pleasant stroll round the wood, renewing old acquaintances, chatting about the management and sharing stories of Oliver.  My memories go back to the nineties when I was Reserves Manager for the Trust and responsible for the wood; Oliver was a stalwart of the management committee, pitching up in his trademark bright orange socks and sandals, and was always ready with helpful guidance, on Hayley and any other aspect of woodland policy.  His passing of course means the loss of a learned source of advice but more significantly the start of a new, post-Rackham, era in conservation woodland management, one of established practice built on experimental evidence and critical observation, most of which he provided himself.