Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 11
November 18 2016 - 09:49
It’s now 14 months since we prepared the ground and spread the seed from Moss Hill on our new meadow. We’ve come full circle at last, experiencing the first complete turn of the haymaking calendar. Once again, it was time to make hay.
So on the last day of August, we cut the meadow. Thankfully, a few days of dry weather allowed us to turn the neat rows of grass three times (to knock out as much seed as possible) and then produce 21 round bales of sweetly fragrant hay.
Bringing in a harvest is always enormously satisfying, but two things struck me. Firstly, 21 bales is quite a lot of grass for a 3 acre wildflower meadow. Thinking back, the conditions in 2016 – a cold, wet spring followed by a warm, damp summer - really encouraged the grass, especially Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus). This amount of grass isn’t ideal. Over the next few years, the Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) will help reduce the vigour of the grass, but it was also clear that we needed to graze the meadow much harder.
Secondly, I was shocked at just how harsh a mechanical hay cut like this can be. One moment you have a field of grass that’s been growing gently for 5 months, then an hour later it’s cut to within a few inches of its life. The plants will, of course, come back, but the impact on invertebrates can be drastic. Many need standing grass over winter – for both shelter and food - and although some standing grass remains around the edges of the meadow, I do wonder if there’s another way. Some meadow owners are now cutting their hay over a period of weeks, or even leaving some areas uncut, rotating such areas around the meadow each year. Something to think about for the future.
But for now, we had 21 bales of hay. In a nice old-fashioned bartering sort of way, we used 11 of these to ‘pay’ the chap that did the hay-cut for us. Then 8 bales went to Geraint and Eleri to feed their Highland cattle and to thank them for all their help though the year (as novice cattle owners we’ve needed quite a bit of help!) And we’ve kept the final 2 bales to feed our own Highlands over the winter.
In the blink of an eye, the grass grew back, the field turned bright green and it was time to get some grazing animals onto the meadow. This is an absolutely essential part of the hay meadow cycle. Not only does it enable the farmer to feed livestock on fresh pasture during the autumn and winter, it keeps the grass under control and allows other plants to germinate and grow. I’ve been looking at the meadow very closely all year, and have been astonished at just how much germination there is from late summer and throughout autumn. If we didn’t cut the hay and then introduce ‘aftermath grazing’ as it’s called, these seedlings would quickly be swamped by a blanket of grass.
So, wanting to get extra grazing in this year, we took up an offer from Geraint and Eleri to take on another of their Highland cows and also their lovely little flock of 15 Ryeland sheep. So meet Sorcha the 10 year old Highland (who’s currently pregnant) along with our own two cows.
And here are the Ryeland sheep. These are one of the oldest British native breeds that originated in Leominster, Herefordshire, seven centuries ago when monks would graze them on rye pastures, hence their name.
To give you an idea of the effect these extra animals are having, the two photos below were both taken on the same day - 25th October – one year apart. The top image was taken in 2015, when we just had our two Highland cows (Cadi and Breagha) grazing the meadow. The bottom image is from this year with the three cows and 15 sheep.
At this time of year, you should be aiming to graze meadows as hard as you can (without, of course, causing any loss of condition in your animals). You really want to start to see bare ground through the sward, as this means there’s light to stimulate germination and room for seedlings to grow. Across our own meadow this year, the results have been incredible. Millions upon millions of seedlings are germinating, such as these Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa).
We had hoped to spread some more brush harvested seed from Moss Hill again this year. Unfortunately, even the best laid plans sometimes go awry, and we found ourselves unable to collect any seed (despite clear instructions, the grazier decided to put his animals into the meadow a few weeks early!). So instead, I’ve set up a little plug-plant nursery at home. This is an excellent way to introduce ‘target’ species into newly created and restored meadows, as not everything will come in with the green hay or brush-harvested seed.
Thankfully, over the summer, I’ve been collecting little bits of seed from plants growing in local hedgerows and meadows (including Moss Hill), things like Betony (Betonica officinalis), Meadow Vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis), Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) and Mouse-ear-hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum). I’ve now sown these in small-celled trays using soil collected from the meadow. I don’t want to introduce any foreign soil – such as commercial seed compost - into the meadow so I’ve been making use of the molehills to collect soil. I’ve now got myself a mini-plug plant nursery and can’t wait to get planting them out next year.
A final flourish of colour in the meadow. As soon as it turns wet and cold, the waxcap fungi appear in a multitude of shapes and colours. The classic red and yellow species are lovely, but I’m particularly fond of the tiny Snowy Waxcap (Hygrocybe virginea). Wherever it appears it looks like someone has scattered little porcelain buttons in the grass.
The complete meadow restoration story can be followed from the previous blog entry here.
November 19 2016 - 10:15
Brilliant write up, enjoyed reading about your adventure, keep up your good work
November 20 2016 - 08:14
Thanks for this information I enjoyed very much. Looking forward to hearing more about this lush little meadow and the family of animals