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. 

Comments

  • Mike Jennings
    February 10 2016 - 21:56

    I have always found highland cattle so attractive and have been thinking of getting some for my 6 acre home conservation project in Cambridgeshire (wood, wildflower meadow, large pond etc).  How many should I need?  Is there a site I can find out more about them?  I have had sheep before so know the paperwork hassles.

Add a Comment