Wildflower-rich grassland restoration advice for livestock farming
Restoring damaged or degraded wildflower-rich grasslands is a priority and should be prioritised above wildflower grassland creation.
Wildflower-rich grasslands are an important part of the countryside. They support a wide range of native plants and provide valuable food (seeds, foliage, pollen and nectar) for many species of birds, insects and mammals, as well as nesting and shelter. A large proportion of these grasslands have unfortunately been lost or degraded across all areas of the UK.
Wildflower-rich grasslands were once a common part of the farmed landscape, however many have been converted to arable cropping, reseeded or lost to road or house building. Since the 1930s over 3 million hectares of wildflower-rich grassland have been lost in England alone, contributing directly towards the decline of many insect and plant species. Wildflower-rich grasslands are a product of farming and provide a source of highly nutritional forage. The range of flowering plants and grasses provides a nutritional crop for livestock, with an increased protein and mineral content in the forage.
Well-managed grasslands support a wide range of plants, fungi, insects, reptiles and ground nesting birds such as skylarks, curlews and meadow pipits. Insect pollinators in particular need wildflower-rich grasslands to provide food (pollen and nectar), with these in turn providing food for other wildlife including birds and bats.
Many smaller areas of surviving wildflower-rich grassland are being abandoned. This is particularly true in areas of the country where livestock farming is declining or where sites may be difficult to manage with modern agricultural machinery. Competitive grasses soon take over neglected grasslands and build-up of leaf litter can prevent seeds from reaching the soil and geminating.
These grasslands are easily damaged through neglect or mismanagement, but are a lot more difficult to restore and it may take many years. The more degraded the grassland, the more the soils and the mix of wildflowers and insects they support will have changed, and the greater the restoration effort required.
The priority, and also the easiest and most effective option is to work on existing grasslands that have lost some of their plant diversity but still retain a number of native grasses and flowers. Small changes to existing grazing or cutting management may be all that is needed. For example allowing existing plants to flower and seed, and providing small areas of bare ground (by cattle grazing or chain harrowing) for seed germination may increase the abundance of wildflowers. Using targeted grazing to tackle rank areas and grass dominance can also be effective.
Choosing the best grasslands for restoration
Before starting work consider the condition of existing grassland, its location, soil type and fertility.
- Check existing grasslands to identify areas that have a greater diversity of wild grasses/flowers.
- Do a soil analysis to find out soil fertility and pH and help identify which species are likely to thrive.
- Consider the location. Selecting sites near to existing species-rich grasslands will allow plants and insects to colonise naturally.
- Consider future management of the area. If you cannot easily manage your restored grassland you may end up wasting a lot of time, money and effort.
Soil type and nutrient levels
Many permanent species-rich grasslands have a very low soil phosphorous index and many plants disappear even if small quantities of Nitrogen are added (25 Kg N/ha/year). Higher phosphorous and nitrogen levels can increase grass growth making it difficult for wildflowers to thrive. There will often be a need to reduce nutrient levels on degraded grasslands. Nitrogen may reduce quite quickly, but soil phosphorous is slower to deplete. Regular cutting and removal of material can be used to help deplete nutrients which will reduce quickest on sandy and shallow soils, and slowest on deep loamy soils and peat.
The pH of the soil is also very important, as is soil wetness. Both will directly affect the types of wildflower which can grow.
If few wildflower species are present, you may need to introduce seed. There are four methods:
- Natural regeneration using livestock movement and wind dispersal to move seed from a neighbouring site
- Harvesting and spreading ‘green hay’ (a hay crop taken green once seed has ripened but not dispersed) from a nearby wildflower-rich area
- Collecting seed from a local site using a brush-harvester. This can be dried and spread later in the autumn
- If none of the above are practical consider purchasing a wildflower seed mix. Some commercial seed mixtures do not originate from the UK, and can be damaging to our native flora. Ensure that seed is from native species, of UK provenance and ideally of local origin (or ‘local provenance’) as this will have the greatest benefit to local wildlife.
Seed species should be matched to a site’s location, soil type, pH and moisture levels.
Create bare ground (around 50%) as wildflower seed needs touch bare ground to germinate. Grazing animals (particularly cattle) are good at creating bare ground but mechanical methods, such as power harrowing, chain harrowing or discing might also be required.
Sow seed between August and November to avoid droughts and so frosts can help break seed dormancy. Earlier sowing dates are preferable the further north the site is. Seed should be broadcast onto the surface of the soil rather than drilled and then trampled (by livestock or people) or rolled in.
Yellow rattle (a parasitic plant which feeds off the roots of grasses) is a very useful in grassland restoration as it reduces the vigour of grasses, creating space and better soil conditions for less competitive plant species to grow.
Consider introducing seeds in phases as some plant species are much easier to establish than others. For example, yellow rattle could be used initially to reduce the vigour of grasses for a later introduction of wildflower seed.
Here are some useful case studies and articles about how farmers are putting Farm Wildlife into practice on their farms
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