Maintaining areas of flower- and fungi-rich grassland is a very high priority across the UK for the conservation of native wildflowers and insects.
Flower-rich and fungi-rich grasslands are an important part of the countryside and differ across the UK. They all fulfil an important ecological function in their own right for carbon storage, as decomposers and recyclers, and help improve water quality.
Flower-rich and fungi-rich grasslands are part of the farmed landscape. They were created and are maintained by farming, and if separated from farming practices decline in species-richness. Well-managed grasslands support a great range of plants, fungi, insects, birds and mammals.
There are four broad types of grassland:
- neutral grasslands with oxeye daisy, common knapweed and bird’s-foot-trefoil. Wet meadows may have species including marsh marigold and greater burnet, whilst upland hay meadows often have wood crane’s-bill.
- acid grasslands support a unique range of plants including cinquefoil, heath milkwort and in wetter areas whorled caraway, ragged-robin and devil’s-bit scabious.
- calcareous grasslands form on limestone and chalk derived soils and have the most flowers including scabious and greater knapweed on taller grasslands, whilst thyme, rock-rose and salad burnet are features of short grasslands.
- waxcap grasslands are often overlooked as they only appear in the autumn and are not often associated with flower-rich grasslands.
Management as a hay meadow
Hay meadows are grasslands that are cut for hay in July-September, and usually aftermath grazed. The annual management begins in the winter. If the weather has been relatively warm and dry, the meadow could be lightly grazed in February or March to remove any early growth that could swamp wildflowers later in the year.
Livestock is excluded from March or April to allow wildflowers to bloom throughout spring and early summer, and fungi to fruit in late summer and autumn.
Hay is cut in July to September depending on the type of wildflowers present, weather conditions and location. Changing between earlier cuts (after 15th July) and later cuts (late August) is beneficial, rather than cutting at the same time each year, although this would need to be considered alongside any agri-environment requirements. Leaving unmown strips along the edges of fields provides late season food for insects, alternating areas annually to control competitive grasses and maintain wildflowers.
The mown hay is turned at least daily to dry, which can take 3-5 days depending on the weather. This also loosens and distributes any seed remaining in the flower heads. When the hay is dry it is baled and removed from the site. Usually hay is not wrapped, but if the weather is damp during cutting or drying, haylage may be made.
A few weeks after cutting and baling, the grasslands may be aftermath grazed. Livestock help break up matted vegetation and push seeds into the soil. Grazing will also help reduce grass growth, allowing light to get to the ground to help seed germination
The types of animals and levels of grazing vary for each type of grassland. Grazing may be extensive with lower numbers of livestock for a longer period of time, or pulse or mob grazing using a larger number for a short intensive burst of grazing. The aim is to reduce the height of the vegetation to 2-10 cm, with patches of varying heights across the grassland.
If the weather is wet, livestock may poach the field with their hooves. Some bare ground is beneficial as it creates small gaps between plants where seeds can germinate. However, heavy poaching can cause damage, particularly compaction which can increase weeds. Livestock should be removed if there is very wet weather or if poaching in gateways or along fence lines starts to become apparent.
If aftermath grazing cannot be undertaken, a mat of vegetation, or thatch, will build up over the soil surface. Mechanical removal of thatch using chain or tine harrows will help enable wildflowers and grasses to set seed. The removed thatch should be disposed off-site so that it doesn't decompose and add nutrients back to the soil. Harrowing could either be undertaken in the autumn after livestock have been removed, and especially in damper fields, or in late winter or early spring in drier fields.
Management as a pasture
Pastures are grasslands that are grazed for most or all of the year. Acid, calcareous and waxcap grasslands are often managed as pasture rather than hay meadows. Marshy and rough grassland, which is often too wet or rough for vehicular access, may also be managed as pasture.
Livestock may be removed for the early months of the year, especially if very wet, to avoid poaching. Light grazing is usually started in March. This extensive grazing is either continued at a very low level throughout the spring and summer or all of the livestock are removed for a period of 8-10 weeks in the summer to allow flowers to bloom.
Grazing levels may be higher later in the year in order to remove the vegetation and create a varied sward height. But each type of grassland is different and may require different levels each year depending on weather conditions. Extensive and/or mob grazing can be undertaken, especially if the grassland is broken into different fields or includes different types of grassland.
Grazing of marshy grassland is recommended at a low level, to avoid poaching. In rough pasture used by breeding birds, livestock levels should also be kept low between 31st March and 20th June to avoid trampling nests.
Livestock may be removed later in the year when the weather is wetter to avoid poaching. Other management such as burning (called swaling) may also be undertaken, particularly on culm and rhôs pasture where it can be used to remove the build-up of dead leaves and regenerate spring growth.
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