Wildflower-rich meadows

Wildflower-rich meadows

Looking after wildflower-rich meadows is a very high priority across the UK.

What

Wildflower-rich meadows are very rare and important habitats. Some of these grasslands support an amazing number of wildflower species as well as providing habitats for many species of birds, invertebrates, amphibians and mammals. In particular they provide very important supplies of pollen and nectar for bumblebees and other insect pollinators.

Wildflowers at Harterbeck

Why

Wildflower-rich meadows were once a common part of the farmed landscape, however many have been converted to arable cropping, re-seeded or lost to road or house building. Wildflower-rich meadows were created by farming to produce winter food for livestock. The wide range of flowering plants and grasses provides a highly nutritional crop, with an increased protein and mineral content in the forage. Well-managed meadows support a wide range of plants, fungi, insects, reptiles and ground nesting birds such as skylarks, curlews, meadow pipits and yellow wagtails.

There are several types of wildflower-rich meadow, the most common being:

  • Lowland meadows, which have flowers such as oxeye daisy, common knapweed, red clover, yellow rattle, meadow buttercup and bird’s-foot-trefoil
  • Floodplain and other wet meadows have plants including pepper saxifrage, great burnet, bird’s-foot trefoil, ragged robin and marsh marigold
  • Upland hay meadows have many similar plants but also have wood crane’s-bill, pignut, lady’s mantle and rare plants such as globeflower and melancholy thistle.

Sometimes different mixes of plant species may occur in just one field due to small variations in the type of soil or wetness.

Close up of Bird's-foot trefoil, Ramsey Island RSPB reserve, Wales

How

Meadow management

Livestock are usually excluded from meadows sometime between the middle of March and late April (later in upland areas). Grass is then allowed to grow until being cut between July and late August depending on location, weather conditions and wildflower species present.

Changing between earlier (early July) and later cuts (late August), rather than cutting at the same time each year will allow later flowering plants to set seed. Hay making, where mown grass is cut, left to dry and turned on the ground over a 3-5 day period is the most wildlife-friendly management. It allows ripe seed to fall to the ground and provides time for wildlife to move from the cut field. Annual plants such as yellow rattle will be lost if some seed is not returned into the meadow every year. Haylage production, where mown grass is only partially dried before being wrapped in plastic can be used when the weather turns wet preventing the fodder crop from drying, however if carried out every year will damage wildlife interests.

Leaving un-mown strips along the edges of fields provides late season food for insects, allows later flowering plants to flower, and provides essential shelter for wildlife over the winter. Flower-rich un-mown areas should be rotated each year however other un-mown areas can be kept as more permanent habitats.

Grazing

A few weeks after cutting and baling, the meadow may be used for aftermath grazing. Cattle grazing is particularly beneficial as it tramples seed into the ground and removes grass growth allowing light through to aid seed germination. Delaying aftermath grazing until early autumn can allow re-flowering of clovers and bird’s-foot trefoils which provides important late summer forage for bumblebees and other pollinating insects. If aftermath grazing is not undertaken, a mat of vegetation or thatch can build up which can be removed in the winter using chain or tine harrows. No mechanical operations, including harrowing and rolling should take place once birds have started to nest in the spring.

Timing of winter and spring grazing, as well as numbers and type of livestock will vary depending on the meadow type. Aim to reduce the height of the sward to between 5-10cm through low level grazing. Heavy spring grazing should be avoided. Creating some bare ground is beneficial as it provides areas for seed germination, however heavy poaching can cause damage and encourages weeds.

Fertilisers and other inputs

Meadows that traditionally received an annual light application of well-rotted farmyard manure should be continued to be managed in the same manner to maintain soil fertility and hay yields. Applications should only be applied where they have been carried out in the past and at less than 12 tonnes/ha annually. This is generally not damaging to wildlife and can provide food for some bird and invertebrate species. Slurry and artificial fertilisers should not be applied as this is may reduce the flowering plants that cannot compete against more vigorous grasses.

Upland hay meadows

These are usually grazed during lambing time in the spring. The sward should not be grazed lower than c. 5-10cm in height as heavier grazing can remove some wildflowers from the sward. Livestock are removed between early May and mid-May depending on altitude and the meadows are then cut for hay in mid to late July. A light annual dressing (6 tonnes/ha) of farmyard manure, and occasional liming (where this has been historically applied) to maintain a pH of around 6 appears to help maintain yields and has little impact on species richness.

Floodplain and other wet meadows

Floodplain meadows that are traditionally cut for hay have developed a flora that is adapted to this management, and it is vital to continue this practice. Changing from a meadow to a pasture regime can result in loss of plant species that are not adapted to being grazed.

Floodplain meadows are managed in a similar way to other meadows, however livestock are generally removed from the meadows in the winter once the soil is saturated. Aftermath grazing is still important to open the sward and allow seeds space to germinate.

If the weather has been wet over the summer leading to summer flooding, it is not always possible to cut floodplain meadows. This also results in higher grass growth and eventually a decline in species richness. Where flooding leads to a missed hay cut and reduction in aftermath grazing, it might be prudent to undertake two cuts the following year such as one in late July/August and a higher cut (c.10-15cm) in September to try and reduce the grass growth.

Upland hay meadow Cath Shellswell (Plantlife)

In practice

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