Wildflower-rich pastures

Well-managed flower-rich pastures support a range of plants and fungi, and where they are managed to produce a varied sward structure, can support good populations of insects, reptiles and ground-nesting birds such as skylarks, meadow pipits and lapwings.


Wildflower-rich pastures can support a large number of plant species as well as providing habitats for many birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates and mammals. In particular they provide very important supplies of pollen and nectar for bumblebees and other insect pollinators, and habitat for ground-nesting birds. Maintaining areas of wildflower-rich pasture is a very high conservation priority across the UK.

Machair habitat and Norther Marsh Orchid at Balranald RSPB reserve, North Uist, Scotland, June 1997


Wildflower-rich pastures were once a common part of the farmed landscape, however many have been converted to arable cropping or re-seeded. These habitats can provide highly nutritional grazing for livestock. Well-managed flower-rich pastures support a range of plants and fungi, and where they are managed to produce a varied sward structure, can support good populations of insects, reptiles, amphibians and ground nesting birds such as skylarks, meadow pipits and lapwings.

There are many types of wildflower-rich pasture, including:

  • Neutral grasslands with plants such as bird’s-foot trefoil, meadow buttercup and red clover. Wetter areas may have marsh marigold and ragged robin
  • Chalk and limestone grasslands with scabious, greater knapweed, thyme, rock-rose and salad burnet
  • Waxcap grasslands found in old pastures, sand dunes or heathlands. They support a range of colourful fungi such as earth-tongues, pinkgills and fairy clubs

Rarer and more localised wildflower-rich pastures include:

  • Machair grasslands found along the coast of north and west Scotland and western Ireland, on calcareous sand (mainly made of shell) blown inland. The great yellow bumblebee is found on these grasslands
  • Whin grasslands found on thin base-rich soils on whin sill rocks in Northumberland. Plant species include knotted hedge-parsley, maiden pink and purple milk-vetch
Cattle Grazing at Mottistone Down (Martin Warren)


Pastures are grasslands that are primarily used for grazing animals for all or part of the year. Each type of grassland is different so management will vary according to the type of pasture, where it is located and under what livestock system. It is important to identify all of the wildlife features present on your wildflower-rich pastures before deciding on management. Consider how plants can be allowed to flower and set seed and how to produce a varied vegetation height for birds, insects, reptiles, mammals and other wildlife. It is also important to consider how the wildlife needs can be balanced with providing useful grazing for farm livestock.

On many pastures, annual grazing begins in March. Ideally grazing is reduced or removed for a 4-6 week period in the spring/summer to allow plants to flower and set seed. Cattle are often the preferred grazing animal during this period as they graze at a greater height than sheep and they are less likely to graze off all the flowers, leaving these for insects to feed on. Rotational grazing can help ensure there are always some areas left ungrazed and allowed to flower. High stocking densities of cattle grazing may result in trampling of any bird or insect nests present.

It is important to create a diverse sward structure which will benefit a wide range of plants as well as providing shelter and or nesting for birds, insects, amphibians and reptiles. Maintain the majority of the sward between 5 and 15cm throughout the grazing season with 20% of the sward below 10cm and at least 20% of the sward between 15 and 30cm.

Grazing levels may be higher later in the year in order to remove vegetation however some taller (15-30cm) or tussocky areas should be left for wildlife to use over winter. Intensive or ‘mob’ grazing can be undertaken to remove excess grass growth, however care is needed to avoid reducing the sward height too low and not to destroy the diverse grassland structure. Livestock may need to be removed later in the autumn/winter when the weather is wetter to avoid poaching and damage to soils and wildlife.

Unlike wildflower-rich hay meadows where a crop is removed annually, avoid applications of farmyard manure on pastureland as these will increase inputs of fertility. Grassland fungi, including the rare waxcaps are extremely sensitive to applications of fertilisers, manures and lime and can be severely damaged.

Some wildflower-rich pastures, including the rare Machair and Whin grasslands may require more site specific management. You may wish to contact a wildlife organisation for further advice. Further information is also provided in the links below.

machair at Balranald

In practice

Here are some useful case studies and articles about how farmers are putting Farm Wildlife into practice on their farms

Case study: Are herbal leys good for bumblebees?

By Kathryn Smith | 23rd February 2024

A new study by Bumblebee Conservation Trust  Introduction Herbal leys (also called multi-species leys) contain a mix of grasses, legumes and herbs, and provide diverse forage for grazing animals. Research indicates these swards do as well as standard rye-grass leys in terms of dry matter yield, milk yield and lamb weight, and can outperform rye-grass…

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New research: What limits bumblebee populations on farmland?

By Kathryn Smith | 19th February 2021

Authors: Dr Tom Timberlake and Prof Jane Memmott  A new study by Tom Timberlake and colleagues at the University of Bristol shows how important late summer flowers and rural gardens can be for supporting bumblebees on UK farmland. Does this offer an opportunity to devise more targeted agri-environment schemes for pollinators? Pollen and nectar are…

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Case Study: Managing for wildlife in Caithness

By Kathryn Smith | 25th September 2014

Author: Katy Malone Farm: Todholes Farm, Caithness Todholes Farm is a 170ha lowland livestock farm in Caithness, where Ian Campbell raises prize winning beef cattle and sheep. Ian Campbell took over the 170ha holding around 1990. Previously his father had managed the farm, having moved to Caithness in 1951. Since then, Ian has built up…

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