Wildflower-rich grassland creation advice for livestock farming
Wildflower-rich grasslands, once a common feature of our countryside, have been lost from all areas of the UK.
Maintaining and restoring our remaining wildflower-rich grassland is the highest conservation priority, however there is also a need to increase the area of wildflower-rich grassland across the country.
These important grasslands can take many forms depending on the soil type and geographical location but all can support a wide range of native plants and provide valuable food (seeds, foliage, pollen and nectar) for many species of birds, invertebrates and mammals as well as nesting and sheltering sites. Wildflower grassland creation can deliver many benefits for wildlife, but is a long-term commitment which can take many years.
Significant changes in our countryside as a result of modernisation of farming systems, urbanisation and road building, has led to a significant reduction in the area of these important habitats. Since the 1930s over 3 million hectares of wildflower-rich grassland were lost in England alone (c. 97% loss), contributing directly towards the decline of many plant and insect species, including many of our pollinators. Many of the remaining wildflower-rich grasslands are small isolated patches separated from each other by towns, cities and more intensively farmed areas.
Well-managed wildflower-rich grassland provides a habitat for a large number of plants, insects, birds, mammals and fungi. As well as supporting this wildlife they can also produce high quality herbage for livestock. The greater variety of plants provides highly nutritional herbage with and increased mineral composition, and also increases resilience to extreme weather, pests and disease. Insect pollinators in particular need wildflower-rich grasslands to provide food (pollen and nectar), with these in turn providing food for a range of wildlife including birds and bats.
Wildflower-rich grassland can be created from arable land or improved agricultural grasslands, but only when soil nutrient levels are low. The best results are likely to be where soils have a pH > 6.5 and a P index of 0 or 1.
Selecting the right areas
Before starting any work consider the existing interest or condition of your land, its location, soil type and fertility. Careful planning will help you to select appropriate management techniques.
- Check any existing wildlife on the land. It is more important to look after this wildlife than creating something new
- If wildflowers and native grasses are present, consider grassland restoration
- Is it the best location? Sites near existing wildflower-rich areas will be more readily colonised by plants and insects
- Soil type, drainage, pH and nutrient status are key factors determining the potential for creating wildflower-rich grasslands. It is essential to find out the nutrient status of the soil
- Several years of careful management may be needed to bring weeds under control.
Site preparation on grassland
If the grassland has not been re-seeded and retains a number of native grasses and flowers you should try to restore the grassland.
It can be difficult to establish wildflowers and native grasses on agriculturally improved grasslands, as soils are likely to be nutrient-rich. Remove the existing grassland cover before attempting to add wildflower seed. This can be done by stripping off the turf and top 10-15 cm of soil, inverting the soil and burying any turf, or careful use of herbicides.
Site preparation on arable land
If land has a long history of arable cropping nutrient levels will be high. These can be reduced over several years by continuing to crop the land without additional fertiliser, or putting the land down to a grass crop and regularly cutting and removing the herbage. Nutrients reduce quickest on sandy and shallow soils and slowest on deep loamy soils and peat. An alternative is to use soil inversion, where soil is deep ploughed and inverted to bury the fertile topsoil and bring the subsoil to the surface.
Vegetation can be established through natural regeneration if suitable seeds are still viable in the soil seed bank, or where there is a good chance of seed dispersing naturally from adjacent habitats. The results can be unpredictable, may take a long time and can involve a lot of management to ensure unwanted species do not colonise and dominate.
Seeding is the most common method used to create wildflower-rich grasslands. Try to obtain seed harvested from local meadows or use green hay from nearby wildflower-rich sites. A wide variety of seed mixtures can be purchased, ranging from those of agricultural cultivars to mixtures harvested from existing semi-natural habitats in the UK. If purchasing seed, ensure you select one which is suitable for the site’s soil type and of suitable provenance, i.e. UK native-origin.
- A fine, firm and level seed bed should be created. Weed burdens will need to be reduced through repeated soil cultivations and/or herbicide applications
- Ensure the species introduced are appropriate to the site, especially its soil pH and moisture levels
- Broadcast seed onto the surface of a prepared seedbed in August-October
- Seeds should be trampled or rolled in
- Consider introducing seeds in phases. Some plant species are much easier to establish than others. Yellow rattle is useful as it reduces the vigour of grasses and provides better soil conditions for less competitive plant species to follow later. Yellow rattle should be sown in autumn rather than spring.
- If sowing a mixed grass and wildflower mix (generally 80:20 mix) use seed at rate of 10-20kg/ha
Newly created wildflower-rich grasslands will need intensive management over the first few years. In the first year, prevent seedlings from getting smothered by vigorous grass growth or by perennial weeds. When the grassland grows to a height of 10-15cm, it should be mown to a height of about 5cm, and the grass cuttings removed. You may need to do this several times over the year.
Over the next few years you should be aiming to allow the sward to fill out, creating a good coverage of wildflowers and grasses. The grassland should be cut (or grazed) once a year after it has flowered and the seed has dropped (late July – August).
Here are some useful case studies and articles about how farmers are putting Farm Wildlife into practice on their farms
New research: What limits bumblebee populations on farmland?
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…Read More
Case Study: Using hay strewing as a technique to create species-rich grassland
Author: Jennifer Palmer Farm: High Burnham Farm, Epworth Aims High Burnham is a large (+300ha) arable farm. As part of the RSPB’s Axholme and Idle Farmland Bird Initiative¹ (Lincolnshire), an opportunity was identified to revert an arable field corner to a species-rich meadow. The 1.7ha field corner sits within the base of a large L-shaped arable…Read More