Permanent wildflower margins and corners

Permanent wildflower margins and corners

Areas rich with wildflowers can provide valuable habitat for insects and those which feed on them. They also have numerous benefits from a farming perspective, including integrated pest management and crop pollination.

What

Margins, corners and plots of permanent wildflower-rich habitat can be managed within farmed landscapes to support beneficial insects and a wealth of wildlife that feeds on them. They also help integrated pest management and crop pollination.

Wildflower margin (c) Cath Shellswell

Why

It is estimated that if at least 2-3% of arable farmland can be managed to support flowering plants, this will help to boost populations of pollinators, crop pest predators and the diverse wildlife that are dependent upon them. Permanent wildflower-rich areas will also provide valuable shelter, nesting and foraging areas for a wide range of insects, birds and bats.

Stonegrave 2. Meadow Brown. Leanna Dixon.

How

Wide margins, corners and plots generally provide better habitat for wildlife than thinner or smaller areas. To provide the greatest benefit for wildlife they should be placed close to other important habitats, which already provide nesting sites and shelter such as hedges and ditches. It can also be beneficial to locate them so they connect areas of grassland and other habitats, helping wildlife move around the landscape. Choose a warm, sunny area (for example sheltered, south-facing slopes) where insect activity will be greatest.

Margins, corners or plots chosen for permanent wildflowers can be created through either natural regeneration or seeding.

Natural regeneration

Natural regeneration involves cultivating the land to create a fine seed-bed and then leaving it for the natural vegetation to develop. In the first year cornfield flowers and other annual plants are likely to develop, and any perennial wildflowers are likely to just form a rosette and not bloom. They will bloom from the second year onwards. Natural regeneration is best used where the margin, corner or plot is adjacent to a wildflower meadow or other wildflower-rich habitat. It may not be viable where land has been under cultivation for longer than 20-30 years, as perennial wildflowers have relatively short longevity in the soil seed bank. Thus, transfer of seed from an adjacent species-rich area is essential to establish a flower-rich area. Natural regeneration is better on nutrient poor soils, which are often lighter and free-draining. Wildflowers struggle to compete with more competitive problem weeds such as thistles and nettles or tufted grasses in high nutrient environments.

Seeding

If seed mixtures are required, specialist seed merchants should be able to provide advice on the most appropriate mixture for the site. Ideally wildflower seed should be of native UK origin. Seed should be broadcast onto a fine seed bed created by cultivation. On existing grassland, prepare the sward by removing any pernicious weeds, tightly mowing and scarifying the area to break up the surface vegetation and expose patches of bare ground

The soil nutrient levels should be checked prior to sowing seed to make sure that it is suitable for wildflowers, and if not then a restricted range of flowers may still be suitable.  If the soil nutrient levels are too high it is likely that the wildflower seedlings will not survive and tufted grasses may grow. If this is the case, try a different area of the farm or think about putting in a sown pollinator area or creating a grass-based mix in this area.

All wildflower margins, corners and plots containing perennial species need management to be sustained. Without management, grass thatch can build up, swamping the wildflowers and preventing seeds from reaching the soil and germinating. If left unmanaged, the number of individual wildflower plants will reduce and slowly die-out.  Areas should be cut on an annual basis in July to September and the mown material removed. Ideally the height of the cut could be varied to provide different habitats for wildlife, particularly insects, and some areas could be left for a year to provide flowering habitat for longer. To help maintain the flower-richness and prevent the development of tufted grasses areas with longer vegetation in one year should be cut lower the following year. Small difficult to cut areas dominated by hogweed, willowherbs and cow parsley can be left uncut, to provide important pollinator food and also a deep litter for overwintering and nesting.

If livestock can be brought onto the margin, corner or plot for aftermath grazing in the autumn this is very beneficial. Grazing livestock break up matted vegetation and push seeds into the soil aiding germination, while also reducing vigorous grass growth and allowing light to get to the ground, further aiding germination. The aim is to reduce the height of the vegetation to 2-10 cm with patches of varying heights across the area. Follow-up tine- or chain-harrowing may also be advisable to create an open vegetation sward with small areas of bare ground and to pull out the thatch.

If livestock cannot be brought onto the margin, corner or plot, occasional additional mechanical management is required to maintain the flower-richness. In a good growing year an additional cut may be required in the early autumn to take off any excess vegetation, and the land should be tine- or chain-harrowed to pull out the dead leaf litter and create areas of bare ground. This mimics the action of livestock to a certain extent, but not completely, and may be necessary in some years but not in others, depending on the weather and local environment.

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More information

For more information on creating and managing permanent areas of wildflowers, visit Save our Magnificent Meadows

In practice

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