OLR Diaries – From Grass to Meadow

Many years ago when I was working at a college in South Wales, I had the role of leading courses in wildflower and wildlife friendly gardening. On one occasion, we visited some beautiful meadows on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park that had been untouched by modern farming. It was early June and the fields were a riot of many species, the dominant colour as we walked through the fields however was yellow. “Its all just buttercups!” one course member exclaimed in a disappointed tone. It wasn’t of course.. in the next few minutes we counted at least five species of Buttercup (Ranunculus spp.) alone and I hope by the end of that day she had built her appreciation for the beauty and importance of biodiverse meadows.. meadows do not have to be green to be functional for both agriculture and the environment.

A florally rich meadow bordered by hedgerows
In early June, buttercups and the seed heads of Sheeps Sorrel are more visible in the meadow

Species gain is your aim

When we bought our land, the two fields were described as semi-improved pasture. Some years prior, both of the fields had been ploughed up and re-sown with grasses such Timothy and Rye, white clover had also been part of the mix of seeds, farmers add clover because its palatable to livestock but also because clovers fix nitrogen into the soil through their roots which feeds the grasses growing nearby. Our fields also had long established hedgerows near to which there was a great reserve of species and it was in these areas that we recorded the greatest biodiversity in the first survey that we took. These plants have acted as a seed bank in re-populating the fields with grass species such as false brome, cocks foot and yorkshire fog, all of these are larval food plants for the speckled wood butterfly and I’m delighted to report that we have seen quite a few of these this spring. Another plant that has come out of the hedge margin is red clover which is a rich nectar source for the Common Carder Bee and wild honey bees.

Fertility reduction adds diversity

A large number of plant species that we associate with florally rich meadows cannot tolerate the applications of Nitrogen based fertilisers that are commonly put on to pastures today. In more traditional methods of animal husbandry, meadows would be both grazed and left to grow at different periods during the season. The removal of the hay crop during the summer meant that over time there was a net loss of fertility from the soil, this led to the grasses being reduced in its vigour and this in turn, gave rise to opportunities for new seeds to get a ‘foothold’ or an increase in population of plants that were already in the area. Interestingly, plant populations fluctuate over time, species that are dominant for a period may reduce and others then take the ascendancy. This is a fascinating process to observe and takes into account both the flora and the fauna and the balance between them. Human beings are all too ready to step in and try to control the process, taking a ‘back seat’ and making observations over time I have found to be a wiser path if one that I’ve had to wrestle with sometimes to achieve!

An old tractor with an offset mower is cutting the grass into rows that will dry out for making hay
Hay cutting takes place in late July to ensure that species have had a chance to flower and for insects to complete their life cycle

Look for the niche

Its always a good idea to find out as much as you can about the growing conditions in your meadow. Plants can be used as indicators of dampness, compaction or even depth of top soil so find out about the species that you see in your plot. Dig a profile and find out what’s going on underneath, handle the soil and determine its texture, take a pH test or take a walk in the locality and find out about what is growing in the hedges and lanes nearby if possible.

A wildflower that indicates wetter soils
The presence of Ladys smock (Cardimine pratensis) is likely telling you that the soil is slow to dry out in the spring.

So the application is…..

If you are trying to enable grassland areas to become more biodiverse and resemble a flower rich meadow there is a very simple way to start. Let the grass grow long and make a survey of what species you already have. You will likely be very surprised at the number of things you will find even in the smallest of areas. To reduce the fertility of your area, always take away the grass cuttings and either compost them or feed them to livestock or make hay for their bedding. (Livestock can be guinea pigs in this context!) If you’re impatient or want some additional projects, you could collect seed from wildflowers that you’ve identified as native and growing in your locality. Sow these into pots and then plant them out into your area in spring. If you’re working with children then all of this can become part of your session plan and you can learn together, implementing curriculum areas along the way! Above all, enjoy it, observe what is happening, watch the birds, butterflies, bees and other insects that start to use your plot..and know that you are making a difference!