Now summer is well and truly underway, you may start to notice the sweet smell of freshly cut hay on the air.
For a long time in Britain, hay was a very important source of winter fodder for livestock, helping farmers keep their stock healthy and happy over winter. As well as helping humans and livestock, these meadows were also a rich habitat for wildlife, providing food, shelter and breeding sites for invertebrates, small mammals, birds and reptiles.
Then came World War II and the following push to maximise production on farms. We also saw increased production of sileage, it has a protein and energy content superior to hay and it eliminates the risk of inclement weather ruining your food stocks for winter. Silage is usually cut before the plants have set seed to ensure maximum energy and protein are preserved. This means that wildflowers don’t have a chance to seed. As a result, we soon started to see hay meadows disappearing and figures published in 1987 showed that Britain had lost 97% of its hay meadows .
Now we are starting to see the trend reverse and pockets of wildflower meadows popping up across the countryside again. In order to create a diverse wildflower meadow, there are important things to remember:
1. Avoid the Fertiliser!
Sileage grasslands are often fertilised and this is detrimental to biodiversity. Competitive grasses and clovers can take up nutrients much faster than wildflowers and native grasses, quickly outgrowing and shading them. An ideal wildflower meadow is low in nutrients, allowing a mixture of species to develop naturally. If you have a field that is high in nutrients, you can strip the nutrients out slowly by taking hay cuts every year. Removing the growth each year in the form of hay ensures that nutrients do not return to the soil and nutrient levels will slowly decrease.
2. Allow time for seeding
Whether you plant a wildflower mix or allow plants to arrive naturally, you need to allow time for seeding. Hay meadows are generally cut in July to September depending on the progress of growth. It is important to allow the flowers to seed in order to ensure a new population of plants for the following year. Hay is cut and laid to dry, turning once a day to help with the drying process. This requires a period of a few dry days, which can be hazardous in Wales! Once dry, the hay can be baled and stored for winter. The Gower Cow Club have been experimenting with hay cutting for their shared Dexter cattle for the winter. The group recently got together to scythe a patch of meadow for hay.
3. Graze after cutting
Hay meadows are usually then ‘aftermath’ grazed following baling, which has multiple benefits. Grazing animals break up thatches of thick vegetation, help trample seeds into the ground and ensure there is not too much late summer growth. Stocking levels need to be carefully managed, to avoid poaching and soil compaction in wet weather. Animals need to be removed from the meadow by the end of March to allow the wildflowers to begin growing for the summer.
For more advice and guidance on meadow creation, visit these pages below: