After about 4 years of starting to get to grips with managing and trying to restore the meadows around our cottage home, (initially a sadly fairly low priority for us in the long list of jobs to do when you take on a derelict property), I thought it would be helpful to group any postings that I’ve written on the subject of our meadows in one place, in chronological order to save ferreting around through all my previous blog posts. So that’s the purpose of this page.
As of May 2015, I volunteered to set up and run a website for the fledgling Carmarthenshire Meadows Group, so now many of the posts I and others write about this subject can be found by clicking here.
I’ll eventually preface it with a subfolder showing all the flowers and grasses which I’ve found are now growing on these 11 acres. Starting in this year 2015. I’m sure species diversity will increase with time, but these are the plants available to our small flock of Tor Ddu sheep to graze on. Compare this with a typical modern pasture field.
What does any other lamb or meat we eat feed on?
Do we care?
Does it affect flavour?
And what about the wider diversity of life which also makes a home in this small patch of upland Wales?
Pounding the High Meadow path in drizzle meant I spotted these quite large ( 5 to 6 cm) pinkish brown Waxcap mushrooms….
And as I consulted my excellent Roger Phillips authored ‘Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe’ to identify this large species, the page fell open on Page 62, and there it was, Hygrocybe calyptriformis( calyptraeformis). The appropriately named Pink Waxcap. And even more interestingly, since there were perhaps a dozen of these mushrooms within a few yards of the meadow path, it’s listed as a rare mushroom. In fact so rare that it features as one of the few Red Data Book mushroom species in the UK, and it’s been given a place in Biodiversity Action Plans for the UK. If you’re interested in more on this species, click here for what seems to be a very comprehensive 27 page review of it and its distribution, produced by Plantlife.
Perhaps I should even let someone know I’ve found it, since there are so few records of sightings, most of the local ones being in village churchyards, where benign sward neglect allows it to thrive. It joins a list of notable rare species, (e.g.Marsh Fritillary Butterfly, Forester Moth, Trichiosoma sorbii- Club-Horned Sawfly) found at Gelli Uchaf, and testament to the currently unspoiled nature of the environment. And yet another encouraging endorsement of how pastures will become more bio-diverse over time, if you stop the N.P.K fertilizer and intensive grazing! Also as I’ve written in the blog before, several Waxcap species have a stronghold in the wet mossy unspoiled pastures of Carmarthenshire, and indeed this weekend I think that there are guided fungi forays taking place at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, hoping to find a variety of Waxcaps in the organic grazed pastures of the estate…
…… And a circuit of the same path in sunshine was timed perfectly with the setting sun for another ‘Taller when Prone’ moment…
More mushrooms have popped up in the garden as autumnal temperatures and rainfall stimulate fruiting, including a rare Yellow Waxcap probably Hygrocybe subglobispora, in the High Meadow, a short distance from all the Red Data Book Pink Waxcaps mentioned in the last post…..
….. another unknown from the High Meadow…
Most people in the UK will know that over the last few decades nearly 98% of permanent hay meadows have been ploughed up and lost to more intensive agriculture. We’re incredibly lucky to have a network of small traditional hay meadows in the ‘cwm’ or valleys that Gelli looks out onto. These may not produce the weight of crop that a resown, heavily fertilised modern ley will, but the diversity of plants and sheer numbers of flowers that an old hay meadow contains is astounding. And it’s associated huge insect population. Our neighbour’s adjacent hay meadow (above) has reached this glorious state, over the last 20 years, simply by lack of fertiliser application, late hay cutting, and short grazing over the winter months. I can’t say for certain whether Yellow Rattle was even sown into this field, or whether it has arrived on its own, but its now a dominant feature. This hemi-parasitic plant has been recognised for some time as being a key element in restoring grassland plant diversity by weakening the growth of some of the more powerful native grasses. One of the last areas where we would like to create an impact at Gelli is indeed our native meadows. None have been ploughed for decades, or received any artificial fertiliser during our time at Gelli (as far as we know!) but certainly not for the last 7 years.
Until we acquired our own sheep last year, we were limited by our ability to control grazing strategies. Starting with a just few sheep meant that last year our High Meadow was under-grazed, and although we manually removed a hay crop from perhaps 15% of the field, the majority of the pasture was left ungrazed until autumn. Our sheep then made very little impact on these lengthy areas over the winter and early spring.
The result has been a fascinating patchwork of appearance by this summer – the areas cut for hay last year are already showing small numbers of Creeping and Meadow Buttercup, Sheep Sorrel, and Dandelions and restrained grass growth.
There are quite large patches where scattered seed of Birdsfoot Trefoil, Lotus corniculatus, sown just 2 years ago, seems to have already established in an almost monocultural slab, although with different flowering times throughout its population.
And a few areas of Lesser Stitchwort, Germander Speedwell, Pink and White clovers and even the odd plant of Whorled Caraway, which I discovered is a nationally rare native, but has been selected as the county flower for Carmarthenshire.
Or are invisible fungal networks or some other organic factors involved? I’ve often wondered how several plants which we grow in the garden (particularly natives) will move in a drifting, and sometimes expanding ring, fashion away from their initial location which they vacate completely within just a few years? …(The central green band is of native Ivy-leaved Bellflower, Wahlenbergia hederacea, in our mossy copse, which has relocated from an original few scraps at the left margin of the image to this central strip. None remains in the original location. I fear that it will die out as it meets the slightly more vigorous non native Chrysoplenium davidianum, stage right).
I’d realised that Yellow Rattle could play a key role in restoring flower diversity in this meadow and so had collected some seed locally 2 years ago. Sowing these onto our wild flower ‘Berm’ produced a few flowers with viable seed, which last year got sown mainly onto the poorly covered bank above our vegetable Big Bags
– figuring that this would provide a bigger still yield of seed for sowing into the meadow next year. It has indeed flowered well this year, but I found some fascinating recent papers on the value and techniques for using Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus minor, in this way to change meadow flower compositions. Click here and here and here. The key points seem to be:
- Expect it to take 10 years! Actually I reckon our recent lack of fertiliser use gives us a head start, and hope that 5 years will see a huge change.
- The weight of rattle seed sown in a finite area initially had a big effect on the number of rattle plants growing in the first 3 years, but by year 4, the natural seed production in situ had ironed out these differences. Fresh seed from this year’s harvest must be sown in the autumn, since it has poor long term viability and needs autumn chilling to germinate.
- Until the Yellow rattle has started to weaken natural grass growth, sowing other flowers or ‘forbs’ is not likely to be very successful (although my Birdsfoot Trefoil experience seems to contradict this).
- Cutting for hay in late July seems to be the optimum time. This is fortunately the usual ideal time in our upland meadows, (weather permitting) since growth is often slower earlier in the year than in lowland areas. Normal hay making procedures will result in natural spreading of both Yellow Rattle and other forb seed around the pasture. Of course the current trend for silage or haylage completely eliminates the opportunity for Yellow Rattle, and other meadow flowers to have flowered and seeded before being cut down, and is another reason for the lack of diversity in modern pasture fields.
- Short grazing of the pasture in late autumn and early spring is really important – this allows a short height of grass growth for when the annual Yellow Rattle has to germinate, and grow through other plants, and trampling by stock in the autumn helps to push seed into the ground.
- A short cut approach discussed in one of the papers above, would be to spray off all existing grass with glyphosate, but given our distrust of this omnipotent chemical, is not an option we’d consider.
However I’m hopeful that some areas of the meadow where the previous year’s rank grass seems to have effectively killed off most of the permanent grass, simply by flopping onto it over winter, provides an opportunity to sow into terrain not dissimilar to a weed killed field, albeit with a healthy mossy soil covering.
Shortly after my last post we’d began our tedious manual small scale hay making on our steeply sloping field by strimming off selected areas of our this hay/wild flower meadow. I reckoned strimming around the empty bee hive might be a good idea as well since the developing heatwave may have triggered a swarm nearby. Indeed we’d both seen and heard a mini swarm fly overhead and down our track, a couple of days earlier. So 2 days later I got quite excited when Fiona noticed a few bees exploring the hive entrance at dusk…A day later and the numbers had increased, and another day saw tens of bees around the entrance in the mid day heat, which by now was regularly hitting the high ‘ 20’s degrees C…By dusk, activity seemed to have ceased, and keen to see whether anything was happening inside I carefully lifted the top super off the hive (after first pressing an ear to the flaky paint of the exterior for any sound of significant bee activity. None was detected)…To my surprise there were perhaps 50 or 60 bees pressed in between a couple of the combs. But this confirmed my suspicions that all this activity wasn’t real scouting for a new home, but simply exploiting and robbing the residual honey stores left by the previous, long deceased, inhabitants. A later visit from Andy, the bee keeper, confirmed this. Within 2 days the honey had presumably been cleared and no more bees were seen around the hive. Of course I do wonder if bees are capable of sensing death in a hive like this, and perhaps giving it a wide berth as a potential new home? This would be a sensible adaptive trait, in view of the evident vulnerability of the hive’s current position during the unusual freeze drying Easterly winds of the previous spring.
The other novelty of this heatwave, which I can only communicate through words, is the range of new smells which haven’t been experienced for sometime. And mostly very pleasant ones. Beginning a couple of days after our neighbour had his hay meadow cut. The smell of fresh hay pervading the kitchen in the early morning cool beating the dusk time scent from the honeysuckle outside the front door, which was sufficiently tempting to bring out the Elephant Hawk Moths in time to see them before they faded into the night sky…
A few days later after bringing a bit more hay in from our High Flower Meadow, I remembered to go over to photograph the 2 Helleborines growing under mature Ash trees on the Northern field margin. And there was another Tree Wasp. Perhaps gaining some nectar, or perhaps just resting up above wet grass level…
In the High Flower Meadow I’ve continued to take off more hay and overgrown grass, using a recently acquired 2 wheeled BCS tractor – (I’ll write about this a little more next time)…Raking the cut grass into wind rows for drying and removal, I found this toad hunkered down into its own protective ‘foxhole’ which perhaps helped it evade the vicious scissor action of the sickle bar mower. But how beautifully camouflaged…I felt that this image could be improved on when the sun came out, so 5 minutes later I revisited the marked spot, only to find that the toad had moved on – presumably wanting to escape from the drying action of the midday heat. Disappointed, I was about to move on, when I realised that it was still there – but it had just moved to one extremity of the 3 inch deep divot, and pressed its nose into the base, and its rear into the air. What finally caught MY eye, was seeing amongst the subtlety of beige and green, the rich tones of its eye…
A Sauron like, divorced, suspended, fiery globe. Watching. Wide Open. And just today in the tyre garden, an immobile Golden Ringed Dragonfly hanging out on the Verbena hastata flowers.
‘Eyes’ wide open.
… What was the predator? And did the likely dogfight exhaust the wounded Dragonfly, which was resting to recuperate?
The BCS power scythe is temporarily resting as the rain falls and its operator is left with the frankly less appealing task of manually clearing the debris. Its’ ability to tackle old tussocky shoulder height grasses and rushes in our several acre lower wet meadow has been formidable, but the plan was always to try to improve this field and increase its diversity over several years. Rather like a garden, bite off too much in one go and early disillusionment is likely to set in…
Of course what to do with so much plant debris was also going to be a big issue. Burning it would be an option, during one of our dry cold wintry spells. But having run my compost reactor, I now appreciate even more the value of decomposed organic matter as a potential soil improver or potting agent. So I’ve gradually worked towards forming the debris into modest length deep bed sized piles…Perhaps I might even try growing squash on them at some time in the future? If not, then at least the eventually decomposed organic material is more accessible and confined. As with many of the tedious tasks we’ve tackled over the years, rationing one’s efforts to a shortish time each day seems best. Lugging pitchforks full of wet rushes is physically moderately demanding for ageing joints, but it’s a good way to work up an appetite for breakfast.However as with ‘making’ the garden, any transient improvement in the appearance of these meadows which this blogger can achieve will inevitably be quickly undone by the ravages of the climate and geology, once efforts cease …
It’s been interesting to spot how quickly one’s intrusion into such wild territory is noted and exploited by the native fox population. Within a day of cutting the rushes, droppings began to appear on tussocks of rush stem that had been left proud of the surrounding wet ground.… (Rowan berries for breakfast?)
Perhaps this was simply a drier place to pause? But there’s also a territorial element to it, and I’ve already reworked my own deterrent marking to take account of the fact that Height Matters. Interestingly a google of “foxes and defaecation marking” produced a top search of a PDF document produced by Bristol City Council on living with urban foxes. Click here for link. Quite often in my time as a vet living in Bristol I would pass 2 or 3 foxes crossing the roads as I travelled the 10 minutes between home and clinic to attend a late night call out. Since living in rural West Wales, whilst foxes are undoubtedly common, one rarely seesthem. This deposit below involved at least a 4 foot climb up the rush pile, to be top dog fox …… (central top, to the right of the darker rushes – and how wonderfully ergonomically designed a good 3 tine pitchfork is?) …
But this PDF document also explains how adult foxes can easily scale 6 foot fences or walls. Which brings me back to my own use of human male urine as a scent mark deterrent of both rabbits and foxes around the garden and poultry enclosures. I’d had a spell where I was uncertain whether it was really working – at least as far as the rabbits were concerned – scrapes had been appearing again together with droppings on several of our mossy copse paths earlier in the spring. Then a penny dropped. (Sorry).
Having read that foxes have 12 different postures for depositing urine, with females just squatting, I figured that my pee should be directed from the watering can not just onto the ground, but higher up – as though deposited by a more dominant predator. Moreover, if it was placed reasonably regularly and on the leeward sides of mature trees or fence posts, then it stood a much better chance of persisting in our wet climate. Since adopting this modified marking routine, at roughly weekly intervals in late spring, evidence of any rabbit activity in the garden had reduced to almost zero.
Co incidence? Well one can never be certain, but in spite of this apparent success at deterring these garden nuisances, a week ago just before dusk I came across a recently killed mature rabbit lying between 2 of our Rhododendron shrubs with the left side of its head missing, but otherwise a superficially unmarked carcase. Intrigued as to what had killed it, I was distracted by another garden finding, but remembered it a couple of hours later, just after dark, so thought I’d nip out and get an image for the blog. I didn’t even take a torch, since I knew where to find the body, and reckoned that the infra red pre flash and exposure light beam from the camera would be sufficient to focus the shot on the carcase. But the body had vanished! I couldn’t see any trace in the dim red glow.
I returned with a torch to search for traces at the spot where the bodyhad been, and then realised that it was still there, but had been covered with leaves and debris, and by now most of its head had been eaten…But what could have been responsible? A fox?
I then found a great on line guide to ‘Livestock and Animal Predation Identification’.
You can click here for the full link, which covers foxes, badgers, weasels, and many other potential British predators, but being of North American origin, also includes Bobcats, Lynx and Mountain Lions. (There is a record here of a single mountain lion having been documented as killing 192 ewes in a single night, so I’m glad that we don’t have any of those around!) There are some really sensible guidelines about what signs to look for around the carcase – where wounds are, what has been consumed, teeth marks and sizes, or scratch wounds, etc. all of which I’d missed doing until it was too late, i.e. the body had disappeared completely. But the covering of the carcase with leaves gets mentioned in the section on Bobcats and Lynx, though isn’t included in the section on domestic cat predation. The ‘cat’ will then return to the site later for a further meal from its kill.
Almost every day for the last 6 weeks has seen us both on rush clearing duties in our lower meadows. The prolonged drier weather this year enabled me to cut almost all of the meadow. Clearing what will inevitably be just the first cut of rushes has taken much longer.But this pitchforking turns out to be very healthy all over body exercise, and has had the added benefit of getting us both down into the field earlier in the day than we’d normally manage. And so on a couple of occasions I’ve caught sight of a fox exploring to the North of our Upper field. I’m guessing that I was downwind at the time, and it didn’t hear the distinctive sound of the metal gate’s latch being worked as I arrived on site. Both mornings were clear and bright, and one couldn’t help but be impressed by the richness of its distinctive brown/rust black pelt. But I didn’t have my camera to hand and so instead share an image of a wonderful spider’s web net created around a single Stipa stem overhanging from the top of one of the many rush piles which now snake across the fields, like some giant reptilian form.
But at the beginning of this week Fiona had a much closer encounter with a fox. Close to the pile of road stone that yielded a mystery egg in a previous post, and in torrential rain, she was doing some vital clearing of rain run off channels on our access track, when she spotted the carcase of a large fox just off the main track surface… What really caught her eye was that the fox was being stripped by a vast number of maggots. I was able to capture this 24 and 48 hours later, when the rain had abated briefly, and I have to say that even as a retired vet used to some pretty gruesome sights, this was pretty shocking … so skip the next 3 images if squeamish…
But it does demonstrate just how quickly and completely a carcase can be stripped and recycled, given mild conditions, by this larval insect form. Though it has its own mystery attached. How did it end up here? If you look closely it seems to have fractured ribs and humerus. Was it hit on our track? Or on the road a few hundred yards away? Or was it shot or caught by the hunt which has started operating nearby again in the last few weeks? Was it even the same fox I’d seen in our meadow earlier in the month? Thoughts to lie and dissipate even as it morphs from animate to skeletal, memory and dream…
And by this curiously stormy and foxy introduction I arrive at what was initially going to be the main topic of this post before the above episodes made me change tack …
As the first rain of over 2 weeks arrived I’d just managed to complete another topping of the rushes in our 2 lower fields, in a fraction of the time it took us last autumn. Already they are looking more like meadows than rush forests, but such continued effort behind the BCS power scythe has left the body pummelled and in need of some therapeutic keyboard recuperation… … The cleared fields and a powerful LED torch meant that the other night I shone the beam from our Magic Terrace garden into the lower (then sheep-less) field to be met with 2 pairs of reflective eyes following my moves. Worried about lamb predation by foxes, I moved down into this field, and the ever watchful eyes backed off, before slinking out of the field to the South. Just as well, since our twin lambs had chosen this moment to escape the watchful protection of mum and get themselves stuck between the double fencing of the hedge boundary.
With so much to look at in the garden over the last fortnight, why devote most of an overdue post to meadow management thoughts? Simply because it’s difficult to rival the beauty and diversity of a traditional hay meadow, and they’re increasingly rare habitats both nationally and globally. If you read this outside the UK, do let me know whether your country still has any of this type of managed grassland with flowers.
…(Our High Meadow in late May, with the first flower heads of Sweet Vernal grass beginning to add to that lush leaf green)… Compare this to last year’s image, in late June, of the same field, to show the progress being made…
It’s tempting to think that they’re a marvel of nature, and in a way they are, but more specifically their very distinctive flora depends upon the long term interaction between man and larger grazing animals providing just the right growing conditions for a diverse range of grasses and other flowering plants to blend together. As I started writing this morning, I’ve just received a post from Christine at Croft Garden on the natural delights of machair, which is a variant of this concept found in coastal areas – particularly North West Scotland. Click here for the link to this wonderful piece.
But before this I’d recently read of the centuries old traditions of hay meadows and their management in the Transylvania region of Romania. There is a beautiful evocative article from The National Geographic (by presumably the same Adam Nicolson who was brought up by Vita Sackville West and father Nigel Nicolson at the iconic Sissinghurst garden in East Sussex, and is married to British wildflower champion Sarah Raven) which you can read by clicking here. This confirms the point that without annual mowing, and removal of a hay crop after many of the flowering plants have set and dropped seed, combined with appropriate grazing, the meadows are quickly colonised by shrubby species and revert to the dominant natural plant populations of scrub and then forest within a handful of years.
What particularly struck me about this piece was the simple, frugal existence of these, by hand, hay making Romainian small holders (most with no more than a few acres of land). And also the awareness, knowledge and appreciation that they possess of the plant diversity in these upland meadows. Apparently even young children can identify about 50 per cent of the nearly 150 different flower species in a typical meadow. Try asking the typical Brit, young or old, to identify 10 common wildflowers, and I bet the success rate would be in single percentage figures.
In addition, the hugely varied plant tapestries described in the Romanian meadows were thrilling. Often as many as 50 different species of grass and flowers can be found within a single square metre of meadow turf. How do our gardens compare with such intermingling richness? Who would dare to, or indeed succeed in, cramming so many plants into such a small area? And with no supplementary fertilisers! But this concept of intermingling, and self seeding plants where no one form is sufficiently vigorous or dominant to out compete its neighbours is surely the clue to a naturalistic effect within a garden. Unlike the vastly more frequent clearly defined block of a bit of this, next to a bit of that. In a much more manicured way, such simple plant intermingling was what really struck us all those years about some of the formal plantings at Monet’s garden at Giverny, and provided the impetus for our own journey into impressionistic planting trials. A few of our current effects are shown below to illustrate how tricky it can be to achieve anything to match simply nature’s ways ……
And just now our biggest realised mistake was to allow some of the taller Geranium cultivars (unlike the short one above) in the impoverished rocky substrate of our man made Magic Terrace garden. They are simply too tall and early into vigorous growth thus swamping their shorter companions. So right now, Fiona has with huge effort been ripping them out, and we shall use the more benign Erodium manescavii as a more refined and less invasive alternative. At last I’ve raised enough seedlings as replacements.
The Transylvanian hay meadow flower diversity supports, not surprisingly, a hugely vibrant and diverse insect and higher animal fauna, and in large part it still exists because the terrain is too steep for reseeding and a mistrust from the farmers (and the cost) of artificial fertilisers means that many meadows have developed their own ‘natural’ floral patina over centuries of such literally hands on management, using heirloom simple wooden tools to gently shift the hay around after manual scything.
Our own future King, HRH Prince Charles, has created a little section of Transylvanian type meadow at his Highgrove garden, (click here), and is keen to help support this fragile habitat, currently under threat as the appeal of such ‘primitive and impoverished’ rural living in an increasingly progressive Romania wanes amongst the younger generation.
You can even book a holiday at a cottage that Prince Charles owns in the area to explore this very special environment. Click here for the link.
But closer to home HRH Prince Charles has also been passionate about preserving the UK’s old hay meadows. It’s often quoted that 97% of traditional hay meadows have been lost from the UK in recent years, and last year as a project to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation, he established the Coronation Meadows initiative.
Click here for a link to the Carmarthenshire page of the website. The simple aim was to establish a nationwide collection of traditional meadows which could be visited by the public, enjoyed, and be potential plant and seed refuges for this type of once common habitat. Since our local meadow at Cae Blaen-dyffryn was only about 20 minutes away, and is described as having the greatest population of butterfly orchids in Wales, we thought we should visit…
Locating it was tricky, and there is no easy nearby parking place but walking back along the road from where we managed to snuck the car off a right angled bend brought us to a, for now benignly uninspiring, 9 acre plot set quite high up in the hills to the South of Lampeter. (Possibly a little higher than our own 800 feet above sea level High Meadow). But looking more closely, the tell tale signs of plant diversity revealed themselves…The white flowers of Pignut, fringing the small Hawthorns, Yellow rattle’s crinkly leaved upright stems pushing up everywhere fulfilling its vital grass weakening hemi parasitic role, along with the lower growing pink flowered Lousewort. And every so often the tell tale glossy bulb like leaves, some spotted, of the orchids. We shall revisit in a few weeks for a more exciting floral vista…
But interestingly this meadow is managed by the Plant Life charity, and its acquisition was sponsored, I notice from the information board, by Timotei shampoo. And this gives a clue as to why such meadows are now so rare that some Coronation Meadows are simply roadside verges – simply no areas of representative meadow fields remained within those county borders.
It is an expensive, weather affected and labour intensive option to go the annual hay crop route, with no use of artificial fertiliser. So for much commercial agriculture, the practice has been abandoned. Reseeding with more vigorous and productive varieties of grass has been the norm, heavy grazing or earlier cutting for silage, and much application of artificial fertiliser. The flowers rapidly disappear, as does the dependent fauna.
Carmarthenshire is indeed fortunate in retaining many traditional small upland hay meadows. In part perhaps because they are managed by small holder hobby ‘farmers/stewards’, which indeed best summarises our status. But driving back from Cae Blaen dyffryn along the tiny lanes to the East of Gelli confirmed another more recent threat to such meadows…
Forestry. In a little known initiative, the Welsh Assembly Government has created a plan to plant 5,000 hectares of new woodland every year for the next 20 years. Read more (click here), and it appears that the aim is for such new woods to be placed on steep, and currently under-managed land. But barely a mile from us, on perfectly level, and historically meadow type pastures, the trees have gone in.
At least broad leaved species have been used. Though how well the many obvious ash seedlings will fare is open to debate. Driven, I guess, by significant grants for planting together with low management costs over many years, for some farmers this may be an economically attractive option. I understand that this particular development has been made by an absentee landlord. Which therefore probably makes perfect financialsense. But how to save the hay meadows?
Throughout the UK, environmental stewardship schemes help to support wildlife sympathetic farming practices, but apparently only the Higher Level Stewardship schemes are likely to encourage farmers to retain hay meadows as a financially viable option. Click here for more discussion on such schemes in England. And there simply isn’t enough money in the kitty to have a significant effect. So it does seem that the survival of many of the remaining hay meadows, certainly in this part of the world, will depend on enthusiastic stewards who see a value over and above any commercial decisions in maintaining this natural/man made almost symbiotic ecology, for personal and perhaps shared long term aesthetic and wildlife benefits.
… The above view from last July (note the still large beige areas devoid of living vegetation, simply killed by fallen over rank grass from the previous season) shows how well the meadow has greened up with self sown plants in just a year. The image below is from mid May 2014. I’ll repeat the image later this year to show the extent of mid season flowers …
So our High Meadow is already being transformed, and recreated from its flower barren intensively grazed earlier existence with more flowers than ever this year, and the yellow rattle at last is establishing in local pockets throughout the turf…
Our lower and much wetter meadows which support a different range of wildflowers has presented much more of a challenge with extensive rush overgrowth. Throughout the UK rushes seem to have benefited from the wetter and generally milder conditions of recent years, and present a real management challenge. Click here for an interesting insight into potential solutions… … Last September, above…
… (Late May 2014, after 1 spring cut and 3 weeks post spraying with a selective herbicide) …
Simply cutting, or even heavy grazing, is unlikely to limit their progress, and rather like our Geranium cultivars in the garden, they are a dominant plant species, out competing pretty much anything else. So after much deliberation we have opted this spring to apply a selective weedkiller to the worst sections of our lower meadows, following on from last year’s autumnal, and then an early spring, cut using our BCS 615SL Powerscythe.
Several reports seem to endorse rush control in this way as a necessary evil, to achieve diversity going forward. Click here for a link on the status of Welsh Hay Meadows, by the charity Flora locale. And click here for a project to restore hay meadow diversity funded by the English Utility company United Utilities. (Interestingly, Transylvania has a very different climate to West Wales with just a third of our annual rainfall, and predictable hotter summers, so my guess is that rushes do not present the same issues there).
The decision to use a herbicide was made easier by an imminent change in legislation. As from 2015, it will no longer be permissible to purchase any agricultural plant protection chemicals without first obtaining a certificate of competence in its application. You will need a different certificate for different means of application.
So for us it would require a course at an approved centre, then registration to complete a test, and then taking an exam which would hopefully result in a certificate of competence.
The cost of all this would be well over £450, excluding the travel costs, plus possible overnight accommodation.
The cost of the selective weedkiller sufficient to treat several acres of rushes is currently about £45.
It seems to me likely that very few smallholders would contemplate shelling out this sum. So what would the options be going forward, if you have a rush problem? Presumably the ‘powers that be’ anticipate we would call in a suitably qualified contractor to apply the chemical. But one of the things we’ve learned here, is that any weather dependent task may have very limited windows of opportunity to be successfully completed. In the case of rush treatment it needs to be applied early in the year-ideally late April/May when there is vigorous new rush growth above surrounding foliage, and you need at least 12 hours without rain after application for optimum success. Even with good weather forecasts, you might only know on the morning that today is the best time to spray.
Now ring your contractor, and get him to come within a couple of hours, along with all those other smallholders ??
And in our case vehicle access to the fields is inappropriate for much of the year. They are just too soggy. The 2 wheeled BCS 615 SL power scythe scores highly here, being much lighter than either ATV/Quad bike or even worse a tractor and equipment, so little surface damage is created after just a few days without rain.
So I’m guessing that even if chemical control was thought to be a reasonable option, in future it will simply not be practical or financially viable. Inevitably there is short term disturbance of the fauna, after cutting and spraying, but I still managed last week to take this distant image of a pair of cuckoos which have used the electricity supply lines across the lower meadow every year as a convenient perch to survey the field below, for possible meals, or host nests. (And 2 hours after publishing this, F and I stood close to this spot for 15 minutes whilst the midge clouds gathered, watching the female cuckoo move from wire vantage point to the tops of each of the piles of rushes, and with remarkable efficiency systematically shifting around the field, barred beneath like a sparrowhawk, no doubt hoping to spot a potential host nest for it’s egg. Come again next year, cuckoo, and we hope the field will be even more inviting…)
I’ll update in future years just how successful (or not!) our attempts at managing these fields have been. For now, we have grass returning, wild flowers have already colonised the ditches very well so we have plenty of nearby seed to reintroduce, and for the first time in the 20 years that we have owned the property, the fields actually look like damp meadows, rather than rush mono-cultures. Maybe we shall manage to leave these fields to future owners in better nick than when we took over stewardship?
Perhaps in a few years it may even be possible to take off a hay crop. And of course the last thing we wanted to do was disturb the soil structure or surface by ploughing or rotavating since this would certainly bring a huge number of viable rush seeds to the surface. As in Transylvania, left un-managed such fields either become rush infested or move beyond that stage to wet willow sand birch sumps. A nearby meadow is managed in alternative fashion by an annual burn off in early spring. No grazing ever takes place here, but here the near mono-culture has become one of very tall coarse tussock forming grasses – seen below last week with early season lush regrowth…
The wonderful hot sunny weather at this time of the year inevitably means 2 tasks occupy much of out time. (Sadly not, as recent garden visitors suggested, sitting on our various garden seats sipping glasses of wine!).
Shearing and hay making. As an amateur shearer the results are best described as patchy, and my lack of practice makes me very slow, but fortunately we have patient sheep who can see beyond the experience, to the relief of a cooler summer ahead. Prompted by an amusing and timely birthday card this year from Fiona’s mother, I opted to try sitting down to shear, and this worked surprisingly well in sparing further back issues, which I guess are the bane of any slow shearer.
My previous post went into some detail on meadow management and as often seems to happen, no sooner had I read and written about Romanian hay making traditions, than Fiona returned with a leaflet picked up in the local shop about traditional wooden hay making tools. A fascinating phone call ensued with Simon Bowden, who it transpired lives a few miles away, but had the distinction of winning the quality class at last year’s UK hand scything competition in Dorset. As well as coppiced willow plant supports, Simon makes hay forks (second from left below) and hay rakes, from selected willow osier stems which he cultivates. Simon can be reached on 07792 236817. Fiona had previously sourced a wooden hay rake elsewhere, but we arranged to pick up one of Simon’s hay forks just in time…The revelation is that it is significantly lighter than a pitchfork, and ergonomically shaped with slight bends at the base and prongs, to make tossing hay much less onerous, with a lovely touch of a penny piece used as a rivet, where the single wand is split into three…
The casual observer might question the advantage. But manual hay working is a repetitive, and laborious process … (… so reducing the weight of the tool is a huge plus, as F demonstrates above, and below…)
And it was as I moved across the slope with wheeling Red Kite overhead, and the cuckoo still calling in the valley, as the sssshhhhhhhssssshhhhh whisper of dry light long grass stems studded with dessicated golden buttercups and pink sorrel seeds, was gathered and tossed or flicked over, that I wondered about how few folk will ever have experienced this simple pleasure? How would you describe that unique sound of dry hay on wooden fork, over baked ground? Or the smell?
Do get in touch if you’d like to experience it next year. Many hands certainly make lighter work!
But a couple of phone calls later secured some willing helpers for this year. Neighbouring smallholders who like us have a requirement for limited hay for winter fodder joined us and we’re really grateful to Dave, Avril, Theresa and Graham for helping us turn, fill and then share about 150 big bags of wonderful sweet smelling hay. Though we all seemed to work out own way of how we managed the task …
Interestingly no one seems to manufacture a small hay baling machine which could be drawn behind an ATV, so the Big Bags are for us a convenient way of storing and man handling the bulky finished material. The slope of the field precludes larger conventional hay making machinery, and at least for this year, I was able to skirt round particularly flower rich areas of pasture with the BCS power scythe to allow subsequent seed collection for spreading around the rest of the meadow, and perhaps our lower meadows too. We also now know from Glyn, the previous owner, that the steep slope together with the fact that the field used to have a track going through it spared it from ever being ploughed or reseeded. Which probably explains why we’re making such progress in returning it to a flowery state. Other recent visitors bemoaned the fact that much of their surrounding pasture has been improved and is now a uniformly ‘P********* Green.’ …the white stars of Lesser Stitchwort light up the understorey…… whilst evening sun illuminates the scene before cutting…
As light relief from this toil we returned to our local wild flower Coronation meadow ( not it seems a hay meadow) at Cae Blaen Dyffryn, where a variety of spotted and butterfly orchids were indeed blooming in profusion. But photographically it proved tricky to get an image that did justice to the splendour of this upland scene as the sun moved round behind a line of beech trees to the West of the meadow. …(notice how much less dense the grass is in this meadow, than our own High Meadow)
I’d made a second trip down to the stream to photograph the novelty ofthat. Revived by barely 10 mm of overnight rain, it was still low, but running with the sort of cloudiness normally associated with winter spates, yet more greyish than that type of muddy brown. Weeks of dried detritus and dislodged soil being moved on quickly downstream towards the sea trapped brooding migratory salmonids, eager to spawn. Do they smell, or taste it? Is it time to move?…
Even the sheep seemed to sense a novelty.
Who was this booted stranger? The sounds, shorts, coat and probably smell were familiar, but the black, ribbed dome sprouting from his head rendered him unfamiliar and threatening. No nuzzling up for a head rub today. Scatter and skidaddle quickly with the sense of panic that can quickly seize a group of sheep, and run through them all with telepathic rapidity.
Our final session of serious hay making finished in late July, and I’m devoting a lot of images to capture the hugely impressive manual hay baler that was knocked up by our neighbour and fellow hay labourer for this year, Dave Bevan. Dave is shown below with us using the baler. 2 people can knock out a bale which is a very passable alternative to old style small bales in just a few minutes. Dave’s bales are just the right size to both fit 6 into my small ATV trailer, and about 8 on the base of a trailer he also knocked up from an old caravan chassis – what a clever chap he is!
… Using 2 pre-cut lengths of polypropylene baler twine, with a simple loop on one end, and designed to be tied so that they are re-usable next year…
… The twines are fixed on 2 hooks to the rear of the machine, (with careful supervision from the designer/maker)…
… then the twine is threaded over the top of the rear frame, and then internally to the bottom where it is held in place by the split hose and eye screws at the base of the machine. The long ends are then fed through the front door, which is closed and latched…
…More hay is added, then the twine is unhooked, and this pre-looped end is fed over the top of the compressed hay, and out through the gaps at the top of the front door. At this stage, you can’t get the bottom bit of twine to reach the loop, so the hay is pressed again, and held in place by the blue rope fixed above the front door……The 2 twines can now easily be tied with a slip loop knot……the rope released……the door catch opened, and hey presto, with a push from the back of the bale…… and with a pull on the twines, the bale emerges …
(The above are time lapse images…there is a simple hilarity in watching the actual process, speeded up – perhaps I can get it uploaded to You Tube sometime).
There’s a real satisfaction in seeing each bale emerge, the time old satisfaction in making something pleasing, and with a real value to the maker. The above images show us processing hay previously collected in Big Bags, though the machine can be used on a slope in a field, as Dave, Graham and Theresa demonstrate …
For all the cynics, it is indeed labour intensive, but for managing a small acreage of hay, where terrain precludes big machinery access, and for just in time weather dependent processing, its a really brilliant little near zero cost baler.
The Bevan Brilliant Baby Baler …
Next year we plan to build our own, so that with 4 people working the 2 balers, 2 others can keep them fed with loose hay. (Or rather the balers…)
Leached out, decades old, decayed detritus.
Memories of previous existence. Dusts rainbowed over muddy sludge.
As Ditch Water?
I thought that this concluded ant swarm events for 2014, having had the first obvious swarm event of black ants at the more usual time of the end of July, whilst hay making. However I happened to wander into our High meadow 3 days ago when the Yellow Meadow Ant, Lasius flavus, had decided that NOW was the right time to swarm. Swarming of most ant species is usually very tightly linked to favourable weather conditions, so that predators are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of above ground insects energing from multiple nests, and the winged form of the ants have the best chance to mate with genetically different groups, and disperse to set up new colonies. Even so, the mortality of young female queens is huge, though still not enough to dent the fact that the biomass of all the world’s ants currently exceeds that of all humans. But since queens can remain active egg layers for up to 15 years, only the odd one needs to survive to ensure species success…Lasius flavus are the most common ant hill forming species of meadow ants in the UK. Very large above ground nests can form over years, (about a litre of soil per year is shifted above ground, giving a hint at an ant hill’s age), but the ants themselves are rarely seen above ground. Unlike many other ant species, they rely on a symbiotic relationship with a very small number of species of root feeding aphids, kept in special chambers below the soil surface in the nests. The ants eat some of the weaker aphids as a protein source, and also eat the aphid’s sugary excretions as a carbohydrate source, within a mini ant created environment managed with almost agricultural like husbandry efficiency. And by so doing, create unique beneficial effects on the surrounding soil and vegetation.Click here and here for more.
Our largest ant hill was covered with mainly winged virgin queens, slowly making their way up the tallest grass stems…There were far fewer obvious winged males around, and even the occasional much smaller and wingless worker ant…But none of the queens seemed to be flying. Had I missed this? Were all the queens already mated, since this was quite late in the day? Maybe this is why I saw so few winged males, since mating is so violent that the male ant dies almost immediately afterwards. Click here for a bit more on basic ant anatomy.
There were even some queens without wings which were already starting to make attempts to dig underground to establish new colonies. In some species the wings snap off, sometimes they are chewed off, since they would clearly be unnecessary impediments for the rest of their lives spent below ground…I can see that a new field of interest could be opening up for me, to burrow into in more detail later (2 burrowing queens below) …
The following day, the same ant hill scene was completely ant free.
The annual mating ritual was completed.
Whilst clearing a section of one of our lower meadow ditches a couple of weeks back, I’d spotted a joined pair of red and yellow dragonflies dipping repeatedly along the narrow peaty ditch for egg laying. I was interested that the pair stayed linked for this – straightened out from the wheel configuration of copulation, but with the upper male seemingly in control of the flying, whilst the lower female hammered her ovipositor beneath the surface at appropriate points. Needless to say I didn’t have my camera with me, so the following day after collecting a couple of eggs from the poultry and placing them in my shorts for safe keeping, I picked up the camera and ditching hoe and headed back down for another hour or so of ditching effort. A Small Copper butterfly appeared, always a delight…With the sun rising, and the sweat falling I headed for the upper pond to see what Dragonflies were still around.
Have you ever tried photographing a Dragonfly?
Some species are cooperative and spend significant amounts of time resting and basking on the ground or low vegetation.These are fairly easy to photograph provided you remember 3 important points. Wear dull clothing (certainly not white tops), approach slowly, and ensure that your shadow doesn’t fall across them as you get close.But what about those majestic patrolling large dragonflies, that actually confront you close up, and clatter their wings audibly, as you enter their sphere of airborne supremacy? They do hover, but move so fast that my digital SLR and basic lenses have never succeeded in capturing an in flight image. So I opted for the Camcorder, with a more powerful zoom, but lower quality…
The problem with using this is the delayed shutter release when operating it in still capture mode. So I hoped for at least a few usable images if I took enough in the first place. But after crouching for several minutes to get the right angle to capture an insect against a background where it would be more visible, my knees complained, so I opted to lie on one side on the still slightly dewy damp grass.Much more comfortable, and easier for my hands to hold the camera still, and basically wait for a patrolling dragonfly to fly within the general area of where the camera was pointing. Click the shutter, and hope.
Another quarter of an hour or so, and I reckoned I’d maybe got one or 2 shots where the dragonfly was actually photographed in the frame. (Only later on screen was I able to work out what some of the species were… Common Darter -male and female, Black Darter and Southern Hawker).
Even better, I’d witnessed one of the large patrolling dragonflies zoom in on, and clatter aggressively into, a mating pair of smaller dragonflies, right in front of me at the pond’s margin. But was this fleeting moment captured in any clarity? It all happened so fast. Actually it wasn’t bad…you can see below the green/black/blue Southern Hawker attacking the back of the arched red male Common Darter, which is grasping the olive female Common Darter behind its head …
About half an hour later I was washing up, having climbed back to the house, and thought I must have splashed some water onto my shorts, since my right thigh was feeling wet. The day was warm, so I wasn’t too worried, but a few minutes later I realised that the damp patch was getting bigger, and liquid was trickling down my leg. The penny still hadn’t dropped, but once I’d put my hand in the short’s pocket and felt the broken shell, and seen the yellowy mess on my fingers, I remembered the eggs…
Finally just before the predicted rain materialised at last, I began selective weed wiping of soft rush in our wet valley bottom meadows.
I was encouraged to hear from a professional manager of small meadows and wilder terrain at the CMG meeting, that there are conditions when she has to resort to chemical use to manage certain weeds. Our own experience is that without a selective weed killer, our fields would still be shoulder high rush mono culture. So using a small window wiper with terry nappy wrapped around for extra absorbency, I set to work, with 2 sessions of tedium ahead of me? …The key is selective wiping, not spraying which would take out all the interesting wild flowers which are beginning to re emerge. So after about 4 hours worth of slow walking of the ditches, through about 7 acres, and then the upper pond field, I had all the emerging new soft rush growth covered. The regrowth in the fields themselves needs a little more growth before wiping – ideally 4 to 5 inches above grass level. This whole selective, though time consuming process uses minimal chemical.
… and then you find a new flowering plant colonising the basal peat of those simple ditches that we dug out last autumn, and I wrote about in ‘As Dull as Ditch Water’ (Click here for details).
I later identified it as Round-leaved Crowfoot (Ranunculus omiophyllus). I’m guessing that seeds had lain dormant in the peat for decades, waiting for exposure and light to burst into action. I’m sure many more new discoveries await us in the years ahead in this meadow.And after being lulled by the backdrop low trilling of a grasshopper warbler, unseen nearby, spot a little brown flash from the side of a South facing ditch bank, topped with emerging bluebells and on closer inspection, at ankle level, discover a small nest complete with a clutch of 4 tiny buff cream, flecked eggs. Possibly a warbler’s nest? Or Chiif Chaff? I’m afraid my bird identification skills are very limited. But how’s this for camouflage? Concentrate on the small vertical fern leaf centre bottom…
We had to ask Dave to confirm that a nest Fiona inadvertently exposed when clearing a rampant honeysuckle from the wire netting support for a rose was occupied by a song thrush, (which apparently are much rarer in these parts than their Mistle thrush cousins).At the time of first discovery it contained 3 of the most gorgeous blue turquoise eggs with black flecks. Fiona added some temporary additional greenery to one side, and the eggs hatched a few days later, but when I checked this morning, the ever present magpies, jays or carrion crows must have raided – the hen had left, and the nest was bare, revealing the superbly smooth mud lined bowl.
And of added interest, though perhaps not the best choice of adornment if one were wanting to conceal a nest, were these bright pink seeds, worked into the mossy external wall. Crocosmia perhaps? Or Euonymus? Any other ideas? And why include them? Are thrushes colour blind?
And finally the last week has seen 2 more spring marker events. On the 22nd, the first male Orange-tip butterfly was spotted in the garden, pausing on it’s favoured Aubretia for a fuel stop… and then last night, the 26th, the much anticipated first Cuckoo of 2015 was heard in the valley.