It’s officially Spring, yet at this time of year the wildflower meadows are keeping the glory to come well hidden. A combination of autumn grazing by our two cows, followed by winter grazing by our flock of sheep has left the vegetation short. It looks unpromising now but it is all ready to grow away with the warmer weather.
The role of grazing in the management of wildflower meadows
Autumn and winter grazing is an important part of the management of wildflower meadows. Grazing animals improve the sward structure, open up gaps with their hooves and remove excess vegetation. If the meadows are left ungrazed after the hay cut there will be a long regrowth of vegetation going into the winter. This tends to collapse and over time builds up a thatch at the bottom of the sward. The thatch makes mowing with a scythe more tricky come haying time and, as it prevents access to the soil, is detrimental to the establishment of wildflower and grass seed.
Care must be taken to avoid excessive poaching of the ground (breaking up of the surface by animal hooves). Small areas are somewhat unavoidable and can be beneficial in that they create opportunities for plants to establish in bare ground. Large areas however can cause damage to vegetation, compaction and allow the establishment of weeds such as docks.
Alternatives to grazing
Whilst grazing is the prefered management option, it is possible to get some of the benefits by carrying out additional cuts of the meadow after the removal of the hay crop. Philip and his scythe manage a small meadow for a neighbour in this way.
Late summer and autumn cuts can be used to remove aftermath growth, aiming to leave a short sward going into the winter. One cut would be the minimum, more will be more beneficial. When working out the timing of the last cut on a meadow it is worth bearing in mind that there is usually a strong flush of growth in the autumn. An early spring cut can also be used to control growth on a high fertility site or if you didn’t manage to get the meadow short in the autumn.
The moles have been busy too, adding to the generally unpromising view over the hay fields. Soon it will be time to flatten out the hills, clear off the remains of fodder fed to the animals and generally tidy up. The livestock is being moved off the meadows to allow the vegetation to grow and a beautiful flush of green is appearing.
Meanwhile, the cows are still enjoying the hay cut from these very meadows last summer, whilst they await turnout and their first bite of fresh, green grass.