News and blog Friday's Farming Thoughts Entry #7 - Becky Hughes: Making the Most of Meadows A meadow is traditionally a field of grass and flowers that was mown for hay, a practice with roots as far back as the Iron Age, when people first started making tools and keeping livestock. A traditional hay meadow is an important wildlife habitat, with a community of wild flowers and native grasses evolved to suit the specific local conditions, as well as a complicated interlinked network of soil organisms from bacteria and fungi to micro and macro fauna, unique to time and place. Traditional meadows can range from unimproved fields in the upland fringes, to damp floodplain meadows that are regularly inundated by rivers. Each meadow type hosts its own particular assemblage of indicator plant species, and associated insects, mammals, reptiles and birds that have adapted to those specific conditions. True unimproved species-rich meadows are now rare and protected as priority habitats. Within modern farming systems, there are reasons to protect and enhance meadow grasslands for wildlife, soil health, climate resilience and farm productivity. The flowers and grasses of a hay meadow will provide pollen, nectar and larval food for pollinating insects over a long season;the dung from grazing animals will support insects, bats and birds, the grassy sward will house insects and mammals over winter and protect soil from damage, as well as protecting the traditional landscape and cultural heritage of our countryside. Traditional meadows, and the species that inhabit them , can provide diverse and nutrient-rich feed for livestock, whether as baled hay or standing hay, which is known as ‘foggage’. Aftermath grazing can also be an important source of healthy forage. The soil and root interaction will lock up a lot of carbon in the soil, and management with very limited nutrients and no cultivation will protect soil health and reduce nutrient loss to air and water. How to get more flowers in your meadow! Grassland communities can evolve relatively slowly, and if the seed bank in your meadow fields is fairly limited, you could be waiting for years for more species to appear naturally. You can fast-forward this process by introducing seed, ideally from a local source to protect genetic diversity. You can spread or even feed green hay in the late summer and autumn and graze the field lightly over winter. Grassland management is crucial; we need to balance grass growth with wildflower productivity. Meadow flowers are generally perennials, and don’t solely rely on setting seed each year to persist in your meadow, but can easily become overwhelmed by grass. The way you manage your meadow depends on soil type and fertility, local environmental conditions, plus the composition of your meadow and the tools available to you – sadly there is no simple answer!However, generally speaking you will be looking at an early spring cut to remove lush grass growth and encourage wildflowers to germinate and grow. A mid to late summer cut will give time for flowers to bloom and insects to thrive but still removing biomass from the field, as well as aftermath grazing to continue to suppress grass growth, trample in seeds and add organic matter. How to monitor your meadow You can keep an eye on the health and status of your meadow with regular monitoring. A wildflower walkover survey will help you ascertain the species diversity. You can also compare your plant records with priority habitat lists (or your neighbour’s meadow!) to see what indicator species you may be missing, and what you could consider importing. You can also take soil samples, this doesn’t need to be done frequently, as the status of your soil will change very slowly, but it will be interesting to compare pH levels and organic matter content, for example, with your more conventional fields. A soil structure assessment could be useful too, especially if the meadow is recently reverted, this may uncover historic compaction in the field, which may compromise the soil health & function of the field for drainage, flood storage and carbon sequestration. You can also compare soil biology communities at this stage, perhaps by looking at earthworm numbers. Finally, forage analysis of a hay sample will reveal the valuable nutrition that good quality forage could provide;top quality hay has an energy value comparable to good silage, but provides extra micro-nutrients and fibre that can be very valuable for livestock health. All things considered, having traditionally managed meadows in your farm doesn’t just provide benefits for wildlife and landscape, it can be an important element of livestock health and will help you move towards a regenerative approach to land management. If you want more help on assessing your meadow, and developing a plan for future management, get in touch with FWAG SouthWest! Meadows are very special to me personally. I happen upon a traditional meadow sometimes in the most hidden and unexpected places on farms. Farmers care for these precious grassland habitats as a time-honoured tradition, not particularly because of incentives or payments, but just because they are beautiful and so important to our countryside heritage. I feel these grasslands deserve more recognition for their wider significance; we need to preserve and expand them and we must do this not just as a relic, as a vital part of the modern landscape. Thank you to these farmers, your paving the way for others to do the same, and for advisers to assist with this. It’s always a pleasure to walk through a hay meadow and enjoy the peace, the wildlife, and the sound of the wind whipping through the grass. It’s not something many people get to experience and every time I am standing in a meadow I feel so deeply lucky, it's almost like going back in time! You may not be aware, but Saturday 4th July (tomorrow as this is posted) is National Meadows Day! You can find out more via this link... Please post your meadow pictures in the comments below!