Hay Meadows

by Jane Firth

All images © Jane Firth

Hay Meadows in history

Records of hay meadows go back to ancient Britain and the first farmers who cleared the trees to create open grassland. By the 11th century 80% of settlements were recorded in the Domesday Book as having hay meadows. The traditions and management practices that created these meadows are part of our cultural heritage but, since the Second World War, 97% of hay meadows have been lost. Along with the meadows themselves, the abundant bird, mammal and invertebrate species that evolved alongside the meadows are also disappearing.

What does a well-managed hay meadow provide?

  • Sheltered grazing for ewes and lambs in Spring

  • Autumn grazing for cattle, who tread in the seeds and break up the sward

  • Winter fodder in the form of mineral-rich, species-abundant hay

  • Habitat for ground-nesting and seed-eating birds, as well as many small mammals and invertebrates

Why have hay meadows disappeared?

In lowland areas, it is often the application of nitrogen or excess organic fertilisers that has caused the decline of the species-rich meadow. This is because most hay-meadow species prefer a nutrient-poor soil. However, on fell farms, the addition of artificial or organic fertiliser tended to be less because the meadows are on marginal hill land where it is expensive and inappropriate to apply fertiliser [1] .

In addition to the advent of artificial fertiliser, the invention of big-bale silage has accelerated the decline of hay meadows since the 1980s. Making hay is weather-dependent requiring four days to cut, dry and bale. In contrast, making silage by baling and wrapping the bales in plastic can be done in two days.

Silage is generally made earlier in the season than hay and, as a result, the traditional hay-meadow flowering plants may not have time to set seed. The combination of later spring grazing by ewes and lambs (well into May) and early cutting has led to losses of important species. The annuals such as Yellow Rattle and Eyebright, which are both parasitic on grasses and suppress their growth, are grazed out. Early perennials such as Wood Crane’s Bill and Lady’s Mantle are also grazed, whereas later perennials such as Great Burnet and Black Knapweed do not get a chance to set seed due to early cutting. [2] [3]

Hay Meadow Restoration

Both the Cumbria Wildlife Trust and the Friends of the Lake District are involved in hay meadow restoration in partnership with local farmers.

To begin the soil is tested as low nutrient levels are essential to diverse flora. This may seem counter-intuitive, but species-rich hay meadows flourish where there is low soil fertility. Hay meadow plants such as Wood Crane’s Bill and Globeflower tolerate low soil nutrients. If the soil is too fertile (or had high levels of manure spread), then the fast-growing grasses out-compete the hay meadow plants.[4]

Next, suitable donor fields are identified to collect “green hay” that is then used to seed the field to be restored. The recipient field is prepared by harrowing to create bare patches for the seed, the "green hay' is spread and the field is then rolled to ensure the seed is embedded in the soil. Plug planting may be used to increase species diversity.

In subsequent years, there are no additional fertiliser inputs, sheep are removed onto the open fells by about early May, and hay cutting is in late July. Every fourth or fifth year cutting is delayed until late August to ensure that the species that seed latest get a chance to do so. Leaving the hay to dry ensures that the invertebrates escape back into the ground.

Benefits to the farmers include high quality, mineral rich hay, increased organic matter in the soil and increased biodiversity.[5]

Ullswater gems

There are hay meadows in the Ullswater valley that are not necessarily part of a restoration project. Fields exist that have had minimal fertiliser inputs and grazing as well as late, if any, cutting, resulting in species-rich meadows that include Yellow Rattle, Eyebright, Red Clover and many more.

One gem is Watermillock church yard. “Originally the whole churchyard was cut for hay with a small Ferguson tractor and cutter bar, yielding 30 small bales. Modern machinery is too large to use in the churchyard so other ways had to be devised to manage the area. Tommy Coulthard has managed the churchyard for 48 years, cutting paths through the sward in the oldest part of the churchyard in different routes each year. This allows grasses and wildflowers to grow and set seed before the whole area is cut in autumn with a brush cutter, and the swath removed. It is one of the nicest churchyards in Cumbria and well worth a visit in high summer to see the orchids and other wild flowers” [6].

So if you are out and about in the valley in June and July, look out for an abundance of wild flowers and take the Cumbria Wildlife Trust leaflet on Identifying Hay Meadow Flowers with you!

by Jane Firth

Watermillock Church and Hay Meadow

[1] 'Going for gold (purple and pink) in 2012' Results from five years of hay meadow restoration in Cumbria, Claire Cornish and Jackie Hooley, Cumbria Wildlife Trust. https://www.cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-05/hay-meadow-restoration-going-for-gold-paper-2012.pdf

[2] See Cornish and Hooley above

[3] Identifying Hay Meadow flowers is a leaflet published by Cumbria Wildlife Trust (Cumbria’s Hay Meadow Project). https://www.cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-05/identifying-hay-meadow-flowers-leaflet.pdf

[4] Creating an upland hay meadow or wildflower plot, North Peninnes AONB partnership. https://www.northpennines.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Creating-an-upland-hay-meadow-or-wildflower-plot.pdf

[5] See Cornish and Hooley above

[6] https://www.cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-05/meadow-walks-guide-leaflet.pdf

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