I have been busy setting up a second long electric fence across the Top Field in preparation for moving the sheep. Today I mowed under it along it’s length with the trimming scythe to stop it shorting out on the long vegetation.
The nature and management of this four acre field is different from the Trust’s more classically managed hay meadow, Cae Mari Jones.
Like Cae Mari Jones, it is shut up in late April / early May and allowed to grow away through the early summer. It’s flora is quite different. It is particularly rich in orchids, Cats Ear (Hypochaeris radicata) and Rough Hawkbit (Leontodon hispidus). In fact, there is very little grass in the middle of the field. The grassiest areas are near the hedges which receive extra nutrients from leaf fall.
From late May onwards we begin mowing patches for hay, choosing the lushest areas and avoiding the orchid rich places. Over the next two months we will mow about an acre of the field, before moving on to hay making in Cae Mari Jones in mid July.
Here is the point where the management diverges. The rest of the Top Field is left to stand all summer. The mature vegetation provides a haven for a multitude of invertebrates. When you walk through the noise of grasshoppers is loud and we have found creatures rarely recorded, such as glow worms. It presumably supports a large population of the small mammals that feed on invertebrates too, although we don’t generally see them. Barn owls certainly find it a lucrative hunting ground and the ghostly forms have been seen at dusk hunting over this field. Tawny owls are frequently heard. As the summer progresses, seed heads mature and flocks of small birds are seen taking advantage of the feast.
At times over the summer, this field may end up being one of the few areas of long vegetation left in the neighbourhood, as intensive silage cutting on the surrounding farms cuts 100’s of acres of grass over a few sunny days. Our slower progress with the scythe across Mari Jones, where hay cutting takes a couple of months, and our management of the Top Field ensures there is always a refuge on the Trust.
In most years, a neighbour brings in a herd of cattle in early September. They make short work of the years growth, and within a week the vegetation is short ready to go into the winter. The field is then used as winter grazing for our sheep, before the cycle begins again the next spring.
This field has very low fertility and a flower rich sward has been maintained without traditional hay cutting of the whole field for many years. The orchids in particular seem to have benefited from the introduction of cattle grazing and several species are now to be found in increasing profusion across the field.
As ever, things are evolving and changing. We have not had the neighbour’s cattle in this year. Instead I have divided the field into thirds with electric fencing and we are grazing it down with the sheep, who will be moved in rotation around the field.
We have also decided to get some cows of our own! Two 6 month old Shetland calves (www.shetlandcattle.org.uk) are expected to arrive next spring, with the plan being to rear the heifer on as a house cow. We hope that the addition of regular cattle grazing to all areas of the Trust will have real benefits for land management and biodiversity. We will make more full use of the available grazing and will make more hay but will still be aiming to manage the grass in such a way that a variety of sward heights is maintained at any one time. It will be interesting to monitor how the system evolves.