Although it does not feel like it, spring will be upon us soon.
Whether you have acres of grassland or a wildlife patch in the corner of your allotment, this is an ideal time to plan how you will manage your meadow over the coming year.
Below are some tasks to get started on soon and others to think about in the seasons to come. When the cold finally lifts, you will be ready to go!
At this time of year our hay meadows look very different from the glorious flowery summer days to come. Livestock have grazed the vegetation down short. The fields are littered with blown branches and the moles have been hard at work. But this “Cinderella” stage is an important part of the meadow’s cycle.
Keeping it short
As I have written about here short vegetation over winter is beneficial to the meadow.
If a meadow is cut only once, in late summer, it is likely to go into the winter with a reasonable length of vegetation. This is especially true on the warmer west coast of the UK. Grass growth carries on late into the autumn and may not stop at all in a mild winter.
This longer vegetation tends to collapse over the winter. New spring growth grows up through it and over time a “thatch” develops at the bottom of the grass. This makes summer scything harder and can hinder the establishment of wildflowers. Plants such as Yellow Rattle require gaps and a short, open sward to germinate well
If you do not have access to winter grazers, meadows can be given an autumn cut (removing the mowings). If you did not manage to get out and cut then it can still be done in late winter, or even now, assuming your meadow is not covered in snow!
Tidying Up (after the moles)
And then there are the moles hills! Unless you are planning on making haylage or silage, where soil contamination can lead to Listeriosis in livestock, mole hills are more of an inconvenience then a problem.
Soil contamination is not an issue with hay, or if you are simply planning on removing mowings to a compost heap / garden /orchard etc. Moles are as much a part of the meadow ecology as any flower or insect . I would rather work around them then try and reduce their numbers.
I have written a lot about dealing with mole hills in the past. In short, we flatten the mole hills as late as we dare in spring. This greatly reduces the number that need to be mown around in the summer.
We ignore them in fields that we don’t mow – spring lambs enjoying leaping on them and flatten a fair number, others gradually grass over and add to the three dimensional nature of the field.
Making a plan
There are many ways that the cutting of a meadow can be approached. Factors such as the size of your meadow, the plants you want to encourage and the end use you have for any mowings will affect your planning.
Making hay….or not
If you will be mowing the meadow simply to control grass growth and encourage plant diversity, you will be less constrained by the weather. You can even scythe in the rain if you want to.
If you are planning to make hay, weather will be more of a factor. Given our changeable summers, knowing how to make hay in unsettled weather can be a bonus!
Slow and steady
In general, we encourage people to cut little and often, spreading mowing over a long season. This way of working really suits the scythe and most people find it more physically sustainable. It can create a greater diversity of flowering species in a meadow over all.
Early cutting will promote species such as Red Clover (Trifolium pratense), while late cutting favors plants such as Knapweed (Centaurea nigra). Some species such as Cat’s Ear (Hypochaeris radicata) and Rough Hawksbit (Leontodon hispidus) will re-flower if cut early, prolonging the overall flowering of a meadow.
The slow and steady approach goes hand in hand with making an early start in the mowing season, especially if you have large areas to mow.
Standard advice has been that hay meadows should be mown after about 15th July. We begin mowing at the end of May and mow on right through the summer, sometimes finishing up in September if it has been a poor hay making summer.
This gives us plenty of time to get the work done, making use of the weather when it comes. We can make some high quality, low volume spring hay and some bulkier but lower quality late summer hay. Progressive mowing promotes greater diversity across the meadows.
For more details about progressive mowing,
see this article.
Having decided how and when you are going to cut it is time to make sure your equipment is ready.
In the next article I will be looking at getting your scythe ready for the mowing season and how to choose the best blade for each task.