Hay meadows and other species rich grasslands once made up a large part of the landscape in the UK and played a vital role in our natural and cultural heritage. High nature value grasslands were found in every parish across the country but since the 1930s agricultural improvements have intensified, along with other developments, and today only 2% remain. Nearly 7.5 million acres of wildflower meadows have been lost so far and they are still under threat. What remains has become increasingly rare and fragmented so it is really important we maintain and revive the grasslands we have left.
Looking after these meadows involves no chemical inputs, e.g. fertilisers or pesticides, with grazing being the most natural method of managing the land. As the cattle graze across the landscape, they create a mosaic of different sward lengths, bare ground and micro habitats. They are also less selective in what they eat and don’t just target wildflowers like sheep do. This all contributes to maximising the potential for biodiversity on a grazed site.
Trampling creates areas of bare ground, which is beneficial in moderation. It creates nurseries for seedlings that might not otherwise survive and habitats and hunting grounds for warmth-loving invertebrates and reptiles.
Dung creates a whole ecosystem by itself. A range of wildlife move into a cowpat to set up home – more than 250 species of insect are found in or on cattle dung in the UK and these in turn provide food for birds, badgers, foxes and bats.
As part of my role I manage three sites, all of which have hay meadows and rhos pasture (wet meadows) among other grassland habitats that are of high nature value. One of these is Lanlay meadows near Cardiff.
Grazing is an important part of the management of Lanlay. Without this method of control, the vegetation would soon become rank and we would eventually lose some of the plants that make this site so special. It has been a challenge to find a grazier for the site as it is small and tucked away, but this year we have finally managed it!
The cattle seem to have settled in nicely and are doing a really good job of munching on an invasive species called Himalayan balsam – which has spread through the wet fields in particular and is threatening to shade out lots of our native plant species. We also cut the hay fields once a year in late summer (mid-late July or early August). If we did it earlier it would prevent meadow plants from setting seed. The cut grass is then dried on the field. Turning and drying the hay on the fields lets more seeds to be shed and afterwards in late summer we allow the cattle in for grazing.
How can you help?
Are you a regular dog walker at Lanlay? If so you could keep an eye on the cattle for us to make sure they are all healthy and safe. Please get in touch if you notice any issues on 07483 905537 or 01874 625515. Training may be available in stock checking if you are interested in monitoring regularly.
At another of our sites, Berthlwyd Farm near Ystradfellte (Waterfall country), we are having a free open day in the meadows on Saturday 1st July. This is a unique opportunity and rare occasion as the farm is not usually open to the public. National Meadows Day is a celebration of traditional meadows across the country and there will be activities for all the family including bug hunts, soil printing and meadow bingo. There will also be guided walks, flower surveys and moth trapping. It’s a free, drop in event so come along and take a look at what traditional, unspoilt hay meadows should really look like – full of colour and life. For more information check out our Facebook page.
Jess, Conservation and Engagement Ranger