Beginners’ Guide

orchids

Answers to the most frequently asked questions from people starting out. The answers are not definitive but give an overview for complete beginners.

Why does a wildflower meadow need cutting at all? Can’t it just be left?

If you do not remove the grass from a meadow at least once a year, new grass will grow through the old and it will, within two or three years, get tussocky and matted and wildflowers will not be able to survive in the thicket of grass. Most land generally wants to revert to woodland. Without any intervention it would soon start to become scrub, bramble and trees.

What options are there for cutting and removing the grass and when is the best time?

There are various ways of removing fully grown grass. If you have a farmer nearby who cuts and bales their own meadows for hay or silage they might be willing to cut yours as well. If your site is too steep to cut, too wet, or inaccessible to machinery, then grazing with livestock, often borrowed for the purpose, is the other option. Alternatively, if you have a small area, you could scythe or strim it, leaving it for a couple of days to dry off, then rake it off.

Is it important when you cut and/or graze?

Yes. The meadow needs to be allowed to grow up into long grass and the wildflowers to flower. This means closing the gate to the meadow to livestock and machinery from generally March through to at least June. When it is cut varies a great deal and depends on the weather conditions and whether you are leaving the wildflowers to set seed that year (in which case it could be cut as late as the end of August). When you cut does have an effect on the plant species; cutting every year in early June means annual meadow plants like yellow rattle will be removed before they have had a chance to set seed. Repeated late cuts in August will favour more dominant later flowering species like common knapweed.

If you are managing your meadow in particular for its wildlife – long grass and an abundance of flowers are a fantastic wildlife habitat – then the later the cut the better, benefitting butterflies and other insects like grasshoppers, crickets and beetles. This is not always feasible if you are using a contractor to cut your meadow for its hay or silage crop. They will often want to cut your grass in early summer when it is more nutritionally valuable to livestock. You can mitigate the loss of wildlife habitat by leaving at least 2 metres, if not more, of uncut margins (known as ‘headlands’) around the edge of the meadow.

Does the grass necessarily need to be removed once it is cut?

If the cut vegetation is not removed it will lay in a thick heap and start to compost. If it’s very thickly laid down it will kill off the plants underneath it and it will add to the nutrient level of the soil, which will only encourage even more grass and less wildflowers! If it is cut by a tractor it needs to be baled as well. If it is cut with a scythe, allen scythe or strimmed, this needs to be raked off. Leave it for two or three days if you can and it’ll dry off and be much lighter work to rake up. You can create a compost heap with it, or you could, if you wanted to, make your own hay and bale it into mini bales.

How do I increase the quantity of wildflowers in my meadow?

Unless your land has been intensively managed with artificial fertiliser, that is with chemical rather than livestock dung, or has been ploughed and reseeded in recent history, you may find that you already have a wildflower meadow but it is not showing yet. With a change in the timing of cutting and/or grazing, plants can suddenly appear from your meadow soil seed bank. The seed of many species live for years and will grow if given the right conditions. If you are keen to get started you can introduce seed onto any bare patches in the autumn – molehills are especially good.

Where should I get seed from? Does it need to be locally sourced?

Many meadow owners in the group offer free seed from their meadow to those who want smaller quantities for seeding any bare patches. Also seed from species rich meadows, in the form of green or dried hay bales, is often available and announced on the meadows email exchange. It’s best to use seed sourced locally as often it’s more economic to do so, it’s viable and it’ll suit the local conditions. What’s more, it’ll help preserve the identity and character of the local flora. Seed collected from one site needs to go to a site with similar characteristics i.e. seeds collected from a boggy damp meadow needs to go to a site with similar soil conditions.

Can I just scatter seed over the existing grass?

Seeds need to make contact with bare soil in order to germinate. On a small scale, you can simply scatter seed onto any mole hills or bare patches of ground poached by livestock or machinery. On a larger scale, you will need to create at least 50% bare soil, either by rotavating or harrowing. Generally, it will take about two years before you start to see different perennial plants appearing but you will see yellow rattle in the first year.

I’ve heard yellow rattle is the plant I need to encourage more flowers in a meadow. What does it do?

Yellow rattle is an annual native wild flower which is partially parasitic on grasses and therefore reduces the grasses vigour (it does not kill the grass) allowing other wildlflowers to establish. To see its effect in a meadow, see this 3 minutes long video by Plantlife:

 

Should I find out what I’ve got growing in my meadow already before doing anything radical?

The short answer is yes. The type of grass you have growing in your meadow will determine whether you can have a diverse range of flowers – or not. Certain grasses like perennial rye grass and cocksfoot are aggressive plants and if your field has them as the dominant grass species then the wildflowers will be unable to co-exist with them, even if you introduced yellow rattle. If you want help with finding out what plant species you’ve got already then consider an assessment survey. Moor Meadows can offer a free base line survey of the key species if you live on Dartmoor, or in the vicinity. If you are interested in this, contact Donna via our contact page, a meadow maker from Buckfastleigh, for more information.

If you would like an ecological survey and a management plan, then the following people and organisations can help:

Ecological surveys

Devon Wildlife Consultants provides a wide range of ecological services. A professional ecologist will visit the site and provide you with a botanical survey and a management plan. The cost is flexible depending on the level of advice required, but expect £30 per hour or £225 per day for non-development work. DWC gift aids its profits to support the Wildlife Trust’s charitable work. It works with a wide range of clients including community groups and private individuals.  For further information contact Li-Li Williams: Phone 01392 455930 or email lwilliams@devonwildlifetrust.org

Meadow restoration and creation consultant, Sue Everett, is an ecologist specialising in wildlife habitat restoration, especially restoring and creating wildflower grasslands at the large and small scales, conservation site management and farm environment planning. Contact Sue at meadowmaker@gmail.com or phone 07779 204015.

Wildlife surveys

John Walters is a Dartmoor based naturalist. You may have seen him on Springwatch or Hugh’s Wild West or many other nature programmes. John can carry out an ecological survey for you, looking for butterflies, moths, crickets, beetles and flies. He will follow up with a list of what he’s found so you have a snapshot record of the life in your meadow. Charges: £150. To book John for a summer survey (May-June), email studio@johnwalters.co.uk

Local contacts who can help you manage your meadow and its boundaries

We are building a list of local contacts. See the list here.

More Meadow Creation and Management help and information

Meadow grasses

How to Create a New Meadow

You’ve a rye grass pasture and you’d like more wildflowers? Or you’re interested in creating species rich grassland on ex arable land?

A meadow

How to Restore a Meadow

Meadow expert Sue Everett tells you how to restore a grassland back to a species rich meadow

A buttercup lawn

How to Create a Meadow in Your Garden

A simple guide to turning your lawn into a wildlife-friendly garden meadow

Wild Carrot, Daisies and Vetches

Types of Meadow

A guide to some of the different kinds of meadow you can find on Dartmoor

cinnabar moth caterpillars on ragwort

Have a Question?

What’s that plant in my meadow? When should I cut if I want to help butterflies? How can I manage my bracken problem? Has anyone got any yellow rattle seed?