Charlotte Oliver

South Hams

Charlotte's managing her fields as hay meadows and is rewarded with orchids, sweet hay and a host of insects, moths and butterflies.

I came to know our meadows when they were bought by Landmatters Co-op in 2003. There are seven fields on our holding, each expressing a slightly different history and conditions, and all bounded by very old hedgerows.  The previous owners had farmed them for many years and the fields all ran together so the sheep and cows that grazed them could roam free, including through the woods to their only water source in the stream on our boundary.

All I know of the past management was that the fields were dressed with lime occasionally and sometimes cut for hay.

When we bought the land we asked the farmer to continue grazing from October to February and cutting in summer as he had been – we had no experience, animals or machinery to draw on – and I started learning about managing meadows for wild flowers, scything and hay making.  The management regime – a local farmer cutting hay (usually in July, or when the Yellow Rattle rattles) and bringing sheep – is a balancing act between the needs of the sheep, the needs of the Co-op for use of the space, the encouragement of flower species, plus The Weather.

I was rewarded with the arrival of orchids, sweet hay and a host of insects, moths and butterflies.

Early Purple Orchids

Although they are not ancient meadows and are graded as semi-improved, they have a wide range of grasses and flowers, some more dominant in one field than another.  I have never put lime on and I don’t think they’ve seen fertilizer for decades, if ever, so the species are typical of borderline acid grassland.

We have had many visitors to our permaculture project and the meadows have played an important role in providing accessible space for people to stay, study and play.  There are huge views towards Dartmoor, and in May buttercups and bluebells form a shimmering mosaic atop the grass on the slope to the woods.  A sense of calm and warmth rises from the earth.  Summer is obviously the season for meadows, but I also love them in winter.  Lying on the ground in full waterproofs is a peaceful pleasure enhanced by the rhythm of the grazing sheep.  Watching how and where they graze has taught me a lot about the nature of our meadows.

Wondering what that strange insect will do once it has arrived at the top of the blade of grass affords me deep appreciation of all the life that they support.

I love how grass is both simple and incredibly complex, easy to manage but difficult to control, and I know I could be learning until the end of time about the dynamic ecosystem we call meadows.

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