Look at many modern city developments – the Olympic Park for example – and the inclusion of swathes of nodding ‘wildflowers’ are an ever present feature. Bringing the countryside into the urban setting is evidently very fashionable at the moment.
But these enrichments of our urban environment are equally lacking in much of our countryside; there’s a need to inject nectar plants as much in our rural countryside as our city centres. The concept of a “green and pleasant land” is true only in terms of the aesthetic – much of England’s rolling hills, on closer inspection, are green deserts with very little ecological value.
40 years of donkey care
But, fortunately, that is not the case on our farms, as was evidenced by environmental assessments undertaken as part of our recent successful Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) application. The Donkey Sanctuary has some beautiful grassland in particular – none more so than in the heart of our main visitor site here at Slade House Farm, where the southern aspect of the Chalk Donkey Field is a certified County Wildlife Site for it botanical richness.
The secret to this fabulous flower meadow? 40 years of donkey grazing!
But we’re not resting on our laurels, and plans are in place through HLS to restore and recreate wildflower meadows (or species rich pasture) on much of our land, providing fabulous foraging for butterflies and bees in the process and bringing even more to the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty!
Not just letting the grass grow
Transforming a meadow into a wildflower haven is not as simple as leaving the grass to grow, but the simple process is equally easy to follow on a small patch of lawn, as it is a three hectare field, so there’s no reason you can’t create your own wild sanctuary in your back garden.
Firstly in the autumn you need to bash back the vigorous green grass, we do that with chain harrows and machinery, you can use a strong rake on a small patch of lawn. Then you need to carefully select your seed – if possible get seed from a locally-grown source as that will ensure the flower types match your soil, and you also retain a little genetic provenance too. But there’s no need to be too prissy about this; if an off-the-shelf packet of seeds is all you can get, that’s better than nothing at all and to be completely honest, the bees make no distinction.
Sow the flower seed mix, along with old fashioned grasses to create the meadow rather than a flower bed. Thin, weak grasses such as crested dog’s tail, meadow foxtail and timothy grass don’t grow as tall or thick as cultivated agricultural varieties and will ensure that your flowers get a good foothold. Once this seed mix has been introduced, then you can sit back and let the grass grow, as there will be delicate annual seedlings in there too which would be destroyed if you top it all off! Allow the area to grow up untouched through the early spring growing period and once it’s reached a few inches you could (depending on how large an area you’ve created) mow a shorter-cropped path through it so you can wander and admire your efforts. In the early years, annual meadow flowers are susceptible to trampling, so a mown path means you trample the same bit each time, rather than possibly squashing different flowers on every visit.
The late summer hay cut
We are just about to undertake the final stage of a meadow’s annual cycle on our wildflower restoration meadow here at Sidmouth, with a late summer cut being done as if we were making hay 100 years ago. The grass will be cut long and left on the field for a couple of days to dry before being raked up and removed – it’s important to cut back at the end of the year as otherwise grassland will become rank if left untouched and you’ll get a build-up of ‘weed’ species and, eventually, scrub.
Weed or wildflower?
Finally, on the subject of ‘weeds’ this is something of a prickly issue (especially with thistles).
Of course, strictly speaking a weed is just a wildflower growing in the ‘wrong’ place. So taking this to its logical conclusion, a wildflower meadow should have no such thing. Reality of course is different as there are plants such as creeping thistle and narrow leaved dock that will quickly dominate a field if left uncontrolled. In most small areas, pulling or cutting is the best method, and make sure you do this well before it produces seed or your interventions will be time wasted!
The end of year hay cut of our wildflower restoration meadow is scheduled to be undertaken with volunteer help later this month, and next year I will be on the lookout for willing volunteers to help me patrol our fabulous sanctuary on the lookout for undesirables, and pull them out of the meadow.
So if you like the idea of spending a few days in the Devon countryside next summer – get in touch now!