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  • Writer's pictureAlistair

Beating back the grass and giving wild flowers a better chance …

Over the last 10 months or so we have done various things to help turn the top, most “improved” fields (i.e. those closest to a bright green grass monoculture) into wild flower friendly areas. And eventually into full on wild flower meadows.

Back in July (see blog from 18 July) we mowed, raked and baled hay from around 20 of these fields. We left a much wider than normal margin of grass in a wibbly wobbly line near the hedges as these parts of the field tend to have the best seed bank (the hedges gave some protection from the sheep who would previously have grazed the grass) and also to allow the hedge to spread, with black thorn and the like popping up in these strips. By taking the grass off we were removing nutrients, which grass really needs but which don’t really help wild flowers. If I’d have put animals on, a fair bit of the nutrition would have gone back into the field as sheep droppings or cow pats. So, mow and remove was the idea.

And then in December (see blog from 15 December), we mowed one of the fields again, muddied it up and scattered some (alas expensive) wild flower meadow seed from the Welsh Botanic Gardens to see what would take. The good news is that Yellow Rattle is beginning to grow there and as that is a grass parasite it should really help take that field back from being pure grass (and hopefully neighbouring fields as the seed spreads).

(Left/Top: Yellow Rattle coming through in the seeded field,

Right/Bottom: Cuckoo Flower in more shaded / damper fields)

While the field we planted with the wild flower meadow seed is doing “best”, some of the fields with less sun light and damper conditions are also showing increased diversity with (and it is still very early in the season) lessor celandine, dandelions and cuckoo flower all coming up strongly. However, the drier, sunnier fields at the top are still looking too green. So, Rob, our helpful ecologist, suggested that we mow these fields and get more nutrients off now. Any wild flower growth is clearly still very low, so by cutting at 5cm or so we will not damage these but will weaken the grass and remove those nutrients.

So, Robert, my neighbour, arranged for local contractor Keith to come and mow, rake and bale six of those top fields. A little unusual for Keith as not much baling work at this time of year with the sheep population in Wales having trebled in the last 2 months of lambing meaning plenty of hungry mouths to feed direct from the field. I walked the fields as Keith mowed and we created a wider wibbly wobbly border than last July, plus cut a few corners in the places where the cuckoo flowers were growing strongly. Robert and Keith were pleasantly surprised with the grass which (given it had been left to grow and fall over in the winter) was remarkably green. This meant it was worth bagging as sileage. It can therefore be stored and used as winter feed by Robert. Had it been as poor as had been expected it would literally have been left to compost in the corner of a field and the economics of the project would have been somewhat worse! As you would expect, with spring growth only just under way, the yield was under half what we got in July, with most fields yielding four bales.

Left to Right: Mow, Rake and Bale

An aside. As a new-comer I find the economics of the whole contracting business fascinating. Keith drives fast and there is a reason for that. The kit (tractor, mowers, rakes, collectors, balers) gets “better” every year, and with that gets more expensive. That tractor would set you back between £70,000 and £100,000. Over the course of 6 hours, I would have had close to £500,000 worth of kit working in those six fields (in the afternoon for baling there were two tractors). Only a huge estate can justify that kind of investment unless they can put the assets to use elsewhere. So, farmers like Keith contract their services out to finance the kit and often end up as pure contractors. But demand is not year-round. Most of the year the machinery might be unused, so many a contractor is a part-time plumber or chippie. No one is mowing over the winter, for example. But, when the time is right, everyone wants the job done at the same time. And the contractor has to meet the finance payments, as practically no one will purchase the machinery outright. So, you drive fast and use every daylight hour (and then put the lights on) when the demand is there. But still contractors seem to go bust with alarming regularity. And those that survive are on the manufacturer / finance company treadmill … new kit every three years. I’m not sure who the winner is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the contractor. Are farmers just too seduced by shiny new kit for their own good? I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

Anyway, hopefully, as well as providing a day’s work for Keith, we are wearing the grass down and giving more interesting flora a fighting chance, but realistically this is going to take a while.


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