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  • Writer's pictureAlistair

Getting wild flowers back with help from my farming neighbour

Updated: Sep 3, 2021



Around 20 of the fields at Cefn Garthenor are what might be called “semi-improved”. That means they contain not much more than bright green grass, a lot of it rye, and have had nutrients added to make the mono-culture thrive. These are the smaller, drier fields at the top of the land, which drain more freely, and probably make up 25% of the whole area. They are what most people think of when you say “field” and many farmers would consider them to be the best part of the farm.


From my perspective they are the least interesting. There is little biodiversity, and the best of that is in the hedgerows. It is not natural, rather a man (and sheep) made construct. Over the years the sheep on the land have virtually eliminated wild flowers. They are selective grazers and pick off any flower (sweet and tasty) coming up, as well as any tiny saplings that might have popped a leaf or two above the soil. They have thin mobile lips which nibble very close to the ground, creating the bald green hillsides we are used to seeing across much of Wales. Only the grass is strong enough to survive, helped by the nutrients added by farmers over the years. Grass thrives on nutrients, whereas wild flowers do just fine on nutrient poor soil.


If I can get wild flowers back I will attract insects, and they will attracts birds and small mammals, and the rest will follow. The question is how to do it? One option is just to leave well alone. Not a terrible option. The grass will grow and fall over. Great for small mammals, as it provides cover. However, this will not provide much space or light for wild flowers. So I decided to mow the centre of the fields and take the cut off as hay. The idea is to leave the areas nearest the hedges (3 to 5 metres) that have the best seed bank. Hedges provide safe space for wild flowers (sheep can’t nibble and farmers don’t fertilise), and their seeds are naturally scattered most densely close by. Over time (and this could take five years), the grass will soak up the nutrients and with each cut the wild flowers will have a better chance.


I could prepare the ground and plant wild flower seed (perhaps using a green hay), even going for a real grass competitor such as yellow rattle, but Rob and Derek advise me that for now that could be wasting money … the grass will win in nutrient rich soil. So, it is a war of attrition for now. Sheep off, grass cut, and gradually, with the soil bereft of added nutrients, wild flowers should win.


So, cutting and removing the grass is the decision. The problem is I have no kit to do 20 fields, and not much use for the resulting hay. However, I have a great neighbour on a farm next door. Robert and his wife Julia run a similar sized farm to Cefn Garthenor with sheep and cattle. I first met Robert one wet and windy night soon after I moved in. He knocked on my door and was a sight to behold; he really was the wild man of Wales, looking like a biblical prophet with long grey hair and a big beard, all blowing around in the wind and rain. He had forsaken shaving and hair cutting to raise money for a cancer charity. Robert and Julia have been incredibly helpful, and if they think I am entirely mad they have kept it to themselves! So, Robert and I did a trade … he would mow my fields in the way I wanted (with a 3 to 5m wibbly wobbly border) in return for getting most of the resulting hay (I would get a small barn full).


Robert, temporarily wild man of Wales thanks to a sponsored spurt of hair and beard growth! His beard was probably longer than my grass ...

That is what happened. Robert has 200 large, round bales and I have got the fields cut and have started the process of getting more wild flowers back. The idea might be another cut in March, weather permitting, to further weaken the grass and give light and space for new flowers to come up in spring 2022.

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