Monday, 18 July 2005

Recreating meadows

A success story

Over the weekend I got some heartening news. A friend phoned earlier in the week to say he had heard a Corn Crake calling in a meadow he had created a few years ago. What should he do? I suggested he phone the RSPB, who after initial skepticism, having heard a tape recording came rushing round. It was indeed a male Corn Crake, and the RSPB also caught the bird, and established the fact that it was not one of the birds that had been released into the wild as part of a reintroduction programme. It was not ringed. Which all goes to show, if you create the right habitat, then wildlife can, and often will, flourish. The hay meadows were created out of arable fields, and are now mown, then grazed by sheep, as part of measures to increase the biodiversity of the are. And as further proof, as drove to the field on Sunday evening to hear the Corn Crake, there was also a hobby hunting in the dusk, chasing the swallows and martins that were feeding on the myriad insects that were found there.

DIY Meadows

On a much small scale, I have been managing a two acre field, to try and create a flower rich sward. Less than two years ago, when we moved in the field was completely overgrown and dominated by thistles and nettles, with barely any grass visible, and almost no other flowering plants. The autumn we moved in I had the field mown twice, just before the thistles set seed and soon after, when they had regrown. Grass immediately began to flourish and for the next three months I used a 'spud' to remove as many of the isolated thistles and nettles, and a mower to keep the dense patches under control. By early in the new year, grass was dominating, and we introduced a 'flock' of sheep. Four Shetlands and a Jabob. All small, very hardy breeds. By the end of the winter, they had done a great job and grazed the ground to a close short turf -- in fact we were having to supplement their diet with hay and other feeds. Sheep have little pointed hooves, and some areas of the new meadow became severely poached, and so having made arrangements to rent another field for grazing, we also acquired a llama. The idea was that llamas are much larger, and consume more vegetation, but have padded feet, so weight for weight (or biomass) cause less damage to the turf. And they also have a great advantage over sheep in that they deposit their dung in heaps. Good for the garden and good for nutrient reduction in the meadows.

Reducing Nutrients

One of the key actions needed in creating a flower rich meadow, is reducing the nutrient levels in the soils, otherwise grasses will dominate. There has been a lot of research carried out, and in some cases most of the topsoil has been removed in order to create a flower-rich meadow. It is early day to decide whether or not llama grazing is effective, but it will be interesting to know if any of the people keeping llamas and alpacas (of which there are quite a number in Britain and North America now) have observed any changes in the flora.

Implications for Nature reserves

Many nature reserves, both managed by English Nature, and those managed by RSPB, local Wildlife Trusts and others now have grazing animals as part of their management regime. Usually they use sheep, but Polish Koniik ponies (popularly referred to as Tarpans -- which are actually extinct) and sometimes cattle are used. The problem is, that most of the reserves using animals in this way, are keeping the animals on the pasture permanently, or at least seasonally. In the past this was not the case, animals were usually coralled or 'folded' at night. One of the reasons for this was that the dung was a valuable resource, needed for fertilizing the arable fields. Consequently the fertility of the pasture, common lands etc was gradually reduced. This concept was underpinned in a recent farm tour given on Anne Clifford's family farm (Anne is the WLT Donations Manager). This is an organic farm, and part of the management includes sheep, and one of the functions of the sheep is to produce manure for the arable crops. They are not just for meat and wool production.

Current management regimes do not take all this into account, and therefore using grazing animals on permanent pastures may well be increasing the nutrient levels, and leading to long-term changes in the flora. Consequently, while it may be aesthetically pleasing to have sheep or other animals grazing a nature reserve, it is. Unless they are being rounded up at night, it may be ecologically better to mechanically mow, bale and remove the hay, in order to keep nutrient levels low.

Hope for the future

But whatever is done, it is certainly better than the barren wastelands of agri-business that once dominated the rural landscape. Already change is apparent in East Anglia. Broader margins around fields, and more pasture; and more organic/ conservation grade farming. There are still thousands of sterile acres, but it is getting better. There is hope.

No comments:

Post a Comment