Autumn Changes and Thoughts on Meadows

The end of summer brings many changes to a wildlife garden and an opportunity to reflect on how it is managed
Newly fledged swallows begging for food

Two of five newly fledged swallows begging for food from their parent © Tim Ward

The birds are telling me: summer is over

Our family of swallows managed to successfully rear a second brood this year with five chicks fledging successfully.  It was wonderful to see them sitting on a fence by the back of our house being fed by their attentive parents.  A few days later they were all gone leaving us to reminisce about their relentlessly cheerful chattering and wondering if they will make it back here again next year.  As our own birds depart, quite large flocks of swallows and martins have been gathering over the garden taking advantage of the late summer abundance of insects.  At one time they seemed to favour a particular clump of birch trees.  Unusually it seemed that they were picking insects directly off leaves, either feeding on aphids or other insects that were seeking out their sweet and sticky honeydew.  But now they too are mostly gone from our skies apart from a few stragglers pursued by a hobby which has been an exciting and regular sight over the past few weeks.  And recently, as the other birds start to gather together for winter we have had the pleasure of a flock of Redpolls feeding on the silver birch catkins and larch cones as well as dozens of Goldfinches feasting on the seed heads of the knapweeds that are still standing in our patch of unmown lawn.

Newly fledged swallows being fed with insects by their parent

Flock of House Martins and swallows feeding on insects from a tree

Contractors cutting grass

Contractors cutting grass in the wildflower meadow © Tim Ward

One man went to mow a meadow

With the start of autumn, the time has come to cut the hay meadow.  We always do this late in the year to allow the perennial flowers to set seed and to keep the sward short through the winter.  This should encourage the growth of any new seedlings that germinate at the end of the year.  Interestingly, some of the perennial flowers, such as cowslips, require cold exposure (vernalisation) before germination can start so these won't appear before the spring.  This year the contractor made 18.5 large high-density bales from the grass on the field which is a lot less than the 38 we got the first time it was cut 3 years ago.  Some of this difference may be due to the dry early summer and also because we asked the contractor to raise the cut height, however I am confident this change indicates positive progress in reducing the vigour of the grasses in favour of the flowers.  Cutting late does have an issue in that the quality of the crop is reduced but this year the late summer rain has allowed the meadow to green-up nicely and make some useful silage for our neighbouring farmer.

Removing the cut grass is essential for our goal of nutrient reduction but we do realize that the mowing process does create a risk for some of the creatures in the meadow.  The main one is injuries from the disk mower as it cuts through the grass.  Keeping the cut high (about 8cm above the ground) by tilting the cutter deck seems to have minimized this, much to the disappointment of the circling kites and buzzards.  After the contractor had left and I went around the field raking up the grass that had been missed by the baler, I found only a very few dead creatures.  Fortunately, I did find two very healthy slow worms which I picked up and gently moved to the edge of the gorse patch (unfortunately I didn’t have my camera handy).  The other main risk is that removing the grass also removes the eggs of insects, particularly the meadow butterflies.  Our main mitigation for this is leaving the meadow edges uncut to allow a significant area to remain undisturbed.   As many of the eggs and overwintering larvae tend to shelter in the base of the grass tussocks, we hope that the higher cut will allow more to survive in the cut part of the meadow.  The exceptionally large numbers of meadow butterflies that we saw this year would suggest that our strategy is being successful.  Once the grass vigour is sufficiently low we can probably switch to mowing different areas each year, leaving a larger area uncut to further enhance survival.

The wildflower meadow being cut and baled

Brimstone butterfly nectaring

Brimstone butterfly nectaring on a geranium in the garden  © Tim Ward

The grass has gone but the insects are still here

The meadow seems to recover rapidly from the mowing and the warm weather has kept the insects active.  We have had lots of butterflies at the edges of the field where it borders the garden.  As well as the nymphalids (Small Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral, Comma and Painted Lady) which overwinter as adults, we had a very late Meadow Brown and Common Blue and lots of beautiful Small Coppers.  A real excitement was a Brimstone butterfly.  A common species in England but one which is not commonly seen west of the Severn as their favoured food plant, Buckthorn, is scarce in mid Wales.  We will definitely try and get hold of some saplings from a specialist nursery and plant them over the winter in the hopes of establishing a local colony of Brimstones.  Hopefully our Brimstone (as it was pale yellow on the upper surface it was probably a female) will hibernate in the garden and find the new buckthorn plants to lay its eggs on in the spring.  So, fingers crossed for our Brimstone!

Late summer butterflies nectaring on plants in the garden

Interesting fact:

Insects that require special food plants are amazingly good at finding them even if there are just one or two plants present.  This can be particularly frustrating for gardeners trying to grow plants like Solomon’s Seal which is almost always found by the Solomon’s Seal sawfly and are regularly reduced to a few bare stems by their larvae.  The larvae are only found on common Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum multiflorum and garden hybrids) and are able to find them even where a small group of plants are growing miles away from any others.

The meadow one week after cutting

The meadow one week after the grass was removed © Tim Ward

Mowing is probably essential to maintain and improve a small wildflower meadow

You may have been reading about the recent successes reported from allowing nature to repair itself in books like ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree.  This book tells a fascinating account of changes on the Knepp estate in Sussex when it was left to 'Re-Wild'. If so, you might be wondering why we are making all this effort to maintain the meadow by mowing rather than just leaving it to do its own thing? 

Well, the main reason that I have taken this interventionist approach is that the wildflower meadow I am trying to create, is in reality a  habitat that would not naturally exist. The existence of hay meadows, filled with wildflowers, is not a natural landscape but was created as a result of the agricultural practices of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Unfortunately in the second half of 20th Century, the industrialization of agriculture rapidly changed the process of farming with the result that most of the meadows have disappeared and been replaced by large arable fields, intensively grazed improved pastures or abandoned to colonization by scrub and bracken.  Prior to this period and before the enclosures took place, it is generally accepted that away from settlements, much of the landscape would have been wooded grasslands with scattered large trees and small areas of scrub with occasional more extensive closed canopy woodlands and coppices.  The more open parts of these wooded grasslands are likely to be the habitats of the plants and insects that we now associate with wildflower meadows and are probably much closer to the types of habitat that would have existed before human intervention started the transformation into the landscapes we have today.

In examples like Knepp, the land is not abandoned to do its own thing but also managed but, in their case, mainly by using a range of large herbivores to create a mosaic of different habitats.  Something which is very difficult to achieve on the scale of our meadow of only a few acres. 

An established wildflower meadow

The goal: an established wildflower meadow previously created by the author at another property  © Tim Ward

So, in summary, I have embarked on a process to create a habitat that would not exist without the intervention of mankind.  Therefore I should not be too surprised to discover that it is a lot of work to do this.  However, a wildflower meadow, buzzing with insects in summer, is such a wonderful thing I believe it is well worth all the effort.  And, should anyone decide to give me a 2000 acre estate like Knepp to manage, I would probably still find a corner somewhere for a little meadow!