Over 20 interested members braved late August’s blustery, cool and occasionally showery weather to share a walk around Ruth Watkins’ beautiful upland 70 acre holding near the base of the Black Mountain.
Ruth has lived there for about 15 years, and during the walk explained how she has come to terms with managing the land, which is in mainly smallish hedge/tree lined fields, to maximise floral diversity. Initially choosing the straight organic route, she later abandoned this for a less rigid approach and gave several clear examples as to why strictly organic farming methods are tricky in upland areas, where soils can be depleted of several micro-nutrients.
So she now occasionally uses herbicides selectively, and also some non organic medications/supplements for her herd of Welsh Black cattle and flock of Herdwick sheep.
She feels the Welsh Blacks are critical to her management processes, and in particular her successful attempts to manage the perennial problems with Soft Rush domination of pasture. She also suspects that Sharp-flowered Rush, which often co-inhabits with Soft Rush, may have some sort of inhibitory action on Soft Rush, and pointed out areas of her fields where Soft Rush had ‘miraculously’ disappeared – perhaps because of allelo-pathogenic chemicals produced by the Sharp-flowered Rush. See the right hand foreground meadow area below, with the open sward and rust coloured seed heads of Sharp-flowered Rush – no Soft Rush growing here at all … We were also shown how to distinguish between the 2 Rush types, by running your fingers up the rush leaf, and feeling for the septal ridges in the leaves of Sharp-flowered Rush, Sharp-flowered Rush – Juncus acutiflorus, (which you can see as dark bands in the leaf below), and noticing the more open seed heads… whereas the Soft Rush, Juncus effusus, is completely smooth and round, with a tight seed head to the side of the leaf stem – very familiar to most of us! There are other differences with flower form, and growth habit. In particular whilst the Sharp-flowered rush completely disappears at the end of the season, the Soft Rush leaves persist, and so eventually form the dense clumps and then complete ground cover, which can become so dominant and block out other plant types. There was much discussion as to why contemporary farming methods have seen such an explosion in Soft Rush in local meadows.
Ruth has used cutting and removal of Soft Rush in her worst affected fields early on, as an additional tool, though advises removal of the debris, since as it rots down it does seem to affect other plant growth – something we have noticed on our fields.
We were fortunate to have Richard Price, the County’s botanic recorder, with us to point out many of the flowering gems in different areas of Ruth’s meadows. Personally I saw about half a dozen plants which I’d never seen before – quite remarkable given that the visit was in the last week of August…
Saw-wort – Serratula tinctoria (below) notice the toothed leave edges. Common Cow-wheat – Melanpyrum pratense … Another hemi-parasitic plant like Yellow Ratte …
Common Fleabane – Pulicaria dysenterica … ( I wonder about the reason for the second part of its scientific name – does it cause, or cure?) Glaucous Sedge – Carex flaca, with characteristic blue green leaves… Marsh Helleborine – Epipactis palustris… Missing its’ flower now, but quite a nationally rare Orchid … Common Milkwort – Polygala vulgaris. The stunning blue flower below, though I’m not sure what the orange flower is. Perhaps a Hawkbit?
So much information gleaned, and food for thought for many of us, with ideas to take away or think about for managing our own patches of meadow.
So a big thank you to Ruth, for inviting us, and spending the time walking us round, and fielding questions throughout. It was a hugely successful visit, and if another visit is possible next year, one to recommend highly to anyone who wasn’t able to go this time.
Thanks for reading.
Very interesting. I work in the National Botanic Garden where we have one very pronominal patch of sharp-flowered rush in a meadow, close to a soft rush dominated area (there’s a bit of intermingling of the species.) The sharp-flowered rush area is a little bit more boggy. Interesting idea about allelopathy – would like to know more. Have read that sharp-flowered rush is intolerant of fertiliser enrichment.
Hello Bruce, and thanks for the comment. I had a quick google for more definitive information on whether Sharp-flowered Rush does chemically inhibit Soft Rush in some way, without much success. I’d never even heard of plant allelo-pathogens, before Ruth raised the subject, so its a very new concept for me as well… I wonder whether the plant boffins at the NBGW might be persuaded to leave a comment/more information about the subject in general? One of the features of any meadow always seems to be the apparently random distribution of species, but I guess soil conditions and fungi below the surface will all have influences on what’s going on above ground level…
Really interesting post Julian, thanks to for the explanation and photos of differences on those two rushes. On a wildlife trust walk a few months ago we were told management included selected herbicide use and that sheep were key to management, we were surprised at the herbicide use, but guess that strictly organic methods are very time consuming.
Thanks for the comment Julie. Interestingly our thoughts for our wet meadows include just low intensity sheep grazing, and selected herbicide use, which to date has been hugely effective at bringing back meadows from mono culure soft rush. I think that there are probably many variables, but if people could see and hear how different techniques have been employed, and then how successful , or not, they have been over time, maybe a consensus might emerge for the best options for a particular patch. I think at the moment there are so few meadows left in any one part of the world, that local knowledge isn’t that easy to come by.
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