Reflections on the Blaen Tir meadow 2017/18

Many thanks to Derek for providing both his observations on and photographs of his stunning meadow over the strange year that has been July 2017 to July 2018:
It was never going to be a normal year from the late summer of 2017. We put off a chance for the local farmer to cut our field until after the August bank holiday week as we wanted some friends to see the flowers before it was cut. However, as the rains began then, there was never a chance for him to get on to the field. He said that it was the wettest winter he has known, with him not being able to work on several of his own fields. Not necessarily in terms of total rainfall but in the number of days when it rained on saturated ground. 
 
Then we had the freezing late Spring and the hot summer of 2018. We knew that we could expect changes in 2018 as it would be the first time in over 20 years that the field hasn’t had its single cut in late August with the hay taken off. However the other two climatic events have meant that we have no idea which of the three things has produced the greatest effects on the flowers. So this is not a scientific study more general impressions.
 
Overall, we are fairly sure the lack of a hay cut has meant less flowering this year. It seems that many of the lower growing plants were not visible this year. We didn’t see Eyebrights or Tormentils or Harebells to name but three species. But was this because of the much higher and thicker grasses or just because everything was late because of the cold spring and then speeded up in the heat?  We didn’t see it but might have missed them. Much that did flower bloomed and was over in a week. However we suspect that it was the thick grasses preventing growth or flowering of the smaller plants. 
 
Our orchids, mostly marsh, heath and butterfly, were not as numerous as usual (although still in their hundreds). They seemed more spread out across the whole field and, unlike other years, the marsh orchids were late and were still in flower when the Greater Butterflies bloomed briefly in the first wave of heat, with little setting of seed.
bt 1
bt 3
two orchids and clover 3butterfly orch 4
The Hawkbits were also many fewer than usual.   The taller growing plants still flowered. The meadow thistles and the dyers greenweed in clumps smothering or above the grass.
dyers and hills
Earlier than normal the Whorled Caraway, Scabious and Knapweed bloomed well but were then almost over by the beginning August.
whirled caraway, dyers Greenw scabious
The Yellow Rattle, Birdsfoot Trefoil and Vetches were definitely much fewer than usual, more spread out as individual plants. 
 
We have noticed a decline in yellow rattle over the past few years which we had put down to the fact that the grasses had been parasitised for over 20 years and perhaps the rattle might not be able to take as many nutrients from the fewer more impoverished grasses than before. Perhaps it would need a few years for the grasses to recover before the rattle would also recover? We have noticed similar fluctuations in other species as the years passed. A few years ago the meadow seemed “swamped” with Knapweed. But again after a couple of years they declined to their normal levels. 
 
All in all an interesting year. Now there are few obvious signs that we had the heatwave. Every field around us is showing almost no sign of the scorched browns and yellows, but has a growth of fresh green. The mix of warmth and the heavy rain of the last couple of weeks has meant a new long, lank growth of grasses everywhere. This year, our field was cut and the bales removed in early August, much earlier than usual. But everything had set seed by then. It is now green again.
 
We wait to see what the Autumn will bring.

4 thoughts on “Reflections on the Blaen Tir meadow 2017/18

  1. Similar observations here at Waun Las NNR at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, especially the marked reduction in cat’s ears (Hypochaeris radicata). I know these have deep tap roots and I remember reading that the deep roots supposedly help meadows during times of drought. I wonder if this means the plants have retreated down to their roots during this year’s heatwave.

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  2. Clearly a gorgeous field, less acidic than my SSSI. I think there is a fluctuation every year in the flowers depending on the weather and wetness. A very good year this one for Black Knapweed but poor for Greater Bird’s Foot Trefoil and Bog Asphodel. My cattle did not like the standard grass fields at all in June as they were too dry but made an excellent job eating Molinia caerulea, Purple -moor grass, in the fen meadow in July and early August able to eat the tussocks in all the boggy places as they weren’t boggy anymore! The plants remained very lush and green in comparison to the standard fields. Would winter grazing as well help your field flowers in the summer particularly the germination of Yellow Rattle- and add that dung/urine mosaic and foot prints that help to establish the diverse plant life as opposed to cutting once a year?

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    • Our neighbouring farmer does graze some sheep on the field over the winter for a few weeks. He chooses for how long providing they are off by the end of March. He keeps sheep on a neighbouring fields until he takes them back to be nearer his farm house. For a while they are allowed to move between his fields and our freely. So the field does get limited grazing – but for some reason last year he didn’t open the connecting gate and he used the fields around for a much shorter time – so last year no grazing at all which contributed with the rain to the thick grass cover and many small scrub bushes beginning to show.

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  3. Here at our place we have one field in its 5th year of meadow management, and one in its 3rd year. They are adjacent to each other but are very different in flora, we think mostly because different species predominate in succession, as Richard Pryce pointed out in his talk at the Spring meeting. So the big changes from year to year we are seeing now at an early stage of both fields’ meadow history probably mask the other effects due to the different years’ weather. We always cut and bale the fields quite late, and in most years there has been a new flush of grasses after the yellow rattle (an annual) has seeded and died back, and no longer parasitising the grasses. But not this year, because it was so dry, so we didn’t get much hay. Most of the grasses have survived the drought and are now looking green and lush as normal, but in the 3rd year field (which is drier than the 5th year one) there do seem to be some patches where the grass has died back and is still brown. We’re hoping there will be enough seeds of all types thrown around by our haybob that these patches will fill in. Unlike what Bruce saw at Waun Las, in our 3rd year field the cat’s ear are very predominant; and in fact they are having another period of flowereing now. As with Derek’s meadow, we have sheep graze our fields as soon as they start regrowing after cutting, and while the growth is at least outpacing the rate at which they eat it. Sheep are often thought to be not much good for conservation grazing because they unselectovely eat everything (well, nearly) right down to the ground. But it all depends on how many sheep per unit area. Here, there are only 7 sheep out there in both these fields and a 3rd one not managed as a meadow, totalling about 3 acres so this is a low grazing density. They depart in the depths of winter when there is no growth, because we don’t want to feed them hay or supplelentary food on the fields which would be adding nutrients to the field/sheep system. When they go, in the fields where they’ve been walking about, the ground looks almost like bubblewrap in reverse, where their small hooves have been efficiently treading all the seeds in. They get evicted from the meadows at the end of March, as with Derek’s field. When the meadows group started, Derek’s field was one of the first we went to see, and it is absolutely breathtaking. So, we’re doing with our fields what Derek did with his, and hope we get a similar outcome eventually!

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