2020 is going to be a very memorable year for all sorts of reasons; obviously it’s the year (or maybe just the first year?) of the Covid-19 pandemic, the like of which hasn’t been seen since 1918. It’s also the year in which the 5th Global Biodiversity Outlook Report has been published, which makes plain the devastation caused by human activities on a million species and on the natural processes that maintain life on our planet. This was presented to the public in the UK by Sir David Attenborough’s documentary “Extinction – The Facts” on BBC1 last Sunday. It makes plain that individuals’ efforts to protect biodiversity, such as those of small organisations like the Meadows Group, are ever more important. For us, on our Carmarthenshire smallholding, 2020 will also be remembered for two more things that happened for the first time – red kites nested in one of our big oaks, and we failed to cut and bale our two hay meadows.
It all started back in early March. The fence on the opposite side of the field in the picture needed replacing. Most of the posts were rotted and falling over, and there were odd bits and pieces of sheep netting held together with lengths of electrical cable. So, I pulled all the old fencing and posts out, cut back the brambles that had engulfed it, and started to put up a new fence just this side of the treeline. It was at this stage that a pair of red kites started building a nest in a large oak, directly above the viewpoint of this picture. We found that they were completely tolerant of our activities in the bottom field beyond the treeline (next to our house, outbuildings and yard where we spend most of the time) and ignored us. But if we went into the field their side of the treeline, they would leave the nest and circle round producing what we came to recognise as red kite alarm calls. Normally, we would have sheep in the bottom field (excluded from the meadow in the middle field by said fence) during the summer, but in order to avoid disturbing the kites we decided to leave replacing the fence until they had finished nesting. We do have electric fencing, but we would need that to put round fruit beds in the bottom field if the sheep had been there.
We couldn’t see into the kite nest, but after a while it was clear that a kite was sitting on eggs. They hatched during the 2nd week in May, and two chicks were reared, of which one survived to fledge. The other disappeared, possibly taken by a goshawk (we have seen one here on occasion) as it was virtually full-sized when it vanished. While the kites were there we did mow round the edges of the two meadows with the topper (to prevent encroaching bramble and blackthorn suckers etc) and we found that while mowing on the tractor, the kites weren’t bothered, but would leave the nest and treeline and circle doing alarm calls if they saw a pedestrian in the fields either side of their nest. The remaining chick (still being brought food by the parents) hung around for a couple of weeks after leaving the nest, doing test flights of increasing length and duration, and by the last week of July, the kites had gone.
Last year, we cut and baled our meadows in the last week of August. We do it later than would be ideal for the best hay crop because our main priority is to maximise the floral diversity, so all in all, the more time you give everything to set and drop seeds, the better. And when the yellow rattle has seeded and died back, you get a second flush of grass anyway; in 2019 we got 93 small round bales, most of which are too moist for hay, so we wrap them to produce haylage. As we do every year, we sold all the haylage to a sheep farming friend, some of whose sheep do our aftermath grazing and would also have been in the bottom field in the summer, had it been fenced. There seemed no hurry to cut the meadows, so I decided to resume work on the fencing, and also included a stile so we didn’t have to walk over to the field gate to enter the middle field, a badger gate in the new fence, and a bridge made from a railway sleeper over the deep ditch by the treeline, and steps made from more bits of sleeper up the bank by the ditch. This all took quite a while of leisurely working, but there didn’t seem to be any urgency to cut the meadows, and when the fence was in place, we could have the sheep grazing the bottom field. This, in hindsight, was the first mistake.
The week after the fencing, stile, bridge, steps and badger gate were finished, and the sheep were in the bottom field, storm Ellen arrived. We had torrential rain and very strong gales. What had been rather dry ground certainly made up all its water deficit, with standing water on some areas in the fields. To cut, turn, row up and bale our 2 meadows with our mini-round baler (and then wrap all the bales) ideally needs 4 consecutive dry days, and there were never more than 2 consecutive dry days in the forecast. A week after that, storm Francis arrived, with more torrential rain and strong gales. In the subsequent weeks, again there were never as many as 4 consecutive dry days in the forecast, so we still held off cutting the meadows. Now well into September, an additional problem was that the short day length makes drying the hay and ground even harder in a given number of days. The problem for us with wet ground is not that the water content of the hay is too high for haylage; it’s that the windrows from which the baler picks up the hay are sitting on wet ground, so the grass at the bottom of the row is still very wet and matted. From experience, we know that wet matted grass gets wrapped round the rollers in the mini-baler, causing it to break the shear bolt safety device so it doesn’t wreck itself, and puts the baler out of action until you cut all the wrapped grass off the rollers.
The best way to manage a hay meadow is to cut it and take all the cuttings off. If you can’t do that, the next best thing to do is to get grazing animals to eat it all from the field, and although they will wee and poo on the ground most of the nutrients in the plants are being converted into grazing animal, so their contribution to soil fertility is not too serious. The next best thing is to do nothing, just leave it standing – it’ll all die back during the winter and you can start again next year. The worst thing you could do would be to cut it, find you’re unable to get it off the field, and leave it there as compost.
So, we asked our sheep farming friend if he could bring lots of sheep over to eat our meadows down – they would have been eating the haylage anyway through the winter. We now have 28 sheep (15 in the middle field shown in the picture, and 13 in the top field) munching their way through it all. They have already noticeably reduced the sward in a week. This was the second mistake, because although there was no mention of a long dry hot spell when the sheep arrived, we are currently having a heatwave with no rain forecast for the next week! We could very probably have got it all done this week. But that’s not a good idea now, as we would be putting a large amount of sheep poo into the bales which doesn’t sound very desirable. What we’ve learnt from this is (i) how to identify red kite alarm calls, and (ii) in future, when the weather forecast looks good for 4 consecutive days any time from mid-July onwards, get the meadow cutting done while you can!
We’ve only just cut our meadows at the Botanic Garden but we’ve been collecting wildflower seed from them for the past few weeks. August does seem to be a predictably wet month in this part of Wales though nowadays – you have my sympathy. But also my respect – nesting and breeding red kites. Wow.
As a postscript to the article, by now (09/10/2020) the sheep have done an excellent job of eating the meadows. We were wondering whether they would show feeding preferences and avoid some plants and favour others. In general, the last parts of the meadows to be eaten down (and they’ve still not finished, quite) were the parts near the treelines where the grass is lusher. In places, there were lots of cats ear plants, they ate them readily, even the brown dried old flower stems. They seemed to eat everything that wasn’t lush grass first, including quite a lot of plantain, so if any of them had joint pains they might have improved. There were two plants they they haven’t touched though; one was soft rush of which there are a few clumps in wetter places, and surprisingly (to us) knapweed. One of the fields in particular has got quite a lot of knapweed plants, and they are still all standing, untouched by the sheep. We’ve noticed before that they don’t eat foxgloves (presumably because of the taste: it seems unlikely that they know about cardiac glycosides) but they do readily eat broad leaved helleborine (it’s not an orchid but it is in the orchidaceae) which our chickens never eat, even if they’ve eaten everything else in their run.