[Website Admin’s note: Andrew is on a roll with his third post created in one sitting is below.]
Over the years, we have often received requests for help from people who have acquired a meadow, or are trying to create or restore a field they already own, and who want to get the field cut and baled but don’t have the means to do it themselves. It’s a problem to which we don’t really have a general solution; sometimes we are able to put them in touch with someone else nearby who has found someone who will do it for them, but there are often one or more of the same regular problems: narrow tracks and gateways so modern machinery can’t get in, steep slopes, local farmers aren’t interested in the hay because their dairy cows need high energy silage, too far for them to come for a small amount, and contractors are unlikely to put one or two small fields at the top of their list of priorities. Many have solved the problem by finding local, maybe semi-retired farmers who still have working old machinery that’s suitable for small fields and haymaking, but others aren’t so lucky. At our place, we have the kit to do our own, a 57-year-old tractor and other small-scale haymaking machinery, some old and some newer.
The idea that the meadows group itself could own small-scale haymaking equipment that members could use seems initially attractive, but as others have found, in practice it’s hard to get this system to work. Firstly, it needs some skill to operate this sort of machinery. It’s not user friendly, like domestic machines designed for the average consumer. It takes a bit of patience and practice to coax bales from small scale kit. In the event that it got damaged or wrecked, who would pay? The group, or whoever broke it? If everyone wanted to cut their fields during the same narrow weather window in late summer, would they all draw lots to see who could use it? How would you transport a tractor and three different machines (it can only tow one at once) across the county? And as a group, we just don’t have the sort of money needed to acquire and maintain this sort of kit.
During the most recent steering group meeting, we discussed an alternative idea brought up by Laurence which might well work better. What about having some sort of flying herd (cattle or horses) or flock (sheep) who could be brought in to graze down small meadows? This isn’t maintaining the grassland with constant low intensity grazing, this would be bringing in a large number of grazers who would just eat the meadow down in a week or two, instead of it being mown. Unlike with hay cutting, there isn’t a problem of being restricted to a good weather window.
If you read this post on the blog: https://carmarthenshiremeadows.com/2020/09/17/feature-article-by-our-chairman-the-benefit-of-hindsight/ you’ll see that this is exactly what we did with our fields this year, when we left hay cutting too late and the storms and constant rain arrived.
Sheep are easier to transport than cattle or horses, and cattle have the complication of TB precautions. The fields would have to be adequately fenced; sheep fencing is less demanding than that for cattle which will just push the fence down if the grass is greener the other side. Electric fencing can be used for cattle and horses (and for sheep but you need 4 or more strands). The landowner could be responsible for checking the animals while they were there, otherwise there would be a lot of work and stress for their owners; so, it could possibly be a moneyless arrangement if the farmer got free grazing, but the landowner should expect to pay for the service if the farmer had to keep checking the stock and arranging electric fencing.
Grazers could be there in spring, then the field would be closed off between, say, April to July, then when enough species had flowered and set seed to the landowner’s satisfaction, the animals would return and eat it all when you’d normally cut the hay. When some regrowth had appeared in autumn/early winter they could graze a bit more.
This isn’t a direct replacement for haycut type management, and no doubt it would give different results in terms of what species came to increase or decrease; but it would be much better than nothing, and much better for botanical diversity than just grazing it down to a lawn all year round.
We’d be very interested to hear what CMG members think of this idea, and if anyone who has been having trouble getting their meadow cut would see this as a viable alternative. You could even get your field properly fenced, or invest in an electric fencing system which would be much less expensive than acquiring the machinery to do the hay cut!
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