Flying flocks or herds v. trying to find someone to cut and bale hay

[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:  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!  

Please use the “Leave a reply” facility below, to let us know what you think; or even better send your thoughts to Rachel on  to add your own post on this blog.


10 thoughts on “Flying flocks or herds v. trying to find someone to cut and bale hay

  1. Sheep are usually not appropriate on species-rich meadows, as they preferentially eat exactly the flowering plants that the owners want to flourish. With the Tb movement requirements for cattle, perhaps ponies are the best option.


  2. Deborah – It would be ok surely over winter as a “flying” visit – or longer and actually in keeping with trad meadow management. I have been considering working sheep in somehow with ponies over winter – as the cross grazing seems to be the way forwards for dealing with animal worm burdens long term (with increased resistance to existing drugs). Can’t say I have sorted it yet – as there are a few practicalities to deal with (including a pony that I don’t quite trust with sheep).


    • Yes to you & Julian. I know some really good sites that have extensive (light) winter sheep grazing. And good point about poaching, J, any introduction of grazing by large animals needs to keep the ground conditions in mind. It’s always worth monitoring the effects on diversity, whichever choice you make, so you know whether it’s working. All sites & years are different & getting livestock in is only the 1st step (just to complicate matters more!)


  3. Hello Andrew,
    I think this is a brilliant idea, if you can find a farmer who’d be up for doing this?
    Personally we’d have no issues with checking stock, although at the moment might not want to use the service, since we have our own small flock. But we see an issue with advancing years in both being able to do our own version of small scale semi manual haymaking, and even managing a flock.
    In reply to Deborah’s point above, my own take is that on wet land, such as some of our fields, ponies might do a lot of damage, through poaching – even short term, plus on a physical scale, sheep are less likely to cause any injuries – though not impossible! The key thing I think would being certain that the stock wouldn’t be left on for too long – if so even sheep will cause poaching in wet conditions.
    But as to species diversity, our fields are improving year on year with just sheep grazing – I think the point is that if the sheep go on late enough in the year, after seed has fallen and the perennials are dying back anyway, then the plants will bounce back fine in the spring – though our management now involves getting things really short, and the sheep off by early March at the latest. This again means that a lot of the perennial forbs haven’t begun new growth by then, so the sheep can’t really do too much damage.
    Great post and idea, well done to all,
    Best wishes

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t find ponies do much damage – poaching really only in high use areas so access points and where they wait for hay. This can be manages and they ideally need room to roam. They are very useful grazers to have around and like eating soft rush in the depths of winter. A bit of poaching is ok anyway – for plants that seed into bare soil for example common century which I find is now increasing in amount once given a better toehold.


  4. The boy’s on fire ! ! Thank you Martin …. Note to Santa: lots of fences & gates, please …

    On Fri, 4 Dec 2020 at 16:38, Carmarthenshire Meadows Group – Grŵp Dolydd Sir Gaerfyrdd


  5. Take the point about sheep usually not being considered good grazers for species rich sites, but here we’re not talking about trying to manage the fields with grazing. They would still be managed as hay meadows, with stock excluded during April, May, June and most or all of July. Then the grazers would be brought in at high density to be used as mowers; so we actually want them to eat everything down, as the hay mower would. We found here at our place this year that they worked well, and ate mostly everything except rush (which we expected) and knapweed which they didn’t touch, that was a bit of a surprise as they ate all the other old flowering stems, e.g. cats ear. In our case, the ground had become fairly waterlogged, and the days were short, and we couldn’t cut, dry and bale the fields as normal. So compared to leaving them uncut, or worse – cutting and then not being able to collect the hay and take it away, we think grazing it off was the least worst option. Of course it’s not until next year that we’ll know what effect it’s had on the composition of the meadows; which might not be so good!


    • Hello Jenni – thanks for sharing the link. Are the ponies in your grazing team ok with more flying visits – or would ponies need a settled spot for a few months? It may be the case that all animals would rather have a settled stay rather than a flying visit – and we just don’t think about sheep or cows’ experience in the same way as ponies.


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