The Elan Valley Meadows Project – a 10-year research and restoration study.

Meadows Group members attending the talk in January by Phil “The Bugman” Ward will remember, during the discussion in the Q&A afterwards, mention of some research that was done in the Elan Valley into various aspects of Meadow Management. 

While most remaining species-rich meadows are now nature reserves and managed to maximise their biodiversity and wildlife value, there are still some which remain part of working farms. There a balance has to be found to both optimise species richness and the hay crop obtained (for livestock).  In the current issue of the newly relaunched “Natur Cymru”: https://www.natureconservation.wales/natur-cymru/  there is an article by Sorcha Lewis, who is a farmer in the Elan Valley.  We hope to arrange a talk by Sorcha to CMG members at some point, so she can explain how she manages the balance between conservation and farming needs.

The full report is ‘Conservation management of species-rich grasslands in the Elan Valley, Radnorshire’, M.J.Hayes & R.A.Lowther. (2014). Natural Resources Wales Evidence Report No.8. An electronic copy of the report is available from ruthlowther@hotmail.co.uk

or it can be found (with a bit of hunting) on the NRW website: https://naturalresources.wales/evidence-and-data/research-and-reports/habitats-reports/publications-evidence-and-research-on-freshwater-and-terrestrial-habitats/?lang=en

It’s the second report on the list on that page (you can tell from this that I’ve been having a few problems getting the link to post correctly on this website).

The project was led by Pete Jennings, who was Dŵr Cymru’s head ranger in the Elan Valley at the time. In 2014 he gave the explanation below of how the project came about and a summary of its findings.

“The species-rich hay meadows in the Elan Valley are one of the most important groups of grasslands in Britain – perhaps only matched by some in Worcestershire. All are very rich botanically and include species such as Greater and Lesser Butterfly Orchid, Fragrant Orchid, Southern Marsh Orchid, Moonwort, Adder’s Tongue and large areas of Upright Vetch (Vicia orobus). 

They have been SSSI for many years and so subject to restrictions on the application of nutrients to the grasslands e.g., no liming or the use of artificial fertilisers is allowed. Without the traditional occasional spreading of basic slag/lime and or farmyard manure however it was obvious that hay-yields were dropping and hence the farming interest in the fields. In some years there was no crop to bale-up and the cut, if made at all, would blow away in the wind. The result was that farmers would graze the fields year-round without any period of closing-up for hay – essential to maintaining floral diversity.

I met Mike Hayes (then of IGER, Aberystwyth) whilst leading a meadow walk in the Valley in July 2003, explained the problem and my quest (failed!) to track down an artificial fertiliser that would mimic farmyard manure as the real thing was scarce due to the reduction in cattle numbers locally.

Work was urgently needed into the possibilities of applying nutrients of a type and at a concentration which would give a useful hay-yield whilst not reducing the floral diversity of the meadows.

The opportunity to make progress came along in early 2004 when I met with Andrea Gannon, then Biodiversity Officer for Powys C.C. The Council had been asked by the Assembly whether it had any suitable projects for the Lottery’s New Opportunities Fund ‘Creative Conservation Project’. Andrea and I put together the Elan Valley Hay Meadows Restoration Project which was awarded £26k over the next three years with the Elan Valley Trust providing their in-hand meadows and Welsh Water allowing work time for myself to manage the project.

Fieldwork began in the late spring of 2004 with Ruth Lowther assigned to do the botanical assessment work, establish monitoring quadrats in four meadows, assess possibilities for the restoration and enhancement of some former hay-meadows and help select areas for nutrient trials.

The significance of the project soon became known and later in 2004 the CCW (now NRW) asked whether they could help fund and extend the project (I’d never been offered grant aid without asking before!). The CCW grant was £5k for each of the next five years and enabled Mike Hayes to undertake soil analysis and assess the hay-yields whilst Ruth continued the botanical monitoring. Other work included green-hay strewing on restoration fields, seed harvesting and the clearance of encroaching bracken. Ruth and I passed many happy hours over the years filling dozens of 10kg bags of farmyard manure (not too fresh and not too old!) and then spreading it evenly by hand at varying densities over the 5m X 7m plots, with or without lime and alternating with untreated controls.

The work continued until 2013 and the findings were very interesting. Briefly they included:

On plots receiving no lime acidity increased rapidly resulting in lower hay yields and some floral diversity loss. Liming produced an increase in hay-yield of up to 10% and farmyard manure an increase of 40-50%, as well as producing higher nutrient quality hay. Untreated meadows were becoming progressively less fertile.

The floral diversity of some former meadows was quickly restored simply by reintroducing a traditional grazing regime and a period of closing-up whilst others responded only very slowly.

Botanical monitoring showed that the best treatment for maintaining and enhancing the floral diversity of the meadows was occasional liming plus an annual low application of farmyard manure. (Probably what the traditional farmers had been doing for decades!)

Species-rich grasslands are in steep decline across Britain, including Radnorshire, with a 95% loss in the last 60 years. The Wildlife Trusts are asking Government for a full review of existing protection for environmentally important grasslands and Plantlife plus partners have their ‘Save Our Magnificent Meadows’ project.

The results from the work in the Elan Valley have an extremely important input into saving our few remaining meadows. The careful application of nutrients, together with seasonal grazing, is essential to their well-being. “

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