Hay-making part 2

Making wind-rows

Using hay-bob to make wind-rows

Hard work and stressful indeed, but also an opportunity to spend a week in the sunshine with the intoxicating smell of wildflower hay floating on the breeze.  We have finally completed our hay-making for this year, and managed to get our harvest home just before the rain fell.  Our novice efforts were rewarded by seeing our harvest heading out of the woods to a nearby stables, and it was so very satisfying to think that something we were doing primarily for conservation and wildlife was also going to benefit horses.  And with the added benefit that the food miles for these particular hay bales were very low indeed.

We mowed the hay and turned it throughout the week, but with rain threatening on Saturday, we needed to get the hay gathered into rows and made into bales as soon as possible.  We started this process using the hay-bob to create wind-rows.  This was easier said than done, particularly because it could not reach right to the edge of the meadows, and also because of the limited manoeuvrability of the baler.  This meant that a lot of wind-rows in the edges and more awkward bits had to be made by hand, using a rake and pitchfork.

Baling the hay

Baling the hay

Nevertheless, by Thursday afternoon we were ready to attach the baler for the first time, and make our first bales.  Just as we arrived at the meadow, there was a light shower, so we had to wait for half an hour while the sun re-dried the hay surface, but it was so warm and breezy that it dried in no time.  Then we put the machine to use.  It is quite an alarming piece of machinery, because it picks up the hay, uses an auger to move it into the bale chamber, then uses a ram to compress the hay, and a large and rather Heath-Robinson bit of machinery that looks like a cross between a massive set of surgical needles and a knitting machine to wrap the hay with twine and knot it off to form a bale.  The whole thing shakes rather a lot, and makes the tractor judder too.  But it is very effective.

Precision baling

Precision baling

With threatening weather, we got going.  On Thursday there were just three of us – Stephen on the tractor, and myself and Bernard doing the raking and stacking the bales.  We were delighted to make 41 bales from our lower meadow, 43 from one of the top meadows and 36 from the other top meadow.  All good quality wildflower hay.  We packed up for the evening just as Butterfly Conservation Warwickshire were arriving for the night to do a moth-trapping session.  A very long day.

On Friday, we had many more helpers and this was very much appreciated.  Gary and Connie, Keith and Heather from Butterfly Conservation Warwickshire and Chris who keeps bees at our woods all came to help, as well as our friend Daz.  We quickly realised that the smaller meadow area in Alvecote Wood was going to be a challenge as it was just too awkward to use the hay-bob, and we had to make the rows by hand once we worked out the line that the baler would have to take.  This meant rakes and pitchforks in good old-fashioned style, and created a scene that was centuries old.  We were grateful of the pile of bales to sit on for a rest and cup of tea.

Making hay with a pitchfork the old-fashioned way

Making hay with a pitchfork the old-fashioned way

Having a rest

Having a rest on the bales

With rain forecast for 3pm, we then took the trailer down to Betty’s Wood meadows, and moved all the bales together into a haystack which we could cover with a tarpaulin if it decided to rain.  We had sold the bales to stables nearby, so we stacked one load onto the trailer ready to drive it round to them as soon as they arrived.  We managed to avoid the rain yet again, and carried the bales round to the stables in lots of 21 strapped to the trailer.  It was so exciting to see the bales heading to a new home.

Shifting the Bales

Hard work shifting bales

Just after 5pm, with the rain staying clear by a miracle, we loaded the last few bales onto the trailer as the first drops of rain started to fall.  Harvest home!  It was a reall emotional moment.  The woods are just so amazing, and we have got used to making products from the wood itself, as well as using it for firewood.  It was wonderful to think that yet another activity that we were doing primarily for nature and conservation had produced a useful crop, that was going to feed the horses, and was yet another sign that nature and people can work in harmony.

Haymaking is astonishingly hard work, particularly if you have to do some of it by hand, but also immensely satisfying.  The smell of hay will last in my mind until next year, when we have promised the stables that we will do it all again!

We would like to say a huge thank you to:  Our helpers in the field – Gary, Connie, Heather, Chris, Daz, Keith and Bernard.  Our advisers – Les Armstrong (the blacksmith), Bernard and Gary, Ian Glover Tractor Spares (for sorting out esoteric parts for elderly equipment at short notice), Richard White (local farmer with his own great hay meadows), Christine and Gaenor for taking a risk and purchasing our first ever hay and the team running the business at home (Bob, David and Roger) while we’ve been busy out in the fields.

So here’s to harvest home, and yes, we will do it all again next year.

Harvest Home - Final bales heading out

Harvest Home – Final bales heading out

Hay-making Part 1

Mowing the hay

Mowing the hay

Haymaking.  Something we have never done before.  So why are we doing it now?  And what does it involve?

We have been trying to get wildflower meadows established in the clearing at Alvecote Wood, as well as in three large meadows that will remain wildflower meadows when Betty’s Wood has grown up around them.  It is not as easy as you might think.  It isn’t just a question of chucking down a bit of seed and ending up with a beautiful wildflower meadow.  The problem is with the soil fertility.  The clearing at Alvecote Wood was for years used for animal grazing, and is highly fertile.  Betty’s Wood was, until 2010, an arable field that was regularly fertilised for the benefit of the crop.

Spreading the Hay

Spreading the Hay to help it dry.

The problem is that fertile ground promotes the growth of grass at the expense of wild flowers with the end result that they are crowded out by tall grass.  There are a few things you can do.  One of them is to plant yellow rattle in the wildflower seed mix.  This is a semi-parasitic plant that feeds on grass, stunting its growth and allowing wildflowers to grow.  We have done this, but the growth so far is patchy, which results in some areas showing good wildflower growth and others being overwhelmed by grass.

In 2011, the first year of our meadows, we had hardly any growth because of the drought.  So we just used our mulching mower to take out the top, and this didn’t cause a problem.  Last year, however, the rain gave very lush growth.  The problem is that access for contractors to our meadows is poor, modern equipment being too big to pass through the mature woods on the way to the fields, and the meadows are too small by modern standards (about 3/4 acre to 1 1/2 acres each) for modern equipment to cope with.  We ended up having to use the mulching mower because we simply couldn’t find anybody who could mow and bale for us and in places this year the meadows suffered for it, showing lush grass growth but relatively poor wildflower growth in some places.  We had clearly reached a fertility tipping point and this year it was critical that we got the hay mowed, and took the cuttings off, since this means the hay doesn’t rot down and return the fertility to the soil.  Between the trees, we are leaving a mulch as this helps the trees to grow, but in the meadows, we need to reduce fertility to suppress grass and encourage wild flowers.

Inevitably this meant a trip to eBay for the equipment, and even then, we needed stuff that our old tractor could cope with.  Eventually we came up with the goods, and after taking a punt on a non-working mower that was due to be scrapped, we managed to get it working again, and set about haymaking.

Spreading the Hay

Spreading the Hay to help it dry

But how to do it?  A lot of modern haymaking is almost all grass, in big fields, creating large round bales that can be used for animal feed.  This is often done relatively early in the year so that animals can then graze the stubble.  Wildflower hay is different – it needs to be made after the wildflowers have set seed, and after the butterflies and moths have finished using it, and the birds have finished nesting there.  In short, in late August, rather than June or July.  We also needed to produce square bales for sale as horse feed, as this is more convenient for the smaller user of hay and were fortunate to find a suitable small square baling machine.  We sought as much advice as we could from farmers old and young, and read all the manuals, watched YouTube videos, and prepared as well as we could.

But when it came to it, we were on our own.  We decided with a good weather forecast this week, only an outside chance of a shower, we should get on with it.

Wind rows

Wind rows – what the mower produces on first cut.

First of all, we used the drum mower to cut the hay.  We were amazed at the lovely close cut that you got, and thankful that our slow old tractor gave time for the voles to get out of the way.  The hay was all gathered up into lovely wind-rows, but we needed to get it properly dry.  For this we used the hay-bob.  This has two settings – spreading, and collecting.  We used it to throw the hay up into the air, scatter it over the ground, and aerate it, promoting good drying.  We will need to do this for one or two more days before baling.  That is another skill we need to learn!

What the photos can’t show you is the absolutely astounding and beautiful scent of wildflower hay.  It is warm and sweet, and I can honestly see why animals love wildflower hay.  It has a completely different smell to grass, which can smell a little bit bitter.  I carry the scent home with me in my nostrils, although some of it is down to the bits of hay left in my hair too, after a morning in the fields.

We are using a hand rake to bring the hay in from the edges close to the trees, so it all dries properly and can be collected.  We hope we will end up with lots of lovely sweet, dry bales that we can sell to offset the costs of making them.  It is really exciting.  Our first hay-making!  All we need now is lots of people to help us stack the bales and get them under cover once they are made.   I’m sure there will be lots of help.  At the end of the day, this is about the wildlife and making our meadows as diverse and rich as possible to benefit the flowers, and those creatures that depend upon them.

Part Two should feature baling, weather permitting!

Insects on display

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

This weekend, the insects have been out again in great numbers.  Interestingly, both the butterflies and the dragonflies have taken to perching high up in the grass, or on available posts, canes, sticks and tables and seem to be on display.  Common blue butterflies are often difficult to photograph because they sit so low in the grass, or on low plants such as birdsfoot trefoil, and by the time you have got down there to get a decent view they have long-since flown away (at least if your knees are as bad as mine).

But this weekend they have been shining like lovely little jewels at the top of the stems of grass.  Choosing a sheltered part of the meadow, but with plenty of scope for their pheromones to blow downwind to attract the females, the males have been sitting, rubbing their wings, at the convenient (for photographers) height of about 2-3 feet.  Getting decent shots has not been terribly easy because of the breezy conditions, but there were just a few occasions when the light was perfect, and I managed to capture some more of these little jewel-like creatures.

We have also had a great display by the common darters, usually males but a few females.  These dragonflies like to perch at the top of something, and they are making full use of the bamboo canes we put into the ground to support self-seeded oak and birch trees around the margins of Betty’s Wood.  Not the most picturesque background, but for the most part they are quiet, using their wings like a veil, sitting and waiting, each claiming the territory around their own perch.

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Finally, a few sightings of the emerald damselfly, which seemed to be totally missing last year, but are present in numbers again this year.  We also spotted some new-generation brimstones feeding around our ponds on the purple loosestrife.  We hope the numbers will swell in future thanks to the alder buckthorn we have planted for their caterpillars.  The spectacular small copper butterfly has also made an appearance, feeding on the thistles around the field margin.  These are such beautiful little butterflies, but also very fast-moving, however I managed to get a few snaps of one.

Small Copper

Small Copper

Brimstone

Brimstone

Emerald Damselfly

Emerald Damselfly

This year seems to have been brilliant for butterflies and dragonflies, and they are certainly on display at the moment.  They needed a good year after the last two have been so difficult for them.

Common Blue – Jewels of the Grass

Common Blue

Common Blue

I’ve always thought that “Common Blue” is not the right name.  This butterfly is an absolute jewel.  It isn’t all that common either – widespread, maybe, but numbers have suffered in recent years.  The Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus) is just beautiful as it flits along the meadows, verges and wastelands in search of both nectar sources and foodplants for caterpillars – plants which include birdsfoot trefoil, white clover, black medick, thistles and knapweed, all of which we have in plentiful numbers in Betty’s Wood, as well as in our main clearing in the ancient wood.

They have more than one generation a year.  Last year was poor for Common Blues, and we only spotted one or two of the first generation in our meadow.  Thankfully, the second generation has now emerged in good numbers.  The second generation, in particular, is spectacular.  I think this is because of the contrast of colours:  the yellows, browns, oranges of the drying and maturing grass and seeds and that stunning flash of blue from the wings of the male.  Complementary colours really do their best to set each other off.

The upper wings are beautiful, but I think the lovely little dainty spotted underwings with their flash of orange are the real treat.  Last night, all the male Common Blues had gathered in a small part of the meadow, in an area sheltered from the wind and catching the evening sunshine.  They were perched head-down, in typical fashion, high up on the grass stems and rubbing their wings to release the pheromones, presumably to attract the ladies.  I didn’t see any females, just 8 to 10 males sitting within a few feet of each other at the top of the grass.

I managed to catch a number of photos of these stunning little jewels of the grass.  I hope this lovely little butterfly will carry on coming to our meadow for many years to come – we are certainly doing all we can to encourage it.  It is a real pleasure and delight to behold.

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

The Meadow Comes to Life

Last year was a drought and this year has been a deluge – and it is obvious what Betty’s Wood meadow and trees prefer!  We have had some worrying moments since the meadow was planted in October 2010 and the trees in February 2011.  Despite a great display of poppies last year, the perennial wildflowers and the grass sward in particular were very sparse – after a year of growth you could still see the lines made by the seed drill.  The diversity was also low, with little in the way of the important butterfly foodplants, such as birds-foot trefoil.  Some areas had barely any growth on them at all, and newly-planted areas of wildlowers on top of the spoil removed when we dug the ponds had just a tiny green fringe.  The largest meadow was so sparse that when we mowed it, we were throwing up dust from the parched and cracked surface, and there were few clippings left from the sparse mayweed and poppy growth.

The trees, too, had suffered, despite our best attempts to water them.  Although we ended the year with 5% loss plus 1% stolen out of our 5000 trees, some were not in the best of shape.  In particular, the species we had planted in the area that is normally wet (alder, varieties of willow, poplar, aspen) had struggled to put on any growth at all, and in places, had managed only one or two leaves.

This year started badly too – a drought through March left us wondering how we were going to cope through the summer.  We needn’t have worried – although the rain has not been pleasant for humans, and at times we have had problems with the quantity (including a flood in the woods that almost washed away our bridge), the trees and meadow have loved it, and responded with growth that we could only have dreamed of last year.

Standing by the ponds last night, I could hear the leaves of our little aspen trees as they trembled against each other – aspen is the only tree in our wood that you can identify by sound!  Last year, they had a couple of leaves each, but this year, enough to make a noise.  Our cloned willows are growing enthusiastically.  Some of our trees are now about 5 feet high and others are showing great recovery growth.  Areas are now beginning to look a bit like a young woodland, rather than a parched meadow with a few sad trees in it.

And the meadow!  Oh my goodness, the meadow!  We have such lush growth it is hard to walk through it.  The grasses, yellow rattle, beautiful clovers, medick, sainfoin, tufted vetch and large patches of birds-foot trefoil.  And daisies.  Lots and lots of daisies.  Over a million ox-eye daisies.

With the meadow and improvements to our ponds have come insects – thousands of insects.  We have a really good show of common blue and brown argus butterflies this year.  We also have small heath butterflies for the first time, and to our delight, the dingy skipper has arrived too.  Almost every flower has a ladybird, some kind of bug, beetle, fly, bee, hoverfly, spider or other living thing on it, feeding from it, and enjoying it.  The grass is thick enough for us to see vole and rabbit tunnels and pathways.  A skylark is sussing out potential nesting spots.  Our ponds, too, are showing increased diversity of life, including common blue, azure, blue-tailed, red-eyed, white-legged and large red damselflies, as well as the four-spotted and broad-bodied chaser dragonflies.  As you walk through the meadow, little clouds of azure damselflies rise up and settle again.  The contrast with the agricultural land over the fence is staggering.

We complain about the rain.  We complain about having to wear wellies and a raincoat in summer.  But the rain has wrought a transformation that outweighs the inconvenience.  The meadow has come to life.