Meadows come to life

Meadow at Sunset

Meadow at Sunset

Meadows are very rich areas for wildlife, particularly if they are managed well.  Most of our meadows have only been in place for a few years, although the main meadow in our woods has been a clearing for a long time.  We are managing all of them to maximise wildflowers and to provide maximum benefit for pollinating insects, as well as to provide food plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars.  In the last couple of weeks, these meadows have really started to come to life with buttercups, purple vetch, red campion and ragged robin appearing in ever-increasing numbers, to add to the cowslips and snakes head fritillaries of early spring.

In the last few days other plants have started to come out – in particular the spectacular southern marsh orchid, which is spreading in the damp areas of Betty’s Wood, and the first ox-eye daisies are starting to bloom.

Evening Buttercup

Evening Buttercup

Southern Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

Ox-Eye Daisy

Ox-Eye Daisy

Ox-Eye Daisy

Ox-Eye Daisy

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

In the ponds, too, the iris are coming into flower, and emergent stems of sedge, spearwort and iris are forming great vantage points for the four spotted and broad bodied chaser dragonflies staking out their territories.  Damselflies are also on the wing, roosting in the long grass, on the thistles and on the trees in the hedgerow.

Brown Argus Butterfly

Brown Argus Butterfly

Small Heath

Small Heath

Small Copper Butterfly

Small Copper Butterfly

Common blue butterfly

Common blue butterfly

With the blooming of the meadows come the first of the summer butterflies – brown argus, small copper, common blue, dingy skipper and small heath are now all on the wing in our meadows, as well as the large and small white, brimstone, green-veined white and the ever-present peacock and small tortoiseshell.

Yellow Rattle

Yellow Rattle

We manage our meadows in a number of ways.  One of the star plants is the yellow rattle, pictured above.  This marvellous plant is semi-parasitic and knocks back the grass, making it possible for more wildflowers to thrive.  We add to this by mowing and removing the hay, which takes fertility out of the soil – wildflowers generally thrive in relatively impoverished soil, and low fertility again keeps the grass in check.  It has taken a while to get the process of improvement started, but we are now seeing the results.

In the next few weeks we are looking forward to seeing large and small skippers, Essex skippers, ringlets and meadow browns.  Then the meadows will truly be in their prime, but for the moment, they are full of promise.

Evening Buttercups

Evening Buttercups

Haymaking – the Video

I’ve already blogged about this, with still photos, but we have now edited and condensed 6 days of hard work into just 6 minutes of video.  I shot the video with my small camera (EOS 100D) because I was working most of the time, and could therefore only carry a small camera.  It does show the process of haymaking to encourage wildflowers.  This was our first ever attempt and we would love to thank all our friends who made it possible.

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!