Types of meadow & how they are managed
What is a meadow?
For the Coronation Meadows project, a meadow is any grassland that is maintained by traditional farming practices and allowed to develop over many years, becoming richer and richer with wild flowers over time.
The connection to traditional farming methods is vital, as without them such meadows quickly lose their species and character. Typically, this link means that an annual cycle will be followed: in late July or August a hay-cut will be taken, following which livestock will be allowed to graze the grass short. In early spring, the livestock are removed and the plants allowed to grow and flower, setting seed in summer before a hay-cut is taken again.
For a wealth of other flower-rich grasslands, especially in western parts of England, Wales and Scotland, no hay-cut is taken. Instead, livestock graze the grasslands to keep the grass down, either lightly year round or heavily during late summer and autumn. In such situations, wild flowers thrive. The annual cycle of cutting and grazing keep coarse grasses, bracken and shrubs like bramble, hawthorn and gorse under control allowing smaller, more delicate flowers and grasses the room they need to grow, set seed and spread.
What are they? These are the classic flower-rich meadows of our fertile, pastoral landscapes; mostly found within enclosed field systems and on soil that is neither strongly acid, nor alkaline.
How are they managed? In lowland areas, dry neutral meadows are subject to an annual hay cut, ideally after mid-July. The re-growth (aftermath) is then grazed (normally by sheep or cattle) in late summer / autumn. In upland areas, management of the meadows follows a similar pattern, but these meadows were also traditionally subject to spring grazing, prior to the fields being “shut-up” for hay.
What are they? These are river-side meadows with a distinctive flora including great burnet, meadowsweet and the iconic snake’s-head fritillary. Floodplains were historically amongst the most highly-valued areas of farmland, being regularly enriched by silt from flood events.
How are they managed? Hay is removed when the crop is at its peak and weather conditions are suitable. This will generally be in late June or July, with some flexibility in cutting dates from year to year being beneficial, and also reflecting what would have happened historically. However, where ground nesting birds are present, it important that hay is not cut until chicks have fledged; generally not until the second half of July.
Chalk and limestone meadows
What are they? These are grasslands that are found on shallow soils over lime-rich substrates, such as limestone bedrock. Such grasslands are typically used as pasture, but a few examples are cut for hay. They often have a short turf of fine grasses, low-growing plants such as kidney vetch and carline thistle; and aromatic herbs such as wild thyme and marjoram.
How are they managed? Where chalk grassland is managed by annual cutting rather than grazing, this should take place as late in the summer as possible, allowing the full variety of species to flower and set seed. The cuttings should be collected, whether or not they are used for hay.
Machair and coastal meadows
What are they? Machair is a Gaelic word meaning an extensive, low-lying fertile plain. It refers to dune pastures and adjacent fields that are covered by white shell-sands blown inland, producing lime-rich soils.
How are they managed? Crofters used to crop machair in summer, on a two or three year rotation, so that no more than half the machair was cropped at any time. Small plots were ploughed and sown with barley, oats or rye and potatoes. Today, very little machair is cropped, and the grasslands are generally grazed by cattle or sheep, often between September and April. Removing livestock in early May allows wild plants an opportunity to flower and set seed, before animals return at the end of the summer.
Wet Rush Meadows
What are they? These are rough grasslands on peaty soils with a rather primeval quality, being on permanently soggy ground and composed mainly of rushes or tall, coarse grasses, including the tussock-forming purple moor-grass. Among the grasses and rushes is a rich array of moisture-loving herbs alive with insects and the heady aromas of meadowsweet and water mint. There are important areas in Devon and north-east Cornwall, where it is known as culm grassland, and also in south Wales, where it is known as rhos pasture.
How are they managed? Most marshy grasslands are traditionally maintained by grazing, principally during the period from May to September. Hay-making during dry summers was once part of their traditional management, and a few areas are still managed as hay meadow, with a July hay cut followed by aftermath grazing.