Methodology & Management

Seeding new Coronation Meadows

In each county of the United Kingdom a flagship historic Coronation Meadow has been identified representing the once common wild-flower rich grasslands of the area. Through the project and its local partners these Coronation Meadows are being used to literally ‘seed’ at least one new meadow (termed a receptor site) within that county. This is usually done by collecting “green hay” from the Coronation Meadow which is then spread onto the receptor site. Green hay is a term for ordinary hay that has been cut earlier than usual before it has shed seed. By harvesting in this way, more seed is retained within the loose hay bales and more is transferred to the receptor site, increasing the chances of success. It is spread within a few hours of being cut to ensure the seed remains in good condition. An alternative method also used is seed harvesting which can require more specialist machinery but can be more flexible in terms of when it is undertaken.

In either method the important underlying ethos is that the seed collected is not only of known native provenance but also locally suited. Using seed from the nearby donor site ensures the local character of each meadow is retained – the mix and proportion of different flowers that make each meadow unique. So a Wiltshire meadow established with locally sourced green hay or seed will remain full of Wiltshire character, and a Yorkshire meadow will retain Yorkshire character. It is a cost efficient way to source seed, the range of species is great, the seed is fresh and there is also evidence to suggest that green hay is a good way to encourage colonisation of new meadows by orchids and other rare species.

The receptor site where the new meadow is to be created is selected based on its similarity and proximity to the donor Coronation Meadow and other important characteristics such as the soil nutrient levels and the suitability of proposed management. Receptor sites are often grasslands that lack the species diversity of meadows. They are typically prepared by cutting the existing grass short and then creating significant levels of bare ground through power harrowing or similar operations so that introduced seed has open soil in which to establish. It can look quite severe when first done but soon returns to green as the grasses and wildflowers grow, as can be seen from the pictures below taken in East Sussex.

Left: Site preparation by power harrowing in July 2013. Note the retained strip of original grass sward by the hedge on the left of the picture.
Centre: Starting to 'green up' in January 2014.
Right: April 2014, the difference between the hedge-side control strip and the more diverse sown area is clearly visible.

 

Management of the new meadows

Once the new wild-flower rich meadows have started to establish they enter into a traditional management regime which will promote the survival of the wild flowers, commonly as part of a local farming system. Across the majority of the United Kingdom this usually pivots around a late summer hay cut, though in some northern areas there may be a tradition of managing as pasture with stock returned in late summer to graze instead of a hay cut being taken.

The typical meadow management however is for a combination of a summer hay cut followed by what is termed aftermath grazing by stock in the autumn and again in the early spring. This provides grazing and stored winter forage for livestock and an annual cycle that suits the traditional meadow wildflowers and grasses. The summer hay cut prevents coarser grasses and shrubs from taking hold while its timing allows many of the wild flowers to set seed. The subsequent grazing is then important in opening small areas of bare ground for the fallen seed to grow in. Our native breeds of stock are often the ideal grazing animals for wild-flower rich meadows as they thrive on the diverse swards. Keeping the soil nutrient levels naturally low by avoiding adding inorganic fertilizers helps to keep the stronger grasses from out-competing the wild flowers and over time a balance is developed that leads to the riot of life and colour found in our meadows through the spring and early summer.
 

Keith Datchler OBE, manager of the Beech Estate in East Sussex, explains the Wholecrop Method used there:

© Mr Chris Tizzard

 

Spreading green hay, taken from Cumbria's Coronation Meadow Piper Hole, at Carsa Brow:

© Cumbria Wildlife Trust

 

Header image © Hilary Kehoe/AGAP

East Sussex timeline images © Keith Datchler OBE