The meadow year is not quite over…

The meadow year is not quite over, there is still that important part of the annual cycle which must be completed if the next generation of seeds can germinate and grow. This is always accompanied by the wonderful yellow evening light and long shadows that September brings to the meadows, as beautiful as any other time of the year. “Aftermath Grazing” is when the animals are introduced back into the meadows to eat down the growth that’s taken place since the hay crop has been safely collected and taken back to the farm yard, stored for winter feed. This is an essential part of this centuries-old system of hay making. It keeps the sward open to the light and removes the base thatch of dead grass. The grazing animals also tread in seed that will have naturally fallen to the ground during the haymaking process.
I have a tiny little meadow behind my house, just big enough for a dozen sheep to do their magic, mowing down the re-growth. I retired 3 weeks ago so I have had more time to watch the old ewes. I just let them in during the day then push them back behind the more reliable post and rail at night, for fear of having my wife's plants cropped if the electric fence fails in the dead night hours.

Above: the meadow in May this year.

The sheep are not indiscriminate, they actually have preferences! With the luxury of time, walking the little meadow every day I’ve noticed the first plants selected were hawkbit. Eaten down to the ground even the rosettes closest to the earth nibbled out, these must be a real favourite. This left small and very open patches, perfect for other things to germinate and get their foot hold in the meadow. Next came the plantain, again very specifically eaten right out in preference to other things. The knapweed was left standing quite proud from the overall sub-base of the meadow, until at a sweep suddenly it was gone, eaten out completely. Some of the more mature plants were left till last but still eventually consumed.

I had to try them!! I picked and chewed up hawkbit. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever eaten, it’s difficult to describe - like rocket but not as peppery, almost metallic. Then plantain, this was a surprise very much like rocket from the garden, finally knapweed - I tried the young leaves, not unpleasant but I agree with the ewes only when the more tasty things are gone. They have eaten around, and to-date have still left, devil’s-bit scabious, which is fascinating as it's a late flowering plant that would not survive if eaten early. I tried this too, expecting it to be foul but it wasn’t, just very harsh in my mouth, coarse and not what you would eat with all the other options available - and they didn’t. No wonder the old girls had preferences, the tastes and textures are quite specific – I can’t recommend you try it, but I’m still alive...

I have been in meadows and around grazing animals all my life but with the luxury of time have only now noticed quite how specific these sheep's preferences are. I had always known how much they preferred the fabulous mixed herb offerings ancient meadows presented for them and the medicinal benefit to livestock of the old pastures is well documented. Now I’ve learned that they eat to a specific taste driven order. We shall keep up the grazing regime tailored around weather conditions into the New Year holding the sward open, exposing the bare earth, giving chances for new plants, more diversity. Then from the beginning of February here in the South East of England grazing stops and the fields rest before the new cycle of meadow life begins again in spring.
Has anyone else noticed this? is it different in different parts of the country? different breeds? different years? share your observations, it’s yet another fascination of the ancient meadow landscape and you can be certain there must be a reason for it.
Some of you will read this and be saying what if we have no access to grazing stock for our little meadow!! Mimic grazing with a mower, strimmer or any other method you can think of that cuts and removes the re-growth until the growing season ends. Try leaving a late-cut margin so your meadow offers pollen for as long as possible for those pollinating insects.

- Keith Datchler OBE, Coronation Meadows steering group member and technical advisor