How to Create a New Meadow
Once you have found out the type of meadow you are making, converting your plot of land into a meadow may, with so many options and possibilities, sound like a complicated task. Fortunately, we have simplified the process into a simple easy-to-follow guide.
How does one go about restoring a meadow – so little remains and we need more wild flowers, butterflies and bees? There is information available online, such as at Magnificent Meadows but there are some key considerations.
If a field you will need to be able to take a hay cut at the end of the growing season and ideally graze in the off-season. If part of your garden you will still need to be able to leave it to grow and cut the tall grass at some point toward the end of the summer/ beginning of autumn.
Ideally you want to be able to ascertain the history of the land. If a field has been "improved" by the use of fertiliser, pesticides and resown, it may have no wild flowers or grasses remaining in which case it may need to be reseeded. Alternatively, if the land remains relatively nutrient poor it may well have a healthy seed bank waiting to spring back.
A simple survey
How you go about restoring your meadow will depend upon what is there already and the soil conditions. I have been asked whether land should be drained for use as meadow and the answer of course is that any meadow you restore should respect the existing conditions, and either seek to improve the conditions for any wild flowers, breeding birds, amphibians and reptiles and wild flora which remain, or create the conditions for those that would naturally be present. You should try and restore meadow which is appropriate for its location and take a survey of what is already present to inform your decision before you start. If you contact us we should be able to help you with this or put you in touch with someone who can.
What’s growing now?
Make a list of the grasses and wildflowers that are present, ideally in late June. You could use the simple grassland survey approach published by Natural England in the Higher Level Stewardship Farm Environment Plan (FEP) Manual (Section 2.5, p.55) to identify whether the grassland is already species-rich, semi-improved, or improved.
Species-rich grassland which is continually mown or grazed will have lots of interesting flowers and grasses waiting to be discovered by simply allowing the meadow to grow. If so, you simply need to allow the flowers and grasses to flower in July/August before mowing and (ideally but not obligatory) grazing in the off-season. However, if the grassland has been sprayed with weedkillers or treated with fertilisers the original diversity of wild plants will likely have been eradicated.
On the other hand, if the grassland hasn’t been grazed or mown at all for some time many wildflowers may have been shaded out by taller grasses and other species. In this case, it will be necessary to reinstate a mowing and grazing regime. I am sometimes asked about Creeping Thistle and have found that in most cases this can be controlled by pulling but larger stands may need to be spot-treated with herbicide. Herbicides should be the very last resort as they will damage many species of wildflowers, not just thistles. A complete absence of meadow flowers, coupled with a seed bank consisting entirely of thistles may require re-seeding with a suitable seed mix. Before this takes place the thistles will need to be eradicated with herbicide and any survivors germinating from the seedbank will also need herbicide treatment before seed introduction.
Soil type and the site specifics
The particular characteristics of any land will dictate what you will do and what might be achieved. Different outcomes will be achieved depending on whether the ground is wet or well-drained. Orientation to the sun will also affect what flowers grow and their abundance. At Merlindale we have found that the predominant meadow type in our part of the Scottish Borders seems to be MG3 ("mesic grassland" type 3 - northern hay meadow). Read more about what to expect in such a meadow by following our YouTube link in the icon below.
Deciding what to do
It is important when proceeding with restoration to ensure you can carry out the necessary steps.
Several challenges include:
Organising hay / grassland cutting – at the right time and by farmers or contractors who have the right machinery (this includes disposing of grass not going to be used for hay).
Finding a grazier. It is crucial that the animals can be moved on and off at suitable times so that your meadow is not overgrazed.
Scarifying the ground so that it may be seeded.
The wild plants of pastures and meadows are adapted to grazing and mowing, and getting this right is important when restoring your grassland. For the Tweed Meadow Project, we are using a combination of horse-drawn, tractor-drawn, and push-behind mowers depending on the scale of the land, and heritage cattle for grazing during the off-season. Between July and August, and after the flowering period it is vital that you start mowing. All the cut vegetation must be removed, however, leaving small margins around the field is optimal for insects to roost and overwinter. Cutting or grazing on rotation will however be necessary to reduce the number of unwanted species including bramble, bracken, and blackthorn.
For well-drained fields, spring grazing with sheep may be practiced and it’s also usual to graze the ‘aftermath’ growth, once the hay’s been taken off and the grass grows back in late summer-early autumn. Grazing is useful for keeping the meadow short over winter and into the new year as well as breaking up the soil to allow seeds access to the bare earth facilitating germination, but it is not essential. Particularly in smaller areas, such as gardens and small fields, it is perfectly possible to have a successful meadow without grazing, provided the meadow is mown at the end of the growing season and the cuttings removed.
It used to be thought that the restoration of a meadow in many cases would take decades because of the need to reduce fertility and the time this takes. However, yellow rattle can be used to parasitize the grass in cases where the fertility is high (such as on previous agricultural land), creating space for the wildflowers to come through, either those present or those reintroduced with as part of a suitable wildflower mix. Indeed it is this use of yellow rattle that makes wildflower meadow restoration at scale possible in a relatively short time. The yellow rattle reduces the density of grasses that may be dominating your land and will boost your plant biodiversity, whatever the density of wildflowers currently in the seed bank. Dispersion of seed should occur no later than February and seeds should only be dispersed after the ground has been harrowed to reduce species competition. Any seed (yellow rattle or an appropriate wildflower mix) should be appropriately sourced, and reflect the range of species that can be expected to grow in similar habitats nearby. In the Scottish Borders Kevin Wharf at Windyside Farms in Northumberland is our closest supplier of wildflower seed (this importantly includes yellow rattle). We have found that (despite what is written online the predominant meadow type in the Scottish Borders where Merlindale is located is an MG3 ("mesic grassland" type 3) meadow, sometimes called a northern hay meadow or sweet vernal grass - wood crane's-bill meadow.
Ensure that you are regularly surveying your site so that keep a record of how your meadow habitat changes and develops. To find out more about how to survey your meadow please visit Magnificent Meadows.
Enjoy your work
Finally and perhaps most important of all, remember to sit back and enjoy the work and progress you have made, your rare habitat will have weird and wonderful plants and animals to learn about and an atmosphere like no other.