Sue Whigham looks into sowing wild flower meadows...
On New Year's Day in the car park at Rye Harbour, which was as full as I have ever seen it, The Sussex Wildlife Trust (www.sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk) had an interesting information stand but sadly it seemed that few of the throngs taking in the sunshine at the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve approached the Trust. Having spoken to the CEO of the Trust a couple of days later, he gave me a depressing statistic which really got me thinking. It seems that a Mori poll has established that a mere 3% of us have an interest in our environment and its fragile beauty. With 97% of our meadows having disappeared since the 1940s, the few that are working to re-establish them have an uphill struggle.
We know why the meadows have all but disappeared with agricultural improvement of grassland habitat using weed killers and fertilisers, and the loss of traditional farming methods. Of course, with increased population predictions farmers are being encouraged to get more and more production from their land which isn't helping the conservation of wild flowers and wildlife diversity.
Actively managed lowland meadows, essentially nutrient-poor grassland on neutral or clay soils, have been reduced to approximately 15,000 hectares or less in the UK but perhaps we can help by supporting the bodies who are working towards restoring them or, if we have a site available, however small, doing our own bit on a domestic level.
There are several types of grassland depending on soil type and geology and the first thing to do if you were to enhance your own meadow would be to survey your site and check its pH levels – the ideal being 6.0 to 6.5.
A field of coarse grass and pernicious perennial weeds overwhelms any wild flowers within a season and sadly popping in a few plug plants won't do the trick. Preparing the site involves the removal of weeds like docks and thistles and keeping the sward right down for a season. Follow this by cutting or grazing the area in June/July before the existing grasses set seed and then chain harrowing or grazing to create bare patches into which you can sow Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus major) at a rate of three to five kilos an acre in September/October. The seeds will need a period of cold weather to trigger germination which occurs in February/March of the following year. Yellow Rattle will flower in June and set seed in the autumn. It does sometimes take a couple of years to establish but, as it is semi-parasitic, it saps the strength of existing strongly growing grasses and wild flowers are best sown on grassland where the grasses are fine leaved and nutrient levels are low.
Cut the site after the Yellow Rattle has set seed and spray off any weeds after that. Then in autumn sow a wild flower mix appropriate to your soil. The following spring, keep the sward down once more to keep the light coming in so that the wild flowers have a chance to germinate and bulk up roots rather than use their strength to flower and set seed in their first year. Take the clippings away from the site as you do not want to improve the nutrient level of the meadow. The following season you can let it all go until the autumn when the meadow can be cut after the seeds have set.
The High Weald Landscape Trust (www.highwealdlandscapetrust.org) recently supplied eleven kilos of Weald Native Yellow Rattle seed to landowners in conjunction with the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust, to broadcast in several areas of Sussex and Kent in October 2012 including Iden Lock on the Military Canal and Rye Harbour. So not only is it an ideal plant for reducing nutrient levels but its flowers are a perfect nectar source for bumblebees and other pollinating insects.
The Trust, working with the Weald Meadows Nectar Networks Initiative, are able to advise on and survey any meadow that you are interested in restoring or creating. They have also been involved with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew at Wakehurst Place establishing a UK Native Seed Hub and the planning of a two acre site of wild flower meadow around the Seed Bank.
Wakehurst is now working on a new wildflower meadow – Bloomers' Valley – a four to five acre site on damp clay. Conservation Manager, Ian Parkinson, tells me that they are currently planting out plug plants into this meadow which are not easily raised from seed. These include Harebells, Sneezewort, Sawwort, Dyers' Greenweed and his favourite, Betony, also known as Woundwort.
The High Weald Landscape Trust is based at The Beech Estate, near Battle where Keith Datchler OBE, is both the Estate Manager and a Trustee of the HWLT. Part of the estate was originally grazing land for a herd of dairy cows but now a hundred acres of ancient wildlife meadows have been restored and are carefully managed. The land on two of the farms within the estate had always been poor and difficult to farm and, once the dairy herd no longer grazed the land, a profusion of wild flowers and grasses reappeared as, thankfully, the land had never been sprayed. To quote, 'the seedbank of centuries had been preserved'.
Another hundred acres of meadow on the estate is now being enhanced to add to their tally of wild flower meadows. The estate is open to the public and guided walks to explore the meadows are available. Look out for details of these in the Exploring East Sussex brochure (www.eastsussex.gov.uk)
Finally, you'll know that many different wild flower meadows were created at the Olympic site for last year's Games. Much of the wild flower turf was grown by Wildflower Turf Ltd. (www.wildflowerturf.co.uk) who pioneered the first soil-less growing system for this turf rich in wildflowers and grasses in a 50/50 mix. Through the Weald Meadows Nectar Network Initiative and other conservation bodies, Rother District Council, who own Kingsmead Meadow on the top of Caldbec Hill outside Battle, accepted 200 square metres of Olympic Legacy turf from Wildflower Turf to augment their existing wild flower meadow. This public meadow was laid in October of last year and will be flowering in June. In 1066 it was the site of Harold's armies gathering just before the Battle of Hastings. It was October and the grasses and flowers would have set seed by then.
Sue Whigham can be contacted on 07810 457948 for gardening advice and the sourcing and supplying of interesting garden plants.
Photograph courtesy of Keith Datchler, Beech Estate