Why do we cut our hay meadow reserves?

Rachael Fickweiler

Meadows are an increasingly rare habitat in the UK so it is important we manage them sensitively to ensure they are kept in good condition and are protected.

Meadows swaying with wildflowers are a beautiful and increasingly rare habitat in the UK, with 97% of meadows lost in Britain since World War II due to fragmentation caused by changes in land use and a move away from traditional farming practices. 

These remaining grasslands can support so much biodiversity and it’s important to protect and manage them sensitively to ensure they are kept in good condition.

Hay meadows support a rich mixture of grasses and flowers, such as yellow rattle, meadow foxtail, lady's bedstraw and meadow buttercup, with up to 45 species per square metre in the best meadows. They provide abundant pollen and nectar for bumblebees, butterflies and other insects and these invertebrates can be important food for birds. Hay meadows can also provide valuable nesting habitat for birds such as curlews, yellow wagtails and skylarks.

Without appropriate management, these meadows can become overwhelmed by more vigorous plants that can take over and reduce the biodiversity of the meadow. The aim is to suppress the vigorous growth of certain grasses whilst supporting the spread of wildflowers. This is done by controlling and reducing the level of nutrients in the grass and soil.

As a part of this management, the meadow is cut annually. This is weather dependent, but July is typically the best time for cutting and we tend to cut our hay meadow reserves in mid or late-July. This is to allow seeding of late flowering meadow plants so they return the following year, and most ground-nesting birds will have finished nesting by mid-July too.

After cutting, it is very important to remove the hay so it does not smother delicate plants and increase the soil fertility. It is a useful fodder for livestock, as it would have been traditionally. If hay is left to dry for a few days before removing after cutting, flowers can shed any ripe seed and insects are able to make their escape.

We will also often do a bit of aftermath grazing, (grazing after the cut) to keep the vegetation low. This, and the movement of livestock around the site, helps with germination of the wildflower seeds in autumn and spring, ensuring our beautiful wildflower meadows look great year on year.