Meadow Making II (on top of Slub Mountain)

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One of the fascinating things about managing any patch of ground is learning to envision it ecologically: conjuring it not as it looks at any one time but as it will be at all stages. Meadow-making is thus an act of imagination and of faith. My particular hope is that the scene you can see below (the first image was taken on 30 November, the second in May this year) will slowly evolve into a lower, shorter (and more manageable) sward richer in meadow plants. See also Meadow Making for the backstory to all this.

My ally in the business was yellow rattle, whose papery seeds I bought in 100-gm packet.


09 11:30:13
03 05:05:14 01I spread most of them on about a third of an acre after rigorously mowing it with our small petrol lawnmower in autumn. The recommended date is August-September but mine was delayed and some was not cast until December. It seemed to make little difference and even the late-sown seed produced a fabulous abundance of flowering plants come the late spring, possibly with the second cast flowering slightly later.  Here it is in its pomp in June, but I cannot tell you how exciting it was to spot the first tell-tale yellow rattle leaves coming up in late March.

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The image above is the first indicator that my meadow making plan is bearing flower and fruit. When i bought the site in 2012 there was no ragged robin at Blackwater at all. Now it is springing up everywhere (the pink flower above), along with marsh thistles (there was none when I got the site), lady’s-smock and this summer, for the first time ever, common fleabane. All these new plants are fulfilling the original ambition, which was to create a site with abundant flowers from March/April until about now (late September). In my first spring I had an early flourish, especially of sallow blossom and white dead nettle, and then there was a long hiatus until the meadowsweet and purple loosestrife started in July. Already I can see how the spring ‘colour hole’ is being filled with all sorts of nectar-bearing plants. It means that bumblebees and other wonderful insects are now present spring and summer-long with a superb abundance in August and my first recorded nests – both tree bumblebees, one in my haystack (see below) and one in a hollow tree stump.

Each year has been totally different, not just with new things suddenly appearing but with commonplace residents  showing themselves in unexpected abundance. Last year was wonderful for hoverflies but for some reason this summer  they seem to have been much more scarce.  However I have had a glorious flourish of angelica, the queen of all umbellifers as far as insects are concerned. But it is also such a sculptural beast and the way it breaks out of that huge bulbous egg of green to throw out those wide white-pink arms to the sun – it behaves like an animal. I love it.

angelica 04

angelica 06

angelica 02

Some wonderful additions to the site, appearing for the first time this summer and singing to me yesterday as I scythed one of the last patches of tall herb, were long-winged coneheads (male, below left). I’ve long had dark bush crickets (right) and they are wonderful too but the conehead records have been special. Their sound is a really soft fragile susurration like an old foot-driven sewing machine but in a far room. I was crouching low to hear this tiny hiss better and realised that the beast was stridulating just near my foot. Remarkable to reflect that this species had not been recorded in Norfolk at all until 2000 and it was only recorded for the first time in Britain in 1931. Nice climate change indicator!

long-winged conehead DM 30-viii-09 8bush cricket, dark

Meadow making may sound like a walk through the flowers but it isn’t all contemplation of wonder and beauty. There’s hard graft too. This year my wonderful brother Andy came down to help. I have previously had support from the Hawk & Owl Trust but they are only available in the early winter and really I want to intervene in the tall-herb succession by cutting at an earlier date. So we started work in August. In truth it was so hot that we were only able to work some of the time. But we were blessed with a secret weapon in one of Simon Fairlie’s Austrian scythes, which i borrowed from a friend. I have an old English brute of a scythe (vintage 1948) with a heavy beech handlle given to me by my lovely 90-yr-old farmer neighbour John. The Austrian snath is light pine  and the blade itself finer, sharper and lighter. The whole scythe is twice as efficient and half the effort. Here’s Andy midway through cutting the main yellow rattle patch. We assembled all our cutting on two haystacks. Eventually we needed a ladder to climb to the top of either, because they were twelve feet high.

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You have no idea what effort it took to capture the selfie below. The camera was perched on top of a ladder and i had to run in the intervening ten seconds, grab my brother’s rake, which he used to pull me up to the top of the stack. Our combined age is 114 going on 23!

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And here I am yesterday on top of what is known in our house as ‘Slub Mountain’ after I had finally cleared three-quarters of the meadow. Just one last cut to go. Any takers? ps I now have my own wonderful Simon Fairlie scythe!IMG_5188

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7 Comments

  1. Quentin and Lynda Cornish

     /  September 28, 2015

    Hello Mark. We were fascinated by the story of your meadow and are quite envious of the new flora and fauna it is attracting. We are trying something similar, on a much smaller scale and wanted to ask if you sowed the yellow rattle seed on to prepared soil or just on top of the mown grass? We put in some plug plants earlier this year but not sure if they have taken off! Thank you

    Reply
    • mark cocker

       /  September 30, 2015

      Thanks Quentin and Lynda. I severely mowed the ground down to the quick first and then kind of stamped it in as best i could. There was soon v little seed visible on the surface. But in our garden, which i treated similarly, I sprinkled it into short existing turf. My aim is to harvest successful seed next summer and store it to expand the rattled area. I’m sure your plants will succeed. Good luck. And well done

      Reply
  2. Lissa

     /  September 29, 2015

    I loved reading this – how wonderfully satisfying it must be to create your very own meadow.. What are you going to do with the hay?

    Reply
    • mark cocker

       /  September 30, 2015

      thanks Lissa because it is just me and a few volunteers i have to pile it up and leave it in a large nutrient pile. There will be ‘leakage’ as the Wildlife Trust officer Helen Backowska who visited, told me recently. But i have no option really. And it creates great habitat for mammals, spiders and snakes.

      Reply
  3. murray marr

     /  February 8, 2016

    >> Sorry Mark, tried to post this draft and not the other one – not that it matters; they are pretty much the same. But if you can delete the first one that it would be better. Ta.

    Thanks Mark. It’s looks beautiful and you are succeeding well. I once tried to do something similar on a roadside verge that was almost bare to the chalk.
    I collected local seeds from around the parish and spread them into the thin soil. Three to seven years on, it was surprising to see patches of quite local plants come up: Cowslip, Autumn Gentian, Horseshoe and Kidney Vetch, Thyme, Broomrape, Yellow Rattle and even Pyramidal and Fragrant Orchids. They are of course all indicators of old chalk grassland which, at the time, was being ploughed or fertilised out of existence. The seeds came from remnants left on steep and isolated patches of down.
    It was tiny and almost pointless effort by comparison to what you have achieved.
    But it is a worry when conservationists and planners introduce to the countryside commercial seed mixes of unknown provenance. These can threaten the gene pools of wild plants that are especially adapted to local micro-environments that have been their homes for centuries or even millennia. (Spanish Bluebell genes infiltrating wild Bluebells is a crude example).
    In the 1980’s I ‘published’ my little project so that people might know that this small verge, and its current flora, is in part the result of ‘gardening’, not natural succession. (These days there are twinges of embarrassment about this act of ‘stewardship’.)
    On an abandoned allotment rented from the Lord of the manor, our group has permission to manage it back to natural acid grassland, bog and alder coppice. We are determined not to go down the ‘ersatz meadow’ route. Instead our efforts will concentrate on reducing the nitrogen levels by using your method of scything and removing the hay off site. As you know, there is that magical inverse law in ecology: the lower the nitrogen levels in the soil, the higher the potential biodiversity. Yes, we will collect some seeds from the adjacent common but from no further afield. But what we also want to do, is to deep dig part of this quarter acre (I know, it’s pathetically small) to bring up a possible, long lost seed bank. (Weasel Snout and Wild Pansy came up on my allotment 100 yards away so we might be lucky).
    May be you might try the same thing on part of your land. Dig deep and bring up the first layers of subsoil then fold your arms and wait. You might well have some very nice surprises. But even if nothing unusual appears, the bare, sunlit ground will be its own special edge habitat for a while.

    Reply
    • mark cocker

       /  February 9, 2016

      Thanks Murray i am trying to see what happens as I lower nutrient levels but I also introduced the yellow rattle to help win that battle. The effort required is huge. And if I didn’t make that manual investment i would have to pay to have it done mechanically. So yellow rattle was a friendly green hand to reduce the load. I do like to see what seeds come up of their own accord. I also think trampling and disturbance create conditions for other things to move in. But it is largely a natural process with some strategic interventions. I also want to pick and spread my own seeds from one part of the meadow to another to spread the flowers more widely.

      Reply
  4. murray marr

     /  February 9, 2016

    Thanks, Mark.
    Yellow Rattle and disturbance are both good. The latter I’m learning to see the significance more and more.
    I like the contrary attitude of most ecosystems: ‘’Go away and leave me in peace. No, wait, I need rough treatment sometimes. You know, just here and there. Now leave me alone again”.
    Disturbance: a subject that could do with more debate.
    Another time perhaps.

    Reply

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