Monday, July 27, 2015

Getting the meadow cut - and why I hate sheep

At last we have gotten the meadow cut. This is an annual nightmare, as it is for a lot of other owners of small patches of grassland. In the end a local contractor, Phil, came to the rescue, borrowing a huge John Deere tractor and flail off a farmer friend to come and do it for us. We're very grateful!

We are typical of many of a new demographic in the British countryside, the micro-landowner, with just a few acres – we have about 3+ acres of wildflower meadow to cut. Ours is very bio-diverse, indeed some of it quite exceptionally interesting, a rare survival of a pre-intensification grassland. But getting it cut, let alone doing what we should be doing, getting it cut and raking off the cut grass as hay, is always really difficult. The problems of doing so bring one up against two things: the problems of actually achieving good medium-scale habitat management, and the realities of global agriculture.
In the past, a local farmer would be happy to come and cut the grass for hay, problem solved. But no-one wants hay anymore, although horses are happy to eat it, silage is better for most animals and a lot easier for the farmers – apart from anything else, hay has to be left to dry, which is not always possible in the climate of west Britain. 

(Silage, by the way, is grass cut young and lush and fermented to make a very digestible animal feed which can be kept for up to two years.)

Not any more. Coming and cutting small acreages is simply not worth it for farmers. The last two years we had a silage cut, which is done in June when the grass is lush, but it is not worth it for them to come back – it involved a small army of huge machinery to come quite a few miles. Anyway a silage cut removes the grass before a lot of wildflowers have performed, let alone seeded. In many places it can, I believe, be a disaster for biodiversity. See what I wrote about it in Austria a few years ago. But it did remove the nutrients for those years – as we all know now, removing grass/herbage removes nutrients, so reducing the nutrient level of the soil, which reduces grass growth and so therefore encourages biodiversity. 

You would think that one or two of the local farmers might have cottoned on to the fact that the area now has lots of people like us who want small scale cuts done, and come and cut them at a premium price. Not a bit of it. Like many semi-marginal agricultural areas most of them are the ones who haven't had the initiative to go and do something else; they seem completely stuck in the same old way of doing things: overgrazing the land with EU-subsidised sheep and mechanically producing silage, preferably from monocultures of ryegrass. This is one of the problems with small-scale farming – most of those who practice it never made an active choice to do it, they are just following in their fathers' and grandfathers' footsteps. There is the occasional bright spark who has realised that this is all completely uneconomic and diversified into the new rural economy – niche farming and food processing: artisan cheeses, fruit cordials, single-variety cider etc. Fortunately this does seem to be growing in Herefordshire.

Even if some of the local agricultural community did get the initiative to offer small meadow management services, they would face the next problem – the 'kit'. All modern agricultural machinery in Britain is vast, made for the plains of Kansas, or at least Lincolnshire - the places where a totally different landscape actually feeds us. Agriculture is subject to an elementary economic law – the Law of Diminishing Returns, which basically means that scale is everything (except if you can buck the Law by developing a niche market, which is essentially what so-called 'organic' production, farm shops and food fairs are all about). The Law means that there is no longer a market for small or medium-sized tractors etc, so anyone who enters the small acreage market inevitably has to be a vintage tractor and farm machinery addict.

One answer, in the neighbouring county has been the Monmouthshire Meadows Group whose mission statement declares "Our aim is to conserve and restore flower rich grasslands in Monmouthshire by enabling members to manage their own fields and gardens effectively". Their website lists contractors for all sorts of wildflower meadow conservation services and apparently they did club together a few years ago to buy an Austrian small cutter and baler. There is talk of something being set up in Herefordshire, which is very good news indeed.

So, what is so special about our bit of grassland?
We were here for a year before we realised just how special one bit of our land was – it had an incredibly dense sward with very little grass, but instead was made up of two wildflowers – fleabane and silverweed, plus rushes and sedges, plus a whole lot of other wildflowers. There were a few orchids, three the first year. Our neighbour (a v. old-fashioned smallholder) had sheep on it, we gradually reduced them, and as we did so, the flora burgeoned – we now have thousands of spotted orchids. As time has gone on, we have seen this very interesting flora slowly spread – it is actually a flora which is more typical of 'dune slacks' – wet areas of sand dunes, on the south Wales coast, than anything else I have seen around here. In parts I am reminded of alpine herbfield – as there is so little grass.

I suspect that there was once an awful lot more of this kind of biodiverse grassland around. I also suspect that if the amount of sheep-grazing were reduced we might seen the development of a lot more. Sheep are the curse around here – the deforested scenery of much of Wales and the borders is constantly nibbled to within a millimetre of its life by them. Unlike cattle, which are no longer rough grazed in the area (what Americans call ranching) they tiptoe around bracken, which continues its onward march, smothering vast areas. The sooner we give up subsidising farmers to keep these biodiversity-gobbling beasts in marginal areas like this, the better. A landscape of woodland (economic use = biomass?) and small patches of economically useless but biodiverse grassland like ours, would be much more preferable. 

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Scott said...

Is this lack of resources to cut small meadows a widespread problem Noel? Would most meadow owners be able to keep the cut material if it could be taken off the field, but not necessarily taken away (as it might not be cost-effective)?

Scott said...

Is this lack of resources to cut small meadows a widespread problem Noel? Would most meadow owners be able to keep the cut material if it could be taken off the field, but not necessarily taken away (as it might not be cost-effective)?

Cathy said...

Exactly the problem we face. We have about an acre of 'meadow' on the North Downs and used to be able to get a local farmer to come, cut, bale and take away the hay. Nowadays there is nobody to do that and modern tractors and mowers are too wide to get down our drive. We do have someone who will come in the spring and 'top' it, using a flail towed by a quad bike, but it isn't possible to remove the material so the growth gets more rank every year and I have been driven to scything areas to keep the brambles and thistles down. That said, we still do have a lot of wild flowers in some areas and it is a haven for butterflies and pollinators.

Stella said...

Find an owner of a vintage tractor - they may have all the kit to cut and bale small fields and would welcome the chance to play with their "toy"!

Stella said...

Find the owner of a vintage tractor - they may have all the kit to cut and bale a small field and would welcome the chance to play with their "toy"! Try the Ferguson owners club / all the tractor magazines.

Anne Wareham said...

Come and support Monmouthshire Meadows latest project - buying some ancient flowering meadows. Saturday 8th of August, with cake!

Nick said...

I manage two species rich wild flower meadows in Oxfordshire totalling nearly 7 acres. this is part of an environmental stewardship scheme where we receive a very small grant towards the cost. I don't have any trouble getting our meadows cut but I have an absolute nightmare getting anyone to bring in sheep for the aftermath grazing which we have to have done. The local farmers just do not want the hassle of moving livestock for a small area and for such a short time.

Sustainable Furniture said...

I can imagine that is an absolute nightmare to cut and a massive job each year. So lucky to have such large fields though, would kill for something that size!

Rurik Halaby said...

Most interesting and enjoyable reading, Noel. Rurik