I have worked in countryside management on numerous sites for over 20 years and have tried most methods of grassland cutting. I have used hand sickle, long-handled scythe, nylon strimmer, metal-bladed scrub cutter, allen scythe, mini tractor, full-sized tractor, grazing with livestock and even controlled burning. For the last ten years I have had the privilege of managing the sand dune reserve, Kenfig NNR and SAC; a truly remarkable place. For beautiful flower-rich habitats, the sand dune nature reserve is as good as it gets with over 550 species of flowering plants including many thousands of orchids of 15 different species flowering each year. A paradox is that the incredibly rich plant communities have developed on bare sand. There is a lesson here for the meadow gardener!
I am currently plodding along writing a site for Kenfig as time allows on my days off. It is in a draft stage but if you would like a sneak preview, click on the link below. I would be grateful for feedback on page loading times etc.
Kenfig NNR's tractor with Desvoys heavy duty flail mower. It has a cutting width of 2.5 metres and uses hammer flails. It is very tough indeed, dealing with more or less anything we try to cut on the dune system leaving an amazingly neat finish. It would do my whole front lawn in about five seconds flat! During the 10 years since I bought it, the blades and drive belts have needed replacement only once. This is the best mower that I have used. In the picture above, it is breaking up bracken litter during early spring. This is not a piece of equipment that your average wildlife gardener is likely to get hold of but you will see from the management page that garden mowers can also be highly effective tools for grassland management, albeit on a smaller scale.
I can't mention Kenfig NNR without talking about its best plant, the fen orchid. The picture is of the sand dune variety, Liparis loeselii var ovata. This is very rare plant, on the brink of extinction. It grows in low-lying wet areas in sand dune systems called dune slacks. There are only a handful of sites that still hold them and Kenfig is the best. Orchid enthusiasts travel from all over Britain to see this species. It is declining because sand dunes with wet slacks are rare and because even where they are present, the orchids cannot compete with other plants once the sward grows tall. Their survival is dependant on the natural creation of new bare dune slacks and the management of vegetation in older slacks. At Kenfig we use the tractor and cutting/collecting equipment to keep the fen orchid population holding on.
You will not create a habitat suitable for fen orchids in your own meadow, indeed it is unlikely that any orchids will colonise unless your lawn used to be an old meadow. However, many other colourful wild plants are easy to introduce and you may be surprised to find what is already present.
Here is my front lawn in March 2006, about to start its second year of growth as a wildflower meadow. It is about 9x9metres and has two 10metre tall birch trees on its northern margin. The housing estate was built in 1985 on farmland that I guess was grazed pasture. The soil is neutral and loam-like, a relic of deposition from ice sheets during the last period of glaciation. Thankfully the previous owners were not avid lawn enthusiasts. The lawn had simply been cut regularly.
When searching for information on how to create a wildflower meadow, most advice states that it is best to dig out the existing turf and topsoil before sowing a mix of meadow seeds onto the nutrient poor sub-soil. This may seem strange as most gardeners would expect healthy plants to need a rich supply of nutrients. However this is not the case with wildflower meadows. The lower the level of nutrients, the greater the number of species.
Some of the most diverse and colourful plant communities in the world grow on the poorest soils. Grasslands on limestone and on calcarious sand dunes have incredible species' richness. Adding fertilizer easily destroys such communities, allowing relatively few tall-growing species to dominate and overshade the rest. Soils in most lawns have nutrient levels too high to support many wildflowers.
Having said this, digging out one’s lawn is a rather drastic measure, which I was reluctant to try. I will be interested to see the result of putting my lawn under a strict meadow management regime aimed at removal of each year’s plant production. By harvesting plant material year after year, the level of nutrients in the soil should drop. I hope to speed up the process of increasing wild flowers by introducing desired species into the sward through sowing seeds and by planting species established in pots. I believe that after 3 or 4 years of management and introductions, my garden lawn could become an excellent flower-rich meadow.
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