Traditionally-managed hay meadows may be rich in wild plants adapted to hay meadow management, or may not, depending on their past management.
The hay meadows that have not been re-seeded with agricultural grass mixtures are often rich in wild flowers, grasses and sedges unless they have had particularly heavy applications of farmyard manure. The wild-plant communities of the majority of these meadows has, however, been irrevocably changed by the application and regular use of inorganic fertiliser, use of herbicides to kill broadleaved species and, in many cases re-seeding with Perennial Rye-grass or other grass mixtures. In many cases these “meadows” are now cut for silage and are no longer hay meadows.
All types of agriculturally unimproved and herb-rich hay meadows are classified as “Priority habitats” for biodiversity in the UK. Several hay meadow types are now sufficiently rare that they are rated of international importance for biodiversity.
Examples are the MG3 and MG4 hay meadow types.
What are “traditional” hay meadows?
These are grasslands managed for hay, usually with aftermath grazing in early autumn, when the second bite of grass is available.
Some meadows are also grazed in early Spring, before being “shut up” for the hay. In upland areas this grazing can be later than in the lowlands, as the first bite of grass is often later but where grass growth can be rapid because of the wetter climate. Many lowland meadows are however not grazed in early Spring because (a) they are on floodplains and are wet at this time (b) there may be no grass growth if there has been a cold spring and, after this time there is a need to conserve the forage for hay production (lowlands being less wet than uplands).
Late-spring grazing (into May) knocks out Yellow Rattle and therefore is very influential on the wild-plant communities. Yellow Rattle is semi-parasitic on grass, so if it thrives it can substantially reduce the quantity and growth rate of grasses in a field. Herb-rich meadows grazed in late spring tend to be much more grassy. It is also thought that late-spring grazing in the MG3 type meadows, reduces the vigour of Wood Cranesbill and this may be a reason why this species appears to be in decline in its some of its traditional hay meadow sites.
Traditional hay meadow management aims to maximise utilisation of the available forage, by cropping the grass at its peak in terms of forage quality and using the spring and autumn bites for feeding livestock. Hay meadows used to be a very efficient and productive agricultural system, maximising the use of forage with muck from animals wintered in barns spread back on the land to maintain fertility. Traditional hay meadow management also would have involved occasional liming. In the Yorkshire Dales there were numerous field barns serving small groups of hay meadows. Many can still be seen today although most are no longer used. These were used to store the hay from their surrounding fields over winter. Cattle were housed on the lower floor and fed with this hay, which was stored in the hay loft. Their muck was spread on the hay meadows to feed the next crop. The siting of the barn meant that heavy loads of hay and muck never had to be carried far.
In practice, before mechanisation, the haycut wasn’t always at the optimal time for forage in terms of its nutritional value because there were lots of meadows and it took a long time to get around to cutting them all using men and women with scythes. Thus some would have been cut in June, but some wouldn’t have been cut until August and, in extreme years, September.
Today, mechanisation enables farmers to whiz round fields quickly and in the knowledge of a 5-day weather forecast, hence the trend for earlier cutting dates to be the norm. This has been tempered by agri-environment schemes that require a later cutting date (usually after 1 July). Many farmers within Environmentally Sensitive Areas have signed up to an agreement whereby they cut their meadows later.
In many upland situations, hay meadows sit uncomfortably within landscapes where the soils are naturally quite acidic, owing to the leaching effect of high rainfall, even on sites lying over limestone. Hay meadows would have been “created” out of these quite hostile landscapes by enclosure and “improvement”, especially liming. Upland hay meadows in the Yorkshire Dales and Dartmoor are good examples where this has occurred.
In Dartmoor, herb-rich hay meadows in the centre of the Moor are surrounded on all sides by heather moorland, cotton-grass bogs and other highly acidic habitats. To maintain the meadow plant-communities in these areas necessitates a continuity of liming, and probably some input of organic matter, to keep them sufficiently fertile and prevent them becoming acidic and losing species.
Meadows managed for hay that are present today are of varying age – some occupy land that grew crops 100 years ago, while others have been hay meadows for much longer. Meadows near Oxford have a recorded history of hay-meadow use for over 1000 years. However, in the heavy clay vales nearby, the presence of ridges and furrows indicates these meadows were cropped and ploughed in the middle ages.
Many “traditional hay meadows” will not always have been managed for hay every year. In some years they will have been grazed. Their precise management in any single year would be dependent on the needs of a particular farm and its livestock.
When to see hay meadows at their best
Late April-early May: for green-winged orchids and cowslips
Late May-mid June: for meadow buttercups, yellow rattle, red clover, sorrel and oxeye daisy
Late June & early July: for greater burnet, pepper saxifrage, wood cranesbill, bird's-foot trefoil, dropwort and many other species
2nd - 3rd week July: for the "purple" phase of common knapweed, also ladies bedstraw and meadowsweet, sneezewort and devil's-bit scabious
Flowering times can alter between years and are influenced by local and seasonal climatic variations.
Many meadows will be cut for hay from the 2nd week of July onwards. Hay meadows owned by local wildlife trusts may be cut later.
Where to see hay meadows
Contact your local wildlife trust, Natural England, Countryside Council for Wales or Scottish Natural Heritage office for details. Your local wildlife trust will have a nature reserves guide (this is usually given away free to all its members) which is sure to include at least one hay meadow you can visit. In England there may also be additional hay meadows on private land which have an access agreements with a local farmer.
Technical Adviser to Flora locale