PhD researcher, Vicky Bowskill, explains how meadow flowers are able to thrive, despite being mown for hay every summer.
This is a floodplain meadow. It’s mid-July and you can see that the sward has grown tall and dense. If you look down here at the bottom, you can see that not much is able to grow underneath these tall, competitive species.
Historically hay was cut on these wet meadows in late June, because this is the best way to produce a high-quality hay crop for agricultural use. It also ensures that nutrients are removed from the meadow before flowering finishes, when nutrients in the aboveground parts of the plants move back into belowground stores. This helps to balance out the soil nutrients that arrive in flood sediments and prevents competitive, nutrient-loving plants from taking over. If the annual hay cut is left too late, or missed altogether, soil nutrients can build up and you may see a reduction in the number of different species in the meadow as the smaller low-growing species are crowded out.
This is a quadrat that was cut in late June – about 3 weeks ago – and you can see that already it’s starting to recover. This is because meadow species have a survival strategy involving underground energy stores and bud banks, so they have everything they need to spring back to life quickly after haymaking and have a second flush, providing good autumn grazing.
You might be concerned that a June cut wouldn’t allow these wildflowers time to set seed and reproduce. However, many of these are long-lived species that can reproduce by forming clones – without the need for seed. What might surprise you is that some of these delicate-looking plants may actually be over 100 years old – at least as old as many of the trees and hedges nearby – and only need to set seed on those occasional years when hay cutting is delayed due to flooding or bad weather. But it is essential that hay is cut and removed every year so that the litter from old growth doesn’t block light and space from the early low-growing species the following spring.
This cycle of summer hay cutting and aftermath grazing ensures a broad range of plants will continue to thrive here in the long term, providing a diverse habitat structure and varied food sources for invertebrates and other animals who rely on these high nature value meadows.