Frequently Asked Questions
This a new page which we have created to try to answer some of the questions that are often asked about meadows and grasslands. We will build it up gradually over time, so keep an eye on it for further updates!
Q. When is the best time to sow wild flower meadow seeds?
A. As the plants naturally scatter their seeds in Autumn this generally is the best time to sow. Some plant seeds like Yellow Rattle will require exposure to a period of low temperature and the seeds should be fully imbibed (wet). It is important to expose the soil surface by raking, or on a larger area by scarifying or harrowing. In general, the seeds should not be buried, but rather gently firmed in and sown thinly.
A key factor for success with any seed sowing is understanding the plants ideal ground conditions recognising that some like Ragged Robin thrive in very damp areas. Others prefer dry areas whilst others are more tolerant.
Some seeds can be sown in spring under glass in a peat free compost, thinned as plugs, then hardened off in the normal way before planting out.
Whichever way you chose, good quality and local meadow seed is the best choice as then you then know that it is natural to your area. Always worth checking with MMG if you are unsure. See website for details.
Q. What is aftermath grazing and is it necessary?
A. In a typical hay meadow annual cycle the hay is cut in mid-summer and the hay baled and removed. After a few weeks (depending largely on the weather) there should be sufficient re-growth of the sward to allow the field to be grazed; this is known as ‘aftermath grazing’. Typically the grazing is continued at least until the autumn but can, if there is sufficient grazing to support the number of grazing animals, be continued into winter. At some point the stock is removed, the hay field is ‘closed-up’ and the sward allowed to grow through spring and summer to provide the next hay crop.
Aftermath grazing ensures that coarse, rapidly growing grasses don’t become dominant at the expense of finer grasses and herbs. Grazing animals have other advantages – their trampling helps to ensure that seeds shed before or during hay making are in close contact with the soil, which improves germination success, and can create small bare patches that some species need for germination. The dung of grazing animals also makes nutrients more readily available to plants without increasing the overall quantity of nutrients in the system (unless the animals are fed concentrates). The dung also supports insects and other invertebrates which in turn provide food for birds and mammals.
However, not all hay meadows or lawns can be grazed – they may be too small, inadequately fenced or lacking infrastructure such as water supplies. In these instances mowing can provide a substitute for grazing, although some of the advantages of grazing will be lost. If possible mowing should be repeated at intervals through late summer and autumn, but not cutting too low – light trims are best, aiming for an average sward height of 10cm (4in.). Ideally the cut material is removed and can be composted off-site. Once the growth of the sward has slowed mowing can cease.
Q. How many animals should be used for aftermath grazing?
A. There is no definitive answer to this question as it will depend on the environmental conditions of the site (soil type, altitude, drainage etc.) and even on one site will vary from year to year due to fluctuations in weather. These factors affect vegetation growth and hence how much herbage is available for grazing animals.
Farmers normally develop expertise in judging how many animals can be supported by a particular field, expressed as a stocking rate i.e. number per unit area). They will adjust the number of animals to balance the available forage, and move the animals on as necessary. MMG members may not have the luxury of several fields that can be grazed in rotation. Conservation grazing practitioners adopt a different approach that might be more suited to MMG members’ meadow management: that is to specify a target sward height of, say, 5cm (2in.) as this takes account of the variation in herbage growth from year to year.
If the grazing animals are provided by a local farmer or grazier this stipulation for a target sward height should be made clear before the animals come on to the site. Be firm and make it clear that co-operation is expected and future grazing opportunities will depend on that co-operation. Make clear also the latest date by which the stock must be removed. You may wish to use a grazing agreement that both parties sign – MMG can provide an example but cannot accept any liability from its use.
Q. Which butterflies should we look out for in our local meadows?
A. The flowers of species-rich meadows represent an invaluable nectar source for adult butterflies and many species may be seen visiting flowers if the butterfly’s principal habitat or larval food-plants are nearby. In this category are some of the commoner species such as Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), Peacock (Aglais io), Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) and Comma (Polygonia c-album) which all utilise Stinging Nettle as the larval food plant, Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) which has caterpillars that feed on various species of Thistle, and rarer species such as Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene) and Dark Green Fritillary (Argynnis aglaja), which both need Violets as larval food-plants.
In addition to these nectaring species are those that breed in grasslands of various types, including some that breed in meadows. Most make use of grasses as larval food-plants, but plants of the pea and cabbage families, such as Lesser Bird’s-foot Trefoil and Cuckoo Flower respectively, are used by some species. The species most likely to be encountered in Shropshire meadows are shown in the table below; not all will be found in every meadow as some have preferences for damp or drier grasslands, some prefer short or long swards etc. (In the table WM = West Midlands).
Although there are many field guides to butterflies most of these consider all UK species or even all European species that can make identification more difficult. The table is based on an excellent local guide, Butterflies of the West Midlands; the full reference is given below. As well as good colour photographs of the adult butterflies the guide also has photographs of eggs and caterpillar (larva) and chrysalis (pupa) and includes distribution maps and examples of the best places to see particular species.
It would be useful to have records of butterflies in MMG members’ meadows and other grasslands as evidence to support our work – please send in your records to the secretary.
Duncan, I., Seal, P., Tilt, J., Wasley, R. & Williams, M. (eds.) 2016. Butterflies of the West Midlands. Pisces Publications, Newbury.
Q - Is it a good idea to buy pot or plug grown wild flower plants to increase the species diversity of the area I want to improve?
A - If the area you wish to improve is small and not near any natural areas, eg. a small garden lawn, it may be suitable to introduce a few bought plants but using this method to increase plant diversity is generally speaking not a good idea and should only be undertaken with caution for the following reasons:
1. It’s the most expensive way of increasing plant numbers and is labour intensive if planting more than a small area.
2. Despite what plant labels may say there is no way of knowing if the plants have been propagated from native British seed and even if they have it certainly won’t be local.
3. Planting plants of unknown provenance in a field or anywhere close to open countryside could increase the risk of them hybridising with native species, eg. Spanish Bluebell with native Bluebell (another eg??), or risk the plants spreading in to the wider locality.
4. By way of an example one of our members was recently given two small pots of Ragged Robin (Lychins flos-cuculi), which had been bought from a garden centre. They were labelled as being native Ragged Robin. Before eventually planting them on the edge of her pond she left them in their pots, sitting on her patio for a long time (she did water them). They flowered and set seed before they were finally planted. The following year young Ragged Robin plants emerged through the mortar between her patio slabs, in the gravel of her path and in old disused plant containers. The plants grew like weeds and were abnormally drought tolerant. They also came in to flower several weeks before a neighbour’s Ragged Robin growing in a field which has a LNR (Local Nature Reserve) designation. The conclusion is that they aren’t British native Ragged Robin!
Q: Is there a simple way of mapping habitats or other features in my local area?
A: It is possible to use Google Maps for this purpose but you will need to set up an account in Google if you don’t already have one. The Middle Marches CLT ran a workshop on simple mapping using Google Maps in December 2019 and has produced a short video guide which can be accessed at https://middlemarchescommunitylandtrust.org.uk/events/land-mapping-event/
MMG is currently developing a map of meadows and other grasslands in the area and when complete this may be placed on the website as a view-only resource.
Q: How can I control creeping thistle?
A: Creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) is a native species that is used by butterflies and other insects as a nectar source, and its seeds are eaten by birds such as finches. However, once established it frequently forms dense stands and spreads mainly through growth of horizontal underground stolons bearing many buds from which new shoots grow. A useful on-line resource, but dealing mainly with control in arable fields, is
https://www.organicresearchcentre.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/1716-thistle.pdf. The account below is based on the experience of two Marches Meadow Group members (JB & RS) and considers physical and chemical control methods.
Sheep or cattle will graze off thistle shoots when they first appear, but grazing animals avoid older plants. Grazing at the right time is not an option on fields that are to be shut up to grow hay or wildflowers.
Avoiding bare ground in the pasture will reduce new infestations by wind-blown seeds. Creeping thistle also thrives when the competition from other plants is reduced by over-grazing.
Physical Control (RS & JB)
Scything low to the ground only encourages a coppicing effect and stolon bud development, but if repeated throughout the season (and each season thereafter) will weaken the plant and prevent seeding. Pulling using thorn gloves at the 'green bud’ stage can result in the vertical part of the root coming up as well - it breaks off at the junction with the horizontal stolon. This stops coppicing and also prevents the stolon being re-supplied with nutrients, so having a slow weakening effect. In a dry spring with hard ground the shoots may break off above the stolon.
Cutting/pulling when the plants are about to flower, even when continued for several years, had no noticeable effect on density – by flowering time the food reserves stored in the underground stolons had been replenished. It does reduce seed production, but note that seeds can develop in flower-heads on cut or pulled plants which should not be left on the field.
Cutting the shoots as soon as they appear, preferably below ground level, is much more effective. Many will re-shoot but keep cutting them off as they appear. It is time consuming for large areas - one year I spent about an hour each evening on the task and could get 500 shoots in that time. On an area where such early cutting was the sole control method the number of shoots cut in 2019 (first year) was 24,785, in 2020 977 shoots and as at the start of June 2021 only 17 have been found. Finding the last few may be difficult and almost as time consuming as when there are many. Gorse bushes, bramble patches etc. can hide the last ones and, of course, they may come under fences from neighbouring fields.
A small spade with a sharp edge is an effective tool, but requires considerable effort. The Lazy Dog range of tools includes a chisel edge attachment that is reputedly less physically demanding – see https://lazydogtools.co.uk/
Chemical Control (JB)
Always read, follow and comply with instructions on the product label.
In the past Roundup Biactive (a.i. glyphosate) was always the best herbicide for all agricultural weeds but we know now that it is not broken down on contact with the soil as falsely stated on the label. It has also been found to upset soil mycorrhizae and cause human cancers. Some formulations of glyphosate (e.g. Roundup) kill bumblebees through blocking their spiracles (breathing holes) whereas other formulations (e.g. Weedol) don’t have this effect. Glyphosate also kills anything green it contacts, including grass, so if you do use it 'wiping' when weeds get tall is better than spraying.
So my recommendations for herbicides to treat creeping thistle are now as follows:
- As with physical control the best effect is achieved early in the season – as soon as the shoots have the first 2 to 6 leaves through the ground. In practice that means start looking from April onwards and keep looking for later emerging shoots.
- At that growth stage I have tried three herbicides using a knapsack with hand lance to spot spray. This is quick to use, reduces the amount of herbicide needed, very effective and means less bending. The herbicides are:
- Barrier H, (active ingredient citronella oil). This is recommended for Ragwort control but as a contact herbicide it will burn off any green growth, including grass, so needs to be well targeted using Barrier H’s own spray bottle with spot nozzle. Has an immediate effect if done in warm sunlight. Within 1 hour you can see if any have been missed. Not translocated within the plant so the stolons are not killed and previously dormant buds will shoot. Citronella oil can be a deterrent to invertebrates.
- RHS Weedkiller, (a.i. acetic acid). Similar effect to Barrier H. Comes in its own RHS spot applicator. Not translocated.
- Grazon Pro, (a.i. clopyralid and trichlopyr). This kills almost all broad-leaved plants but should leave grasses unaffected. Grazon Pro is translocated to the underground stolons so kills dormant buds as well as the above ground shoots. This is the only herbicide which has knapsack approval. ‘Spot' spray the young shoots. Keep pressure low so as to reduce splash. If you have really dense shoot emergence then you can use a dribble / low pressure spray but it is a broad spectrum weed killer so spraying the whole area will kill most herbs. Look again every 4-6 weeks throughout the season to spray late emerging shoots.
Citronella oil and acetic acid are more natural chemicals than the cocktail of agricultural herbicides in Grazon Pro.
I have found the above give almost 100% control if done conscientiously over 2 seasons. In the second year the number should be reduced by about 75% and from the third year onwards only occasional stragglers should survive (and could be controlled by physical means).