Dr Dines' Meadow Making Adventure pt.10

Dr Trevor Dines

Dr Trevor Dines

Plantlife Botanical Specialist

8th October 2016

Over the last few months I’ve had the privilege of immersing myself completely in the new meadow. The full throttle of flowers reached a peak in June - a joyous time that I'm not afraid to admit moved me to tears - and the field is now wearing the golden mantle of late summer. We’re about to cut the hay, so it’s a good time to reflect on what has actually been happening.

In order to see how the meadow evolves and changes over the next few years, I’ve been doing a bit of vegetation monitoring. A standard technique is being used on all the Coronation Meadows. This involves placing a 1-metre square quadrat (below) at random points across the meadow. The quadrat - which sounds high-tech but is really just four 1-metre long bamboo canes attached at the corners – is then divided into 9 smaller cells using four more canes. For every species found growing inside the quadrat, the number of cells they occupy is counted. It’s a time consuming job – the 20 quadrats and 180 cells of data takes two days to collect – but the results are detailed and fascinating. I surveyed the meadow in the same way last year so we can pretty accurately see how the restoration has changed the flora.

This is, of course, the first flowering season since the restoration of the meadow using green hay and brush-harvested seed last September (see here and here). It’s true to say we’ve not had an exuberant riot of colour, but that was to be expected. Meadows can’t be created overnight and the perennial flowers – oxeye daisy, common knapweed, vetches and clovers - will take a few years to get going. Instead, this has been the year of the annuals.

Above: selected results of the monitoring, showing changes in frequency of key species between 2015 and 2016

When the first few Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) seedlings appeared last March, I was incredibly excited but also pretty anxious – would enough of them germinate? I need not have worried. Despite April and May being cold and wet, thousands upon thousands of plants gradually appeared, and they were eventually recorded in 78% of the 180 quadrat cells. To think they all came with the green hay and brush harvested seed is just amazing.

But, even more astonishing was the quantity of Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) that germinated (below). I was hoping that a few of these lovely flowers would germinate, but they appeared in 55% of quadrat cells – a veritable carpet of eyebright. Neither of these flowers were recorded last year, making them the two most abundant new species that have appeared. This is important, as both species are semi-parasitic on grass, helping to reduce its vigour and paving the way for more and more perennial flowers in the future.

Other annuals, such as Lesser Trefoil (Trifolium dubium) and Smooth Hawk's-beard (Crepis capillaris), have boomed in huge numbers, stimulated into growth by the disturbance and bare ground we created last September. They’ve been joined by small numbers of others like Common Fumitory (Fumaria officinalis) and Cut-leaved Crane's-bill (Geranium dissectum) whose seeds must have lain dormant in the soil, echoes of a very distant time when these fields were cultivated for crops.

Of the perennial plants, many of the desirable species that are indicative of neutral grassland have increased significantly. Thankfully, what I feared was a thicket of docks germinating across the field turned out to be Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) - thirteen times more of it than last year (below). Bulbous Buttercups (Ranunculus bulbosus), which are early-flowering and rich-yellow in colour (below), have doubled in number and there has also been a nearly four-fold increase in Meadow Buttercups (Ranunculus acris).

Similarly Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) has increased by 136% and Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) by 63%, including a lovely rich deep orange form (below). This particular secies is especially important, as it's a food plant for 160 different species of invertebrates.

Interestingly, many of the species indicative of agriculturally improved grassland have either not increased or declined. White Clover (Trifolium repens) and Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne) remain abundant at the same frequency as last year, while Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense) and Common Nettle (Urtica dioica) are very infrequent and declining.

All this means that the meadow is going “in the right direction”. It’s not yet where we want it to be though; the cold, wet spring in particular encouraged a very vigorous growth of Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus) that, along with other abundant grasses, will take time to bring under control. But the journey has now begun. In just one year the average number of species in each square metre has increased from 18 to 25 and the total number of species in the whole meadow has increased from 57 to 87.

Of particular delight has been the unexpected appearance of Common Restharrow (Ononis repens, below), although quite how a plant of sunny spots on well-drained, lime-rich soil has made its way to the shadiest, dampest part of our neutral meadow is baffling. That’s the joy of our wild flowers though – the plants don’t always read the books!

With the increase in the flowers has come an increase in the wildlife they support. Grasshoppers are now chirping in the meadow and 12 species of butterfly and day-flying moths have been seen compared to just 4 last year. These include Ringlet, Large Skipper (an uncommon species in north-west Wales), Common Blue (below) and Six-spot Burnet moths. I’ve even witnessed Common Blue butterflies laying their eggs on Bird’s-foot Trefoil, a lovely reminder of the link between plants and the wildlife they support.

In a few weeks time, the hay will be cut and our two Highland cows will be brought back down from the top field to graze the grass as it re-grows in the meadow. We'll also bring some more seed here from Moss Hill, our donor Coronation Meadow, to further increase the abundance and diversity of plants in the meadow.

But it pays to be patient. All year I’ve been surprised and concerned that not one plant of Devils’ bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis) has appeared, despite it being wildly abundant at Moss Hill. Then last week, I found the first few tiny plants germinating.

It seems that the seeds have lain dormant for 10 months, biding their time until they were stimulated to grow by some combination of temperature, rainfall and time. As is so often the case, nature always plays her own game and all we can do is to provide her with opportunities to work her magic.

The Coronation Meadows project is generously supported by Biffa Award and Natural Resources Wales. Seed for our meadow has come from the National Trust meadow at Moss Hill, Penmachno.