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What do the peaks of the Eryri mountains and our garden lawns have in common?
Robbie Blackhall-Miles, Plantlife’s Vascular Plant expert, explains how grazing works to protect our most species-rich habitats.
In Britain, agriculture is a dominant force in the plant communities we have, and our farm livestock is key in replicating the impacts of the constant movement of the wild herds of grazing animals that once roamed our countryside. Many, if not all, of our plant communities rely on some form of grazing or vegetation removal to ensure that they survive.
An understanding of conservation grazing, hay cutting and scrub management can help our most species rich habitats thrive.
Overgrazing is one of the key issues for Arctic Alpine species for example, but of course it is not necessarily the only problem. For some, like plants that live in Calcareous grassland, under grazing may as equally be an issue. Or maybe it’s the fact that the plant community isn’t being grazed by the right type of animal? Or is it that it isn’t being grazed at the right time of year? Or that when its grazed there isn’t enough of the animals that need to be grazing it? Or maybe too many? So many questions!
It’s a question I often ask myself, and one that came up when we developed the Tlysau Mynydd Eryri Eryri’s Mountain Jewels project that forms part of Natur am Byth!. With 10 very different plant species and 2 invertebrate species, we must think about multiple different ways to ensure these are all looked after.
For our tall herb species such as Alpine Saw Wort Saussurea alpina and the Eryri Hawkweed Hieracium snowdoniense we almost certainly need to consider grazing in the Autumn with cattle and maybe a short pulse of grazing in early May.
For the Thyme rich calcareous grassland, with its complement of rare eyebrights (like Welsh Eyebright Euphrasia cambrica), that is so important for the Eryri Rainbow beetle Chrysolina cerealis we probably need sheep right up until late April and then not again until a period in late August or September.
For Mountain Avens Dryas octopetala (pictured) we probably don’t want any grazers near it until the winter. If trees or brambles start to dominate a habitat, then we need a herd of goats but if we want some montane scrub of Juniper and Willow with tall herbs around the edges then the goats mustn’t get near.
By having a combination of all these grazing animals managed and moved into just the right places at just the right time of year we can certainly have a good ‘go’ at getting the conditions right for everything.
What is interesting about this question though is that it is also applicable to our lawns. #NoMowMay encourages us to leave our lawns un-mown for a whole month. We can extend it into ‘Let it bloom June’ but by then the daisies, dandelions and other short turf flowers of early May will have gone over and been outgrown by a multitude of other species.
How can we ensure we please all the species so we can please all our pollinators? Well, we can make a very good go at it by simulating some of those grazing animals with our strimmer and our lawnmower.
To create just the right tapestry of lawn heights in the garden we can use our mower to create paths through our meadow lawns, changing the flow of the paths (maybe missing out some of the special plants that may have colonised the uncut lawn) on a regular basis. This random cutting aims to simulate grazing animals moving through the landscape.
We can even simulate the different types of grazing animals by choosing different heights to cut the paths. If you want daisies again make like a sheep and cut it short, if you want Knapweed and Oxeye daisies to reflower later on in the season you can be a cow and cut some of them before they finish flowering, if you get brambles or nettles then browse them down to the floor like a goat.
By leaving some patches long, some patches medium height and some patches short you will make an interesting mosaic of different lawn habitats that suits as many different species as possible. At the end of the year, before the grass starts to go brown and drop its seeds, one of the most important things you can do for your lawn-meadow is to graze it down completely (just like a huge herd of bison on migration would do) and reset the process for next year’s #NoMowMay fun.
Whether its management of montane grassland and scrub for rare Arctic Alpines or a #NoMowMay lawn, conservation management is an important tool in ensuring we try to please all the species all the time as much as we possibly can. It isn’t a perfectly exact science, and it changes from year to year, and species to species, but the principles are there and for grasslands it’s really just all about the grazing (or mowing).
Discover how you can identify the mosses where you live, and read about Lizzie's challenge to learn 10 mosses!
Grasslands like meadows and parks are not just home to wildflowers, they are also an important habitat for waxcap fungi.
Ever wondered why we need to go out and count rare plants? Meg Griffiths reflects on a summer of lichen hunting for the Natur am Byth! Project.
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