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In recent years, the public has been alerted by the media to worry about declines in insects, especially bees. As a former bumblebee research scientist, this wasn’t news to me because the range of many bumblebee species contracted significantly in the middle of the last century. There is little doubt that big changes in UK agriculture (and therefore most of our landscape) were responsible. 

To put it very simply, there aren’t as many flowers in the countryside now as there were (for over 1,000 years) So, for us, it was always an ambition to have a little bit of countryside of our own that we could manage for biodiversity, and after my getting early retirement, and Helen being made redundant, we were off like a shot to rural Wales in 2012. 

Yellow Rattle growing in grass

Planting the seed

Our fields had been sheep grazed for as long as anyone locally could remember, and they were still being grazed by a local sheep farmer who rents lots of small fields along the Tywi valley. 

We decided to manage one of ours as a hay meadow. Research has shown that in a new meadow the plant diversity increases more quickly if you introduce Yellow Rattle, which is partly parasitic on grasses and inhibits their growth. So, in 2013 we collected Yellow Rattle seed from a neighbour’s field about a mile away and sowed it in the field. We began excluding the sheep every year from the end of March and by April 2014 the Yellow Rattle was growing well. 

Making hay in Carmarthenshire  

A man drives a red tractor in a meadow

In mid-June 2014 we got the neighbouring farmer to cut and bale the field, but decided that it would be better in future to choose when to cut and so acquired a 1963 tractor and some small-scale haymaking implements. 

I’m not particularly keen to produce a hay crop, but for floral diversity the main thing is to ensure that all the cuttings are removed from the field to reduce the soil fertility; and the easiest way to do this is to cut and bale the hay. All we produce is sold to the farmer whose sheep return after the hay cut when grass regrowth begins. I leave the hay cut as late as possible, to allow more species to drop seeds. 

Which species appeared?

Each year, different species’ dominance rose and fell as the county plant recorder predicted they would.  For a couple of years there was so much Yellow Rattle, but soon it settled down to more of an equilibrium, while other things rose in frequency then settled down. Eyebright appeared after a couple of years, as did Whorled Caraway (the County Flower), and Cat’s Ear. 

A field of buttercups

Some plants (like Meadow Buttercup) were probably there already, but never got to flower because the sheep ate themBroad-leaved Helleborines appeared in 2016, and in 2017, a single Southern Marsh OrchidCommon Spotted and Heath Spotted (with hybrids between them) followed, and each year the orchid numbers have increased, it was up to 50 a couple of years back and well over 100 now. 

The field looks different as different plants come into flower in succession, but it even looks different on the same day in the morning and in the afternoon because the Cat’s Ear flowers close about lunchtime, so the field is much more yellow in the morning. 

Our countryside and wildlife need fields like this one.

Plantlife has done valuable work towards achieving that aim (especially with the recent “Magnificent Meadows” campaign). County Meadows Groups also do their bit to help small landowners to get results like this field, and in the group I chair (Carmarthenshire) we’re also trying to raise the profile of species-rich grasslands generally with the UK wide “Big Meadow Search” (www.bigmeadowsearch.co.uk).   

There are few people left who can remember when every farm had a hay meadow, but I hope we can succeed in bringing some back.  

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