Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Say GO to the mow!

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

I’m standing in a meadow in Sussex on the hottest day of the year. The July sun is doing a good job of bleaching the scene but, even this late in the season, the straw-brown field is punctuated with colour; deep purple betony (Stachys officinalis) with its short, fat flower spikes and tall Devils’-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis) throwing blue discs above the grasses. At my feet, yellow Lady’s-bedstraw (Galium verum) is sprawled through the sward, reminiscent of its former use to sweeten the scent of straw-stuffed mattresses.

The sound is incredible too, the myriad of crickets, grasshoppers, hoverflies and bees reminiscent of a tropical rainforest. But walking through the meadow creates another sound too. The pods of Yellow-rattle (Rhinanthus minor - image right) are ripe – dry, swollen and fat with seeds that rattle under every footstep. Traditionally, Lammas Day, the 1st August, was the day to start cutting hay cut, the first harvest of the year. But farmers would instead often be guided by Yellow-rattle, the rattling a signal to farmers that the hay was ready to cut.

It can feel like an horrific act of brutality to cut down a meadow in its prime, but in fact it is the single most important point in the annual meadow cycle. It provides valuable fodder and bedding for livestock, it removes nutrients from the field, keeping soil fertility down and allowing more delicate flowers to thrive, and it keeps brambles, bracken, saplings and other thuggish plants in check. If it wasn’t for the hay cut, meadows would quickly revert to scrub and woodland, losing much of their colour and wildlife along the way.

All over the country, meadows are resonating not just with the sounds of wildlife but with tractors, mowers, hay turners and bailers. As well as providing a valuable farm income, this green hay is also being used to literally seed new meadows. The sites for these will have first been cleared and lightly cultivated, just enough to break up the soil surface. Green hay is then taken from a good, ancient, flower-rich meadow nearby and transported to the new fields where it is strewn and then either rolled or grazed by cattle. In this way, all the seed from the plants in the hay drops into the soil, ready to germinate with the first rains. The results can be spectacular, with apparently ancient meadows, full of the flowers characteristic of the local area becoming established in just two or three years. As part of the Coronation Meadows project, 12 such meadows were recreated in 2013, and over 120 hectares of restoration are planned this year.

Volunteers from local communities all over the UK are involved, helping out with both cutting and spreading green hay. Scything courses have become popular, this traditional form of mowing providing a tough work-out. In some cases, seed of special flowers, such as Melancholy Thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum) and Dyer’s Greenweed (Genista tinctoria), are being collected and grown to plant out in local meadows next year. Artists are capturing the action of the hay-cut, as well as the beauty of the meadows themselves, and sound-recorders are capturing that cacophony of meadow music that’s so much part of the meadow experience.

So, from now on it’s essential that we say GO to the mow! Not just in meadows, either:

  • If you’ve left a patch of grass unmown in your lawn, you can give it a good trim. Attack it with a strimmer or pair of shears, remove the growth and then mow the grass hard back. Treat it like a normal lawn until Christmas and then leave the same patch to grow back next year. Managed this way, the number of species and flowers is likely to increase.
  • Our flower-rich roadside verges are meadows too. As part of our Road Verge Campaign, we’re asking Local Councils to start mowing the entire width of their verges now and remove clippings where possible. If you see verges being cut for the first time now, they might have signed up to our Campaign. If not, or if they’ve been cut already, why not lend your signature to our petition?

Kicking my way through the meadow, another sound can be heard. A tractor pulls into the field with mower in tow. The farmer engages the machinery and sets to work, the tall grass reduced to strips of hay in an instant. It looks so destructive as the stunning meadow is turned to an apparently nondescript agricultural field. But this hay will soon be taken from here and put to good use. I pick some up and give it a shake. My palm and fingers are showered with the precious seed, yellow-rattle in particular. I hold a new meadow in my hand.


  1. Interesting article, but how does grass cutting at this time of year affect butterflies who've laid eggs among the grasses? I'm thinking of Skippers in particular. Surely they need the grass to be left un-mowed if the larvae are to survive?

  2. Hi Trevor

    While I agree that this is the time to cut traditional hay meadows, it is vital that not all grasslands are 100% cut at this time. Butterflies and other insects still need pollen and nectar through the autumn to breed successfully and get through the winter.

    Many insects also overwinter in tall grasslands. For example, skipper butterflies pupate on grass stems and total cutting is disastrous.

    So can I put in a plea that you recommend that patches of grassland, and strips of verges and field margins, are left uncut through the winter.

    The insects would be very grateful and there will be more to pollinate your flowers next year!

    Good luck with an otherwise excellent campaign

    Dr Martin Warren
    Butterfly Conservation

    1. Hi Martin. Think Trevor has replied to you about this on Twitter, however we agree leaving a little is a good thing to do!

  3. I really don't understand this. Hay in past would have been cut much earlier. Some meadows might be late hay and the yellow rattle has been rattling for ages. The cutting of our hay field was mid/late july and that is considered late.

  4. I agree not all meadow should be cut at once. Think about small mammals and owls. Also in the north of England Knapweed is just starting to flower.

  5. I have been keeping a close eye on our meadows and it seems that not cutting has, so far, not resulted in a decrease of species and in fact has seen a large increase in pollinators and a few new wild plant species e.g. agrimony. The overwintering caterpillars of the brown butterflies would be lost to a chop as would all those grasshoppers, crickets etc that have taken up residence. A meadow is pleasing to the senses for us but it is essential to existence for them. You don't need to promote a chop you need to explain what will be lost.

  6. There is absolutely no need to cut at any time. We really must get over this notion that we have to control nature to make it work. Cutting verges destroys a habitat for insects. They need a home to overwinter in. Councils need to butt out.

  7. Thanks, everyone for your comments. There's an interesting mix of opinions: Cut later? Cut earlier? Or not cut at all? It goes without saying that every meadow is different and the weather can have a huge effect on the best time to mow. That said, the golden date set in SSSI management agreements is usually the 15th July. Key is to be guided by the weather and the state of the hay.