It has been a good year for the yellow rattle and we are happy to see it so clearly making its space in the meadows. This humble annual is the vital ingredient that has allowed us to begin to reinstate richly diverse meadows on our heavy, nutritious ground. An annual that is semi-parasitic upon grasses, Rhinanthus minor diminishes the vigour of its host to allow diversity in the sward to re-establish; creating windows between the grasses where the wildflowers can flourish.
When we arrived here twelve years ago, the fields had been grazed hard and it had been many years since they had been allowed to run to meadow. Our fields make good ‘grub’ – the local term for rich grazing grass – and pasture had been the sole objective of the cattle farmer who lived here before us. Years over which the diversity in the fields diminished due to continual grazing. The opportunity missed again and again for the meadow plants to seed.
As the new custodians of the land, we knew that we wanted to reinstate the meadows and build diversity back into the fields. Our octogenarian neighbours Josie and Rachel, who have lived and farmed here all their adult lives, told us that The Tynings (upper and lower), our top fields, were known locally as the hospital fields, because poorly animals were sent there to self-medicate and restore their vigour on the wild herbs. As the fields had been run economically with no pesticide or fertiliser we saw hope in our plan and, in that first year, we let the grass grow out to see what it was made of. The fields were flushed with dandelions and then buttercups, but it was on only a few steep slopes which the cows had grazed less that we saw signs of diversity. A smattering of cowslips, bedstraw, restharrow, knapweeds and scabious indicated what had once been here.
That first summer we started the new regime for the fields we wanted to nurture back into good meadow. Our local farmer cut and bailed them for hay in mid-July after seeding and then brought in cattle to graze the ground hard afterwards. The simple act of removing the hay started the process of diminishing the richness of the ground.
In September we over-sowed the meadows with a local seed mix harvested from old hay meadows in neighbouring St. Catherine’s Valley, just a few miles away. The seed had yellow rattle in the mix and we broadcast it by hand in a sweep over the fields. It felt both like an ancient process connecting us to the past and a throwing down of hope and promise for the future. We then grazed the fields into the late autumn to ‘poach’ the soft, wet ground with the hooves of the animals which pummelled the mud on the surface and pressed the seed in. Sowing in early autumn produced the best results as the seed needs frost to stratify it and break dormancy.
You can simulate the same process without animals by scarifying a sward in the autumn to open up as much as 50% of the ground. Cutting the grass to 25mm at sowing time and then again in late winter before its March germination allows the rattle the light it needs to get away before the spring flush of grass.
We over-sowed about fifteen of our twenty acres over the next five years, learning as we went that in the first year after sowing you had to hunt for the distinctive chevroned foliage of the first rattle seedlings and that for every one you found there were a hundred that you didn’t. The rhinanthus also has its cycles, being exponential in its colonisation for the first five to six years and then, in a boom and bust year, using up the energy of its host grasses and moving on to new ground. Watching carefully you can see very quickly from one year to the next what is happening. The window the rattle opens up in the grass sward allows the meadow seed that has been cast with it the opportunity of germination and light. In year one and two you see red clover and plantains, year two and three oxeye daisy, lotus and quaking grass, year four and five cowslips, knapweeds and the summer-sky blue of Geranium pratense. Where we had the right conditions and the mychorrhizal fungal association they need for germination, year six brought us Common Spotted, Early Purples, Bee, Pyramidal and, this year, our first Green Winged orchids. It is when the orchids arrive – unsown and taking several years to reach flowering age – that you really feel like you are doing something right.
An old saying goes that when the rattle rattles it is time for the meadows to be cut, but although the first seedpods are now brown and rattling, we go by the rule of July the 15th and never cut before then. It varies of course from year to year, but this is a good average. Our neighbours, Emorsgate Seeds, who supplied the St. Catherine’s seed mix, gave it to us that first year with the caveat that one day they would return to harvest the rattle. So last year they brush harvested The Tynings before the hay cut. In part exchange we got a bag of our own seed from the hospital fields to oversow new ground. You can see now why these fields were named as they were, replenished again and running with the plants that were once so good for the animals.
The simple act of introducing the rattle was just the beginning, the turning of the key. Greater floral range in the meadows increases the invertebrate biodiversity and we now see a return of the visible members of the life that shares this place with us. Butterflies such as Meadow Browns, Common Blues, Small Skippers, Orange Tips and a mysterious moth population we are only just getting to know. There are bumble bees, carder bees, hoverflies, mayflies, cardinal beetles, lacewings, June bugs, sawflies and weevils and so, in turn, more bats which sweep the still places in the evenings.
The meadows also provide a home to rodents, so red kites, buzzards, kestrels, peregrine falcons, barn owls and other birds of prey are more common here now. This year we have witnessed the arrival of brown hares, which make their nests – known as forms – in long grass. And just this morning on our dog walk, disturbed to find large flattened areas in the meadows, we were mollified by the realisation that they were the result of playful fox cubs that have decided the long grass is the perfect playground. We are just a very small part of it all, an island in an area still farmed predominantly as it was before we arrived, but we walk these meadows now with the sense that we really are effecting positive change. A shift to a better balance and fields that once again are hospital fields for us all.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 17 June 2023