Field or Meadow – The Church Field
A field is usually a monoculture. A single species of grass dominates the plant content. The grass is bred for its intended purpose and it is vigorous and weather hardy. The farmer uses various methods to fertilize these fields to ensure the grass grows well and provides sufficient good quality grass for livestock. The grass is so vigorous in its growth that it outcompetes any wild flowers or wild grasses that try to seed and grow in the field. The grass may be cut and then used to feed livestock during the winter months and is cut before it seeds. In essence a field of this nature has some, but very little value in terms of its biodiversity and so is not of great value as a wildlife habitat! This is the type of habitat that we started with on our Church Field.
If you have read anything recently, you will have come across articles that talk worryingly about the loss of our ancient British wildflower meadows. In fact, there are very few left! Our demand for food, homes etc has ultimately increased pressure on these areas of land. So EWG wanted to create our own special wildflower meadow. It’s a long process, you can’t just buy a bag of seed and scatter it on the field! The existing grasses on the Church Field Meadow would quickly overtake any new grass or wildflower growth and strangle it! Species of grass like Yorkshire Fog have rhizomes below ground and are very quick to fight off any other plants that attempt to takeover their patch!
One of the reasons why meadows are so rich in wildflowers and grasses is because these meadow species have adapted to grow in soil that has poor nutrients. Modern fields are dressed yearly in fertiliser of one kind or another and so have high nutrient levels. This is ideal for the growth of vigorous agricultural grass.
Of course, it goes without saying that a plant rich meadow becomes rich in many ways. Meadow ants move in, the food of our local green woodpecker. The long grass provides food and shelter for shrews and mice and a host of creepy crawlies. The shrews and mice become food for our local tawny owls, buzzards and kestrels etc. The rich collection of wildflowers on the other hand, have different flowering seasons and so provide a long-lasting source of food for butterflies and moths plus their caterpillars. Grasshoppers and bees get a chance to feed and breed.
Then, if the meadow is harvested in a traditional style, the long strands of meadow fox-tail, crested dog’s-tail and the seeded heads of orchids and many other wildflowers get to be cut, left to dry and scatter their seeds, so begins the start of next year’s meadow. In short, these meadows are a joy and they are splendidly biodiverse.
So back to the Church Field meadow project. Last year we cut and removed grass form the meadow. Why? This process reduces soil nutrients and makes it more suitable for natural grasses and wildflowers to grow and less suitable for the more vigorous grasses. We are lucky because the Church Field has not been fertilised for years, certainly in the last 28, since I moved here. We have measured the levels of nutrients in the soil and potassium, nitrogen etc and they are all low. Hooray! This year we have let the meadow area grow and made hay in early August before most of the grasses had seeded, thereby reducing the soil nutrients still further. Next, we have to prepare the soils using various techniques to get rid of the existing grass. If we leave these grasses, they will just quickly recolonise our meadow and we will have wasted our time! Then its time to sow our meadow. We have purchased meadow seed to suit our soil. Its expensive and in this mixture is a plant called Yellow Rattle or Hay Rattle, sometimes called the meadow maker. This plant is a parasite on the roots of other grasses. So, by adding this to our seed mix it will reduce the vigour of the grasses in the mix and let the wild flowers grow through with less competition.
So, if you walk the Church field in the next few months and our meadow area (not the whole thing) is looking like a ploughed field or a barren wasteland don’t worry! We will sow our meadow seed in the autumn and hope that next spring will be a start to a whole new phase in our exciting Church Field project.