Why healthy grassland means a healthy ecosystem

Grassland is the basis of most of the UK’s food supply chain and the main source of diet for livestock in the UK. Since the 1930s, over 97% of our wildflower meadows have been lost, and over 6 million acres of grassland have been ploughed up to grow cereals. Grassland management is therefore just as important as managing other wildlife habitats.

The Dartington Hall estate consists of approximately 700 acres of farmland. This includes arable stubble fields, parkland, arable fields, unimproved grassland, marsh wet grassland, meadow grassland and a large agroforestry field.

In this blog, I hope to give you some insight into how we manage all this – and how challenging that can be.

What is unimproved grassland?

Unimproved grasslands are managed with organic principles, which means no fertilizers or chemicals are applied to them. It is process you go through for a period of time and it demonstrates that the landowner is working towards gaining fully certified organic status by the Soil Association. On the Dartington estate, unimproved grassland serves two main purposes: either for animal grazing or for fostering conservation and biodiversity.

There are several measures that need to be considered before any kind of management is undertaken. One of the measures would be to carry out soil samples on the farmland and grasslands to discover the PH levels of the land. This would then determine what kind of crops to sow or where to scatter the wildflower seed in the favoured conditions relating to the plants.

The other measure would be to carry out a Phase 1 habitat survey to discover what wildflowers are already there. The meadows may contain rare plants (such as orchids) and will require a certain management strategy and plan.

A straightforward approach is to cordon off any floristically rich areas with temporary electric fencing from April to mid-July. The fence can then be dismantled after this growing period when the flowers have gone over and dropped their seeds. This allows the wildflowers to emerge the following spring.

Animal grazing

In mid-July the unimproved grasslands are cut for hay. The hay is gathered and stored for winter cattle feed – as over the winter months the grass stops growing. However, the grass still contains nutrients and goes into a dormancy stage in which it can be lightly grazed. It is important to monitor the grazing area to prevent it becoming ‘poached’ by the cattle. Poaching can be reduced by utilising ground that drains well or has a natural slope (in simple terms: to prevent your land becoming poached you would not to put your animals on wet ground).

The critical point seems to be when the soil water content reaches 70%. At this point the soil is easily liquidized and permanent damage can be done in such a short time. During this stage it is recommended to keep the cattle indoors and fed on hay and silage.

Without healthy and well managed grasslands, milk quality would be reduced and there would be a drop in yield – and subsequently a drop in meat production as well.

Conservation

It is beneficial to leave the cutting of meadows as late as possible and to retain some uncut areas. This is to mimic the old fashioned hay cut and to allow invertebrates like moths, butterflies and bees to nectar and feed on the remaining summer wildflowers. Mowing later helps these insects to lay their eggs in preparation for them to emerge the following season, completing their lifecycle.

In the past some of Dartington’s conservation grasslands were grazed with Dartmoor ponies. They were very successful at grazing the meadows but needed special and expert attention and horse boxes to move them – things we didn’t possess in the estate management team. So we decided to change track and try a different approach.

My colleagues Matt and Mark have since cut the meadows and the unimproved grasslands by tractor and Ryetec mower. These machines can be seen as costly but they are essential pieces of kit to manage our grasslands and their benefit can be felt all year round.

The cutting and collecting of the meadow grass helps remove the nutrients and prevents it from going back into the soil. If this was not undertaken each year, over time the soil would become enriched and more acidic.

The problem with poo

There are other factors that cause issues with grassland management – such as dog’s faeces. Wildflowers and plants require low nutrient soil to thrive. Soils enriched with dog faeces encourages the growth of coarser plants like nettles and thistles which compete with and outgrow many wildflowers.

It is important for people to pick up after their dogs for this reason, but there are serious health issues too. Dog faeces contains a variety of pathogens and a number of diseases that can be passed on to humans including salmonella, campylobacter and antibiotic-resistant strains of e.coli.

Dog mess can cause several serious diseases to livestock as well. Neosporosis can cause cattle to prematurely abort their calves. The other disease is called sarcocystosis – a neurological disease which leads to death of sheep.

So please can you help us manage the grasslands by using the dog bins provided, or take it home and dispose in your domestic waste bin. Britain’s wildflower meadows are declining much more rapidly than the nation’s woodlands, so let’s appreciate them and the wildlife they support.

Mike

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