Why conservationists cut down flowers

Why conservationists cut down flowers

Bernwood Meadows by Howard Stanbury

Why, when they look so pretty, do we mow our meadows in late-summer? Pete explains the importance of this traditional management for wildlife

The end of summer marks a dramatic change for hay meadows and woodland rides. The hay cut, occurring mid-June to July, appears at a glance to be extremely destructive.

From an ocean of wild flowers to a cropped lawn, the cut removes large areas of habitat used by ground nesting birds and a range of invertebrates.

So why do it?

Eutrophication – or nutrient enrichment, is one of several enemies of the wildflower meadow. Perhaps counterintuitively, more nutrients mean fewer species of flower, due to the ability of some bigger, coarser species to use those nutrients to bully out the more delicate species.

But when’s best to cut?

Too soon, and we lose the nectar source and the flowers won’t set seed. Too late, and the nutrients return to the base of the plant, making the crop less valuable and insufficiently lowering nutrient levels.

By taking the hay cut when the grass is at its richest, then grazing the subsequent regrowth with cows, sheep or ponies, we remove lots of the nutrients and promote floral and faunal biodiversity.

Also, left to its own devices a meadow would undergo ‘succession’, transforming from flower-rich, to scrub-rich, and eventually to secondary woodland, meaning an eventual loss of the habitat completely.


Buff tailed bumblebee on knapweed by Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

Cutting and grazing physically slows down scrub like hawthorn and bramble. Add to that a mighty volunteer work party, equipped with tools for scrub clearance, and our hay meadows thrive.

At some sites, the topography makes a hay cut impossible. On permanent pasture like Pilch Field, cows slowly munch their way through, creating a variation in structure between the areas they’ve eaten, and those they haven’t reached yet.

Again, this promotes biodiversity, through creating varied structure, and delaying the cut in some areas benefits late flowers like Devil’s-bit scabious. Where we do hay cut, we leave ‘refugia’ – uncut areas for those late flowers and invertebrates to have a fair go.

At least, that’s the plan.

This year is exceptional for many reasons. With increased people pressure on our sites including fires, trampling of wild flowers, littering, and a host of other heartbreaking activities, nature needs us more than ever.

Add to that the pressure of reduced capacity due to furloughing and the suspension of volunteer activities, and the result is that we need to do more with less.

Meadow farm in bloom

Meadow Farm by Collin Williams

If we don’t cut the meadows, the floral and faunal biodiversity will decline. It has to happen.

Fortunately, many of our sites are cut and grazed by local farmers who have soldiered on. For the sites we graze with our own stock, reserves staff are pulling together in new ways to get the job done. 

When I see a meadow swaying with wild flowers and rolling with butterflies under a midday sun, none of the headaches matter. The yellowhammers sing on in the hedgerow and the smell of sweet vernal grass still wafts on the breeze.

This is why we do what we do.

Why not grow a meadow of your own? If you have a patch of garden, you can learn how to transform it. 

Grow a wild patch

More ways to help wildlife at home