or in my case 9 cows and their calves…..
The Ladies are back! These are my contract mowers who arrive every year for 4-6 weeks in October to graze the grass on our headland.
The grassland on our croft is managed to produce suitable breeding habitat for corncrakes, breeding waders such as lapwings, oystercatchers, redshank and snipe, and other ground nesting species such as skylarks and meadow pipits, and to maintain a high level of biodiversity. So in the summer our meadows are a tapestry of wildflowers which provide food for pollinating insects – hoverflies, moths, butterflies and of course the great yellow bumblebees. Also perfect for voles to feed short-eared owls and invertebrates for the smaller birds.
When we came here overgrazing had left the coastal grassland on the headland in poor condition. By controlling the amount and timing of grazing it has been possible to create a sward of the correct height and density for the breeding birds and ensure that the flowers have time to set and drop their seeds. The headland is grazed and manured by cows (with some unsolicited help from the Greylag Geese) which are removed when we think they have mown the grass to the right level. Over time this should restore the balance between the grasses and the flowering plants without any further intervention.
The adjoining machair fields had been used for producing cereals for animal feed using the traditional two-year rotation. However, no seaweed had been applied and serious overgrazing in the fallow and winter periods had caused erosion and the degradation of the soil structure – it was little more than pure sand. Restoring the floral diversity and improving the soil structure and ecology would prove to be a more difficult challenge. These fields are now in “intensive care”! They are mown and the hay is bailed and removed in mid September. In terms of hay or silage production this is very late, but we have to be sure all the young corncrakes have left and allow time for natural seed drop. In November we decide whether we will add a very light winter seaweed dressing. The intention is to improve the level of soil organic matter without increasing the fertility. If the winter or spring regrowth is too lush, the cows are introduced to control the level of grass growth.
We are now beginning to see improvements, particularly in the flora on the headland. It is more difficult to assess the effect on the insects, as they are more vulnerable to climatic conditions. However, if we can maintain a rich and diverse habitat we are at least helping to ensure their survival. Four years is a very short time in terms of grassland restoration and it will take much longer to see a real improvement in the machair fields. It is a difficult balancing act trying to restore the soil ecology without the over-enrichment which would enable the grasses to predominate and coarse weeds, such as docks and nettles, to become established. However, on very sand soil with low levels of organic matter and plenty of winter rain this is not too much of a problem as most of the added nutrients are washed away.
Their are times when I feel that land management, particularly of very fragile ecosystems, is more akin to an art than a science. There are plenty of case studies and background ecological theory, but the bottom-line is knowing your land, experiencing the climate, feeling the soil and watching the wildlife. Most of all it is about loving the land and trying to ensure that it is left in better condition than it was found it. After all it is the inheritance of the next generation.
I am extremely privileged to be one of the guardians of this croft and its wildlife but essentially I’m just a gardener caring for a natural garden. Here the natural landscape and combination of plants is far superior to anything I could ever create. So my house has no man-made garden just a seaside meadow, with some strategically placed rocky outcrops and erratics, a trickley burn with irises and a rushy bog where the snipe live. For perfection all it requires is 9 cows and their cows for mowing duties each autumn, and a little help from a man with a tractor.