Last Monday we embarked on the task of cutting the orchid meadow at Southmoor. This is called the orchid meadow because, as you may have guessed, it has orchids in it (we’re not the most imaginative). It has a lot of orchids, well it used to but due to a high turnover in staff over the last few years and the uncertain future of the site (rectified now I am pleased to say and a blog post in the near future) the maintenance of the site dropped off the radar. This lead to the vegetation getting away a bit as the cows chomped all the good stuff, inadvertently selecting the tough, less palatable species such as meadow sweet, fleabane and hard rush to steadily take control.
It was high time to do something about it and with a borrowed BCS (big mower) some brushcutters and some hardy volunteers we made a start cutting, raking, removing. I was going to get a contractor to cut it but I thought it my be fun for the volunteer groups to do as a project. However, in my mind the field was much smaller than in reality and it turned in to quite a mission. The volunteer teams did an absolutely stunning job and we have cleared the vast majority of the field, leaving some patches and a good margin to act as safe refuges for the invertebrates.
The aim of cutting it is to break the back of the tougher vegetation that would not be removed by the cattle. In a natural system this is okay as there are several herbivores that eat different things and some areas become tough but this is fine as its part of a larger, more fluid system where habitats change over time. In a small reserve in an urban area it has to more stationary to provide the best ecological potential.
With the tougher vegetation removed, spaces in the sward are made to allow the daintier, nectar rich flowers to flourish, giving a huge source of food for invertebrates and the cascade effect up the trophic levels that this has, i.e. feeding birds, reptiles and mammals that then feed other species.
The sward is currently very thick and not as diverse as it could be. Speckled throughout is ragged robin, southern marsh orchid, marsh marigold, knapweeds and other lovely plants. These just need some help to flourish.
Cutting is quite sudden for the invertebrate communities to cope with, kind of like a natural disaster like an earthquake. If it knocked down an entire city we would be in a bit of trouble but if it came in waves and only knocked down a few at a time we would have somewhere to shelter and survive. Cutting is like this but if you leave patches, don’t cut too short and do it over a number of days you can dramatically reduce the impact that you have. This also benefits species such as harvest mice and other small mammals as well as reptiles.
The key thing is that removal of vegetation is necessary to get the most out of your meadows, grazing is great but supplementary cuts are necessary but can be done right to reduce the impact on the species that you are trying to promote. They will benefit in the end as there will be more flowers and therefore a greater food source.
This isn’t just for nature reserves. You can do this in your garden as well. Leaving lawns to grow long and improving them with seed mixes and cutting is great for wildlife. Don’t let anybody tell you that they look a mess. They look amazing in the summer and are cut by autumn and will enrich you garden and lives. Just remember to leave a few little patches long when you do cut it.