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Old-fashioned hay meadows need your help to spread the sward.

The search is on for hay meadows, new and old. James Robertson, organic smallholder, environmental writer and editor, reports on a once-common feature of Welsh farms, which is due for a comeback

A DAY in late June: I walk to the far 'bottom' field, Cae Gwaelod, which has been shut up, free from grazing, since early spring. What I discover in the summer sunshine is a field transformed. No longer uniform green, it is a patchwork quilt of colours; the yellows of meadow vetchling mix with pink patches of spotted orchids and the creamy-white effervescence of marsh bedstraw.

The insect world is in a frenzy of activity. Grasshoppers chirrup and leap ahead of me, red-tailed bumblebees and painted lady butterflies search restlessly for pollen and nectar. It is as if this field has been waiting for this moment to fulfil itself.

Farming has created this wonder. Meadows like this owe their existence to the needs of agriculture, past and present.

The hay and aftermath grazing provide a healthy, mineral-rich diet for livestock, composed as they are of a wide range of herbs, many with medicinal properties well known to previous generations.

That we have lost this knowledge and no longer need the attributes which hay meadows provide explains their dramatic decline from the farmed landscape within a generation. They have thus become rare slices of agricultural history, living passports to a once-common feature on many livestock farms.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if these 'old-fashioned' hay meadows were to undergo a revival, and become fashionable again?

That is the aim of a new project, with funding from the Countryside Council for Wales, and led by the organisation Flora Locale. It is not enough to settle for what little remains.

Flora Locale wants to spread the word about the importance of these grasslands, and then help farmers to create new ones.

CCW has an invaluable store of information about flower-rich grasslands, but the key will be to find farmers willing to provide seed or green hay from their meadows, and others who would be interested in creating new ones.

Hay meadows are typically on fertile, neutral soils, and feature plants like knapweed and meadow buttercup, nitrogen-fixing legumes like red clover, birdsfoot trefoil and tufted vetch and many grasses such as crested dog's-tail, sweet vernal grass and meadow foxtail. When they are not being managed as hay meadows, many of these plants will 'tick over' in the sward, coming back when grazing is relaxed.

A small silver lining to the disaster of foot-and-mouth disease five years ago was that meadows were able to bloom again in the absence of grazing, and attracted admiring looks and comments that it reminded people of their childhood!

The search is now on to find farmers with hay meadows which could be used as sources of seed, and those interested in creating new ones.

If you have any suggestions and would like to help, contact James on 01248 422223, or
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Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Sep 12, 2006
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