A blog written by Conservation Lead for North Wiltshire, Nick Self

Welcome to the second instalment of our new feature: Month in the Meadow. In this post we will look back at what’s been going on throughout July.

Across all our hay meadow sites in North Wiltshire, July was hay cutting time. This is the culmination of our yearly work in the fields and the time when the crop is harvested to feed our livestock throughout winter. Hay-making in this way is a long-established management practice that has been practised in this area since medieval times.

We cut and bale the hay at multiple sites across North Wiltshire, including the former RAF base Blakehill Farm and Clattinger Farm, near the Cotswold Water Park. This collection of far flung sites presents a unique set of problems and it means that we are cutting, baling and collecting for the majority of July and into August. As I write, at the start of August we have collected in about 700 large bales, with another 70 waiting to be collected.

Photo of bales

Rack ‘em, Stack ‘em and Pack ‘em – photo by Jonathan Clarke

We get many enquiries about how and why we manage our sites in a certain way. As with many things in life, it is all about getting the right balance. In this case, it is striking the right balance between managing a site for wildlife and also managing that site as a working farm.

For example, we recently received an enquiry that asked, “I’ve just arrived at Distillery Farm to find it’s been cut and baled. Why?” As I began to answer this question, it became apparent that actually, this is a more complicated issue than most people might realise. This is an edited version of my reply.

Distillery Farm is an ancient hay meadow site and every year we manage it by cutting and baling the grass in July. This is actually how meadows have been managed for many hundreds of years. The wonderful diversity of wild flowers only exist because the grass is cut each year and they have adapted to live in the cut grass areas. They don't die when cut and some will always grow again next year.

There are only three ways to manage grassland; by cutting, by grazing, or by a combination of the two. Some of the fields at Distillery are not cut for hay and are only grazed and sometimes we vary the time of cut or leave margins uncut. This allows some later flowering plants to thrive and provides uncut areas for invertebrates.

Although historically some hay meadows were cut in June, through our Countryside Stewardship agreement we are not allowed to cut until after 15th July. Some years it may go into August, but this will depend a lot on the weather at the time. Hay is not cut in wet weather and needs to be dry for storage. On some sites we delay the cut in every fifth year to benefit late flowering plants like Devil’s-bit scabious.

Since WWII we have lost 97% of our species rich hay Meadows factors such as agricultural intensification, climate change and habitat loss. Distillery Farm is a throwback to a time when most fields would have been managed in that way. Butterflies always thrived before, but now they have far less habitat in which to do so. That's not to say that no butterfly eggs are lost, but it's minor in the grand scheme of things. We are striving to reverse habitat loss and the declines in invertebrates and the continued management of our suite of hay Meadows in North Wiltshire plays a big part in that.

Photo of devils-bit scabious

Devil’s-bit Scabious – photo by Ellie Dodson