Ptyxis Ecology - Our Botany Blog

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Species-rich banks in meadows

The meadow survey season is now well and truly over for this year and we have started our green hay harvesting at last. The weather has been dreadful and has held us up much longer than we hoped. Since I started the hay meadow job last year I have surveyed nearly 400 meadows in the North Pennines AONB, so I am starting to build up a reasonable picture of what's out there. Overall there are very very few really herb-rich upland hay meadows left - considerably less than official estimates. Many of the really good sites identified in the NCC surveys of the mid 1980s have been agriculturally improved. I've been a bit shocked by this. The losses of species-rich grassland between the 1950s and 1980s are well documented, but it seems like the small number of sites surviving in the 1980s have suffered major losses in the last 20 years despite conservation initiatives like SSSIs and the ESA scheme.

Where meadows include awkward or steep banks that are too difficult to access with large modern machinery, these often have interesting vegetation. A few (bad) pictures below show a small sample of the variation you can get. The main upland hay meadow community on dry soils is MG3 and there are some very good examples of herb-rich MG3 on some of these banks. But the really interesting thing about them is that you can sometimes get several different types of vegetation on the same bank. Many of these banks would have been mown for hay using hand tools in the distant past, but nowadays the only management they get is grazing in spring and autumn. They may never have had any fertiliser (including farm yard manure) or lime applied.
My favourite type of bank vegetation has to be U4c. This is strange vegetation that I don't understand yet. It usually includes several calcifuge species but yet is often very species-rich. Species-rich acid grassland is not something I have come accross before. There is usually a good bit of tormentil and heath bedstraw along with sweet vernal-grass, red fescue and common bent. Sometimes you get mat-grass, heath rush and other species that I think of as strong calcifuges. Sometimes its not much richer than this so it conforms quite closely to normal species-poor U4. But there is a group of species that indicate vegetation that is often much richer. These are betony, zig-zag clover, devil's-bit scabious, heath grass and bitter vetch. These areas are usually very herb-rich and are good places to look for uncommon hay meadow plants like greater butterfly-orchid, alpine bistort, fragrant orchid (usually subsp. borealis) shade horsetail or small white orchid.

A moderately interesting U4c bank near Wolsingham

Some MG3 vegetation on a bank in the Harwood Valley

An unmown herby bank just outside Middleton-in-Teesdale

A forest of wood horsetail

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At 21 October 2008 at 19:35 , Anonymous Zili said...

Well written article.


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