Managing the pretty Frogmore Meadow
PUBLISHED: 11:57 29 August 2017
Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust reserves officer Rob Hopkins explains what goes into managing Frogmore Meadow, a small but beautiful grassland reserve in the Chess Valley
In the summer sun Hertfordshire’s beautiful meadows are bursting with floral colour and the air is alive with clouds of butterflies and the buzz of busy pollinators. Caring for these meadows is a year-round job from cutting and raking to grazing and haymaking.
Frogmore Meadow is a beautiful example of a traditionally managed lowland meadow. Tucked away in the Chess Valley in west Herts, this small reserve comprises two meadows surrounded by mature hedgerows beside the River Chess. The reserve’s damp, species-rich, unimproved neutral grassland is now a very scarce habitat in the UK - the 2016 State of Nature Report states that lowland meadow has suffered an estimated 97 per cent decline since the 1930s. Because of its rarity, Frogmore Meadow is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Change in land use and agricultural practice has resulted in similar meadows being ‘improved’ with fertilisers and seeded with more productive grasses, or drained and used for arable farming. This has resulted in specialist meadow plants often being outcompeted by plants that thrive in a nutrient-rich habitat.
Frogmore Meadow has been managed by Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust for more than 30 years with the help of dedicated volunteers, particularly the late Gerald Salisbury. Its management involves haymaking, which takes place around the beginning of July, although this is highly weather dependent, as even in south east England the possibility of five successive dry days is small. This is one of the reasons that grass is often cut and vacuum packed as silage without the worry about weather conditions.
The Wildlife Trust cuts the grass after most flowers have set seed. Throughout the following days the cut material is turned daily to ensure it dries out evenly – a process known as tedding. If the weather is dry and sunny then three to four days after the grass has been cut, the dry and sweet smelling hay is raked up and transferred to sacks and removed from the meadow. Once the dry grass has been taken off site, the newly made hay is compressed into tight bales using a homemade hand baler. The bales are then tied up and stored in a dry barn – this vital step is hot and dusty work but the resulting hay provides valuable and nutritious winter fodder for the trust’s flock of sheep.
Hay meadows managed in this way encourage a huge diversity of flowers and grasses – a thing of beauty in summer. The flowers are of great value for many nectar feeding insects. However, managing an entire grassland reserve in this way would greatly reduce overall biodiversity, as haymaking is potentially harmful to wildlife such as amphibians, small mammals and insects, such as spiders. To keep the reserve beneficial for all wildlife, at least half the grassland is left uncut and cut areas are rotated annually.
Towards the end of summer the reserves team undertake the next important stage of management – grazing. Traditionally this is done after Lammas Day (August 1), a custom that goes back to the medieval period. Lammas Day was traditionally a festival to mark the annual wheat harvest, usually taking place between August 1 and September 1, and is the first harvest festival of the year.
On dry meadows, sheep are often used to graze but on wetter meadows, like Frogmore, cattle are the preferred option. Cattle grazing removes regrowth before the grasses stop growing in the autumn. Grazing is also beneficial as the animals’ hooves lightly break up the ground and the thatch of dead grasses, creating bare ground for seeds to germinate. The animals are taken off the grassland in autumn to allow the grass to rest and regrow the following spring before the process is repeated.
Visit Frogmore Meadow this summer and enjoy the beautiful wildflowers. Find directions at hertswildlifetrust.org.uk
Keeping meadows in bloom
Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust urgently needs support to secure the future of Herts grasslands. Funds are needed to cover the cost of machinery hire, tools, livestock and staff so they continue to thrive as fully-functioning, species-rich and diverse habitats.
Donations to conserve these critically important areas for plants and wildlife can be made at hertswildlifetrust.org.uk/appeal