Hay Meadows

Once a common site as a result of low-intensity farming practices, hay meadows have declined in the UK as a result of agricultural intensification and land-use change. The total area of unimproved grasslands has declined by 97% in lowland England and Wales between 1930 and 1984. Biodiversity has suffered as hay meadows are of high conservation value supporting diverse fauna and flora assemblages.

Forty hectares of hay meadow (MG5 or traditional lowland hay meadow) have been established at Watchtree with subtle variations in species composition to take account of local ground conditions and practicalities of grazing and cutting times. Species rich hay meadows are UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) target habitat.

MG5 meadows have been created either side of the burial cells and on former pastures to the south of the reserve. Characteristic species of MG5 include, grasses; Red Fescue Festuca rubraCynosurus cristatus Agrostis capillaries Lotus corniculatus, Ribwort Plantain Plantago lanceolota, Red Clover Trifolium repens, Black Knapweed Centaurea nigra and Yarrow Achillea millefoilum.

Unlike woodlands which are a relatively stable habitat throughout the course of a year, unimproved grasslands experience significant change during a season and over time if not managed. From spring through to late summer grasslands rapidly change from low growing grasses to lush meadows rich in herbs, grasses and the many species that depend on them for food, shelter and breeding.

Ground nesting birds including Skylark, Curlew and up until recently Lapwing, breed throughout the grasslands from March through to Late July.

Mid June is possibly the best time to see the meadows as early and late flowering species are most likely to be present. The extensive meadows found at Watchtree, among the largest in Cumbria, are a wonderful sight when in full bloom and reflect a semi-natural habitat that was once a common landscape feature throughout the country.
Since 2009, the smaller grasslands located in the centre of the reserve, have been managed as pasture. Rather than annual cutting (meadows) these grasslands are slowly grazed by cattle – creating a mosaic of vegetation structure and species composition. ‘Trials’ to determine the best type of grazing are ongoing and one objective is to successfully grow Devil’-bit Scabious (DBS)in the pasture areas. DBS is the larval food plant for the Marsh Fritillary butterfly and Watchtree is currently part of a larger project to ‘breed’ Marsh Fritillaries in special pens… check them out when you next visit!