Mowing a traditional English meadow
A rather delated report from early July.
A time to mow a meadow in the on the Lower Winskill farm in the Yorkshire dales, note the word ‘mow’ I need not say anymore on this subject 😉 http://www.meadowconnections.co.uk
Lower Winskill is a working farm set in spectacular Yorkshire Dales limestone landscape overlooking Ribblesdale and is owned by Tom Lord who farms the land in the traditional manner. That is to say he farms both for commercial gain through his livestock but also farms to look after the wildlife of the Yorkshire dales. Especially the wild flowers and associated butterflies.
With the advent of modern farming techniques (fertilisers and herbicides plus past over grazing) much of the wild flower meadows of the Dales have drastically diminished along with the associated wildlife. The rich flower meadows are now a nationally rare habitat but on the Lower Winskill farm native flower rich habitats abound, a rare sight in the Dales these days.
Tom Lords farm is above the crag
A historical context of the farm taken from the Lower Winskill farm website.
‘The hay meadows at Lower Winskill are recorded in late sixteenth century documents, they belonged to three smaller farms than.
How green is my valley
These farms were basically small dairy farms each with a few cattle kept inside over winter in stone built barns. Small scale dairy farms became widespread in the Yorkshire Dales in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Milk cows were kept all year round on the farms, and their milk made into cheese and butter. The farmhouses nearly always contained a purpose-built dairy where the cheese or butter was made. The cheese and butter were stored and sold on to feed growing urban and industrial populations. The development of this upland dairying economy needed ever more hay meadow to produce food for the milk cattle which were kept inside from early November to early May each year.
Of trees and limestone
The presence of bluebells in the hay meadows at Lower Winskill is especially interesting. Bluebells and other wild flowers such as wood anemone, wood cranesbill and primrose suggests the meadows formed at a time when the locality was wooded, and some of the plants which originally grew in open woodland have been preserved as part of the meadow flora. It is very likely that this woodland was managed as wood pasture, and the meadows were created and enclosed where there were deeper and more fertile soils. The annual cycle of upland hay meadow management is the key to understanding how plants which naturally grow in open woodland survive as part of the meadow flora.
The annual cycle of upland hay meadow management begins in the spring when the meadows are grazed by lambing sheep so that the first flush of grass is eaten by the ewes and lambs. This is very important as it prevents the taller grasses shading out the wild flowers which begin to grow a bit later. These include bluebells and other wild flowers originally present in woodland. It also encourages the growth of wild clover which naturally promotes soil fertility by fixing nitrogen in the soil. In mid-May after a few weeks of spring grazing, the ewes and lambs are taken out of the meadows which are then “shut up” to let the grass grow to make into hay in July. This provides the vital window of opportunity for the wildflowers normally found in woodland to flower without being shaded out by grasses and gives them protection from grazing by livestock. The meadows are not mown for hay until after the middle of July to allow the wild flowers to set seed which then falls back onto the ground as the hay is made.’
Tom Lord’s other passion
This next section is unashamedly taken again from the Lower Winskill farm web site as I could do no better.
‘The ancient dry stone wall field pattern at Lower Winskill is made up of walls built at different times. There are obsolete styles built-in the medieval period when Winskill was developed as an upland sheep farm (bercaria) by Sawley Abbey, a Cistercian monastery.
A reconstruction of the enclosed area (infield) of the medieval Sawley Abbey sheep farm (bercaria) at Winskill circa 1300 based on dry stone wall evidence.
Of walls and true men
The Yorkshire Dales National Park contains extensive and sometimes well-preserved medieval dry stone wall landscapes. It appears dry stone walls were being widely built-in the Yorkshire Dales by the thirteenth century. The earliest walls are technically complex structures, and possibly represent an agricultural innovation brought from continental Europe after the Norman Conquest. In the Yorkshire Dales dry stone wall construction continued more or less unchanged until the sixteenth century when new styles appear, and it is basically forms developed from these latter styles which have continued to be built to the present day.
Two on one, one on two
Because they are constructed in obsolete styles, medieval dry stone walls are unfamiliar to dry stone wallers today; and where they survive in a decayed state usually go entirely unrecognised.
Medieval dry stone walls have distinctive structural characteristics. In cross-section medieval walls stand nearly straight up with hardly any batter. They were generally built to a height of at least ~ 1.6m.
An early wall
Their tops are relatively wide, and the width across the face stones at the top of a medieval double dry stone wall is nearly always ~ 0.5m., equivalent to the archaic unit of measurement called a cubit. Standing nearly straight up, they frequently utilise up-ended slabs (orthostats) set vertically on edge for footings, and these sometimes survive where the upper part of the wall has been rebuilt in a later construction style. The top stones are laid flat and usually project on one or both sides to form a continuous overhanging lip projecting some six to nine inches which acts as a deterrent to jumping animals.
The wolf wall
This was clearly intended as a functional device, it appears to have gone out of use by the sixteenth century. It was a device to stop large predators especially wolves getting into enclosed areas holding domestic livestock, and become redundant once wolves were exterminated in the region. It was also useful in sheep management, in the medieval period keeping sheep for their wool, and making cheese from their milk, were important economic activities in the Yorkshire Dales.
Profile of a medieval double dry stone wall at Winskill with the original top stones intact, this was part of the infield boundary built circa 1300. The projection formed by the overhanging top stone was intended to prevent wolves jumping into the infield area.
Medieval dry stone walls were built as infield boundaries; as divisions within infield areas; as outfield pasture boundaries, especially in limestone areas; to stock proof managed woodland; as shelter walls and as stock handling facilities. Shelter walls and stock handling facilities often survive incorporated within later narrow top double wall field boundaries. Once built walls were probably cheaper and easier to maintain than fences, especially in the later medieval period. Reduced maintenance requirements might be very important in areas specialising in livestock husbandry, especially if there were seasonal shortages of labour. Medieval dry stone walls were built by monastic and secular landlords. We can see that medieval walls were built in regular lengths and to strict specifications which imply careful estate management. They were not built in an ad hoc fashion, and were probably the work of specialist builders. On monastic estates belonging to the Cistercian houses, walls may have been built by lay brothers.
Double walls as ally ways
Medieval dry stone walls were built out different rock types according to the local geology: as well as Carboniferous limestone, examples are known of walls built from Carboniferous sandstone and Silurian sandstone. The stone was often got from surface field clearance, but stone was also quarried where bed rock exposures could be easily broken up.’
The longhorn cattle gateway
Tom also showed us the small gateway and explained that in the past Longhorn cattle were used to produce the milk but because of the long horns the gateways had to allow for a widening gap towards the top so that they could pass. Incidentally the milk from the Longhorn cattle was especially rich and made excellent butter.
The sheep gate
Another stone wall feature of interest was the hole that could be opened and closed. This was the sheep gate and from the photo you can see that the infill was rough and ready but enough to keep the sheep in until you wanted to let them out. Just remove the rough stones and out the sheep go.
Below are a few more stone wall photos.
A thousand years of wall
How green is my valley
Of walls and true men
A variety of soils and habitat
The soils at Lower Winskill are very variable and give rise to a wide range of plant communities. Wild flowers are abundant in the pastures and hay meadows, and amongst the limestone pavements and cliffs. By carefully controlling when the pastures are grazed many different wildflowers are able to flower and set seed from the spring through to the early autumn.
Common spotted orchid
The limestone pastures at Lower Winskill are home to a number of different orchids including the delightfully scented Fragrant Orchid. All the orchid species are becoming more abundant as a result of the management as part of the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme.
The Early Purple Orchid is one of the first flowers to appear in the spring alongside the Cowslips in the limestone pastures. With its vivid purple colour it gives an exotic quality to the high limestone pastures nearly 1000 feet above sea level. The purple colour is quite variable and occasionally a white flower spike is produced. The leaves are generally marked with dark spots and lie close to the ground making them difficult to see before the flower spike grows. The camouflage might be a defence against grazing animals, but the flower spike is sometimes nibbled off and toppled over at the base possibly by slugs.
Rock Rose is one of the characteristic wild flowers of limestone pasture. It is also the sole food for the caterpillars of the rare Northern Brown Argus butterfly which are now increasing at Lower Winskill. The increase in numbers of Northern Brown Argus butterfly at Lower Winskill is directly related to the greater abundance of Rock Rose.
Other rare plants in the limestone pastures include the nationally rare Ladies Mantle (Alchemilla glaucescens), Spring Cinquefoil and Grass of Parnassus. The latter is typically a plant of damp areas flushed with lime-rich groundwater. However it grows in fairly dry locations in the limestone pastures at Lower Winskill, suggesting that with the right management this beautiful wildflower can expand beyond its more familiar range.
As well as the many characteristic wildflowers of limestone grassland like the Ladies bedstraw, the beautiful early flowering Blue Moor Grass (Sesleria caerulea) is common in the limestone pastures at Lower Winskill.
The semi parasitic Eyebright flower
The semi-parasitic Yellow Rattle along with Eyebright have an important part to play in the restoration of upland hay meadows. By checking the growth of the more vigorous grasses it helps other wild flowers get established. They are prolific producers of seed; the seeds of Yellow rattle are large and easily collected by mechanised seed harvesters for use in meadow restoration schemes unlike Eyebright.
Getting the right habitat for butterflies is a key aspect of how the pastures and hay meadows at Lower Winskill are managed.
Grazing is carefully controlled so butterflies have the right plants for their caterpillars and an abundant supply of nectar from wild flowers.
Butterflies have a remarkable life cycle. It begins as an egg laid by a female butterfly on a plant; after hatching there is a larval stage when the caterpillar eats leafy material for food, then a phase of dormancy as the caterpillar pupates until it emerges as a fully formed butterfly, and begins the final part of its life to find a mate, and so continue the cycle all over again during which time butterflies feed upon nectar from flowers.
In partnership with Natural England as part of the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme we help butterflies at different stages in their life cycle. The Northern Brown Argus butterfly, for example, only lays eggs on Rock Rose, and this is the sole food plant for this now rare and threatened butterfly. So we encourage the spread of common Rock Rose by restricting sheep and cattle grazing on the limestone pastures where the Rock Rose grows. This will provide the colony of Northern Brown Argus butterfly which live in the Scar Edge pastures at Lower Winskill with lots of rock rose plants for their caterpillars to feed upon.
By carefully managing where and at what times of the year sheep and cattle graze on different parts of the farm we make sure that butterflies have the plants they need to lay their eggs upon so their caterpillars have the right food to eat. More general caterpillar food plants such as nettle are left to grow especially where the clumps are in sunny locations. These provide food for the caterpillars of Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock butterflies.
Careful management of sheep and cattle grazing is also the key to make sure that butterflies have a source of nectar from wild flowers throughout the summer. Some of the limestone pastures are not grazed until early autumn to make sure there are lots of late summer nectar plants for the butterflies such as Common Knapweed and Devil’s Bit Scabious. This also ensures butterflies have a variety of small-scale habitats in close proximity to each other with clusters of grasses and wildflowers at different heights.
Other insects such as bumblebees benefit too from having wild flowers available throughout the summer. Wild flower seed also provides food for small mammals and birds such as Meadow Pipits and Goldfinch.
Although Tom’s farm abounds with wildflowers much of the surrounding farmland has been drastically improved through the used of fertilisers and herbicides to increase grass yield, further more the constant grazing of these grasslands has increased the amount of weed species present such as thistles and docks which inevitably leads to more herbicide use. You do wonder what the future holds if we don’t reverse the declining trends of our biodiversity
Helen and Heather
On a more cheerful note we now come to the part about herbal medicine. Once upon a time herbs made up the armoury of the physician. Countless years of experimentation and observation from the early human civilisation led to a deep understanding of which plants proved useful for different ailments. For my part I only know a small fraction of the useful plants found in meadows, one of the most useful for me is the yarrow plant, it has many uses but the one which shines through is its ability to staunch blood flow. Pretty dam useful when you do not take enough care sharpening the scythe blade.
During the weekend at Tom’s farm both Helen and heather gave lectures about the merits of the meadow flowers found on his farm. One very useful plant was Betony, in herbal medicine the leaves of Betony are used, it is very long-lived herb that grows widely in temperate grasslands, woods and thickets. Betony medicine has an intriguing taste, not especially strong or bitter but rather warm, lingering and multi-faceted. The name Betony comes from the primitive Celtic where Bew meant head and ton meant good; it is used for headaches but also has many other uses such as a medicinal poultice for swellings, sore muscles, varicose veins, and tumours. A medicinal infusion of the herb has also been used to treat sore throats, tonsillitis, cough and bronchitis, also used to treat dizziness, urinary, bladder and kidney pain. However although this plant is safe there is always a chance that someone could have an adverse reaction so if you want to use herbs take advice. This is Helens webpage https://kindnature.com
Hay mowing the traditional way
The weekend also included lessons in mowing with a scythe, meadow management, making hay, peening etc. There were a few cut fingers but a foray into the flower rich meadows looking for yarrow soon remedied the flow of blood, a first aid box right under your nose!!!!!
Peeing lessons oops peening lessons
On the last day the farm held (I think) the second Yorkshire dales mowing competition, all were invited to mow a lovely traditional hay meadow. adjacent to the farm-house. Hay meadows were nearly always close to the farm in the old days so that the hay did not have to be carted to farm and the aftermath grazing was left for the autumn/winter with the hay-field then been closed to grazing animals from the spring.
Gill seems to be directing proceedings
Below is a gallery of the mowers in action along with timekeepers, rakers and judges.
Mowing a traditional English meadow
The rakers clearing each plot
So what were the scores and who won what? There is a fifteen second penalty added on per quality point
Ruth Pullan 3.25 8.5 Ladies 1st
Gill Barron 3.34 7 Ladies 2nd
Fi Pollock 5.37 7 Ladies 3rd
The Prize givers
Lucy Otto 5.50 6
Sue Wrathwell 7.48 6
Simon Damant 1.05 8 Mens 1st
Steve Tomlin 1.25 7.5 Mens 2nd
Chris Riley 1.26 7 Mens 3rd
Steve Tomlin entering a competition, never!!!!
Peter Blackwell 2.16 8
Charlie Quinnell 3.30 9 Quality
John Grundy 4.06 8
Ian Forman 3.48 6
Kiwi Ken 4.21 6.5 Novice 1st
William de Hamel 4.48 7.5
Alistar Clark 5.41 6
Nick Beighton 6.49 6
Any mistakes let me know.
So the men from the north who won? Steve Tomlin was first Peter Blackwell second
A bouquet of flowers
I have to say a big thank you to all those that put the hard work in to make the Meadow connections possible at Tom’s farm and a big thank you to a man who has a passion and makes it work, a shining example to all those bigger and well funded organisations.