MWT currently manage around 60 acres of species-rich wildflower meadow, most of which are cut for hay and then grazed over the winter with sheep. On these meadows, the water table is never far from the surface, some are prone to localised flooding and they contain plants reflecting those damp conditions. Ground conditions and the weather play a crucial role in when and indeed if this vital work can take place. A week of good weather preceded by weeks of frequent rain raising the water table, can delay or even prevent this work.
Wildflower meadow management by Reserves Officer, Tricia Sayle
Normally, these meadows are cut and cleared in mid-July or August by a local farmer. The cut is late so as many plants as possible have had a chance to flower and set seed. When the vegetation is cut the seeds fall to the ground and provide next year’s wildflowers.
When the vegetation is cut it needs to be cleared off the ground to maintain species diversity. Without this, the vegetation forms a dense thatch and as it dies it releases nutrients. An increase in nutrients and a dense thatch encourages coarse species at the expense of smaller, more delicate plants such as orchids.
MWT’s largest meadow reserves, Close Sartfield and Goshen, are usually made into hay, however, the last couple of summers, which have followed glorious springs, the weather has turned against us just as we are thinking about cutting the hay and we have been unable to take a cut.
This year it was decided that we would have to hand cut some of the wildflower meadows as it just wasn’t possible to cut them mechanically. Some of the fields weren’t cut last year either so it was important this year that we cleared as much as we could.
Hand cutting started with the smaller meadows at Close Sartfield to see how we would get on, and, though hard work, we made good headway. With the anticipation of the biggest turnout of muckers this year we made a start on Close Mean, often referred to as “the” orchid meadow at our Close Sartfield reserve. Progress was good, and we managed to cut about an 1/8. The Muckers were persuaded that “10 minutes” would see the cuttings cleared and piled in designated areas, however, they will not be falling for that one again as it was actually 30 minutes and, doubtless, I will never be allowed to forget it!
Both sites lie on the edge of the Ballaugh Curragh, the largest wetland on the Island, and are part of the Ballaugh Curragh ASSI (Area Of Scientific Interest) and Ramsar site. As an ASSI, by cutting and clearing the vegetation it ensures that MWT fulfils the ASSI management obligations for the Isle of Man Government Department of Agriculture, Forestries and Fisheries, DEFA.
The water table is never far from the surface and this means making hay can be challenging, even in the best of years. The Muckers spend much of the winter months maintaining the ditches around these reserves to channel some of the water away.
MWT is reliant on local farmers to undertake hay making but modern machinery is getting larger and heavier. If the work is done when the ground is very soft, the sites can be damaged by tracking and indeed the machinery may be damaged too. Tractors and machinery have got stuck on reserves in the past requiring additional machinery to haul them out and creating even more problems.
To date we have cut and cleared about 6 acres. This is on top of most of the 4 acres we normally do by hand in areas that are very small, an awkward shape, where ground conditions are particularly difficult or where the vegetation would make very poor fodder.
This work would not have been remotely feasible without the stupendous efforts of the Midweek Muckers. I am enormously grateful for all their hard work, enthusiasm, and good humour during this particularly busy time. I suspect many may even be looking forward to the ditching/fence-line clearing season - at least until we have been doing it for a few weeks!
Tricia Sayle, MWT Reserves Officer