At this time of year our beautiful wildflower meadow is a haze of flowers with the hum of bees and the fluttering of butterflies. It's a lovely spot to amble around on a summer's day.
Hay meadows have been part of the Hestercombe estate for centuries. The current site of our wildflower meadow had been planted with trees in the 1960s. These were felled and the meadow recreated around 2003 after the Hestercombe Gardens Trust took over the management of the estate. Since then, we have sought to preserve and nurture our wildflower meadow as we believe it is an important part of Hestercombe’s history and landscape.
Wildflower meadows are an historic part of Britain’s landscape but sadly their numbers are dwindling. As farming practices have changed and fields have been built on, it is estimated that we have lost around 97% of our wildflower meadows (about 7.5 million acres) since the 1930s.
Wildflower meadows were a result of a very different agricultural system than the one that exists today. Before modern, high-intensity farming, meadows were kept to provide hay for animal food during the winter. These fields would have been left largely ungrazed and then at the end of the summer, were cut and the hay removed. This relatively low-impact method of farming created a unique habitat for plants, insects and birds to flourish.
As part of the annual hay cut, nutrients were taken away from the soil, so these would have been partially replaced with fertilisers such as manure to replenish it. Things changed after the introduction of modern, mass-produced fertilisers and herbicides. Once cheap fertilisers, such as nitrogen and phosphates, are applied in abundance the soil becomes easier to exploit for a few vigorously growing plants. Certain grasses and other plants start to dominate and before long a meadow becomes less biodiverse. Whilst this change in farming practice led to increased food production, it limited the number of plant species that were able to thrive and reduced the flowers available for pollinators such as bees and butterflies.
How we look after our wildflower meadow
1) We cut the meadow just once a year in late summer after the sward (the name given to an area of ground covered with grass and other plants) has been given the chance for all its key species to flower and set seed. Carrying out one annual cut in late summer allows more biodiversity to establish in a wildflower meadow.
2) We remove the hay so that the nutrient content of the soil is lowered helping the more delicate wildflower species to compete.
3) We carry out surveys to compare the mix of plant species year-on-year and adjust our management practices as necessary. It is usual to see a slightly different mix of species each year depending on conditions such as the weather. Using livestock for grazing can be a useful tool as the animals help trample seeds into the ground and keep some of the more dominant grass species down.
4) One of the legacies from previous farming practices is that certain areas of the meadow are more fertile than others. This creates a perfect environment for coarser plants such as docks, nettles and hogweed. We treat these species with selective herbicides (which do not kill the surrounding wildflowers) and remove the vegetation after the area has been cut in order to reduce nutrient levels in the soil.
You'll find our wildflower meadow in the Landscape Garden - the entrance is just past the Friendship Urn. Make sure you wander around on your next visit to Hestercombe.