Tuesday, 24 November 2015

time to put the orchard meadow to bed

Last week, the fieldfares clucking overhead on their flight south from northern Europe told us it was time to say goodbye to autumn.

In the orchard, the old trees had produced a reasonable crop. Windfalls littered the ground for late flying insects, for mammals and for the birds.

hens off to explore mown orchard
The grass which is left to grow throughout the year had been home to frogs and toads, field voles and wood mice and to butterflies, moths, bees and grasshoppers. We haven't had as much success as we had hoped with wild flowers in this meadow area. Annual yellow rattle and perennial greater knapweed have grown well but plug-planted self heal and oxeye daisies disappointed. The big disappointment has been the lack of hedgehogs. The grass was thick with slugs on warm summer evenings (hedgehog party time!?) but although we saw at least two hedgehogs in the spring, we have only had one sighting of hedgehog throughout the summer. The unblinking eye of my trail cam captured no hedgehogs in action in the orchard whatsoever. We hope that they've been plying their trade unseen in the undergrowth.

The orchard meadow flower seeds should have now been shed, so last week was time to cut the grass so that the fertility held within the stems and leaves could be removed. Our native wildflowers can be overwhelmed by verdant and coarse grasses so reduction in fertility is important. Dad and I mowed the grass and barrowed the grass cuttings away for composting.

Each year we leave an area of uncut grass to provide a 'safe haven' for overwintering invertebrates and to provide foraging for birds and mammals. This year we have left a central island of longer grass for this purpose.

The remaining grass has not been 'scalped'. Among the grass tussocks are many tunnels created by voles. We don't want to disturb these: we are keen to support the vole population and also the  beautiful kestrel whose diet comprises voles.

In traditional meadow management, once cut, animals are released onto the grass for the winter. Despite entreaties, the head gardener will not sanction sheep. So I make do with releasing the chickens.

So with the grass cut, the hens were released to have a scratch. Nothing seems to display haughty disapproval in the manner of a hen. On release from their run, they only needed pinz nes to more fully take the look of scathing Georgian dowager duchesses.

But then they thought better of it - and trotted off to explore.

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