Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, amongst grass

Hay meadows

Although traditional hay meadows have the greatest wildlife value, modifications in the management of agriculturally improved meadows can benefit birds.

Hay meadows

The flower-rich hay meadow is now a rare and important habitat.

The hay meadows which are best for wildlife are the product of traditional, low-intensity farming. During June and July, the bright and varied colours in these meadows are very attractive and many people enjoy them.

Even hay meadows with few species of plants can provide food for seed-eating birds and nesting habitat for ground-nesting birds. In contrast, silage is generally cut too early and too frequently to produce seed or allow birds to complete nesting and the high levels of fertiliser used severely reduces the variety of species and habitats. 

Key points

  • Timing of cutting is critical to ground-nesting birds.
  • Meadows can be an important source of food for seed-eating birds.
  • Plants and other wildlife associated with traditional hay meadows need long-established management practices to continue.
Flower-rich margin at Hope Farm

Benefits to wildlife

Unimproved hay meadows hold a rare community of plants   

Hay meadows support a rich mixture of grasses and flowers, such as meadow foxtail, lady's bedstraw and meadow buttercup. This is particularly important, with up to 45 species per square metre in the best meadows.

The associated invertebrate population may also be important food for birds. If you still have unimproved hay meadows, agri-environment scheme funding is available to support the continuation of long-established management practice.   

Hay meadows can provide important nesting habitat

Hay meadows can provide valuable nesting habitat for birds such as lapwings, curlews, yellow wagtails and skylarks. Meadows with damp flushes may have snipe and redshanks. The critical factor is cutting date. Mid July onwards is preferable, as most ground-nesting birds will have finished nesting by then.     

Hay meadows provide food for seed-eating birds     

Hay meadows do not have to have a great variety of plants to be important for birds. Those which contain dandelion and sorrel are particularly good for seed-eating birds, such as linnets and twites, in the summer. An uncut margin may act as a wildlife refuge and provide seed for birds during the winter. 

Managing hay meadows

The best management of unimproved species-rich hay meadows is often to continue long established management practices, particularly the sequence and timing of cutting of fields.

The application of small quantities of farmyard manure is not a problem (where there is a tradition of such applications). However, even low levels of fertiliser can promote a thick sward (avoided by nesting birds) and reduces floral and invertebrate diversity.

Management considerations     

  • Soil testing should be undertaken to assess soil fertility and pH levels.       
  • If appropriate, apply well-rotted farmyard manure at low rates. This can increase the numbers of insects and earthworms, food for birds such as yellow wagtails, skylarks and breeding waders.     
  • Avoid cultivating or reseeding unimproved meadows and do not apply artificial fertilisers. Where chain harrowing is part of traditional meadow management, this should be restricted to late summer or autumn.
  • If essential in spring, work should minimise disturbance to ground nesting birds and should be completed by 15 March.
Hay and silage meadows PDF screenshot

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Although traditional hay meadows have the greatest wildlife value, modifications in the management of agriculturally improved meadows can benefit birds. PDF, 127Kb.

Hay and silage meadows advisory sheet (England)

Regimes

Cutting regimes   

  • The timing of the cut determines whether early or late flowering plants thrive. Where possible, cut hay late to allow seeding of late flowering meadow plants. Sustained early cutting will reduce the variety of flowers and is bad for ground nesting birds because it can lead to high losses of nests and chicks.   
  • Mowing followed by aftermath grazing will produce the structural diversity that creates the maximum wildlife interest. Ideally, cut the sward to leave a height of about six to seven cm and then lightly graze to leave a height of no more than 10cm by the end of the growing season.
  • Adopting wildlife friendly mowing practices, such as cutting the field from the centre outwards, or mowing from one side of the field to the other, may benefit late ground nesting birds with chicks and other wildlife, such as young hares and deer. Wildlife-friendly mowing regimes might help nesting curlews if cutting is necessary before mid-July.   

Grazing regimes     

  • Aftermath grazing, preferably with cattle, can increase the structural diversity and number of species in the sward and help seed germination. Aftermath grazing is also thought to reduce the dominance of the most competitive plant species.     
  • The sward height at the end of the aftermath grazing period should be less than 10cm if the target species are spring nesting wading birds. For lapwings a sward height of three to five cm is preferable.     
  • If possible, do not put stock recently treated with an avermectin (especially if this is bolus treatment) onto species-rich hay meadows as this may lead to a reduction in the diversity and abundance of invertebrates.     
  • Sheep grazing in the spring (prior to shut up) and cattle grazing in the autumn increases the variety of wild flowers.
Luing cattle grazing, Oronsay RSPB reserve, Argyll. Scotland

How to enhance a species-poor meadow

Enhancing species diversity within swards with a low variety of plants can be difficult to achieve and appropriate conservation advice should be sought.       

The direct sowing/spreading of seed from another local source will speed up colonisation.     

Alternatively, floristic diversity can be enhanced in a number of ways, including seed dispersing naturally from adjacent habitats or germinating from the soil seed bank, dispersal on domestic livestock and farm machinery, and introduction via farmyard manure spread in winter. These processes can take many years to achieve visible results. Winter feeding of stock on hay imported from a species rich meadow is another way to increase diversity in the feeding meadow.       

Consider introducing yellow rattle (also known as hay rattle) where it is absent. This plant is semi-parasitic and will reduce the vigour of grasses and favour some of the herb species.

Strumpshaw Fen RSPB reserve, southern marsh orchid and yellow rattle, in wet meadow