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Award Winning Wildlife Gardeners

Award Winning Wildlife Gardeners

Case study ~ Wildflower meadow and pond project

A 5 year case study taking a look at how we transformed a rough paddock into a wildflower meadow and pond haven

We are often contacted by people who love wildlife and own a large garden or piece of land, but they aren't quite sure what to do with it. Here is an example of a typical project, in this case the land in question is about an acre of well drained sandy soil.

The main reasons this site has been chosen for a case study are as follows:

  • It is of a reasonable size, a typical paddock if you like, where a lot can be achieved in a space that can be comfortably managed, with low annual cost
  • The site was a blank canvas; there was little wildlife value at the start, and now the site is a managed nature reserve with a wealth of wildlife, attracted as a direct result of the works carried out below
  • The site is bordered by a well used public footpath, giving the opportunity to showcase the project to a lot of people on a daily basis, not only giving enjoyment to the clients and general public, but educating many people as to what can be achieved from a weedy and neglected piece of land
  • The project encompasses several different habitats including pond, meadow, tussock grass and scrub, showing a broad range of habitat types in a comparatively small area

In 2009 the clients got in touch with us after we initially carried out an autumn tidy up in the garden. They had previously instructed a local farm contractor to rotavate and seed the bottom half of their paddock area with cornfield annuals. The land was formerly used to grow potatoes on, and before this was often neglected due to the adjacent river that skirts the southern boundary occasionally flooding the land after heavy winter rains.

For the first season the annual wildflowers looked spectacular, a sea of vivid red poppies, blue cornflowers, yellow corn marigolds and white corn chamomile. The perfect meadow scene was however short lived. By the second summer the flowers were all but gone, only persisting where the local rabbits had disturbed the ground here and there. Creeping thistle, broad-leaved dock, ragwort and large numbers of teasel were taking hold. There were a few drifts of yarrow to add some interest but these were scarce.

It was at this point we sat down with the clients and discussed some ideas, sketching some outline plans and earth forms and made notes on their likes and dislikes. The brief was to create a perennial wildflower meadow and small pond, both of which could be easily maintained, with an emphasis on recycling waste materials (grass cuttings, brash etc.) on site therefore minimising environmental impact. The project also needed to blend into the surrounding landscape; with a footpath running along most of the perimeter, a river on the southern edge and some good natural scrub and mature trees we had a superb setting to make everything work.

The main problem with wildflower meadows is fertility. To put it simply, the lower you can get the fertility of a site the better the meadow.

This posed the first and most important question; how could we lower the fertility of the site on a large scale? Well the obvious answer is to strip the fertile topsoil and expose the subsoil. There are however implications with this. Although an acre of land isn't huge, to strip 10 to 12 inches of soil off and move it involves some serious machinery, not a problem if access to the site is good, but disposing of hundreds of tonnes of earth needs some proper planning. However, with careful consideration it is possible to actually use this 'waste' product to your advantage.

We planned to strip the fertile soil and move it to form two long banks around 6 feet high that ran from the west edge of the paddock to the east, arcing along the entire northern boundary. There are three main reasons for creating these banks; firstly and most obviously they shelter the site from cold north and easterly winds whilst disposing of all the soil and turf you don't want to use in the main meadow. Secondly, the large, deep banks are very fertile, perfect for growing a variety of native shrubs and trees, providing a valuable habitat for a range of wildlife. The fertile soil is also ideal for dense tussock forming grasses and tough wildflowers, a must for some of our more common grass feeding butterflies like large and small skipper and small mammals, amphibians and reptiles all benefit hugely from these areas.

The third and final reason is that banks just look good. They add wonderful depth and contours to what is potentially a fairly flat and uniform site. Banks and mounds are exciting, they hide things behind them, allow a good view from their highest point and make you want to explore the site in detail.

In February 2010 we started working on the site as the weather was good and the ground dry. We stripped all the turf in a few days then began to move a good depth of topsoil, around 12 inches across the site.

The 8 tonne excavator and large dumper made light work of the earthmoving, and within a couple of weeks the banks were taking shape and the site was rapidly evolving from a weedy rough piece of waste ground into an exciting and dynamic project.

The next phase of the job was the pond, which we marked out, dug, lined and backfilled within the day due to it's fairly small size. We knew when we planned the pond that the shallow sloping pool would need topping up occasionally in the summer initially due to it's small water volume, but the brief was for a very natural pool that would in a wild situation fluctuate in level largely and probably dry out in hot summers altogether. Although this may seem a strange concept to many people it is a very valuable resource to many rarer and particularly scare aquatic species that have evolved to colonise these environments that are constantly in a state of flux.

With all the major earthmoving and shaping complete, and the pond filled, it was time to plant the trees and shrubs across the site and prepare the ground for seeding.

We spent a couple of days with one of our compact tractors and stoneburier attachments to get a good levelled tilth on the sandy subsoil and well drained banks. We also repeatedly used a chain harrow to further level the areas evenly and achieve the right seedbed.

With fine weather on our side we wasted no time in seeding the site with a diverse range of wildflowers, cornfield annuals and grasses across the main low fertility meadow area, with fine grasses sown over the banks and a tussock mixture sown on the southern edge of the paddock where we created a large gently raised fertile area for this purpose, forming a dedicated habitat for the small population of common lizards that were breeding in the adjacent grass field.

After sowing the seed in early spring we finished the final phase of the works and left the site in the hands of the British weather. And typically, a severe drought was soon underway! This delayed spring germination until late June/early July, and the only plant to really come through in any numbers was fat hen, which although an annual weed with little wildlife and aesthetic value, it wasn't too worrying as it can't persist for long in a managed meadow.

With the dry, hot conditions and consequently a very delayed start, the cornfield annuals failed to show. After cutting and removing all the vegetation in late summer, and checking for any failed trees and shrubs across the site in the autumn, we left the project alone through the winter of 2010/11 and hoped things would turn around come spring.

And turn around they did! By the end of May 2011 the site looked spectacular. The banks were a riot of poppies and corn chamomile, and walking through the main meadow there were scatterings of cornflower and corn cockle. Looking closely at the developing sward revealed hundreds of tiny perennial plants such as sorrel, ox eye daisy, knapweed and yarrow to name a few.

The first proper maintenance commenced at last, with pathways mown around the bank tops and through the tussock crescent, and invertebrates soon became apparent in the pond. A real surprise was the flowering of vipers bugloss, a stunning blue flowered biennial of dry ground, benefiting from the steep banks that provide plenty of crumbling soil for germination (with help from the rabbits too at this site). Things were coming together at last.

The butterflies were finally beginning to make a very welcome appearance; red admirals flew between teasel flowers in the tussock area, small coppers and gatekeepers were observed avidly nectaring on the clumps of ragwort and creeping thistle that are left to flower every year for this purpose before the developing seed heads are cut off and removed from site. There were already a few second brood common blues on the wing, again seen frequently on creeping thistle but no doubt attracted generally by the birdsfoot trefoil that was beginning to flower around the site in a few places.

In mid September the bulk of the meadow and banks were cut, and after shedding any remaining seed the hay was moved to the western boundary and heaped in a large gap in the existing ancient hedgeline, with a view to attracting female grass snakes to lay their eggs here in the future. A few shrubs and trees were again replaced over the winter and the paddock was left alone until the spring of 2012.

By the end of April there was a lush green effect across the entire site for the first time, and the gaps in the thin sward were starting to gradually fill in. Some pathways were cut around the banks as usual in May, but by mid June the site had transformed beyond recognition with the previous year! Just walking towards the meadow there was a vivid yellow glow splashing out from inside the banks. Birdsfoot trefoil was flowering in sheer profusion, dominating the meadow and distracting from almost everything else.

The hum from visiting bees was constant, the common blue butterfly numbers were already high despite the butterflies only being in their first brood of the year, and small heaths were identified on the site for the first time.

Vipers bugloss could be seen flowering along the entire eastern bank, and ox eye daisies were now flowering around the edges of the meadow in large drifts. Selfheal, rough hawkbit, wild mignonette and greater knapweed were all coming into flower, and by mid July purple loosestrife, arrowhead and water soldier was also coming out in and around the pond.

Six spot burnets, a day flying moth attracted by the huge amounts of it's foodplant, birdsfoot trefoil, had formed a good sized colony in the main meadow and made a wonderful addition to the growing wildlife now on site.

The tussock grasses were taking off on the more fertile soils, and besides mowing the pathways once every 3 weeks or so and occasionally topping the pond up in hot weather, the only real management issues were keeping a check on the creeping thistle patches. These were slowly spot treated throughout the spring and summer with selective herbicide in a knapsack, an efficient way of working around wildflowers and good grasses you wish to keep.

As summer progressed the yellow rattle seeds were soon rattling in their pods, and it was time to start slowly cutting the hay, being careful to leave some areas for developing invertebrates and other wildlife to seek refuge in.

After carrying out the tree and shrub maintenance in the autumn, we were next on site in early January 2013 to install a couple of large pieces of limestone. One piece was erected in the way of a standing stone to mark several pathways at the edge of the meadow, the other was placed beside the pond as a natural seat for those warm mornings and evenings when it is a pleasure to sit beside the water and relax.

At the end of March the first thorough reptile survey was under way, with the placement of several sheets of corrugated tin and squares of roofing felt, tucked into the tussock grasses in warm sheltered pockets across the site. Reptiles use these materials (the correct term is refugia) for basking, to raise their body temperature prior to hunting for example, particularly in the morning and late afternoon. By carefully checking on top and underneath these objects at the right times of day between April and October, it is possible to monitor the reptiles (and often mammals) across a given site and begin to understand how to aim habitat management towards helping them.

At the end of May the pond was looking great, the surface covered with the leaves of broad-leaved pondweed and fringed water lily, helping to reduce the sunlight entering the pond in too great a quantity and subsequently eradicating any persistent blanket weed and algae that are often a problem in ponds in spring.

Large red damselflies were out in force across the ponds surface, ragged robin in the pond margins, and in the meadow a profusion of black medick and bladder campion was coming through strongly.

At the end of June 2013 we ran an open day in conjunction with the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, to show people what can be achieved with the right preparation in a comparatively short space of time. The day was a huge success, with over 300 people enjoying the meadow, plant and refreshment stalls.

For once everything came together well; the sun shone, lizards were active along with plenty of butterflies, and 7 bee orchids (the first for the site) came into flower just days before the event!

It was now the turn of the ox eye daisy, which took centre stage for a good 6 weeks, turning the area into a proper vision of a real meadow.

After the main flowering of the meadow, hay cutting once again commenced, but this was the first year green hay from a local SSSI limestone grassland was strewn across a few large areas of the cut meadow. This can be a brilliantly cost effective way of introducing large amounts of quality fresh seed into an existing meadow, or even creating a new one from scratch.

Throughout the winter months a large quantity of bee orchid roseattes were discovered and their positions marked.

Before long it was soon time to begin mowing the pathways again, and it was during a visit carrying out these works that an exciting discovery was made. On May 13th 2014 a dingy skipper butterfly was seen in the bottom end of the meadow where the sward was sparse and the ground hot. This is quite a rare and certainly localised species, and was a real treat to see after such a short time in habitat terms.

This was to be the first of 3 new species noted in 2014, the second being marbled white on the 14th of July.

This is a beautiful black and white butterfly usually associated with hay meadows and chalk and limestone grassland, yet after just 3 full years this butterfly was seen twice flying through the flowers and grasses, proving the species is trying to colonise what appears to be very suitable habitat.

2014 was also the first year common spotted orchid was recorded, and the bee orchid peak count went from 7 in 2013 to 51 in 2014!

Betony and sneezewort flowered near the pond for the first time, and amongst the now large permanent colonies of meadow brown and ringlet butterfly, another grass feeder was discovered setting up a new colony, the essex skipper. This butterfly looks almost identical to the small skipper (which alongside its close relative the large skipper, also breeds here), but the undersides of the essex skippers antennae are a glossy black colour, as opposed to the small skippers browny orange coloured antennae tips.

Peacock butterflies tried to steal the show in July, crowding around the teasel flowers. 47 were counted in 15 minutes on one warm morning!

Brimstones had a good year, the females seen regularly egg laying on the many maturing buckthorn and alder buckthorn shrubs.

Gatekeepers and brown argus enjoyed a good season, and small coppers were in good numbers come their second brood into early August.

2014 was the year that butterfly numbers in general were more noticeable across the site, mainly due to the abundance of nectar plants now available for them, attracting not just the species that live in the meadow, but also pulling in many butterflies from the surrounding countryside.

The meadow also received a welcome addition in the form of a bee hive in the June. It was a joy to be able to watch yet more insects pollinating the vast quantities of changing wildflowers as the season progressed.

Towards the end of August devils bit scabious made it's first appearance alongside the pond, the blue pincushion flower heads giving some late nectar to the remaining insects before the onset of autumn and cooler weather.

Another exciting first for the site was the first record of a grass snake, a juvenile, under one of the felts one afternoon at the end of the month. The clients were of course delighted with this, which is always a relief, as so many people don't like snakes of any kind, which is a shame as they are another indicator of good quality habitat, and fascinating to observe.

With summer coming to a close it was time to start cutting the hay once more, and this time to strew green hay from a different site only a few miles to the south west of the paddock. The hay had a large quantity of sainfoin evident, along with knapweed broomrape and many rare species as the donor site is SSSI status again. It will be interesting to see how this affects the developing sward as time goes by.

Probably the most noticeable sightings in 2015 were the increased number of small heath butterflies, the huge numbers of developing cowslip plants, 5 new common spotted orchids on the opposite side of the meadow, and bee orchids were so numerous it was genuinely difficult to count beyond 100, plus it was hard not to tread off the mown paths for fear of standing on them, there were just so many!

A real reward to end the season on was finding a large adult female grass snake on the 3rd of September, basking under the old rubber liner used to deliberately attract the species to egg lay in the large moist and hot pile of waste grass cuttings and hay that is heaped here carefully every year. It is moments like this that make hours (and years) of effort worthwhile, knowing you are making a real difference to wildlife that so desperately needs our help.

If you would like to know more about this project please contact us via email or phone, and we will be happy to discuss your ideas and thoughts.

We are also happy to arrange viewings of this and our other meadow and pond projects (recommended between May and August), so please get in touch if you wish to see them in person.

Case study text and photos by James Ashton