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Meadow makers and pollinators By Richard and Wendy Nairn

Article taken from The Journal Spring 2023 edition

Running down to the woodland at the bottom of our farm in County Wicklow are several fields that, when we bought them, were grazed to a short sward by horses and sheep. We decided to leave one field ungrazed to see what flowered there and the result was spectacular. What emerged was a diverse flora with at least nine meadow grass species, speckled with the yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil, blues forget-me-not, red clover and purple vetches. As one of the driest, hottest summers on record took hold, butterflies danced over the grass and swallows, that had bred in the barn, gorged themselves on the clouds of insects above the field. We knew that this permanent pasture, which had not been ploughed in several generations, could be made even richer by introducing yellow rattle, a traditional hay meadow plant. When the hay was cut and cleared in late summer we scraped the surface of the ground in strips to open the sward and scattered seeds of this plant, hoping that it would do the trick.

By June the following year the meadow was in full flower. The grasses swayed in the summer breeze enlivened by masses of yellow rattle, plantains, vetches and clovers. There was a loud buzzing as millions of tiny creatures went about their daily business. Hundreds of bumblebees were feeding on the yellow flowers. Clouds of meadow brown butterflies rose from the ground as we walked through the sward with common blues and small coppers also feeding there. The insects were benefitting from an abundance of pollen and the diversity of food plants that succeed each other throughout the summer months. Apart from a few mown pathways we leave the meadow undisturbed until September, allowing these creatures to breed in peace, to hatch and distribute their eggs for the following year. The grasses and other flowering plants all set seed which blows around to maintain the sward for future seasons. When the hay is finally cut, we toss it several times to dry in the late summer sun, bale and remove it from the field to reduce soil fertility. The hay is used as mulch on our vegetable gardens.

To diversify the meadow even further we collected seeds of yarrow, devils-bit scabious, greater knapweed, red campion and ox-eye daisy from local wild areas and planted these up in seed trays. Over the winter they were plug-planted into the meadow, in bare areas that had been left under some of the hay bales. In the years that followed, the sward became even more diverse as the density of grasses decreased and other species benefitted. The meadow is not empty at night as we have recorded seven species of bats flying over it. Badger trails and diggings show that they too are foraging in the meadow. Spear thistles are not cut as their flowers are very attractive to bees, hoverflies, butterflies and the dayflying six-spot burnet moth.

Pollinators are primarily insects that feed on flowers and inadvertently carry the pollen from plant to plant. Without pollinators it would be impossible for farmers or gardeners to affordably produce many of the fruits and vegetables we need for a healthy diet. Pollinators are also necessary for a species-rich environment. One third of the 100 wild bee species in the island of Ireland are threatened with extinction. This is because the areas where they can nest and the amount of food that the Irish landscape provides for them have been drastically reduced. As well as the loss of rare species, the abundance of common pollinator bees in the countryside is on a steady downward trend due to the use of pesticides and loss of habitats.

The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan was published in 2015 by the National Biodiversity Data Centre listing numerous actions to make Ireland more pollinator-friendly. At ground level, this is a shared plan of action. Everyone from farmers to councils, local communities, businesses, schools, faith communities, gardeners and transport authorities have a role to play. A key focus of implementation has been the publication of a wide range of guidance and advice such as information leaflets, videos and posters to help explain the steps to making more pollinator-friendly habitats (see https://pollinators.ie/). By working together, participants can take simple steps to reverse pollinator losses and help restore populations to healthy levels. To date hundreds of local communities have taken genuine steps to make their local areas more attractive to pollinators.

In mid-summer our meadow is alive with bees, hoverflies, butterflies and other insects collecting pollen from the numerous flowering plants. The bumblebees make nests in the soil, collect pollen and have a worker caste. Solitary bees often make nests in bare ground or in the hollow stems of hogweed or other tall plants. The mechanisation of agriculture, loss of hay meadows, extensive use of pesticides and reductions in the density of the flowering plants as well as the removal of rough grassland where they nest and overwinter have all combined to cause serious declines in pollinator populations. Many species forage within a kilometre from the nest, so nearby areas must be both flower-rich and diverse to provide enough flowers to sustain the insects each year. To see some magnificent wildflower meadows, visit Castletown House, Celbridge, Co. Kildare (see https://castletown.ie/).

Even small patches of native wildflowers in the corner of a garden can be valuable foraging areas for bees and other insects. If possible, don’t buy commercial packets of wildflower seeds but collect your own seed from other local meadows. Studies have shown that the seeds in many wildflower seed mixes are imported from other countries, and are not native, despite what the packets might say. There is also a risk of accidentally bringing in invasive species. Our pollinators need the native wildflowers alongside which they have evolved. By simply reducing mowing to a single cut in late summer, valuable wildflowers like dandelions, buttercups, clovers and bird’s-foot-trefoil appear naturally year after year at no cost. These common flowers provide the nutrients our insects need. Anyone with space to offer has a part to play. Meadows are a valuable contribution to conservation of Ireland’s wildflowers and pollinating insects and a joy to experience.
Richard Nairn is an ecologist and writer who has published six books. Wendy Nairn is a lifelong organic gardener and member of RHSI.

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