Late summer is a key time for managing field margins and other wildlife patches. In the first in a new series of articles, Marek Nowakowski looks at establishing grass and flower mixes
Grass and flower crops are a valuable part of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment. Not only do they provide a habitat for small mammals, the flowers also provide food for insects.
These mixes can be established at two key times of the year – late summer and spring. Summer sowing is favoured as it tends to be more successful. In contrast, bird food crops are mainly spring-sown.
There are three golden rules to successfully establishing grass/flower mixes – timing, sowing technique and post sowing management.
TimingAugust and early September is a busy time of the year with the harvest and early cultivations. But don’t be tempted to delay sowing. It is better to drill half the area at the right time than the whole area when it is too late.
Sowing techniqueOne common mistake when sowing these mixes is to bury the seed, as many growers treat it as they would with cereals. But grass and wildflower seeds need to be broadcast on to the soil surface and remain exposed to light.
Light is necessary to break dormancy and if they are buried, they will not germinate and just lie dormant. Even rolling ground can stop germination.
Post-drillingThe key enemy when managing grass/flower mixes is nutrient-rich soils. Striving for yields over a number of years generally results in a build-up of fertility.
While nitrogen will quickly disappear from the soil, phosphate will remain for some time. Therefore, you have to learn how to manage grass/flower mixes on fertile soils. The problem is that these plants normally grow in nutrient poor soils and the resulting slower growth allows many different species to co-exist. On more fertile soils, 2-3 will dominate.
But a farmer has to work with the soil he has got, so he has to reduce this competition through the selective use of herbicides, mowing or both. This removes old material, opens up the sward and gives slower growing species space to grow before the winter sets in.
Ideally, mow 2-3 times in first year so that all species get a chance to grow. Don’t worry if it means some perennials don’t flower in the first year, they will in the following year.
Grass and flower mixes
Tussocky grassThis is cheap and easy to establish and will last forever. It is a useful habitat for owls, small mammals and ground nesting birds.
Tussocky grass plus some flowersThis mix contains some flowers that can tolerate tussocky grasses, such as knapweed, teasel and hedge wound wort.
Grass and flower mixThis is typically a mix of 90% slow growing grasses, such as crested dogs tail and red fescue, with the rest flowers such as knapweed, bird’s foot trefoil, yarrow and sorrel. These mixes are sown at a rate of 20kg/ha and typically cost £250/ha. They appeal to a wide range of insect species, flower from May to September and lasts for 10 years or more.
Pollen and nectar mixThis is a mix of legume-based flowers, such as red clover and bird’s foot trefoil. Sown at a rate of 10-12kg/ha, these mixes typically cost £100/ha and normally last three years. They flower for a much shorter period in June and July and appeal to a much narrow range of insects, such as bumble bees.
One common question farmers ask Mr Nowakowski at is: “Can I sow flowers into an existing tussocky grass strip to increase my ELS points?”
Many farmers are looking to gain more points to compensate for the loss of management plans from ELS, but adding adding flowers is difficult and can often lead to growers wasting money and effort.
So what are the alternatives? The first is to leave the grass alone and go onto fresh ground with a flowery mix. Bird food or pollen/nectar mixes yield the most points for the least amount of land lost to cropping.
Second, plough up the grass and replace it with a mix of grass and flowers.
• Marek Nowakowski runs the Wildlife Farming Company, a specialist business dedicated to finding an effective balance between profitable agriculture and increased wildlife delivery.