The Wildflower Meadow And The Chicken

A chicken and a wildflower meadow don’t seem a natural combination, but in fact they’re a match made in heaven. Let me explain.

Last year we were approached through the British Beekeepers’ Association by Noble Foods, the biggest producer of eggs in the UK. An enterprising manager realized that chicken ranges might offer some interesting opportunities to help bees. If you go to a free range chicken unit you’ll understand. In the middle of a field is a vast barn, with something like 30,000 chickens inside. They’re free to wander about, and indeed have to have a certain space per chicken to wander about. The thing is, they’re not really interested. The barns are snug and the chickens have food, water, and egg laying sites. They might run about outside around their barn, but very quickly a visitor will be walking across an unpopulated grass field. A large chicken free grass field.

Noble Food chickensGraham – the enterprising manager – got to thinking that doing something with those unproductive grass areas might be a good idea. Noble Foods had already planted trees on some areas of their chicken ranges, but he felt there must be other opportunities. All the vast chicken-less grass areas were being used for was to make the odd bale of hay; it’s verboten to use them for a commercial crop. Not only that, but uncropped grass needs regular cutting so they were actually costing hard pressed egg producers to maintain. He hit on the idea of wildflower meadows.

Fantastic:
1. Lower maintenance cost.
2. Great for chicken welfare – lots of invertebrate snacks.
3. Large scale habitat creation – genuinely significant impact on the landscape and a fantastic PR opportunity for Noble Foods.
4. Engagement with local communities – Graham had thought of local beekeepers, but everyone will love the aesthetic appeal.

There are various practical hurdles, of course, which is where we come in. With the help of external consultants we’ve overcome the issues and will be starting to ship Noble a range of native wildflower meadow seed mixes in the next couple of weeks. These seed mixes are a cut above your normal agricultural cultivars – they are proper wildflowers. Graham has signed up producers for over 100 acres in year one, and we’re targeting 800 acres over a decade. If that sounds a lot, well – it is. If all goes well we will buy seed from the early adopters after year three, process it and sell it on. Noble Foods’ retailers have started getting excited about the project too, and I’m sure the Beekeepers will be chuffed to bits.

Noble Foods heartI’m so excited about this wildflower meadow project because of its size and because it’s such a good illustration of why I set up Habitat Aid. This is in everyone’s interest, for reasons commercial as much as ecological. My (small ethical UK) seed supplier loves me. The farmers love Graham. The retailers/local community/beekeepers/consumers love Noble Foods. I’m sure the chickens will love the wildflower meadows too.

Thanks Graham – great stuff, and fingers crossed. I’m sure Noble Foods will benefit in ways we can’t yet even imagine!

Making Your Garden Wildlife Friendly

There are plenty of ways to make your garden wildlife friendly, but by far the most beneficial is actually the simplest of all – doing nothing.

By letting your garden grow without interference, you will give insect-friendly weeds the chance to flourish, and grasses the chance to go to seed, providing birds and small mammals with food for themselves and their young.

Garden Wildlife
A well kept veg plot is fab for pollinators

I was really surprised to read this on the BBC website. It reinforces a myth I bump into regularly. Making you garden wildlife friendly is categorically NOT done by doing nothing. Total neglect will result in less plant and habitat diversity than you can create. People often don’t realize that some of our richest habitats are managed. Wildflower meadows, for example, are not natural. If you leave a wildflower meadow area it will become less and less wildlife friendly as it is likely to revert to scrub and grass/dock/creeping thistle. Scrub and grass/dock/creeping thistle have their own biodiversity value, of course, but it’s less than a flower rich diverse meadow.

Making your garden wildlife friendly by doing nothing is a great excuse for non-gardeners, who can just explain away the biohazard outside the back door as a “wildlife friendly garden”. Weeds, nettles, brambles, fallen tree limbs and choked ponds all have value for wildlife, of course, but promoting that look is going to put serious gardeners off the whole idea.

What would my 5 top tips be to make your garden wildlife friendly? Hmm – that’s tricky. How about:

1. Have a wildlife friendly pond
2. Plant a good variety of the right plants – including native wildflowers – for pollinators
3. Don’t use pesticides/slug pellets etc.
4. Don’t disturb your compost heap any more than you have to
5. Don’t deadhead

Jenny Steel is much better qualified to say; have a look at her top ten tips. Making your garden wildlife friendly by doing nothing isn’t one of them!

Yellow Rattle

As we are harvesting Yellow Rattle Rhinanthus minor seed it seemed like a good time to write about it. Yellow Rattle, or Hay Rattle, or Cockscomb, is an attractive yellow annual wildflower of meadows. There seem to be at least 6 different subspecies of it in the UK, which makes its appearance very variable. Rattle is widely distributed across the country, however. It’s a good bumblebee and butterfly plant, flowering in June then rattling in the wind, traditionally telling you it was the time to make hay. Farmers, however, don’t like to see it.

Yellow Rattle in Meadow Creation

Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus minor

Yellow Rattle gets some of its nutrients from surrounding plants, particularly grasses*. As a hemi-parasite farmers regarded it as an unwelcome weed. It can reduce hay yields by up to 50%. Eyebright (Euphrasia) does a similar thing. Rattle doesn’t make the grass look sick, but just enfeebles it. It’s less thick and shorter. This provides obvious benefits if you’re trying to establish a wildflower meadow. That’s particularly so in an existing sward or on a site with medium soil fertility. This can be tricky, even with retiring meadow grasses. Adding Yellow Rattle will give the wildflowers a much better chance. They will have more sun, more water and less competition generally. Further, once the Rhinanthus plants have died back – which as annuals they do in late summer – they leave gaps for other wildflowers.

Yellow Rattle is generally included in generic wildflower meadow seed mixes, and can be a large component of “direct harvest” mixes. These are mixes taken from donor meadows and cleaned up before sale. They often represent great value for money and offer super diversity.

Initial Establishment

Rattle seed needs to go through a prolonged period of cold before it will germinate – vernalisation – so must be sown from summer to early winter. Some say it has to be sown in August as soon as the plants naturally set seed, but there’s no scientific evidence for that. Sow before Christmas seems the best advice. If Rhinanthus is part of a general seed mix, best to sow in late summer or autumn.

Yellow Rattle has a limited shelf life, so seed from the current harvest is best sown in the same year. This trait in an annual means that it’s very easy to get rid of it; just mow in May/June before it sets seed. This is why it is so much less common than it used to be in grassland. If you sow a general meadow mix in spring which includes Rattle, it’s worth buying extra in the autumn to add to it.

Yellow Rattle Seedlings

If your site has existing grass it is important that you scarify or chain harrow, and then cut or grazed as short as possible before sowing the Rattle. Keep grazing or cutting to below 2cm throughout the winter (sheep are best for the job) after sowing, and throughout winters thereafter. The seedlings start growing in early spring, so stop cutting / grazing in March. You don’t want to chop their heads off or give a tasty snack to a sheep!

Yellow Rattle Seed

We recommend a sowing rate for Rhinanthus of between 0.5 and 1g per square metre. We can sell you seed down to 250g, or smaller quantities down to 20g through our sister website www.BritishWildflowerMeadowSeeds.co.uk. We try to source seed with different provenance, to try to partly reflect the regional variations in the plant. If you don’t buy the seed through us do make sure you source it from another reputable seller.

It’s not cheap. One of the reasons it’s expensive is that it’s difficult to process and, consequently, its germination rates can vary enormously. As we’ve said, it also has a limited shelf life, and shouldn’t generally be supplied or used 6 months after harvest. This means we run our stocks down to zero.

The good news is that it only needs to be sown at 0.5g – 1g per square metre if sown on its own. Meadow mixes which include it are typically sown at 4g per square metre.

As Rhinanthus parasitizes grass, sow it with grass seed or into an existing sward; don’t try to establish it in a seed tray. After sowing, lightly roll or tread the seed in to ensure good contact with the soil. Yellow Rattle seeds are light and wind born, so this is particularly important.

Ongoing Management

Enfeebled grass and lots of Rattle

If you are using Rattle as the first step towards establishing a wildflower meadow from an existing sward, add plug plants or wildflower seed to the site in the second year. Your chances of success will vary according to which grasses you have and how fertile the soil is. Many lawn and agricultural grass mixes include a large element of perennial rye grass, Lolium perenne, which makes things difficult. It’s a thug. If you’re lucky though you may well find wildflowers already in the grass, which show themselves with your new regime.

It’s really important to cut or graze your meadow area every year from late summer to March. Rhinanthus seedlings need short grassland in the late winter to compete. Be careful not to chop the Yellow Rattle seedlings’ heads off as they emerge, though!

*Interestingly some plants, like Oxeye daisy or Ribwort plantain, have developed strategies to resist Rattle, which means they do well in swards where there’s a lot of it…