‘No Mow May’ and ‘Joyful June’ - a biodiversity ‘quick win’ on your own doorstep!
Keep the lawnmower in the shed, manage your lawn and plant local seeds for greater biodiversity, write Fiona Danks (WCAG) and Iain Naismith, (WEG)
What image does the word ’grassland’ bring to your mind? A pristine green lawn, smooth as a billiard table? A meadow of waving grasses and colourful wildflowers, buzzing with busy pollinators? Or a species-rich chalk grassland, colourful as a patchwork quilt?
Sadly, most grasslands we come across in our everyday lives, in gardens, parks, recreation areas and along road verges, are species-poor and many are mown regularly throughout the growing season. They may look neat, tidy and very green, but they are wildlife deserts. Since the 1930s 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost according to the charity Plantlife (https://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/about-us/news/devastation-of-meadows-endangers-flower-favourites-like-wild-strawberry-ragged-robin-and-harebell).
But what if a different approach was taken, with less frequent mowing, giving whatever species are present a chance to flower and set seed, providing food for precious pollinators and other invertebrates, small mammals and birds?
Unimproved grassland managed by grazing or cutting for hay is a vital habitat for numerous species and we can all do something small to help.
We are already lucky in Watlington, being situated right on the edge of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, where work is already in progress to protect grassland for example on Watlington Hill, in the Chalk Pits and on the Aston Rowant Reserve and other sites. This ‘lowland calcareous grassland’ is an internationally rare, fragile habitat that is rich in herbs, flowers and grasses and other wildlife. Our actions can help these species spread and be more resilient.
Last year ’No Mow May’ was trialled at Marlbrook Meadow and at Stonor Green (as encouraged by Plantlife). It was wonderful to watch as a varied and colourful sward emerged, including buttercups, daisies, cowslips, dandelions, selfheal, dove’s foot cranesbill, chickweed and germander speedwell and a bit later ox-eye daisies and yarrow. And by leaving the grass uncut into June and even early July, we had the joy of seeing pyramidal orchids at Marlbrook Meadow and bee orchids at Stonor Green. It’s amazing how nature can bounce back if only it is given a chance.
Is this a lazy way of gardening or is it a positive step towards better grassland management, habitat restoration and reduced environmental impacts? Manicured lawns need irrigation, weed control, fertiliser and fuel for the lawnmower. A more relaxed mowing regime leads to more biodiversity and better drought resistance. It will also reduce carbon emissions, save money and time, cut back on harmful chemicals and be more climate resilient.
So how can we manage our gardens, parks and road verges better for wildlife? In the first instance we can take the No Mow May approach: let the grass grow and see what happens and extend this later into the summer if possible. Many garden lawns and amenity grasslands are dominated by perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne), but letting your lawn grow will help you discover if other species are present. The grass will need cutting at least once a year, probably in September once the grasses and flowers have set seed. Set the mower on a high setting and leave the cuttings in situ for a while so the seeds drop into the sward. Then collect the cuttings and remove them from the area; this reduces fertility, creating more suitable conditions for delicate flowers and grasses to thrive.
Grass-cutting options can be combined, with some areas designated for longer meadows and others cut shorter to create inviting pathways to explore, areas for sitting, and a regularly cut border around the edge can help to create a certain order and tidiness.
To give nature a helping hand, diversity can be increased in various ways:
· Sow locally-sourced wildflower and grass seed into the sward. It’s best to first scarify a few areas with a rake to expose the soil. Scatter the seed and roll or tread it into the soil.
· Introduce wildflower plants; choose locally-sourced seed of species appropriate for the site. Sow seeds and grow plants on in pots to be planted out when they are more established.
· Another method is to introduce yellow rattle, a herbaceous wildflower which stunts the growth of aggressive grasses, opening up the sward to give more delicate species a chance. Sometimes called the ’meadow maker’, this plant parasitises and weakens grasses.
If more of us took this approach to mowing our lawns - and public authorities extended it to parks and road verges - we would all benefit from a more varied environment and greater diversity of pollinators, birds and other species. Just ask yourself, how many meadows could we create in Watlington?