Haymaking isn't just about feeding farm animals through the winter, it's also about nature conservation. Hay meadows can either be managed for wildflowers or ground nesting birds. It all depends when you mow the grass.
It's been a lovely few days here in Walton-on-the-Hill, on the outskirts of Stafford, watching the haymaking.
As my friends will no doubt tell you, I love work, I can sit and watch it for hours. Indeed I was incredibly lucky for a few years to be able to earn a good living by watching other people work and photographing them doing it
So I am in my element just sitting here on my boat, with other narroboats and canoes passing by and with the railway line behind, and haymaking going on in the field between. What more could a man ask for on a sunny June day?
After weeks of rain and even quite severe floods, the farmer must have been desperate to get his grass cut. So with the prospect of a few decent days, out he came.
Day one was the mowing.
Then a couple of days later he came back to turn the mowed grass to help it dry. This exposes all the grass to to wind and sun evenly.
Another two days and he returned with his bailer. Let me just say, for those of you who go on about rich farmers and the price of food, today is Sunday. I am relaxing in the sun and I expect you are too, while this chap is sweating his goolies off. Our farmers work incredibly hard to put food on our tables.
Back in the late 1980s I used to do all this myself. I had the enormous privilege to work for Ferne Animal Sanctuary in Somerset. Part of my job there was to manage a traditional hay meadow for wildflowers.
Visitors to the sanctuary used to love walking the path I established through the meadow and observing the many butterflies that relied on the wildflowers for nectar.
Haymaking was an integral part of the management strategy and all the staff used to chip in and help. It was a great team effort.
As am sure most of you know, hay is grass that has been cut and dried to be stored for use as animal fodder. Sometimes legumes or other herbaceous plants can be used too but it's mostly grass. It is used to feed cattle, horses, goats and sheep through the winter months. It can also be fed to smaller animals like rabbits and guinea pigs. Some farmers sell of surplus hay for this purpose. At the sanctuary we used to feed it to our rescue farm animals, donkeys and horses.
Traditional hay meadows are of enormous value to wildlife. Unfortunately flower-rich hay meadows are now becoming very scarce in Britain.
Even hay meadows with few species of plants can provide food for seed-eating birds and nesting habitat for ground-nesting birds.
The timing of the cut is critical if the meadow is being managed for nature conservation. Mid June is ideal for wildflowers. By then the more delicate ones will have set seed but the less useful species will have not. So it was a real treat to see this commercial farmer making his hay in June.
Many farmers now prefer to cut their grass for silage which is a fermented grass product. The problem, from a conservation point of view, is that it is usually cut too early and too frequently to produce the right kind of seeds or to allow birds to complete nesting.
Another problem is that grass grown for silage is often heavily fertilised which severely reduces the variety of species and habitats.
A proper hay meadow is laid down to grass permanently, allowing for a rich community to plant, insect and bird species to become established over time
Grass for silage, on the other hand, is usually grown in rotation with other crops. Unimproved hay meadows can support a rich mixture of grasses and flowers, such as meadow foxtail, lady's bedstraw and meadow buttercup.
As many as 45 plant species per square metre have been recorded in some of the best meadows.
The associated invertebrate population also provide an important food source for birds.
Some funding may now be available to farmers to help then manage their unimproved hay meadows and to support the continuation of long-established management practice.
Hay meadows can provide valuable nesting habitats for birds such as lapwings, curlews, yellow wagtails and skylarks. So can damp, grazed fields. Indeed there is one behind me right now that is well graced with lapwings.
Damp hay meadows and grazed pastures may also have snipe and redshanks which was very much the case with The Pasturefields I visited a few months back.
The critical factor is cutting date. Mid June is best it the land is being managed for wildflowers and mid July for most ground-nesting birds as they will have finished nesting by then.
Hay meadows do not have to have a great variety of plants to be important for birds. Those which contain dandelion and sorrel are particularly good for seed-eating birds, such as linnets and twites, in the summer and an uncut margin may act as a wildlife refuge and provide seed for birds during the winter.
Now I am not saying that this farmer was managing a traditional hay meadow but at least he was making hay rather than silage.