Restoring the grassland - at Sandy Hill

Farming advisoer Rebecca Charley examines wild flowers in field margin at Sandy Hill

With Cotswolds soils typically thin and sandy, we have the opportunity to run our own little experiment at Sherborne Park to see if fields at Sandy Hill can be made better for wildlife but still productive by focussing on improving the soil.

The land recently came back under National Trust management and is being used to try ways of improving soil condition over the next five years by reverting back to flower and species-rich grassland with cattle grazing.

Soil condition

After a long time under the plough, the field is low on organics in the soil and is being tested now for the organic percentage to see if, after five years under a different use, the soil organic levels and it’s condition improves.

Typically for parts of the Cotswolds, the land has, as the name suggests, a thin sandy soil with little organic matter to prevent water from running through quickly.

It has now been planted up with a deep rooting herb-rich mixture of seed with the long roots good at getting to the deeper layers of nutrients, breaking up the soil and then adding more organic material to the deeper soil layers.

" The number of worms in soil is a good indicator of soil health.  On Sandy Hill arable farm land there are few to be found but with the change in management and hopefully increase in organic material - food for the worms - in the soil we hope this will change.  The plan is that this will then lead to an increase in microbial and fungal activity providing a location that then can support more insects, which in turn provides more food for birds and mammals such as skylarks and many of our bats.   "
- Rebecca Charley, National Trust food and farming adviser.

Mob Grazing

We hope to be able to put cattle onto the land – they graze very differently from sheep and don’t eat all the flowers. Sheep tend to cut grass flat where cattle tear off clumps with their tongues. The result tends to be more varied creating areas which provide habitat for a variety of different insects and invertebrates to thrive.

The cattle might be used for ‘mob grazing’ a technique which mimics the way natural herds such as Wildebeest graze in Africa. Each day the cattle are moved onto a fresh patch of long grass, grazing it intensively before moving on quickly – and not returning for maybe eight weeks or more.

This management then creates a lot of “green manure” in the form of trampled plants and also the livestock dunging on the land in a contained area. So the hope is that it will increase the organic material relatively quickly.  We will have to await the outcome of this method though over the next few years. 

Mob grazing is already used elsewhere in Gloucestershire and on some National Trust places where it is proving to be very successful in allowing cattle grazing with benefits for nature.

Sweet flowers

The land that has been permanent pasture for decades is also being managed slightly differently with the grasslands not being grazed until after the flowering season.  Over many years recently the grassland has been grazed with sheep which love the sweet flowers resulting in none achieving maturity to allow them to seed and reproduce. 

Former ridge and furrow ploughed field now under wild flowers
Former ridge and furrow ploughed field now under wild flowers
Former ridge and furrow ploughed field now under wild flowers

As a result we don’t know what flower seeds might still be present in the soils.  These areas have been permanent pasture for many decades so should be species rich but because they have been grazed in this way we have been unable to see what is present. 

We are now going to allow the grasslands to flower before either grazing or cutting for hay.  We already have our first marsh orchid appear so are hopeful about seeing many more species reappear in these meadows.