Looking after Newtown's meadows

If you’ve ever taken a gentle stroll to Newtown harbour on the Isle of Wight, you’ll most likely have wandered through our wildflower meadows on the way. Filled with lofty grasses and delicate blooms that turn the fields into a haze of pinks and purples in summer, they’re home to delicate butterflies and insects that live and feed here. To keep these meadows special, we carefully look after them in a traditional way and we do it with a little help from some four-legged friends.

Traditional management

If you’re lucky enough to visit Newtown in just the right light, sometimes you can make out the humps and bumps of ridge and furrow in the fields that surround the sleepy hamlet. It tells us that the land has been used for farming for hundreds of years. For the last 500 or so, it’s thought the meadows have been grazed with sheep and cattle.  Today, we carry on this tradition with some fields still being grazed whilst others are cut for hay.

To ensure that the meadows remain healthy, we never use artificial fertiliser. It means there are fewer nutrients and so species that would normally grow well in nutrient-rich soils, such as nettles and modern rye grass, don’t have the food to support them.  As a result, grasses and flowers that would normally be pushed out by these greedy plants can grow. This creates more diversity. As there are lots of different types of plants growing in the soil, this in turn means there are fewer nutrients available and so the cycle continues.

A wildflower meadow at Newtown on the left, compared with a rye grass field on the right
A comparison between a wildflower meadow at Newtown and a rye grass field
A wildflower meadow at Newtown on the left, compared with a rye grass field on the right

How we look after the wildflower meadows is linked to the health of the estuary too. As we don’t use artificial fertiliser, it means that it can’t run off into the water and cause algal bloom which would be damaging to the creatures that live here.

One unwanted plant that does still grow is yellow rattle. It’s parasitic on the grass and can take over. That’s where our four legged friends come in - to stop that from happening we use our sheep to help control its growth.

Hay making

We cut the hay in some of the fields in July, and then after that the Hebridean sheep and Belted Galloway cows graze the meadows. When the hay is cut, we make sure that we leave wide strips around the edges. This is because some flowers don’t seed until later in the year and it’s also less of a change for insects. Each year the sides are rotated and the uncut areas are grazed instead.

Turning and baling hay in Newtown meadows
Two tractors cutting hay in a meadow at Newtown National Nature Reserve on the Isle of Wight
Turning and baling hay in Newtown meadows

If we didn’t cut the hay or graze the fields, the meadows would start to grow scrubby plants such as blackthorn and rose, which would take over. The dead grass would also smother the ground and stop flowers from growing which would cause the delicate balance to change.

How our sheep and cattle help us look after the meadows

The sheep and cows are wonderful at recycling. What they eat will pass through them and out the other end, back into the soil. Not only does this mean the seeds are spread through the field again, but the goodness is returned to the land rather than being stripped out as it would be if the hay was used in other ways. Their dung is even a home for beetles. To help this, we’re cutting fewer fields at Newtown and grazing more. The sheep are very good at looking after themselves as well, eating the plants their bodies need most, and making themselves healthier for it.

Spot our Hebridean sheep grazing in the meadow
Our Hebridean sheep at Newtown where they graze in the meadows
Spot our Hebridean sheep grazing in the meadow

The hay that we do cut at Newtown is also helping to restore other Island fields that we care for. By feeding it to the animals living in those meadows, the seeds will eventually pass into the soil so that new wild flowers can grow there.

Which of these can you spot?

Marbled white butterfly

Newtown’s summer meadows 

The way we look after the meadows means they are filled with lots of different wild flowers that are important for delicate butterflies and other insects. In the summer sunshine you’ll see them dancing across the flowers as they gather nectar.

How can you help look after the meadows?

  • As tempting as it may be to wander through the long grass before the meadows are cut, it’s best to enjoy them from the sides. That’s because, as the wildflowers are delicate, walking on them can cause damage.
  • Our sheep and cattle are doing an important job, so please respect them by keeping dogs on leads and under control.
  • We don’t need any extra fertiliser, so if your dog has a call of nature, please pick up after it and dispose of what results in the bins provided.