Looking after rare orchids at Scotney Castle

If you've visited in the summer and thought the lawn on the house terrace was looking scruffy, it's not that we're neglecting it. A few years ago we discovered we had some rare orchids growing here and we're now working to develop this habitat and encourage more to return.

We get a lot of questions throughout the spring and summer months regarding the long grass on the terrace. Visitors often expect the area around the house to have striped lawns and to be very formal, as it was in the past as we can see from historic photos in our collection.

The mansion at Scotney Castle
Scotney Castle mansion historic photo
The mansion at Scotney Castle

However, we are fortunate enough to have a very important collection of green-winged orchids, as well as a host of other wildflowers such as Yellow Rattle, Common Knapweed and Ox-eye Daisies that we're keen to encourage to thrive, and that involves leaving the grass to grow long during the summer months.

By managing the terraces and many other areas of the garden as an ancient hay meadow, we're also attracting plenty of wildlife into the garden. These meadows are a haven for insects and small mammals such as field mice, a wide host of butterflies such as the common blue and meadow brown, and in turn attract birds such as kestrels and buzzards. 

What do green-winged orchids look like?

Green-winged orchids (Anacamptis morio) flower from late April to June and produces flower spikes in various colours, mainly purple but ranging from white, through pink, to deep purple. They produce 5 to 25 helmet-shaped flowers grow in a loose, linear bunch at the top of the single stalk, reaching a height of around 25cm. The upper two leaves occasionally have purple veins that extend laterally like "wings", giving the orchid its name, then lower down the stem the leaves are pale in the centre with dark spots. The green-winged orchids are very similar in appearance to the early purple orchid which flowers at the same time of year.

Wild orchids on the house terrace at Scotney Castle
Scotney Castle wild orchid house terrace
Wild orchids on the house terrace at Scotney Castle

Other wild flowers to spot

Apart from the orchids, the ox-eye daisies are a common site on the house terrace with their white petals and bright yellow centres. They're certainly popular with pollenating insects and their sunny disposition are a welcome addition to the garden. 

Ox-eye daisies fill the meadows
Ox-eye daisies fill the meadows
Ox-eye daisies fill the meadows

Yellow rattle plays an important part in the management of the wild meadow areas. As an annual plant, their seeds germinate in the spring and lay down roots. When they come into contact with the roots of vigorous grasses, they draw water and nutrients away from them, suppressing their growth therefore allowing other less agressive species to thrive above ground. 

Yellow rattle
Yellow rattle
Yellow rattle

The flowers are very popular with bees who pollinate them, culminating in large seed pods towards the end of the summer. The name of yellow rattle comes from the seed pods which rattle as they dry out with the seeds inside.

The other flower you're likely to see is the Common Knapweed. This thistle-like flower is a real magnet to butterflies and a good source of nectar for many birds and insects. It's very common in wildflower meadows, as well as many other habitats from coastlines to roadside verges.

Painted Lady spotted on Knapweed wildflower
Painted Lady spotted on a Knapweed wildflower
Painted Lady spotted on Knapweed wildflower
" The picturesque style to the garden allows us to not only manage these wild areas, but has enabled us to create more wildlife friendly areas, something which you could try at home by leaving parts of your lawn un-mown."

Creating the ideal habitat

Green-winged orchids prefer an improved grassy meadow on limestone rich soil, and the terraces and conservation meadow (just below the house terrace on the fountain side) provide a perfect habitat for them to grow. They were first discovered in the garden in the 1990s after post World War II farming methods had changed with the increased use of pesticides and more intensive farming techniques.

With the orchids habitat slowly disappearing they'd started to retreat into the garden where they have grown ever since. Due to the green-winged orchids habitats disappearing, the collection of orchids at Scotney are highly significant to the garden and because of this the garden has been classed as a Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI) by Natural England.

Cutting the wildflower meadow on the house terrace at Scotney Castle
Scotney Castle cutting the terrace lawn
Cutting the wildflower meadow on the house terrace at Scotney Castle

Working with Natural England

We work closely with our Natural England advisor to ensure that we manage the terraces in a sympathetic way that helps the orchids to thrive. The terraces are managed as an ancient hay meadow would have been, the grass mown once a year after the orchids and wild flowers have finished flowering and the grass is then removed. Removing grass prevents the cuttings from composting back in to soil and adding nutrients back into the ground, wild plants and orchids prefer nutrient deficient soils so removing the grass  helps to keep their habitat in the ideal condition.

Why the decline?

Back in the 1960s grassland and hay meadows were a common feature of the countryside but the increased addition of drainage, usage of ploughing, re-seeding and the introduction of fertilisers led to a sustantial decrease in area. Today there is estimated to be just 6,000ha remaining. By protecting and nurturing our areas at Scotney Castle, we can help add to this figure, whilst encouraging wildlife and providing a diverse habitat for visitors to enjoy as well.

The house terrace at Scotney Castle
Scotney castle house terrace summer
The house terrace at Scotney Castle

How can you help?

You may notice that in the spring and summer months, we rope off the house terrace to stop people walking here and to preserve the natural environment for the flowers to thrive. By sticking to the paths, you help us to achieve this. Have you also considered turning over an area of your garden lawn to wildlife? By letting your lawn grow long, you'll find wildlife will be drawn in, from butterflies and insects, to birds and bugs.