Grassland management at Hudswell Woods

Belted Galloways on a frosty morning

Since April 2013 we have been working to restore our grasslands at Hudswell Woods, improving the habitat and increasing the number and types of wildflower. These changes will benefit a wide range of invertebrates from beetles to bumblebees, and we also think you will like it too!

Look carefully for Marmalade hoverflies
Marmalade hoverfly
Look carefully for Marmalade hoverflies

Without livestock grazing for at least a decade our riverside grasslands at Hudswell Woods were slowly losing their flower species and being overtaken by tussock forming course grasses. Our single hay meadow was also suffering but in a different way; too much nutrient from a generous manure application each year was resulting in flowers being overtaken by vigorous grasses.

To reverse this decline the National Trust worked in partnership with the charity Buglife, with initial funding from the SITA Trust. Restoration was started under Buglife’s B-Lines initiative that aims to link wildflower rich meadows that have become fragmented and allow meadow species to once again move through the landscape. The meadows at Hudswell Woods are part of one such corridor that links to the internationally important hay meadows in upper Swaledale.

Traditionally managed hay meadows are packed with different flower and grass species, perfect habitat for pollinators.
a species rich hay meadow
Traditionally managed hay meadows are packed with different flower and grass species, perfect habitat for pollinators.

Initial work at Hudswell Woods involved small-scale cutting and removal of grass, the spreading of green hay rich in wild flower seed cut from nearby meadows and planting several thousand plug plants of meadow species with the help of volunteers and local school children. These important first steps set the stage for the longer-term plan of reintroducing regular winter grazing on the riverside pasture and reducing the application of manure to our hay meadow that extends to the south from the top edge of the woods.

Flower rich meadows and pasture are low nutrient environments; with too much fertiliser coarse grasses quickly outcompete any wild flowers and fine meadow grasses. In traditionally managed hay meadows nutrients are regularly removed as grass is taken off every year as a hay crop and the aftermath (any grass that is left) is grazed off by livestock. For our hay meadow at the top of the woods, which has good access for machinery, it has been relatively easy to improve the management. We have stopped completely any manure input and successfully introduced yellow rattle (a semi parasitic annual plant that reduces the vigour of grasses and is a key component of many species rich hay meadows) and delayed any hay cutting until late in the summer when all the flower seed will have fallen and dispersed across the field. Regular hay cuts have now started to remove nutrients as well and wildflowers are starting to return.

Look out for the common spotted orchid around Hudswell Woods
Common Spotted Orchid around Hudswell Woods
Look out for the common spotted orchid around Hudswell Woods

Unfortunately it’s not possible to cut, bale and remove hay with machinery from our rough grassland on the riverside and behind Round Howe. In these areas we have decided to use winter grazing from October to April to keep the sward short, remove some nutrients and most importantly disturb the ground so that flower seed can germinate. We are managing these areas as a species rich pasture.

On a site with so much public access we have worked with our farm tenant to use belted galloways for our conservation grazing. These hardy breed cattle are ideal as they are able to eat a wide range of vegetation, including browsing leaves from trees, and they are reputed to have a calm temperament. We have had to work hard to encourage a responsible attitude from some dog owners especially around grazing livestock and we continue to ask that dog walkers keep dogs under close control at all times and follow instructions on the signs that are displayed when the site is being grazed.

Belted Galloways eat a wide variety of vegetation and can easily digest rough grasses. They also break up the ground with their hooves and push flower seed in to the soil.
Belted Galloways grazing rough pasture
Belted Galloways eat a wide variety of vegetation and can easily digest rough grasses. They also break up the ground with their hooves and push flower seed in to the soil.

We are monitoring progress and we are confident this management is working. The cattle have already had a positive impact. Wild flower diversity has increased and much of the rough pasture has been disturbed and eaten. Species such as great burnet and knapweed have increased significantly. The cattle also love the woodland edges, they seek shelter in these areas and also browse on the trees, even eating holly and ivy. The grazing and browsing of the cattle helps shape habitat across the site, especially the scrubby woodland edge which is refuge to a wide range of species, especially invertebrates which benefit from higher levels of sunlight and warmth and shelter for overwintering. Year on year we are seeing more positive results, both for people and for wildlife.