Around the spring equinox, with daytime air and soil temperatures rising, the meadows begin to wake from their winter slumber. Fresh green grass shoots appear, yellow rattle germinates and cowslip heads start to push upwards.
Meadows benefit from some attention at this time to set them up for easier mowing later in the summer and also to help promote balance and diversity in the sward; a bit of a spring clean and refresh. I think of this as three main tasks:
The first spring cleaning task is to clear any stray twigs, leaves and branches that may have blown in which might later interfere with growth or progress of the scythe. George Peterken in his ‘Meadows’ book describes how European wood pastures are raked over each year to gather up twigs, leaves and moss. This is then burnt and the ashes scattered back over the grassland as fertiliser.
The next task is to flatten out mole hills and other irregularities which have built up over winter. If you scatter the soil thinly over the surrounding area the grass soon grows through and the rain washes it back to grass roots. I use a rake to spread the soil, or if I pick a dry spell, I simply kick the mole hills to disperse them, which is both efficient and satisfying! Alternatively you can collect some of the soil as loam for use in potting compost.
Grassland farmers traditionally harrowed their grass fields in spring with tractor and chain harrows, or with a horse dragging a thorn bush, to disperse mole hills. I would avoid taking machinery over my meadow at this time of year whilst the ground is still soft. The moles will have spent the winter reforming tunnels that often collapse during wet weather, pushing the excavated soil to the surface. To run over and crush these tunnels with a tractor or heavy horse would just mean that the moles have to then re-excavate and throw up a whole lot more soil!
After levelling you will get more hills appearing through the season as the moles maintain their runs. These are usually fewer in number (unless we get a wet summer when mole and ant hills both proliferate) and can be dealt with until the grass grows up leaving a smaller number to mow around.
Mole hills are definitely the cause of much cursing by scythers as each time you catch their soil with your blade you will be forced to re-sharpen before you can continue. After kicking over 400 hills in my small meadow last spring I seriously considered calling in my local mole catcher. However I prefer to live and let live, moles as wildlife must have some value in the ecosystem right? After reading Phil Battens ‘mole meditations‘ I came around to thinking that perhaps they helped the soil drainage and soil structure in my meadow, and they do create bare patches necessary for re-colonisation by short lived meadow plants like yellow rattle and oxeye daisy, so I suppose I could learn to tolerate them, just!
Last but not least mowing. Grassland on fertile soils and in mild winters can produce quite a bit of winter and early spring growth. Cutting or grazing to remove this grass as the ground dries out in early spring will stimulate the production of new shoots, refreshing the meadow.
Meadows which are managed for their biodiversity and flowers benefit from the removal this initial flush of competing grass growth. It can reset the balance in favour of flowers and herbs; it frequently allows the meadow stand longer before it needs cutting and can be easier to mow at haytime. Traditional Dales meadows utilise this spring flush in meadows as grazing for ewes with lambs up until the first week in May after which the livestock are moved out to higher ground and the meadows are only then shut up for hay. It is partly this system which produces such naturally diverse dales grassland.
Meadows on nutrient poor soils and in dry regions will not produce enough spring growth to warrant cutting or grazing.