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The Yellow Rattle Update: Starting a Wildflower Meadow

Updated: 4 hours ago

Last year, we started a wildflower meadow at Orton Academy to join the national effort to restore Britain’s wildflower meadows! Here, Dr. Orton gives the 2023 update on our wildflower meadow and ‘the great yellow rattle experiment.’

Wildflower meadows are a stunningly beautiful part of Britain’s natural heritage and essential for biodiversity. They are home to insects such as bees, butterflies and moths, as well as voles and shrews, which in turn feed song birds, birds of prey and bats. Wildflower meadows are also important for newts, snakes, hares and deer, which use the meadows for nesting.

Since World War II, the UK has lost over 97% of its wildflower meadows, but the good news is that there has been a national effort to restore them. Read on to find out how our wildflower meadow is doing and pick up tips for starting your own!

The Great Yellow Rattle Experiment

If you’ve looked into starting a wildflower meadow, you’ve probably heard of yellow rattle: yellow, tube shaped flowers whose seeds ‘rattle’ when shaken. A common problem when starting a wildflower meadow is that grasses are competitive and can easily dominate wildflowers on fertile soil. Yellow rattle is parasitic on grass, so its presence can stop the grasses from outcompeting the wildflowers.

We weren’t expecting a full wildflower meadow this year, as the soil fertility was so high after years of livestock grazing – particularly on the Big Field. This year was all about establishing yellow rattle to get the fertility down and perhaps starting to see some other flowers come through.

We’ve experimented with yellow rattle on different areas to see what gets the best results for establishing a wildflower meadow, ranging from following the popular advice to the letter to breaking all the rules!

Our Experiment

We took a textbook approach on the Bump Wildflower Meadow, cutting and removing the long grass, then scarifying (removing built up organic matter) with a rake. We did this in late summer/early autumn, so that the winter frosts could encourage germination. We’ve had some yellow rattle here, along with wild red and white clover, meadow bulbous buttercup, birdsfoot trefoil, ribwort plantain ox-eye daisy and thistle.

We took a similar approach on the Big Field to the wildflower meadow on the Bump, but this time in early February. Sowing this area later, as well as the fact that it was previously used for sheep grazing, makes it more of a challenge for the wildflower meadow to establish itself here.

In the Paddock, we took an experimental approach, cutting and scarifying the grass and spreading cuttings from a friend’s land that has yellow rattle over the area. Then we compressed it slightly with a mower and left it to its own devices! This has been by far the most successful area in terms of establishing yellow rattle.

Preparation for Next Year

Since the most successful approach seems to have been the experimental approach we took in the Paddock, this year we decided to take quite a few sacks of cuttings from a friend’s wildflower meadow once he had done his mowing. We’ve mown and scarified areas of the Bump and the Big Field and we will spread the cuttings over these in September so the seeds can experience the winter frosts.

We also took some of the seeds from areas of the Paddock where we’ve had a lot of yellow rattle and will also spread this in the mix. Here’s to another year of trial and error!

Find Out More

If you’re interested in conservation and wildlife, we have a Conservation blog series that looks at wildlife and human interaction all over the world, from the altitudes of the Himalayas to the dense mangrove forests of Bangladesh!

We also offer online private tuition in our course, Culture and Conservation, in which you can explore the links between our natural and cultural heritage and study wildlife and cultures from across the world! This is a template of a possible study route and can be combined, adapted, or designed from scratch to suit your interests and goals.

Dr. Orton will work with you to design a course of private tutorials tailored to your needs, ability and schedule. Click the link to find out what it’s like to work with her and contact us to find out more!

Do More

Even if you don’t have a big garden, there are plenty of things you can do to help biodiversity in your area. Why not put up a solitary bee nesting box or insect home, create a woodpile as a habitat for small creatures or leave small areas of your garden to go wild?

Think about your own area and how you can protect vulnerable but important parts of your own environment. You might even want to start your own project investigating the cultural importance of wildlife in your area. Dr. Orton works with independent scholars undertaking their own research for an independent project, people writing a book or simply those who have a personal interest. Click the link to find out what it’s like to work with her and contact us to get started!

Reach Out

We’d love to see what you’re doing to help wildlife in your area. Follow the Conservation highlight reel on the Orton Academy Instagram to see what we’re getting up to and tag us in to any snaps you put up!

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