On Saturday 6 July, we’ll be celebrating UK National Meadows Day. Our project team in North Wales reflect on the importance of ancient hay meadows and their role as a sanctuary for Curlews.

To begin with, what is a hay meadow?

A hay meadow is a type of flower rich grassland that’s been shaped by years of traditional farming practices such as cutting and grazing. In full bloom, they cover the landscape in a blanket of colour. Within them you’ll find an array of plants such as yellow rattle, cowslip, meadow buttercups, eyebright, and various species of grasses as far as the eye can see.

Historically, farmers have used some of these plants as an indicator that the meadows needed cutting. The drying of yellow rattle seed pods would signal that it was time to harvest the hay. They not only add to the visual splendour of our landscapes, but also play a crucial role in supporting agricultural practices.

Our native hay meadows

Within our project area across Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog, there are approximately 25 hectares of hay meadows. The UK overall has lost over 97% of its native hay meadows over the last century, making them a rare and important habitat, and certainly one to be celebrated and protected.

Over the last four years we’ve been working closely with local farmers to implement a grazing exclusion programme. From March to July, farmers have been compensated to exclude livestock from the meadows, which provides more cover for Curlew chicks and promotes greater plant and invertebrate diversity.

How do they benefit Curlew specifically?

These areas provide an ideal setting for Curlews to nest and to forage for food. As winter turns to spring in late February / early March, they return to our project area to breed. Once there, they feed on invertebrates like earthworms, spiders, and beetles that inhabit the ground. The soft soil amongst the meadows as well as the local grasslands and bogs provide an ideal hunting ground for them to easily locate food, ensuring they have enough energy to endure the challenging nesting season ahead.

A Curlew chick’s haven

By May, when the first Curlew chicks typically begin to hatch, the meadows are teeming with life and colour. Under the careful watch of their parents, the chicks will quickly learn to feed themselves. The meadows also serve as a refuge for the nests themselves. As the grasses and wildflowers grow taller, the nests become well hidden from potential predators. This natural shelter is crucial for the survival of the vulnerable chicks, who depend on it to stay safe and out of harm’s way until they’re ready to fledge.

To sum up…

Our ancient hay meadows are essential sanctuaries for Curlews, providing a diverse and thriving ecosystem that meets their nesting, feeding and protection needs. The abundance of vegetation and insects in these areas will continue to support the growth and wellbeing of Curlews for many years, promoting a peaceful balance between nature and farming.

Update!

Over the past month, we’ve been closely observing a pair of Curlews that chose to nest just outside a hay meadow within the project area. There they found a haven among the tall grasses and wildflowers and have been spending their days foraging and nurturing their young, taking full advantage of the shelter and food that the meadow provides.

The highlight, however, has been witnessing their chicks take to the skies this last week! They were the first fledglings we’ve spotted in flight this season. It was a moment of celebration, not just for these remarkable birds but for us as a team.