A biodiversity baseline/review is currently being established at Wyke Farm in relation to the wildlife habitats present and to conservation interventions since 2004. One of the conservation objectives at Wyke Farm is to improve the botanical value of farmed pastures and meadows, especially in areas where wildflower meadows have been restored – habitats which have declined by 97% across England and Wales and more than 95% at Wyke Farm, since the 1930s
A botanical survey was completed over several days in June 2022. The survey followed methods developed by Natural England to assess grassland type, condition and restoration potential as part of the Defra Higher Lever Stewardship agri-environment scheme. The survey sampled nine fields including one (of three in total) Lowland Meadow SSSI field, five (of seven) restored wildflower meadows (these five established in 2005), one control field (not subject to special management since 2004) and two grass leys in a five-year arable rotation with differing management histories.
The survey showed that all five meadows restored in 2005 have met conservation objectives and support species-rich neutral grassland, with four classed as Good quality semi-improved grassland of high species-richness and the other achieving the next level up, the ‘gold standard’ of Lowland Meadow. Management prescriptions are suggested with a view to bringing all five restored fields to Lowland Meadow standard within 10 years.
Furthermore, the SSSI field has been maintained at Lowland Meadow standard. Both Lowland Meadow fields were in favourable condition, passing on all of the five assessment criteria.
The number of Lowland Meadow and Semi-improved Grassland indicators at Wyke Farm (excluding the SSSI) has increased dramatically from 0 and 1 respectively in 2004, to 26 and 18 in 2022.
A range of treatments were undertaken in 2005 to restore species-rich meadows alongside weed removal and seeding with locally harvested wildflower seed. These included topsoil stripping (+/- adding chalk), cultivating and vigorously harrowing to open up the turf.
Topsoil stripping was shown to be the most effective restoration method and the only one which restored habitat to Lowland Meadow within 20 years. The addition of a chalk layer over the exposed subsoil proved beneficial encouraging calcicoles, though was not essential to success.
Aftercare in the form of injurious weed control, periodic overseeding and a consistent management regime of annual haymaking and aftermath cattle/sheep grazing, have also been crucial to long-term success. The use of local seeds collected from two donor sites with similar soils, climate and less than a mile away, is also likely to have also been highly beneficial.
The control field and the two grass leys sampled supported Improved grassland and were generally species-poor with a low cover of desirable wildflowers, though encouragingly species richness at the field scale was substantially higher than in 2004 (average of 13 species per field in 2022, compared with less than 10 in 2004).
Results from the control field, demonstrate that in the absence of substantial restoration work, and where sites are flat and have deep free draining soils with moderate residual fertility remaining (available Phosphorous > 20 mg/l), very little change in the plant community can be expected over 20 years: even with the introduction of traditional cattle breeds, injurious weed control and substantial reductions in inputs.
In these situations, unblocking drains and encouraging wet grassland may be the best option to restore floristic interest or to relax grazing levels to facilitate scrub invasion that will boost invertebrate and bird diversity. Targeting different areas with greater restoration potential (e.g. those with shallower, more alkaline soils +/- on steeper slopes) is a further option.
In conclusion, the study has demonstrated how profitable pastoral farming generating food and employment opportunities, can be successfully run alongside substantial habitat restoration works to aid nature recovery and provide vital ecosystem services.