Walk in The Green Park in August in the past few years and you may have spotted a scene more familiar with the British countryside than London’s West End. A herd of rare breed sheep – and occasionally a cow – can be seen chomping on our wildflower meadow. Our annual grazing week is not just a sight to behold – it is a time-tested technique for promoting biodiversity in meadowland.
Why are we doing this?
For the last three years, The Royal Parks charity has worked in partnership with Mudchute Park and Farm and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust to graze rare breed animals on Green Park’s wildflower meadow.
In the 1920s and 1930s, grazing sheep were a common sight in London’s parks, helping to keep the grass neat and saving on mowing costs. The practice was phased out by the 1950s, when tractor-mowers made it easier to mow large areas mechanically. While mechanical mowers may be time-efficient, grazing allows for greater biodiversity, helping to create and maintain wildlife habitats. Grazing can improve the variety of wildlife our meadows support, ensuring pollinators like butterflies, hoverflies and bees have the food they need to survive. Rare breed grazing in particular is a valuable technique for meadow-maintenance. Heritage breeds, many of them today numbering just a few hundred animals, have evolved specifically to feed on British pastures. They are able to chew and digest the tough dominant plants that can otherwise take over a meadow, allowing other, more delicate species to thrive. Offering a wider variety of pollinator-friendly plants attracts and supports a greater range of invertebrate species. The animals also trample dung and seeds into the soil, helping the meadow to flourish year after year.
Thanks to the support of players of People's Postcode Lottery, Mission: Invertebrate has helped to create four wildflower meadows across the Royal Parks. The Green Park’s grazing trial allows us to observe the effect of grazing on wildflower diversity in the meadow, compared to mowing alone.
What is involved?
During Green Park Grazing Week, rare breed animals join the London commute – arriving daily from Mudchute Park and Farm on the Isle of Dogs, along with the farm’s Manager, Tom Davis and his dog, Mavis. They arrive early in the morning and return in the afternoon, staying overnight at the farm to keep them safe. To begin with, our visitors were all sheep, a mix of breeds including Whitefaced Woodland, Oxford Down, Black Wensleydale and Southdown. For our second year, a Dexter cow joined our guests. Cattle eat greater volumes and rip up rather than nibble plants, opening up pasture more quickly than sheep. They also tend to prefer different varieties to their woolly counterparts, making them perfect grazing companions. In 2019, we installed more durable fencing, to both protect and enlarge the meadow.
Sadly in 2020, the sheep and cows will not be able to join us in Green Park in person due to the Covid-19 crisis. With social distancing remaining paramount to controlling the virus, the animals have just been too popular in previous years, drawing large crowds to the meadow. Instead, like the rest of us the animals will be turning to digital communications, and will be posting photos and videos on Instagram via farm manager Tom Davis.
As our woolly lawnmowers can't visit this year, the Park Managers have instead cut the meadow ready for winter. The cut hay, which includes plant species such as common chicory, knapweed, geranium pratense, wild carrot and yarrow, was allowed to sit on the ground for 10 days to allow the seeds to drop out before it was collected. Next Spring, the meadow will start to grow up, ready to be a riot of colour that supports important pollinators such as solitary bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and soldier and longhorn beetles, so why not pay it a visit then? The Green Park Wildflower Meadow can be found at the North end of the park - look for the area of wooden fencing.
What happens next?
When Mission: Invertebrate’s grazing trial began, our experts conducted an invertebrate survey of the park. We aim to carry out another survey in 2021, tracking the impact that conservation grazing is having on invertebrate biodiversity in the meadow. At the same time, our Ecology team are monitoring the vegetation in the park, measuring any changes in the plant biodiversity brought about by our living lawnmowers.
We will continue to share what we learn from our conservation grazing work with other organisations, charities and parks to positively influence biodiversity in other green spaces in London.
What can you do?
Britain has lost an estimated 97% of its wildflower meadow since the 1930s. Wildflower meadow provides food and shelter to invertebrates, particularly pollinators. You can help to support London’s bees, butterflies and hoverflies by adding wildflowers and grasses to your window box, balcony or garden, school playground or community greenspace.
- We have a fantastic online resource with ideas and techniques for creating a wildflower meadow at home – from windowsills to wildflower turf.
- Enjoy, but respect the areas of wildflower meadow we have created in London’s parks. Most of these are fenced in, but for areas that are not, avoid walking over the wildflowers and tall grasses.
- Send us photos of invertebrates you spot in the Royal Parks. You can tag us on Instagram @missioninvertebrate and Twitter @morethanbugs.