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Grassland management for bees, butterflies and wildflowers

man cycling past a meadow
man inspecting flowers

Actively managing grassland can make a greenway more interesting to people using it as well as promoting wildlife and adding interest that changes throughout the year.

Grassland along the verges of greenways can fall into three rough management categories. That which is regularly mown for amenity reasons, grassland in the wider verge that is less intensively managed and areas that are managed specifically for wildflowers.

All grassland usually requires some management to prevent it being gradually invaded by scrub and woodland.

Regularly mown grassland

Mowing should be carried out in autumn to avoid the peak flowering season. A second cut in spring may be necessary if growth is vigorous.

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To prevent vegetation falling into and obstructing the path the first metre from the edge of a path should be regularly mown, ideally 1-2 times per year.

For equestrian use, one mown verge should be 2.5m in width. Areas around seating and signage should also be regularly mown to allow access and visibility.

These mown areas can support a variety of wildflowers and best practice includes:

  • mow only when it is required to preserve the path width
  • alternate which sides are cut to retain some longer grass and wildflowers
  • where rare species are present leave some patches uncut and allow seeds to set (these patches can be in different places every year)
  • remove arisings where possible.

Wider grass verges

A wider verge cut is recommended once per year in late summer or autumn to prevent the gradual encroachment of woody vegetation and encourage wildlife. This maintains grass habitat in the wider verge and prevents the route from become too enclosed.

To maximise the value of this wider verge to wildlife you should:

  • favour wavy rather than straight edges
  • retain small patches of scrub, taller vegetation and uncut grassland
  • avoid cutting right up to the base of a hedgerow or scrub, leave a buffer of taller grass and wildflowers
  • remove arisings where possible or create hay bales/habitat piles.

Wildflower grassland management

Managing grassland for wildflowers can be labour intensive. As such it is a good idea to select patches where the wildflower interest is greatest along the greenway to focus habitat management. An ecologist would be able to offer site specific advice for your grassland based on a site visit.

Without bespoke advice some important principals of grassland management are:

  • cut grass once per year in autumn where wildflower rich patches occur. Consider a second cut in spring in patches where grasses dominate
  • remove grass cuttings – these smother wildflowers and favour grass growth (these can be piled off your target patch to create habitat for other wildlife)
  • create a varied structure; leave uncut areas, consider using a strimmer/scythe rather than a mower and create wavy rather than straight edges
  • keep bramble and shrubs in check so they form small patches within the grassland only.

If the patch is not already rich in wildflowers you could also consider:

  • adding yellow rattle seed in autumn, this reduces the vigour of grasses and so favours wildflower growth
  • rake up dead grass and matted vegetation before adding wildflower seed to the existing sward; use seed from a reputable supplier, ideally of local provenance
  • import green hay from a nearby species-rich donor site which will contain a mix of local wildflower seeds and invertebrates
  • avoid planting non-native or garden varieties of species such as daffodils or Spanish bluebells.

Changes in grassland management can be unpopular as locals may think it looks unkempt and temporary interpretation is recommended. In some places user safety would override aesthetics or wildlife conservation and consequently a different approach can be adopted.

Read our tips for managing drains, ditches, ponds, watercourses and wetlands.

Download our Greenway management handbook (pdf 6MB).