Upland hay meadows were plentiful until the latter part of the 20th Century, but are now rare. They are important for several rare species of bird, including corncrake and black grouse, as well as for a now assemblage of flowering plants. The occur on a range of upland soils in western, central and northern Britain.

Former mineral workings can be ideal opportunities for creation. The choice of community depends particularly on the soil type, as well as climatic and hydrological conditions.


Once established annual management will be needed, usually a combination of grazing and cutting, to maintain the habitat. Species-rich grassland is generally most likely on soils with low available nutrients, particularly phosphorus.

Test the topsoil, and only use if it does not contain a high concentration of available nutrients. Otherwise, establish the habitat directly on the subsoil. Note that for conservation, high productivity grassland is not desirable.

Establishment techniques

Natural colonisation

This can be undertaken using agricultural techniques and machinery on slopes shallower than 20%, and where the substrate is not too hard, sticky or stony. Special equipment is available to cultivate slopes steeper than 20%. Chisel ploughs may be needed to break up compacted surface layers or stony soils. Sub-soiling may be needed for hard, compacted deep soil.

Most seedbeds can be prepared with disc harrows, although rotovators may be preferred for sandy soils. These prepare seedbeds for natural regeneration, hay strewing or broadcast seeding.

Hay strewing

Hay that is cut and collected, with minimal turning, from local donor sites after flowering will contain seeds from many of the plants present. Most grassland species set seed between June and August. Cutting in early July should mean that most of the seeds are still attached. A second cut would catch later seeding species. Actual timing of cuts will depend on location and species composition.

More seed may be lost when collecting using a forage harvester than with hay making, but the choice of method will depend on the availability of machinery.

The hay should be spread as soon as possible after its collection to minimise seed loss during storage through composting or rot.

Natural colonisation

Natural colonisation is most likely to produce species-rich habitats appropriate to local conditions, and will be more natural than created grassland. If natural colonisation has started, assess its development before continuing with other methods.

Colonisation will usually succeed where a suitable seed bank is present, or existing suitable grassland is adjacent. A suitable seed bank may survive in the restoration topsoil if it supported lowland calcareous grassland previously and was properly conserved. This can be tested for.

Prevent rank grass species from suppressing the establishment of new species. Where such species occur, cutting and collecting, grazing or selective herbicides can be used. Early introduction of grazing, especially during the spring, has been shown to promote species diversity in new grasslands. Natural regeneration on nutrient-poor soils produces sparse, diverse floras, so may not require management for some time, especially if grazed by rabbits.

Any species ‘missing’ after several years that may be expected in a target habitat, can be selectively introduced (see below), but note that many species only colonise slowly under natural circumstances. Generally, natural colonisation should be left to develop by itself .


Seeds may be collected from a local donor site using a brush harvester, or acquired from commercial sources – but if so, ensure the seeds have native provenance and are from a local source (see www.floralocale.org website). Only a restricted range of species is commercially available. These can be used as a starter sward, as other species will colonise over time.

The appropriate seed mixture should reflect nearby native grasslands.

The following method should be used to introduce seeds:

  • Use a moderately fine and firm seedbed.
  • Fertiliser is not required.
  • Control perennial weeds pre-seeding: let them germinate in spring / summer and treat with glyphosate.
  • Sow seed in September / October at 10-15 kg ha-1 depending on fertility and the urgency for green cover.
  • Encourage light at ground level by repeated cutting; this relieves competition for wildflower seedlings. Three cuts may be necessary on fertile soils, less or none at all on the poorest. Remove arisings.

Broadcasting is a cheap and usually suitable technique, using conventional tractor-mounted spreaders. Mix with inert material such as sand to prevent seeds of different sizes sorting in the hopper. Broadcast by hand on small, steep or inaccessible areas.

Hydro-seeding where seeds and mulch are sprayed together, seeds areas normal techniques cannot reach, and unstable substrates. It requires expensive machinery and specialist contractors.

Use small machines (700-1,000 l) for seeding small areas (< 0.5 ha / day). Larger machines are capable of seeding up to 4 ha a day. Seeds are suspended in an aqueous mixture and can be sprayed up to 60 m from the machine.

Using container-grown plants and plugs

This is only applicable for introducing species such as orchids that:

  • do not grow easily from seed,
  • spread vegetatively,
  • and/or flower only after a number of years.

Plant out from September to mid-November or mid-February to early April on bare, or sparsely vegetated areas, in combination with seeding or to complement natural colonisation. Keep plugs moist, and water in. Dib a hole the same shape as the plugs. Manage competing species by cutting them above the height of the inserted plants and removing cut material.

Appropriate planting density depends on a variety of factors, including the species ability to spread and the density of cover in the sward, and varies between 2 and 10 plants m-2. Planting at 3 plugs m-2 will cost in the region of £7,000 ha-1; container-grown stock is likely to cost 3 times more. Plantings of 5-10 species, planted in drifts covering 30-50% of an area will produce a natural effect if combined with seeding. Planting designs should reflect the natural distribution of species as much as possible.

Long-term management

Hay meadows are typically managed by cutting and collecting the crop in mid-late summer, after flowering, followed by low intensity grazing in later summer and autumn.

Where grass growth is particularly rapid, it may be necessary to introduce a low level of grazing in the spring prior to closure to maintain the community structure.

Further reading

Crofts, A and Jefferson, R G (eds) (1999) The Lowland Grassland Management Handbook. 2nd Edition. English Nature/The Wildlife Trusts, Peterborough.

Davis, B N K (ed) (1982a) The ecology of quarries. The importance of natural vegetation. Institute for Terrestrial Ecology, Cambridge.

Gilbert O L and Anderson, P (1998) Habitat Creation and Repair. Oxford University Press.

Walker, K J, Manchester, S J, Mountford, J O, Stevens, P A and Pywell, R F (2001) Methodology for restoring and re-creating semi-natural lowland grassland. A review and quantitative model. CCW Contract Science Report No 437.

Wells, T, Bell, S and Frost, A (1981) Creating attractive grasslands using native species. Nature Conservancy Council, Peterborough.

Relevant case study

We currently have no case studies for this habitat type. If you know of one and would like it to feature on the site contact us.

The information set out within this advisory sheet in no way constitutes legal or regulatory advice and is based on circumstances and facts as they existed at the time Nature After Minerals compiled this document. Should there be a change in circumstances or facts, then this may adversely affect any  recommendations, opinions or findings contained within this document