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Wild flower garden at Orchid Meadows
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Wildlife pond at Orchid Meadows
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Rhos pasture at Orchid Meadows
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A nature enhancement site

Orchid Meadows is a 25-acre small-holding that is already fascinating in terms of the wild plants and animals to be found here. There are indeed orchid meadows but we also have a pond that turns blue with damselflies in summer, graceful towering beech trees that rustle in the breeze, wetland that is home to uncommon plant species and the acid grassland characteristic of West Wales known as rhos pasture. Click here to explore and discover further.

 

We moved here in April 2021 and in our first summer we discovered a host of wild flowers, insects and other wildlife including broad-leaved helleborine, devil’s bit scabious and marsh cinquefoil, four different types of dragonfly, lizards, frogs and toads, plus in the sky above, jays, buzzards, red kites, a barn owl and a loyal cuckoo. You can read our current wildlife species list here.

 

But it is not enough. There are things that should be here but are not. There is no yellow rattle in our meadows, no bog asphodel in our wetland and no marsh fritillary butterflies where you might expect to find them. We have yet to see a hedgehog or a polecat. All these could be here. So we plan to do our best to increase the wildlife value of the small-holding further. We are calling it a nature enhancement site. Some results are likely to come quickly, other things will take time and our newly planted native broad-leaved wood will be something for only future generations to fully appreciate.

 

At a time when climate change and loss of biodiversity present such huge challenges, it is the least we can do.

 

You can read here about some of our individual conservation projects, some already completed, some still at the planning stage. Their common aim is to help put nature back in the driving seat. Orchid Meadows will continue to be farmed and will still produce food but in a way that meets the needs of both nature and people.

Wild flower meadow at Orchid Meadows
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Meadow hay making at Orchid Meadows
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Wild flower meadow at Orchid Meadows
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South and West Wales Wildlife Trust logo at Orchid Meadows

We have three meadows: Home Meadow, Morning Meadow and Evening Meadow.

 

Home Meadow is rather grassy at present with few wild flowers, although it does boast a small colony of broad-leaved helleborines, while Morning Meadow has a lot of rushes in it, albeit with a scattering of orchids. Of the three, Evening Meadow has the greatest botanical interest with a good population of hybrid orchids that are somewhere between heath spotted orchid and marsh orchid. Here too there is abundant greater birdsfoot trefoil, devil’s bit scabious and sneezewort.

 

But even this field could be better. There are plants absent that should be here and probably once were. Things like yellow rattle.

 

Meadows present a lot of quandaries for the small-holder. Almost inevitably they will not have their own hay or silage-making equipment, so they are reliant on others to do the annual cut. Contractors are expensive and farmers are less interested in coming to do the work in return for the hay or silage if the area is small and more orientated towards wild flowers than tasty carpets of ryegrass. And after July, the crop is no good at all to them for feed because by then it has lost most of its nutritional quality.

 

The danger is that the field gets left and is then hurriedly topped with a flail cutter at the end of the summer with the result left on the ground to slowly rot. In the short term this creates a mat that will inhibit plants breaking through in spring and in the long term, when the material does break down, it enriches the soil and makes it less suitable for wild flowers.

 

This scenario may have been the case in the past here at Orchid Meadows. Our priority now is to restart effective management of this habitat. We have found someone willing to come to take a silage crop away in mid-July, so we hope half of each meadow will be cut and removed at that time, with the other half left to allow the late summer plants, including devil’s bit scabious, to properly finish flowering. These areas will then be topped in September and later harrowed to break up the mat. The following year, we will switch over, so the bits that were cut for silage are left to finish flowering and vice versa. Over time, this two-year rotation should both give late flowering plants the time they need while also making sure the soil is not enriched in a way that will encourage grasses at the expense of wild flowers.

 

The hope is that this will bring benefits that are colourfully visible. There should be a real buzz in the air through the boost to insect life. And that means more farmland birds.

 

We have another plan too. The longer-term aspiration is to add extra wild flower species. In other words, to put back things back that may have been lost. In co-operation with the South and West Wales Wildlife Trust, we are looking for a similar meadow elsewhere that does have the species we are missing, so we can harvest the seed and put it on our fields. This could be a game-changer. We will provide updates on this as and when options become clearer.

Southern Bottoms at Orchid Meadows
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Ground preparation for trees at Orchid Meadows
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Tree planting at Orchid Meadows
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Woodland Trust logo

When we arrived on our small-holding, we were unsure how to best manage a large area known as Southern Bottoms. A mix of rushes and self-seeded goat willow, it lacked the plant interest of other areas.

Although it seemed to us to be pretty much ungovernable, we were told it had been ploughed and reseeded just a few decades before to make it more agriculturally productive. That may explain the lack of plant diversity when we arrived.

 

The solution to the quandary of what to do with Southern Bottoms dawned on us quite suddenly. We are concerned about climate change and deforestation, so it seemed a no-brainer to create a new wood here. With the support of the Woodland Trust, we have planted 2300 trees and shrubs that will develop into a new 5-acre wood with glades and pathways.

 

The ground is a mosaic of wet and dry patches, which has encouraged us to spread the net wide and plan for a range of species. Alder, aspen, downy birch and goat willow have gone in on the wetter areas with oak, crab apple and Scot’s pine on the drier places. Rowan, hawthorn and hazel have also been added to the mix.

 

Existing areas of bracken and gorse have been left unplanted to give more variety and texture.

 

The whole wood slopes down to a stream ravine and a line of tall oaks, which nicely finishes it all off. We ourselves will not see the full result of what has been done here but hopefully future generations, and not least wildlife, will give us posthumous high-five.

Oak tree in pond field at Orchid Meadows
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Broad-leaved helleborine at Orchid Meadows
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Young oak trees at Orchid Meadows
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Our three meadows are bounded by lines of trees and inevitably coarse vegetation along the fence line. We have extended this rough edge into the fields to create wild strips that will not be mown. This will develop a good habitat for small mammals, especially when the rest of grassland is mown for hay or silage in summer.

 

Small groups of broad-leaved trees have been planted along the field edges to further diversify the habitat. These have included oak, horse chestnut, birch, rowan, elder and hawthorn. The oak and horse chestnut will in time develop into tall standards, while the others will provide a more shrubby habitat just right for nesting birds.

 

Our rough field margins may be just 2-3 metres wide but they significantly increase the value of the fields to wildlife and add something to the landscape too.

Bee on devil's bit scabious at Orchid Meadows
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Grass mowing at Orchid Meadows
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Painted lady butterfly at Orchid Meadows
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Gardens can be wild at the same time as beautiful. Most gardens would benefit from being a little less manicured. Much of our front garden is lawn and the temptation might be to mow throughout the summer to keep things tidy. This can be not only hard work but also counter-productive.

 

We have four areas that we do not mow until late in the summer when everything has flowered and set seed. We have been very pleasantly surprised at what comes up. In effect, we have ended up with natural flower beds, comprising orchids, devil’s bit scabious, sneezewort, knapweed and a variety of grasses and sedges. In the summer these ‘wild’ patches attract garden butterflies including peacocks, red admirals, painted ladies and small tortoiseshells.

Rhos pasture at Orchid Meadows
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Highland cattle at Orchid Meadows
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Rhos pasture mowing at Orchid Meadows
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Acid, damp grassland is a speciality of West Wales and is known as rhos pasture. In Devon and Cornwall, a similar type of plant community is called culm grassland. They can be of considerable botanical interest but only if managed properly.

 

Sheep and a lot of cattle find the forage here unpalatable and do not do well on these pastures. All too often, the land remains ungrazed as a result and the tall, coarser grasses and invading scrub begin to smother out the finer wild flowers that insects depend on. The purple moorgrass common in these situations can then develop into great tussocks that dominate the plant community and also, it must be said, make it very hard work walking across the field.

 

Fields like these need to be grazed to stop this happening and luckily some breeds of cattle will do the job perfectly and love life where other farm animals could not. Highland cattle are about the best suited to this terrain and will improve it greatly for plant life. They are often used to graze down nature reserves. There will be two Highlands on our Eastern Rhos and Western Rhos pastures this spring and we hope they will do a great job. They are also quite decorative animals that would brighten up any field and, despite their rather alarming-looking horns, are actually quite docile.

Common blue damselfly at Orchid Meadows
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Wildlife pond at Orchid Meadows
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White water lily flower at Orchid Meadows
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When we moved to Orchid Meadows, we inherited a pond that was clearly already important for nature. It helps to support populations of golden-ringed dragonfly, four-spotted chaser dragonfly, southern hawker dragonfly, common blue damselfly, large red damselfly and damoiselle damselfly.

 

We found it also provided a home for beautiful white water lilies and Canadian pondweed but rather too much of both. The trouble with too much plant life in a pond is that when leaves and stems die and subsequently decay at the bottom of the pond, it can take too much oxygen out of the water to the detriment of animal life.

 

Each year we will remove some of the vegetation from the pond to give the water some breathing space. Unfortunately, so as not to disrupt the wildlife, it is a job that has to be done in the winter. Splashing around in a pond at that time of year is not much fun but it is worth it. Sort of.

 

As well as controlling the lilies and Canadian pondweed, we also need to cut back the reeds on a regular basis to ensure they do not ultimately take over everything.

Red kite
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Woodcock
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Jay
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Apart from owls, the two main birds of prey in our part of West Wales are buzzards and red kites. Both have recovered astonishingly well after a long history of persecution. Most days at Orchid Meadows you will see both majestic species soaring and circling in the skies above. Red kites can be quite inquisitive and may be prepared to get quite close to see what is going on. Actually, the are looking for food. In parts of Wales, red kite feeding centres have been set up as something of a tourist draw. 

 

Feeding stations were once essential because red kites had declined to a tiny population in mid-Wales. But happily things are now different. In healthy countryside there should be enough for them to eat naturally and that is our philosophy here. Luckily we have tall beeches that are ideal for both buzzards and kites to nest in. However, there are some simple things that can be done to make the land more raptor-friendly. They like to sit on poles where they can observe all activity around them and we plan to install raptor perches in the clearings in our new wood in Southern Bottoms.

 

To provide for most birds is a case of making sure there is enough insect life to support them. And that means a broad diversity of native wild plants. Everything we do here is designed to increase that diversity.

 

There is one area, however, where we know we are falling down in doing our bit for birds. We have cats. Three of them. You cannot stop a cat chasing after birds however well fed you keep it. We have tried collars with bells but they soon tear them off and you cannot blame them for doing that really. 

 

So, we have decided to try to make it up to the blue tits, coal tits, blackbirds, robins and thrushes that share our space by providing nest boxes. Over the next couple of years we will be risking life and limb at the top of a ladder to install these.

Cors Caron Fach: In search of marsh fritillaries
Meadow restoration. New broad-leaved wood. Rough field margins. Wild garden. 
Rhos pasture management. Pond management. Raptors, farmland birds and garden birds.
Cors Caron Fach: In search of marsh fritillaries.

Cors Caron Fach at Orchid Meadows
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Marsh marigolds at Orchid Meadows
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Marsh cinquefoil at Orchid Meadows
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Perhaps the most interesting part of Orchid Meadows, nature-wise, is a bog we call Cors Caron Fach. It means Little Tregaron Bog and we have named it that after Cors Caron, a huge National Nature Reserve, SSSI and multi-accoladed area of raised bog just over the road from us. Managed directly by Natural Resources Wales, this is home to a massive array of rare bog plants, insects, reptiles, mammals and birds. Headline animals include otters, polecats, adders, hen harriers and peregrine falcons but it is the full species list that is so impressive – it seems as long as a telephone directory.

 

Our own bog is nowhere near this standard (otherwise the place would be run by Natural Resources Wales, not us) but there are some similarities. There are some interesting bog plants here in Cors Caron Fach, including bog bean, marsh cinquefoil, ragged robin, marsh bedstraw, marsh marigold and sphagnum moss.

 

Managing this part of the small-holding will be a challenge. Currently it is being encroached by goat willow and this will in time dry out and de-bog the land. Ideally we need to remove this scrub and also make the ground wetter by blocking up drainage ditches to retain the water for longer. We are working with the South and West Wales Wildlife Trust to see what we can do.

 

There is also something of a holy grail being sought here. There is one species that we think should and could be here but does not seem to be. It is the marsh fritillary butterfly, scarce and very much the icing on the cake for any nature conservationist with this sort of land. The marsh fritillary needs devil’s bit scabious because the larvae feed on it. But unlike other parts of the small-holding, Cors Caron Fach is devoid of this key plant.

 

This should be rectifiable. We have collected seed from other areas of devil’s bit scabious and scattered this over the bog in both autumn and spring. In time, we hope to provide the marsh fritillary with what is currently missing – its kids’ favourite food.

 

This is one butterfly we dearly want to see flutter by. We will keep you posted.