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Meadows at Valentia Meteorological Observatory

phot looking across a large lawn to a victorian style large house, home of the Valentia Observatory
Figure 1: Westwood House surrounded by large expanses of neatly mown lawns at Valentia Meteorological Observatory, winter 2021.

Background and early work

Valentia Meteorological Observatory is the most westerly Met Éireann observatory in Ireland. It has done incredible work to keep us informed of environmental changes since its establishment on Valentia Island in the 1860s. In 1892, it was transferred to its current location just outside of Cahersiveen on the Iveragh peninsula. Here, the 19-acre site is peppered with instrumentation and white-washed buildings that stand out against wide expanses of neatly mown lawns (figure 1).

Through speaking with staff, we learned that these lawns were managed as hay meadows in the past, a practice that was discontinued after the 1980s. Hearing about the Observatory’s management of hay meadows in the past and knowing just how important these kinds of grasslands can be for wildlife got us thinking about the site’s potential to support biodiversity.

vintage photo of a vibrant meadow full of flowers and grasses, with one mowed path between.
Figure 2: A photograph of meadows growing at Valentia Observatory in the 1980s; thanks to the staff for rooting these out of the archives for us!

It was agreed that meadows would be a great way to support biodiversity in the local area without interfering with the sensitive work of the Observatory. Meadows give plants the opportunity to complete their full life cycle, by coming to flower and setting seed undisturbed. This is extremely valuable as it provides nectar, pollen, leaves and seeds for animals like insects and birds.

During the winter of 2021-2022, the LIVE project worked with staff at Valentia Observatory to put plans in place to bring meadows back to the Observatory for the first time in over 40 years (figure 2). From spring 2022, four acres of the site would be managed as hay meadow. Instead of mowing these areas regularly throughout spring and summer, staff would simply cut and remove the vegetation twice over the calendar year – in March and September.

Wildlife monitoring

After the first cut in March, it didn’t take long for the meadows to spring to life, with a wide range of plants coming to flower from early summer. This included thyme-leaved speedwell, cuckooflower, sweet vernal grass, buttercups, dandelions, clovers, and trefoils. Orchids also sprang up in the meadows in early May, when we held an event for Biodiversity Week. A variety of other native plants continued to emerge throughout summer, including knapweed, thistle, ragwort, common yarrow, dock and self-heal (figure 3).

An important point to note is that these plants were already present in the soil’s seed bank. We did not sow anything because packets of ‘wildflower’ seeds often contain non-native species or species that are not found locally. We simply allowed the meadows to regenerate naturally, giving our native plant communities the chance to flourish, which brings long-term benefits to our local wildlife.

photo showing the differences betwen an meadow and a lawn. On the right is tall grasses abundant with flowers, on the right is short  cut grass, like a green desert, lacking in biodiversity
Figure 3: By mid-July, the difference between the value of the meadows for biodiversity, and the value of the mown lawn was clear.

While we kept a close eye on the plant communities emerging in the meadows, LIVE also carried out wildlife surveys at the site. In total, 26 bird species, 6 species of butterfly and 4 species of bumblebee were recorded over four surveys. The plants growing in the meadows produced seeds and attracted insects like flies, moths, crickets and spiders for local birdlife. And as the meadows are left undisturbed during summer, they could eventually support breeding populations of ground-nesting birds like meadow pipits or linnets.

It was particularly encouraging to record birds of conservation concern such as common kestrels, meadow pipits, linnets, greenfinches, house martins and swallows foraging or breeding at the Observatory (figure 4).

collage of three photos showing different types of birds found in and around the Observatory
Figure 4: Meadow pipits (left), linnets (right) and common kestrels (bottom) will all benefit from the meadows at Valentia Observatory. Thanks to Linda Lyne and Christina Winkler for the photos!

The most abundant butterflies at the site were the meadow brown and ringlet, both typical grassland species (figure 5). Later in summer, the common blue and small copper butterflies added a further splash of colour to the meadows. The common carder, garden and white-tailed bumblebees foraged in the meadows throughout the year, and in August, we were delighted to see the ‘near-threatened’ large carder bumblebee arrive at the site, where it foraged on the purple flowers of knapweed!

collage of 4 photos showing butterflies and bees
Figure 5: The speckled wood (top left), meadow brown (top right), white-tailed bumblebee (bottom left) and large carder bumblebee (bottom right) were all found in the meadows this year.

Heritage Week 2022

For Heritage Week in mid-August, LIVE ran an event with locals and staff to show how the meadows had progressed through the season (figure 6). We had great sightings on the day to display just how important these meadows had become for local wildlife; they were some of the most flower-rich habitats that remained in the locality as hay and silage had already been harvested elsewhere. In running the event, LIVE was one of three nominees in the ‘Biodiversity’ category of the National Heritage Week Awards for 2022, which is testament to the work of staff at Valentia Observatory for managing a large part of their site to support biodiversity in their local area.

collage of 3 photos with a small group of people on a warm sunny day exploring the meadows , and lookin at different types of wildlife that live there.
Figure 6: Photos taken by Linda Lyne during the Heritage Week event in August 2022.
Cutting and baling

To round off the year, a local contractor came in on a beautiful day in September to cut the meadows and bale the hay later that evening (figure 7). By cutting and removing the vegetation in these meadows just twice each year (March and September), they can continue to provide a source of food and shelter for local wildlife long into the future.

a tractor cutting and baliing the meadow to turn into bales of hay, on  a balmy September evening, blue skies and warm sun
Figure 7: On a beautiful September evening, the hay was baled after cutting earlier in the day.

In short, the approach we took to managing the meadows this year was to cut and remove the vegetation in March, after the first dandelions had a chance to flower. The meadows were left undisturbed until September after most of the plant life had a chance to set seed. At this stage, the vegetation in the meadows was cut, baled and removed from the site.

And if a meadow might not suit your patch of land, there are many other actions we can take to support our native wildlife. Well-managed 'short-flowering meadows', grass margins, stone walls, earth banks and hedgerows are some of the most useful habitats on Iveragh. Managing them for biodiversity is a cost-effective way to support our native wildlife.

Read our article on supporting biodiversity in your community or business here:

collage of 6 photos showing the wealth of biodiversity that can thrive in and around fields and laneways, tall grasses and beautiful colourful flowers
Figure 8: Meadows, 'short-flowering meadows', grass margins, stone walls, earth banks and hedgerows are very important habitats on Iveragh that can be managed for biodiversity.

A number of Irish organisations have led the way in creating excellent resources for individuals, groups or businesses who wish to manage land with biodiversity in mind.

Increasing biodiversity through the use of meadows is just one of the themes being explored by the LIVE project, which has been co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund through its Ireland Wales Cooperation Programme.


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