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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.