Thursday, 7 August 2008

Flora on the farm.

Pyrenean Germander

The hotel farm is composed of a diversity of habitats, including pockets of woodland, a riverbank, hedgerows, and orchards, as well as meadows and pasture, and each area has its own character, thus providing a wide diversity of flora species. Ongoing flora surveys of the farm, centred on the three areas managed specifically for wildflowers, but taking the whole area into account, have so far identified 308 flora species. This includes grasses, sedges, rushes, and some shrubs, but excludes trees, bushes, mosses, lichens and ferns. This is a staggering number, representative of the renowned floristic diversity of this region, and looks set to increase. These flora surveys are a very useful step towards our wider understanding of the ways in which this landscape operates, our interactions with the farm, and its agricultural and wildlife potential.

Whorled Caraway

Our next project is to photograph as near as possible every species on the farm, to produce a flora identification guide to the farm. We hope you enjoy some of the photos already taken – more can be seen via the hotel webpage in the natural history section.

Common Centaury

So what are the origins of this diversity of flora in our meadows and pastures, and how do we help to maintain it?

When humans first cleared forest from the land, to use the wood for building and as fuel, they opened up new habitats for grasses and wildflowers. With the introduction of domesticated grazing animals from the Orient, permanent pasture was born. Later, with the development of haymaking as a winter feed crop for these animals, the wildflower hay meadow came into being.

A hay meadow is not a hay meadow unless it is cut for hay, and probably the most sustainable method of cutting is with the traditional scythe. This means lots of hard work in the hot sun, but the reward is a job well done (plus a glass or two of cold cider). Cutting for hay not only feeds our sheep over the lean winter months, it maintains low nutrient levels in the meadows (the hay is removed, so nutrients are lost) thus keeping flora diversity as high as possible (high nutrient levels means that competitive species displace less-competitive ones), and it prevents the meadow’s reversion to woodland.

A hay meadow is a semi-natural non-climactic ecosystem. If nature was left to take its course, our meadows would once again become woodland, probably passing through the intermediate stages of bramble-patch, and gorse- and heather-dominated heath land, a process which would take several decades or longer. But because we want to make hay for our sheep, and keep the beautiful diverse wildflower hay meadows for our guests to enjoy, we will continue the traditional haymaking process.

Hay is cut in June and July, as dictated by the weather. This allows the spring-flowering species to set seed ready for next year (blue iris, columbine, nine species of orchid, wild leeks and onions, yellow rattle etc…), and by autumn a new mix of wildflowers have covered the meadows (autumn ladies tressle orchid, autumn squill, devil’s-bit scabious, autumn crocus, wild garlic etc…). In between times there are the fallow pastures that are grazed later in the year, so there’s never a lack of colour, diversity, or interest.

Heath Spotted Orchid

Entrance written by Hugh Taylor.

Hugh is now working with us for his second season as farm worker / naturalist and kindly lets us use many of his excellent photos on this blog.

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Hotel Posada del Valle is a small hotel in Asturias Northern Spain surrounded by its own organic farm and where we are passionate about organic farming, food, and sustainable livelihoods. In this Blog those of us who live and work at Hotel Posada del Valle open a door to share with all of you who are interested in what we are doing.