Donnington Valley Hotel
Restoring wild flowers and diversity to Nothing Hill
Nothing Hill was part of Donnington Valley’s golf course, featuring three greens until the year 2000. Since then the field has remained fallow. Access is via the footpath which is located to the South of Donnington Valley Hotel and leads up the hill alongside the existing golf course and then over the Wantage Road via the footbridge.
Our objective is to restore wild flowers to Nothing Hill as well as to diversify the trees and shrubs and preserve those tree and shrub seedlings which are now establishing across the site, particularly the Oaks and the few Hawthorn, Wild Rose and Blackthorn. We also wish to introduce some colour into the landscape for local walkers and hotel guests alike to enjoy.
Restoring wild flowers and diversity to a field such as Nothing Hill requires time and investment. Today, with a few exceptions, wild flowers are largely absent and occasional. The flora is largely limited to coarse grasses such as false Oat Grass, Clocks Foot and Yorkshire Fog. Creeping Thistle is also widespread in some areas and brambles are beginning to encroach from the neighbouring fields which have also been left fallow for decades but are neither owned nor managed by Donnington Valley Hotel.
Commencing in the Autumn of 2020, the programme to restore wild flowers and diversity to Nothing Hill will have a number of phases over a three year period as follows:
Phase 1: Preparation of the field ready for grazing
Grazing at various times of the year is a key beneficial part of the management of wild flower meadows. This means that the trees and footpaths need to be fenced and walkers are kindly asked to keep to the public footpaths as signposted. This was carried out over the Autumn and Winter of 2020 / 2021.
Phase 2: Prepare the best possible seedbed for wild flowers
The main problem with trying to establish wild flowers is that they grow very slowly whereas most weeds grow quite rapidly. Therefore the seedbed needs to be as weed free as possible. We marked out 1.4 hectares (3.5 acres) of the field for wild flowers. Work commenced in February 2021 when a remote controlled ‘Flail Bot’ was taken for a ‘walk’ around the site to complete the first clearing, the existing grass was cut, the blackthorn and hawthorn removed and the terrain smoothed out.
Since then, 2021 has produced an abundant crop of thistle and, in particular, Ragwort. Committing wild flower seed to a topsoil that might be full of ragwort and thistle would have been a high risk move for future success. We are therefore taking the route of patience and reducing the amount of both of these before proceeding on to phase 3.
During August and early September, walkers passing by will have seen us pulling a lot of ragwort. A small flock of Dorset Longons, provided by our friendly local shepard, Nigel Wernham, have also been grazing around the uncleared areas of the field. We hope they will reduce the weeds and in particular, eat the Ragwort at their rosette stage before they can grow and self-seed again. Also in early September the section designated for wild flowers has been cultivated and seeded with grass. We hope the cultivation will have stimulated the weeds in the topsoil to germinate and show themselves, ready for either a hungry sheep or a zapping by selective spray. By spring of next year we will know whether the field is ready for wildflower seeds or not. With luck, we might be able to sow the wildflowers in Spring 2022. Alternatively, we might have to do further work to reduce the weeds and sow the wildflowers in September 2022.
Phase 3: Wildflower seeding
The first broadcast seeding of a wild flower seed mix will happen either in the Spring of 2022 or early September 2022. The seed mix will be chosen to provide a good nectar supply, which in turn will begin to rebuild the insect population and bring to life the whole wildlife food chain including birdlife; not just farmland birds but hopefully species such as House Martins, Swallows and Swifts. Butterflies should respond particularly well as several species require special food plants. Moths should also respond well.
Phase 4: Ongoing Management
A hay cut will be taken around late July or early August each year. Cut material will be removed so that there is as little thatch as possible in the bottom of the sward. Sheep will then be reintroduced in the Autumn to graze down re-growth at the same time as tread in the new seed. Once wild flowers are established, they can be grazed or topped in the month of May which defers flowering for 4-6 weeks to help spread the nectar supply through the summer. This is to help keep late flying butterflies and insects on the wing.
In the following year the field will be topped several times to keep the grass and wild flower down to about 8 inches until the end of June. This is done to keep the sward open and allow the slower growing wild flowers to develop.
From the third year of the programme, so 2023/2024 onwards, the hay cut will proceed at the end of July / early August each year.
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