Asham Meadow is a traditional hay meadow along the River Avon, near the village of Eckington in Worcestershire. It is one of the few remaining ‘Lammas Meadows’ still active in the country. Lammas Meadows are operated on a strip system that goes back to the Middle Ages, with different owners for different strips, and local people who have commoners’ rights to graze their animals, once the hay has been cut (usually fairly late, generally in late June or sometimes July). Lammas (from ‘Loaf Mass’) marks the beginning of harvest festival celebrations in the local church and takes place early in August (exact dates vary, some say it should be on 5 August). The operation of the strip system is under the beady eye of the ‘Hay Warden’. Other Lammas Meadows survive along the Avon in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire and along the Lugg in Worcestershire.
Asham has therefore never been ploughed up, and its vegetation is representative of hay meadow botany all along the Avon and Severn, with Water Dropworts and Vetches as typical plants. It also provides perfect breeding habitat for Curlews, which regularly nest there, the off duty bird often going to the nearby reserve of the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust at Gwen Finch and to John Bennett reserve, both only a short distance away.
Clearly Asham is a site of great interest for its conservation values, though it is not designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), nor is it under any agri-environmental stewardship schemes which might govern hay cutting dates. Indeed the strip owners avoided any such schemes since they wished to maintain the possibility of an early hay cut in times of drought or fodder shortage, such as has been experienced in recent weeks, with the lack of rainfall. The Kemerton Conservation Trust (KCT) has taken an active interest in the site and its management, and has informed the strip-owners of the conservation interest there.
Sadly, however, it seems that the message did not get through, for on 28 May an early cut was taken on one of the strips, and a Curlew’s nest (which must have been close to hatching) was destroyed. Asham Meadow is a popular exercise area in this time of lockdown, and is crossed by a footpath (with signs at each end asking users to keep to the path and to control their dogs). The Eckington Village Facebook page commented at length on the sad situation with photographs (see attached picture). Local residents also wrote to the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust, and KCT has responded on the Facebook page and plans to contact the Hay Warden in an attempt to avoid a similar situation next year.
Sadly, this type of loss is a regular hazard for nesting Curlews everywhere, and must occur frequently if an early hay cut is taken. Experience suggests that the way to diminish this risk is by close cooperation with farmers and land owners, who almost without exception seem pleased to have nesting Curlews on their home patch. The answer is a three-pronged approach:
- Contact the farmer /landowner early in the season to make him/her aware that nesting Curlews are present, and to obtain permission to visit the field(s) involved;
- Find the nest (easier said than done in the long grass where they nest), and protect from predators like foxes and badgers and from mowing damage with an electric fence;
- Persuade the farmer to leave an area uncut as a refuge for the chicks while they grow up; the uncut area need not be very large – the size of the electric fence enclosure, half an acre?
This approach needs active teams of very committed local volunteers – most wildlife organizations do not have the necessary time, resources or staff – but it’s the best chance of avoiding damage to Curlew nests at hay-making time.