Grassland: Grass for Grazing
Grassland — such a dominant feature of the landscape in this country — is not natural, but man-made and our most familiar species of grass are planted with a purpose.
Grasslands in the British Isles are entirely man-made and have been developed over the centuries to suit the needs of our domesticated cattle and sheep. Given a sufficiently long period of non-interference much of our pastureland, meadows and downland will degenerate from grassland to scrub, and return ultimately to forest.
Natural grasslands, such as the steppes of Central Asia, the veldt of South Africa and the prairies of North America, are characterised by the enormous variety of species of both grasses and herbaceous plants that grow there. In contrast, only a small number of grass species are at all important in this country. There is, however, a bewildering array of selected strains, developed from these wild species, which are available to the farmer. He can choose the most suitable for his particular need, be it hay, silage or permanent pasture.
Two categories of grassland are recognised. The first of these is called ‘rough grazing’ and is found on open hillsides overlying chalk and limestone in the south and east, and siliceous rocks in the north and west. Lowland commons also fall into this category.
The second type is called ‘permanent grass’ and is usually enclosed, and often manured, growing on a variety of soils. Much of it began as arable land but was laid down to grass (that is, deliberately sown with grass seed) when arable crops ceased to be profit able. On the whole, the grasses sown were native species and only one foreign species, Italian rye-grass, is at all common.
An easily recognised species which is abundant not only in pastures but also on our lawns, is perennial rye-grass. It can be confused with couch grass, a rapacious weed which has a similar appearance and is very difficult to eradicate when it takes hold on farmland.
Perennial rye-grass has been cultivated in this country for over three hundred years and is considered our most valuable species. It is a quick-growing, heavy-yielding grass and is highly nutritious. It is often sown with clovers for leys (short-term grassland) and permanent pasture, and is suitable for most types of soil. During its long history of cultivation a number of strains have been developed. Some are suitable for hay, others for pasture; some are short-lived and stemmy, others are long-lived and leafy. The best kinds come from our own native varieties.
Italian rye-grass is a close relative of perennial rye-grass. It is an annual, or sometimes a biennial, and can be distinguished by the extra florets appearing in each spikelet, and the bristles (or awns) that protrude from the tip of each lemma (the outer pair of scales enclosing each diminutive flower). Introduced into the British Isles in 1830, it is now widely sown for short-period leys of about one to two years. It grows very quickly from seed and is extremely nutritious, giving a heavy yield of palatable herbage. It is either grazed, or cut for hay or silage.
Cocksfoot or orchard grass is a coarse, tough grass valued by farmers both for grazing and making into hay. One advantage that this species has over many of our other important grasses is that it takes root very deeply and can thus resist drought. As long as it is well managed it provides good herbage over a very long period, but it becomes coarse and unpalatable if under-grazed and is easily damaged if over-grazed. A variegated form is often grown in gardens.
Grasses of rich soils
Two forms of timothy grass are found in this country — a tall variety, known as timothy or cat’s-tail, and a shorter, leafy variety, known as purple cat’s-tail. Both have tight, cylindrical flowering heads; timothy is used for hay, while purple cat’s tail is normally grazed.
Until the mid-18th century, timothy was a grass found in water-meadows and low-lying grassland. An enterprising American agriculturist named Timothy Hanson discovered that it had enormous potential as a fodder grass and it quickly became a major source of hay in many temperate countries, being named timothy in Hanson’s honour. Unfortunately, it does not grow aggressively and when a field of timothy is given over to pasture instead of hay, it gradually disappears in the face of competition from more vigorous grasses.
Purple cat’s-tail is more hardy and is an important constituent of older pastures and short grass on hills and downs.
Meadow fescue is abundant in water-meadows, low-lying grassland, pastures and roadsides, especially on rich, moist soils. It is a tall, tufted perennial with a much-branched flower head and can form quite large tussocks. Although it can produce large quantities of palatable herbage, it soon dies out if too heavily grazed.
Tall fescue is a close relative of meadow fescue and the two are not always easy to distinguish. Tall fescue — as you might expect from its name — is a tall, tussocky species that grows in much the same type of habitat as meadow fescue.
Weed or fodder?
Yorkshire fog is sometimes called meadow soft-grass or velvet-grass, two names which aptly describe its appearance. The stems form loose or dense tufts and are covered with short, soft, velvety hairs. The leaves are greyish green and rather dull, but they contrast well with the flowering heads which may be whitish, pale green, pink or purple.
As Yorkshire fog grows in all kinds of soils from heavy loams to sand in meadows, open woods and waste ground it is generally regarded as a weed. However, in some parts of the country where the poorer soils do not support the more desirable grasses too well, its young growth makes very good grazing.
In North Country dialect, the word ‘fog’ has nothing to do with winter mists but means any coarse winter grass that grows once the hay has been cut. It probably comes from the Old Norse word `fogg’, meaning a long, limp, damp grass.