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Herbal Leys and the soil

Graham Harvey

Archers agricultural adviser


Adam Macy's trying a little experiment at Home Farm. In the International Year of Soils, here's a bit about herbal leys and looking after the soil.


Flower-filled pastures will be good for the countryside.

If you take a drive into the countryside this summer you might just catch a glimpse of a herd of cattle up to their hocks in brightly coloured flowers. This might mean you’re looking at a nature reserve. Or it might mean you’ve seen one of a small but growing number of farmers planting their fields down to “herbal leys”.

Before the arrival of chemical fertilizers most farmers sowed their pastures – not just with grasses – but with other pasture plants as well such as clovers and deep-rooting herbs like plantain and chicory. It’s one of the reasons summer meadows used to be such colourful – and noisy – places. Their bright, scented flowers attract a host of pollinating insects such as butterflies and bees.

Farmers didn’t plant them to benefit wildlife, though they do. They planted these species-rich pastures because the diverse plant mixtures were known to provide nutritious grazing for cattle and sheep. They also helped to enrich the soil, providing a bank of fertility that could be cashed in when the meadow was eventually ploughed up and planted with wheat or barley.

Following the introduction of nitrate fertilizers, these mixed-species pastures fell from fashion. Generations of farmers have grown up believing that the most productive grazing fields are made up of a single grass species heavily dosed with chemical fertilizers.

However, as fertilizer prices have gone up and farm prices have come under mounting pressure, a number of farmers are re-discovering the benefits of the mixed-species pasture. This is full of clovers and herbs, as well as grasses, and sometimes known as a “herbal ley”. Among them is a certain Adam Macy of Home Farm, Ambridge.

These colourful meadow mixes have many benefits for livestock farmers. The deep-rooting herbs bring up trace elements from the lower soil horizons, making the vegetation highly-nutritious. After a monotonous diet of grass, cattle and sheep enjoy grazing on these mixed pastures. Some American farmers refer to them as “salad bars” for livestock.

Herbal leys are also good for soils. With their dense root systems they feed soil microbes with sugars – or exudates – produced in plant cells using the energy captured in photosynthesis. In this way, these herbal leys help build up soil fertility, by capturing carbon from the atmosphere and transferring it to the soil. Adam Macy sowed his herbal ley to help restore life to his flood damaged soil.

Wherever these flower-filled pastures appear, there’ll be real benefits for pollinators such as bees and butterflies. And that will be good news for the countryside.

Find out about the International Year of Soils 2015

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