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Shire horses mow King’s College meadow





By Jo Riley

The magnificent wildflower meadow at King’s College in Cambridge has been traditionally harvested with the help of two Shire horses.

King’s College Cambridge meadow harvest horses. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography
King’s College Cambridge meadow harvest horses. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography

Looking like a scene from a John Constable painting, the two heavy horses helped cut the new meadow, which recently replaced the college’s famous neatly-manicured lawn on Monday (August 2).

The horses will turn and cart the hay on a traditional wain later in the week, with the bales being used to create more wildflower meadows across the city of Cambridge.

King’s College Cambridge meadow harvest horses. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography
King’s College Cambridge meadow harvest horses. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography

This traditional method of harvesting gives the animals within the meadow time to leave the area, while the mowing is a vital long-term process to keep fertility low and create space for the wildflowers to regenerate.

The involvement of the Shire horses is thanks to an initiative involving the head gardeners of Christ’s College and Murray Edwards College. The bales will be offered to other gardeners around the city and within the university, encouraging others to follow suit and turn their lawns into wildflower meadows.

King’s College Cambridge meadow harvest horses. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography
King’s College Cambridge meadow harvest horses. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography

Steven Coghill, head gardener of King’s College, said: “We’re absolutely thrilled to be bringing in these magnificent heavy horses to harvest the wildflower meadow. Not only do they have a far lower carbon footprint than using a rotary mower, the sight of these wonderful creatures at work in the college should make for a remarkable, bucolic scene and bring a bit of Constable to Cambridge.”

Prof Michael Proctor, provost of King’s College, added: “The wildflower meadow has inspired us to think more about how we look after and enhance our biodiversity, and has brought to attention just how much has been lost. We hope its presence in this iconic setting will motivate others to think about sustainability and to consider planting their own meadows elsewhere.”

King’s College Cambridge meadow harvest horses. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography
King’s College Cambridge meadow harvest horses. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography

The iconic view of King’s College Chapel with its perfect lawn sloping down to the River Cam is one of the city’s best-known images.

The grass had been neatly mown since the 1720s, but two years ago the “keep off the grass” signs were removed and a large part of the lawn was transformed into a wildflower meadow.

King’s College Cambridge meadow harvest horses. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography
King’s College Cambridge meadow harvest horses. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography

The meadow was sown in October 2019. Wildflowers do not like nutrient-rich soil and across Britain they thrive in the subsoil, which tends to be nutrient-poor. But soil testing at King’s revealed that the subsoil is richer in nutrients than the topsoil.

This is because in the 15th-century the great lawn at King’s bustled with student hostels, a monastery, a parish church and drinking inns, and the nutrients from cess pits and dung heaps seeped into the subsoil.

King’s College Cambridge meadow harvest horses. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography
King’s College Cambridge meadow harvest horses. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography

This meant Steven and his team had to sow the wildflower mix in the shallow upper layers of the soil.

The meadow’s first year bore witness to a stunning display of annual flowers such as poppies, cornflowers and corn chamomiles, with its second year seeing the germination of perennial plants such as kidney vetch and yellow rattle, as part of its transition towards a traditional East Anglian hay meadow.

King’s College Cambridge meadow harvest horses. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography
King’s College Cambridge meadow harvest horses. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography

It also attracted a huge variety of butterflies and bees, which are crucial to healthy ecosystems, including swifts and swallows.

A biodiversity monitoring study is being led by King’s research fellow Cicely Marshall, tracking the ecological changes as the site transitions from 18th-century lawn to meadow.

King’s College Cambridge meadow harvest horses. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography
King’s College Cambridge meadow harvest horses. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography

The meadow supports three times more plant species than the lawn, including nationally scarce species like wild candytuft, and species like cornflower whose native populations have all but disappeared from the UK. The taller and more diverse meadow planting provides food and shelter for 130 insect species identified at the site, with iconic species like the elephant hawk moth and meadow brown butterfly being regular visitors. The meadow also supports larger-bodied species and larger populations than the lawns.

Five bat species use the grounds, with bats 10 times more likely to feed over the meadow than the remaining lawn.

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