Herbal Leys Workshop
I spent yesterday at Farm-Ed near Chipping Norton, on a one-day course on Herbal Leys: Establishment & Management. The aim of the day was to build understanding around the Herbal Ley. In simple terms, a herbal lay is a parcel of land that has been sown with grass, legume, and herb seed. Bringing together up to 17 species, it enriches the soil, and offers highly nutritious grazing for cows or sheep.
My own interest is of course pasture enrichment for horses. I note the paucity of species varieties on many paddocks, along with a dominance of Rye-grass. The problems with a quasi-monoculture are threefold. First, the plant roots are all the same depth so they exploit the same layer in the soil profile. Second, such plants require the same nutrients: this exhausts the soil. Third, with few legumes, there is no natural enrichment with root nodules, and the symbiosis with Rhizobium species, which fixes nitrogen.
The ley replaces the need for spraying. The variety of plants stimulates each other’s growth. There is a natural symbiosis, as species number increases. With legumes present in the mix, one can fix up to 250kg of available nitrogen per hectare. Farmers are now looking back to these traditional techniques because the price of artificial fertilizer has increased from £85/tonne in 2000, to over £1000/tonne in 2022. That is an increase in the cost of 1200%.
The ley is generally used in an eight-year rotation. 4 years of herbal lay, four years of root or cereal crop to follow, before a return to ley. This of course is part of the agricultural cycle. My own interest is in how herbal leys could be helpful in the enrichment of horse paddocks.
Seeds for Herbal Leys
This photo shows a typical mixture of seeds for a herbal ley. It is clear that some are large, and others are tiny. There is a real art to formulating mixtures so that the final growth is diverse among the species present.
Some mixtures are made with only legumes and herbs. These are specifically for “over-seeding” applications. In over-seeding, the legumes and herbs will be sown onto a grazed or topped grass cover. As there is already grass present, grass seed should be absent in the mix, to give the legumes and herbs the best chance possible. The sown ley can continue to be grazed for between 5 to 7 days before the herbs and legumes come up, so reducing the growth of the over-seeded pasture.
Species suitable for Herbal Lays
Grasses sown tend to be: Cocksfoot / Festulolium / Hybrid Ryegrass / Italian Ryegrass / Meadow Fescue / Perennial Ryegrass and Timothy. Legumes that are used are: Alsike Clover / Birdsfoot trefoil / Lucerne / Red Clover / Sainfoin / Sweet Clover / White Clover. Herbs include Burnet / Chicory / Ribgrass / Sheep’s Parsely and Yarrow. The photographs below were taken yesterday as we explored one of the Herbal Leys on the farm. This ley is currently in year 4.
Perspectives for the equine community
The workshop was absolutely fascinating and it was great to see that so many younger farmers are getting to grips with these techniques. Soil quality is of massive importance. Worms are of massive importance. Mycorrhizal interactions (that is, plant-fungi) are of massive importance. All three are impacted by the continual use of spraying and chemical fertilization. Herbal leys go back to the time of pre-industrial farming. My intuition is that equine pastures could be seriously improved by bringing Herbal Leys into the cycle of pasture management.
I hope this article has been useful. Farm-Ed run regular courses for farmers and people working with the land. You can find more information on the courses at Farm-Ed, www.farm-ed.co.uk.
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