The Scapa Flow area includes large amounts of grassland. The lush green pastures which dominate most of our farmland has been reseeded and fertilised, but there are smaller amounts of natural grassland rich in wildflowers.
The agricultural grasslands are very productive in providing good grazing for livestock, especially the beef cattle for which Orkney is famed. The make up of these pastures and silage fields tends to be a narrow range of grasses, often with white clover, all of which is sown. Although this is not good habitat for native flowers, these grasslands do suit brown hares. Some wading birds can nest successfully in these fields, providing there is sufficient time between silage cuts in spring. Recently cut fields provide very good feeding habitat for species like curlew and oystercatcher.
In winter, huge numbers of greylag geese winter in the open fields. Most of these have arrived from Icelandic breeding grounds, although increasing numbers breed in Orkney. Large flocks of geese make for a great wildlife spectacle, but they can cause problems for farmers and are not always the most popular of wildlife!
The natural grasslands tend to survive in salt-drenched and windblown grasslands on cliff tops, in damp areas which have escaped drainage, on links land where beach sand has been blown inland and along verges and steep banks. These areas are usually very limited in extent, but they are often very flower-rich, providing a beautiful display of blooms across the turf.
Damp grassland is widespread around lochs, ditches and other low-lying areas. In spring, the large rich-yellow coloured flowers of marsh marigolds are often prominent, with tall stands of yellow flag providing a follow-on display in June. Other species thriving in such areas can include water avens, meadowsweet and water mint.
The cliff top grassland has a particular assemblage of species. Bird's-foot-trefoil, thrift (also known as sea pink) and eyebright are typical, whilst the spring squill is particularly characteristic of the very cliff edge. In May or early June each year, the spring squill's bright blue blooms make a stunning show. This flower-rich grassland is often found on the edge of maritime heath where the exposure to sea and weather is such that crowberry and heather cannot spread to the cliff edge.
Links grassland is particularly scarce around Scapa Flow, but pockets occur on sandy soil around Burray Village and above sandy beaches around South Ronaldsay. Bird's-foot-trefoil can usually be found here too, along with species like lady's bedstraw which benefit from the lime-rich conditions derived from the shell sand. Something akin to this vegetation also occurs behind the boulder beach at Rackwick, in an area which is almost like dune slacks in its character.
Most areas of free-draining soil have been agriculturally improved by fertilising, ploughing and reseeding, therefore areas of dry flower-rich grassland are at a premium away from the coast. However, verges and steep banks can support small areas of this vegetation, in which hay rattle, red clover, meadow vetchling, tufted vetch, knapweed and self-heal can be found.