At this time of year, thoughts of grass return.

This was given extra impetus by the article in The Scottish Farmer, March 6, issue: 'Consideration required for grass reseeding 2021' and I was particularly interested in the grass seed mixture sown by Johnny Watson’s grandfather in the 1950s.

I don’t go back as far as that, but it compares with what I sowed at Rawburn in 1972:

1950s Mixture:

18lb Perennial ryegrass

4lb Italian ryegrass

7lb Cocksfoot

4lb Timothy

½lb Rough stalked meadow grass

¼lb Crested dogstail

1¼lb Trefoil

3½lb Red clover

1lb White clover

½lb Alsike clover


40 lb/acre

My mixture 1972:

10lb Perennial ryegrass

6lb Italian ryegrass

6lb Cocksfoot

2lb Timothy

2lb Rough stalked meadow grass

8lb Meadow fescue

2lb Red fescue

2lb Red clover

2lb White clover

1 lb Ribgrass


41 lb/acre (three-quarter sowing if undersown)

These mixtures were based on the 'Cockle Park' mixture which was widely sown in South-east Scotland.

The work done by Professors Somerville, Middleton and Gilchrist, at Cockle Park Farm, run by Newcastle University, in rejuvenating derelict pastures which had been abandoned to weeds during the 1930s depression was of paramount importance in feeding a hungry nation in the post war period.

Of particular importance was the introduction of Kent Wild White Clover, which was boosted by a cheap by product of the then huge British Steel industry, basic slag.

Slag provided primarily phosphate but also lime, sulphur and trace elements. Farmers at that time spread it for the phosphate content however, after steel making changed and slag became unavailable, their successors learned of the importance of those minor elements which had previously been overlooked.

It is almost impossible to estimate how much graziers owe to those pioneers of grassland production. Professor H Cecil Pawson wrote a fascinating history of Cockle Park Farm.

Titled just that, it was published in 1960 and is now difficult to find. Not only are the experiments and grazing trials described in detail, but of particular note is the way that the knowledge is imparted to farmers in a manner that was simple and effective.

The seeding, fertilizer programme and the stock carrying capacity were illustrated in pen and ink pictorial diagrams which would be easily understood by even the most resistant to reading.

When I left Rawburn in 1993, I had simplified the mixture to 22lb diploid perennial ryegrass, 7lb tetraploid perennial ryegrass, 5lb cocksfoot, 5lb Timothy, 2lb wild white clover. The total amount sown was the same as 20 years previously.

Since then, it has developed into a mixture of perennial ryegrass, Timothy and white clover. This year, we have dropped the clover.

I am disappointed at this, but my son thinks that our reseeds aren’t lasting as long as they should as the clover is choking out the grass. No doubt this is exacerbated by the high numbers of sheep and cattle we carry.

For many years we have sown red clover and late perennial ryegrass in the fallow ground. It keeps it tidy, makes a cheap and good crop of silage, even when cut in mid-July and we get a second cut after that. The pasture then makes good grazing for the tup hoggs up to Christmas.

When its ploughed out after four years, we hope for some residual benefit to soil structure and fertility.

Throughout my lifetime, grassland research and development has concentrated on ryegrass and clover. Many of the grasses we used to sow have been left behind.

Ryegrass certainly responds well to bagged fertiliser, has a range of heading dates and a high sugar content. It does get less competitive over time, which necessitates reseeding and is shallow rooted so doesn’t do as well as cocksfoot and the fescues in periods of drought.

Perhaps it is now time to re-consider using some of the discarded grass varieties in our mixtures. At a time when ploughing, with its release of carbon from the soil, is being seen as contributing to climate change, it must be relevant that some of the old grasses were extraordinarily persistent and long lasting.

One of the interesting grasses in the mixture recommended by Johnny Watson’s grandfather was crested dogstail. I remember when I was a boy, my father – who, like me, had a passionate interest in grass – pointing out crested dogstail in one of our fields. It took over every field we had as the good grasses dwindled.

My dad remarked that he had never sown an ounce of it in his life. He bought the seed mixture, which he specified, from either of two local merchants, Carmichaels of Coldstream and John Dun and Co, in Galashiels, whichever gave the best quote.

He had tried seed from the nationally well-known merchants. It was more expensive and, as far as he could see, no better. Grazing fields received no fertiliser other than lime and slag and the stocking rate for young grass was 2½ ewes and twins to the acre.

He reckoned that cows never made much profit and their main benefit was keeping the grass right for sheep. Other than to control thistles, grass was never topped. The cows did that.

When we moved to the low ground farm of Roxburgh Mains in 1993, grass was part of a rotation and wasn’t down for as long as on the hill farm. I greatly increased the nitrogen fertiliser and for some years added a mixture of trace elements.

Almost certainly, the latter did the livestock good, but the benefits were difficult to quantify. The decade long period from 1996 was one of poor profitability, so it like every other cost without very obvious benefits was cut.

Since then, we buy nitrogen with added sulphur and maybe we should be looking again at the trace elements. It is just so easy and probably bad practice in times of climate change to mask poor livestock performance at grass by feeding more out of the bag.