Britain’s wonderful wildflower meadows

Now rare and precious, traditional meadows are both beautiful and fizzing with wildlife. Phil Gates joins the bees and butterflies to while away a spring day among the daisies, bellflowers and orchids

18th April 2013
North Meadow, Cricklade, Wiltshire. © Copyright Brian Robert Marshall and licens

I can still recall my first visit to a traditionally managed hay meadow, on a summer afternoon almost 40 years ago. It was love at first sight. I’d moved from an intensively farmed landscape in the Midlands to a northern Pennine dale, where fields are small, surrounded by dry stone walls and filled with a breathtaking tapestry of floral colour. The joy of standing in this botanist’s paradise was matched by a sense of reverence, because some of these meadows were created by our ancestors who first farmed this land. Simply reciting a list of the poetic names of the meadow grasses – brown bent, sheep’s fescue, crested dog’s tail, sweet vernal, soft brome – brought to mind a bygone era of agriculture.
Conserving the floral diversity in these old meadows, which can be home to more than 150 plant species, depends on a traditional cycle of management, maintaining a delicate competitive balance between wildflowers and grasses. By delaying the hay cut until the flowers shed seed, and then following up with a short period of grazing, the soil fertility is restricted so that wildflowers can thrive alongside grasses that would otherwise respond to high soil nitrogen levels by dominating the whole plant community.

Lost to the plough
Wildflower-rich meadows are now among the rarest wildlife habitats in Britain. Wartime ploughing, when large swathes of traditionally managed grassland were converted to arable production, brought a catastrophic decline. When peace returned, the development of high-yielding forage grasses, fed with generous applications of high-nitrogen fertilisers, was the final step in the conversion of most of the nation’s flowery grassland into productive and profitable, but dull, rye grass monoculture.

Bees, butterflies and moths
The importance of ancient meadows extends far beyond their floral diversity. Hay meadow food webs can be bewilderingly complex. Flowers provide pollen and nectar for bees, butterflies and moths, while the foliage of flowers and grasses supplies food for caterpillars, which in turn are prey for birds, bats, mice and voles. Leaving hay-cuts until late in the season maintains cover for hares and gives ground-nesting birds a chance to complete their breeding cycle. In high summer, they conceal partridges leading fledglings through the undergrowth, skylark nestlings, anxious curlews calling to their young and wagtails snapping flies. Overhead, swallows with beaks agape swoop low over the grasses, trawling for insects. Nothing encapsulates the essence of summer better than a hay meadow in full bloom.
There is only one way to fully appreciate all this biodiversity. Resist the temptation to wander through the flowers; trampling disfigures a meadow, flattens rare plants and can destroy hidden nests. Instead, arm yourself with a good field guide, stick close to footpaths and boundaries, and hone your wildflower identification skills. Then sit down and immerse yourself in the flowers and swaying grasses, so that you have a hare’s eye-view. Take a camera – preferably one with a macro lens with a shallow depth of focus, so you can isolate individual flowers and insects against a diffuse background – and record the activity that unfolds around you. The hours will fly by.

Three kinds of flower-rich meadows

The range of flower species found in meadows varies according to subtle differences in soil type, climate, geography and local management regime. The oldest, most florally diverse meadows were once forest clearings that, because they have never been levelled by repeated ploughing, retain hillocks and hollows where species that favour wet or dry soils can thrive in their favoured niche.
The three main categories are upland, lowland and seasonally flooded meadows, described over the next three pages. Many look lovely in spring but the best time to visit is probably just before the hay-cut in the second half of July. If you can, go back when the new-mown hay is left in windrows (long rows), drying in the sun. The scent of coumarin (particularly strong in drying grass) is unforgettable. At least one agricultural show, at Eggleston in Teesdale, County Durham, still has a competition where farmers can enter “a bale of hay from old land”. It’s wonderful stuff.

1. Upland hay meadows
Terrain and climate have made upland hay meadows difficult to cultivate for any other purpose, which in many cases explains their survival. Still, less than 1,000 hectares of this irreplaceable habitat remain in England – an area roughly four times the size of the London 2012 Olympic Park. Some of the finest examples are in Teesdale, Lunedale, Weardale and Baldersdale in County Durham, Swaledale and Wharfedale in North Yorkshire and around Tebay, Orton and Ravenstonedale in Cumbria.
After the hay cut, the meadows are usually grazed until winter and sometimes receive the lightest of applications of farmyard manure. These are places where you can find wood cranesbill, ragged robin, globe flower, adder’s tongue fern and the magical lady’s mantle.
At sunrise after humid nights, the serrated rims of lady’s mantle leaves are fringed with sparkling water droplets, once believed by alchemists to be essential for converting base metals into silver (the Latin name of this plant, Alchemilla, means ‘little alchemist’). The best time to visit upland meadows is in late June and early July.

2. Seasonally flooded meadows
The Domesday Book records the agricultural value of fertile seasonally flooded meadows. Unlike water meadows, which are deliberately flooded in winter to maintain fertility, these hay meadows on river flood plains depend on natural winter inundation, which favours the growth of moisture-loving wildflowers such as marsh marigold, lady’s smock and meadowsweet in spring and early summer, followed by devil’s bit scabious and greater burnet later in the year. In the rarest examples, such as Cricklade North Meadow in Wiltshire, the snakeshead fritillary still blooms in profusion in spring. Some seasonally flooded meadows are ancient Lammas land, which was rented out in small parcels to local farmers for the hay crop cut on Lammas Day (1 August), then used as common grazing land for the rest of the year.

3. Lowland meadows
Less than 15,000 hectares of lowland hay meadow remain in Britain and their distribution is highly fragmented. Some only persist as flower-rich rural road verges that are vulnerable to road-widening schemes. Many of the finest examples are on neutral or alkaline soils, where you can find lady’s bedstraw, clustered bellflower, hoary plantain and salad burnet. Rarer species include dyer’s greenweed, green-winged orchid and greater butterfly orchid.
In most flower-rich meadows there’s also a fine display of yellow rattle, a pretty parasitic flowering plant that attaches itself to the roots of rampant grasses, weakening their growth and so assisting other, less competitive wildflowers.
Late June is often the best time to visit lowland meadows and notable locations are in Worcestershire, Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, Brecknock in Powys, and west Fermanagh. The coastal machair vegetation, farmed by crofters in Scotland’s Western Isles, grows on soil enriched with wind-blown shell sand that neutralises the acidity of underlying peat and so includes a spectacular array of wildflowers, as well as providing habitat for the endangered corncrake.

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