Guide to Britain’s wonderful wildflower meadows

Traditional meadows are both beautiful and fizzing with wildlife. Botany expert Dr Phil Gates looks at why they have almost disappeared, how to enjoy time spent in them, and where to see the most spectacular examples

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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.

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Sweet vernal grass. Picture: Getty Images

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.

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The hay harvest just over a century ago. Picture: Getty Images

Traditional meadows

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.

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Many traditional hay meadows were ploughed up during World War 2. Picture: Getty Images

Wildflower-rich meadows are now among the rarest wildlife habitats in Britain: only an estimated 3% of them remain

Where have all the meadows gone?

Wildflower-rich meadows are now among the rarest wildlife habitats in Britain: only an estimated 3% of them remain. 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.

Meadow Brown butterfly (Maniola jurtina) on Marsh Thistle, Norfolk UK
A meadow brown butterfly feeds on a thistle. Picture: Getty Images

Bees, butterflies and moths

Let’s take a moment to look at what we have lost – and what remains in the last fragments of traditional hay meadow.

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. (For much more on this, see BBC Countryfile Magazine’s June 2018 issue feature on The Secret Life of a Hay Meadow, in newsagents from 11 May to 7 June.)

Nothing encapsulates the essence of summer better than a hay meadow in full bloom.

How to appreciate a hay meadow

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.

Some hay meadows will be worth seeing in spring – Cricklade’s fritillaries flower in April, for example – but most peak from early to mid June – and make sure you go before the harvest, usually in the second half of July.

Strip of unmown grass around edge of traditiopnal dales hay meadow to help encourage wildlife.
The cut hay on this Teesdale Farm is left in richly-scented lines, or windrows, before being baled. Picture: Getty Images

When to visit meadows

Many look lovely in spring but the best time to visit is probably just before the hay-cut in the second half of July.

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.

Wild flowers in bloom in hay meadows, Muker Meadows, Swaledale, Yorkshire, England
Muker Meadows in bloom at Swaledale in Yorkshire. Picture: Getty Images

Three kinds of hay meadow

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 (pictured above) and Wharfedale in North Yorkshire and around Tebay, Orton and Ravenstonedale in Cumbria.

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Raindrops bead on lady’s mantle. Picture: Getty Images

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.

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Fritillaries bloom at Cricklade North Meadow. Picture: Getty Images

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 (pictured above).

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.

Oak tree in field of buttercups and  farmland, summer. Dorset,England.
A meadow in Dorset. Picture: Getty Images

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.

Traditional organic hay meadow with a profusion of wild flowers and grasses including Pyramid orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis), Common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), Rough hawkbit (Leontodon hispidus), and Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor). Gloucestershire, UK, June.
Orchids bloom in a Gloucestershire meadow. Picture: Getty Images

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.

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Finally, 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.