Guide to Britain’s hay meadows

Traditional British hay meadows are a haven for wildlife, but they are a habitat under threat. We look at the history, species identification and the best places to see hay meadows

Marden Meadow Nature Reserve, Kent, England, United Kingdom, Europe

Hay meadows can be home to as many as a hundred plant species, cohabiting in a delicate balance that depends on an ancient form of husbandry. 

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Hay cutting, followed by grazing and limited manuring, maintains a low level of soil fertility that prevents any species from becoming dominant, supporting a level of floral biodiversity that is breathtakingly beautiful. There, among the grasses, you would find the sources of that comforting fragrance: the leaves of meadowsweet, with their vaguely medicinal smell; lady’s bedstraw, with a soporific scent that led to its use in stuffing mattresses; and coumarin-scented sweet vernal grass.

Group of Meadowsweet Flowers [Filipendula ulmaria].
“The leaves of meadowsweet have a vaguely medicinal smell” ©Getty

Add to that a bouquet of other botanical ingredients – lady’s mantle, cranesbills, buttercups, hay rattle, scabious and clover, to name but a few – and then leave it to dry in the sun. This alchemy creates the sweetest, most fragrant bale of hay, the essence of summer.

There cannot be another agricultural crop that contributes so much to wildlife and to the rural landscape. It teems with life. At peak flowering time, these old meadows hum with bees, nectaring on clover and hay rattle flowers. Swarms of hoverflies collect pollen and moths lay their eggs among the leaves; a myriad of other insects live and breed here. They in turn provide food for swallows that skim across the fields and redstarts and wagtails that make feeding forays from the enclosing walls. Stand and watch for long enough and you’ll likely see curlews and skylarks, watch a kestrel stoop on mice and voles that scurry in the undergrowth or catch sight of the long ears of a hare among  the flowers.

EYENXY European Brown hare Lepus europaeus grazing in a meadow, England, UK
With a diet comprised mainly of grasses and herbs, hares are suited to the habitat of a hay meadow © Getty 
A brief history of hay meadows

Only about 1,000 hectares of traditional upland hay meadow remain, mostly in North Yorkshire and the North Pennines. A further 1,500 hectares of lowland meadow are scattered across the British Isles, together with a smaller area of seasonally flooded grasslands and managed water meadows that have a diverse flora. Traditional meadows that survive depend largely on financial incentives for farmers or are in the care of conservation charities. 

The presence of woodland flowers such as wood cranesbill in some old grassland suggests that the origins of these flower-rich habitats can be traced back to original forest clearings, and that centuries of hay harvesting, followed by grazing with minimal nutrient input, maintained a highly diverse flora. 

Painted lady butterfly, (Vanessa cardui) at rest on scabious in wildflower meadow, Sierra de las Nieves, Andalusia, Spain.
Painted lady butterfly resting on scabious plants ©Getty

The ploughing of hay meadows for conversion to arable production began in earnest during the First World War, gathering pace during the Second World War. In the latter half of the 20th century, the application of artificial fertilisers in many meadows favoured vigorously growing grasses at the expense of less competitive wildflowers. More recently, reseeding with high-yielding forage grasses, which are harvested without drying to make the fermented silage fed to cattle, became an economically more attractive alternative to traditional hay-making. The latter requires at least four consecutive days of fine weather in our capricious climate. 

What’s in a hay meadow? 
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Cross section of a hay meadow and the species that live within it © Lizzie Harper

1. Hay rattle is a parasite on grass roots that steals their nutrients and reduces their vigour, helping surrounding wild flowers to compete successfully. Traditionally, hay making begins when its dry seed pods rattle.

 2. One of the first species to flower, meadow saxifrage produces porcelain-white flowers on long stems. It dies down quickly after flowering, leaving tiny buds called bulbils that will begin growth again in early March.

 3. Wood cranesbill is perhaps an echo of meadows’ origins as woodland clearings. It’s the first large-flowered cranesbill to bloom, followed by paler blue meadow cranesbill. Both have beaked fruits that catapult seeds into surrounding vegetation.

 4. Old meadows are home to the greater butterfly orchid, whose pale flowers are pollinated by night-flying moths that are attracted by its scent. Nectar is hidden in a long, slender spur, only accessible with a long proboscis.

 5. Identifiable by its frayed flowers and narrow leaves, ragged robin can be easily grown in moist soil.

6. The globe flower is similar to a buttercup in appearance, and thrives best in cool alpine regions.

7. Hardy meadowsweet is named for it’s fresh and distinctive scent. The edible wildflower is also known for its healing properties, once used as a herbal pain-reliever.

8. Tall, moisture-loving Melancholy thistle roduce lusher growth in moist hollows, while low-growing species favour higher, drier hummocks.

 9. The freshly excavated earth of a mole hill provides perfect conditions for seed germination.

10. Hungry swallows swoop low over the flowers and grasses on summer days, feeding on the abundance of insects that feed and breed on the wealth of plant species in a meadow.  

 11. The day-flying chimney sweeper moth is a common sight in North Pennine meadows, where its caterpillars feed on pignut. 

12.  The wing markings of the Shipton moth resemble a witch’s face.

 13. Hay meadow grasses are important food for several butterfly caterpillars. Larvae of the meadow brown butterfly feed on fine leaves of fescues and bents.

  14. Large skipper butterflies produce larvae that eat the coarser foliage of cock’s-foot grass. 

 15. Meadows are a particularly good source of nectar and pollen for hard-pressed bumblebee species such as the white-tailed bumblebee. Burrows of small mammals around field edges provide nest sites.

   16. Meadow and common green grasshoppers hatch in April and go through four nymphal stages before becoming winged adults in early July, just in time to escape the mower. Their chirruping is the music of a drowsy summer afternoon

Field guide to common grasses
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Common grasses found in British meadows © Lizzie Harper

1. Crested dog’s tail Cynosaurus cristatus

This hardy grass has a flattened, spiked inflorescence, the florets of which dangle their stamens towards one side. Its flower stems, which were formally used to make straw hats, become tough and unpalatable so persist late into the year on grazing land.

2. Cock’s-foot Dactylis glomerata

A robust, tussocky grass with flattened vegetative shoots. Its one-sided, dense spikelets are clustered on three or four branches, likening its outline to a chicken’s foot. An important contributor to the hay crop, cock’s foot also occurs in many other grassy habitats.

3. Common bent Agrostis tenuis

Beginning to flower in late June, this fine-leaved grass competes best in drier parts of meadows, on poorer acid soil. It is also known as brown top, because its airy, open flower panicles resemble a brownish-purple haze. It’s widely cultivated for high quality lawns.

4. Meadow foxtail Alopecurus pratensis

This begins growth early in spring and its distinctive cylindrical inflorescences bloom in mid-May, much earlier than the similar Timothy grass. It is at its most impressive in moist, fertile soils of water meadows, where its flowering stems may reach one metre tall.

5. Quaking grass Briza media

Heart-shaped spikelets dangle from slender stems and tremble in the slightest breeze, a characteristic that is reflected in quaking grass’s local names like cow quakes, doddering dillies, shivering and totter grass. It favours dry, calcareous grassland and is soon lost when this is ‘improved’ with added fertiliser.

6. Sweet vernal grass Anthoxanthum odoratum

One of the earliest grasses to flower, often in April, sweet vernal grass thrives in acid soils in upland meadows. It contains high levels of coumarin, which
is responsible for the intense new-mown hay fragrance of a freshly mown meadow. Its inflorescences ripen to a golden-yellow in summer.

7. Yorkshire fog Holcus lanatus

This major component of hay meadows has a prolific seed output that rapidly colonises bare soil patches. The softly, hairy inflorescences have a delicate red tinge, so dense populations of this grass look like a pink mist on a summer evening.

8. Soft-brome Bromus hordaceus

An annual species, flowering mid-May onwards, with soft, hairy stems and leaves. Also known as lop grass. The flowering panicle is erect at first but the spikelets soon nod once seeds begin to form. Common in a wide range of grassy situations.

9. False oat grass  Arrhenatherum elatius

A species of coarse flowery grassland, often alongside meadow sweet and hogweed in rough pastures. Its broad leaves and tall flowering culms are conspicuous from a distance. The bristle-like awn, protruding from the flower spikelet, has a distinctive knee-bend. 

Where to see hay meadows
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Green-winged orchids in Marden Meadow, Kent; snakeshead fritillaries in Lugg Meadow, Herefordshire; Willoughby Meadow, Lincolnshire ©Alamy

1. Hawthorn Dene meadows  Durham Coast

A species-rich coastal meadow, set on magnesian limestone cliffs on the Durham coast. It becomes a tapestry of cowslips, lady’s bedstraw, spotted orchids and cranesbills, followed by field scabious, hemp agrimony, knapweed and meadowsweet as summer progresses. Visit: durhamwt.com

2. Lugg Meadow near Hereford, Herefordshire

These flood meadows, recorded in the Domesday book, are noted for their snake’s-head fritillaries. The land is divided into small parcels, owned by local families who each cut their own hay crop. Visit: plantlife.org.uk

3. Yellands Meadow Nature Reserve Muker, North Yorkshire

On the banks of the river Swale, this reserve forms part of the Muker Meadows Site of Special Scientific Interest in Swaledale. Classic hay meadow flora is managed in a traditional way over many generations, in stunning scenery. Visit: ywt.org.uk

4. Marden Meadow Cranbrook, Kent

The finest remaining hay meadows in Kent are noted for their display of green-winged orchids in spring and riot of hay meadow flowers in summer. Visit: kentwildlifetrust.org.uk

5. Willoughby Meadow Alford, Lincolnshire

This small meadow is home to 149 plant species, including great burnet, adder’s tongue fern, saw-wort and devil’s-bit scabious. Visit:  lincstrust.org.uk

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Main image © Getty