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

Guide to hay meadows in the UK, including what they are, history, species identification and the best places to see them.

There is only one way to fully appreciate the biodiversity of a hay meadow. Resist the temptation to wander through the flowers; trampling disfigures a meadow, flattens rare plants and can destroy hidden nests.

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Instead, arm yourself with a good field guide, such as this one, 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.

Muker meadow, Yorkshire
Wildflowers blooming in Muker Meadows, Swaledale, Yorkshire ©Getty

What is a hay meadow?

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.

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.

Meadowsweet
Meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria ©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.

Brown Hare in Norfolk flower meadow
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.


Hay meadow field guide

This image and the following text explores just some of the species of flowers, grasses and animals that can be found in a typical UK hay meadow.

Cross section of a hay meadow
Cross section of a hay meadow and the species that live within it © Lizzie Harper

Wildflowers

Hay rattle
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.

Meadow saxifrage

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.

Wood cranesbill

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.

Greater butterfly orchid

Greater Butterfly Orchid, Gloucestershire, UK
Greater Butterfly Orchid, Gloucestershire ©Getty

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.

Ragged robin 

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

Meadowsweet

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.

Globe flower

Globe flower, Trollius europaeus
Globe flower, Trollius europaeus ©Getty

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

Melancholy thistle

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

Animals – insects, mammals and birds

Mole hill

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

Swallow

Barn Swallow
Swallow ©Getty

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.

Chimney sweeper moth

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

Shipton moth

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

Meadow brown butterfly

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

Meadow and common green grasshoppers

Common Green Grasshopper
Common green grasshopper ©Getty

These grass hoppers 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.

Large Skipper

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

White-tailed bumblebee

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.

Common hay meadow grasses

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.

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.

Yorkshire fog Holcus lanatus

Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus) and other meadow grasses
Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus) and other meadow grasses ©Getty

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

Common lady's mantle
Raindrops bead on lady’s mantle ©Getty

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 (pictured above).

Cricklade North Meadow
Cricklade North Meadow ©Alamy

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.

Traditional organic hay meadow with pyramid orchid, Gloucestershire
Traditional organic hay meadow with pyramid orchid, Gloucestershire ©Getty

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.

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.


When is the best time to see hay 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.


Where to see hay meadows

Hay meadows
Green-winged orchids in Marden Meadow, Kent; snakeshead fritillaries in Lugg Meadow, Herefordshire; Willoughby Meadow, Lincolnshire ©Alamy

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

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

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

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

Willoughby MeadowAlford, 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

Greena Moor, Cornwall

Greena Moor near the village of Week St. Mary is one of the last remaining areas of culm grassland in North Cornwall. This distinctive habitat hosts a wide range of flora, especially those adapted to thrive in waterlogged conditions. Species to spot include; ragged-robin and whorled caraway. http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/reserves/greena-moor-creddacott-meadows

Hartington Meadow, Derbyshire

Throughout summer the meadows of Hartington are bursting with the colour of wildflowers. The grasslands are managed as part of a working farm and regular hay cutting encourages a huge variety of plants. A disused limestone quarry also provides the ideal environment for various orchid species and even some cliff-nesting birds. http://www.derbyshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/reserves/hartington-meadows

Muker Meadow, Yorkshire Dales

The Muker area offers one of the best examples of upland hay meadows and was named one of the sixty ‘coronation meadows’ by HRH the Prince of Wales in 2013. All the meadows are rich in wildflowers and grasses, and some of the species even provide the donor stock for land restoration projects in the area. Interesting flora to look out for include the Pignut, Lady’s Mantles and Melancholy Thistle. http://www.ydmt.org/meadow-details-muker-swaledale-16142

Stockings Meadow, Herefordshire

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Previously this meadow was woodland that was cleared for agriculture, leaving the land covered in tree stumps or ‘stocks’. Today, there is a great diversity of floral species in both the meadow and old hedgerows that surround it. The common spotted orchid and heath orchid can be seen here, but if you’re lucky you might spot a hybrid of the two. http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/reserves/stockings-meadow