Conserving our meadows

Wild flower meadows conjure up an image of balmy summer days full of life. Butterflies and bees busy themselves above swathes of colourful flowers, grasses sway in the breeze, skylarks ascend high above acrobatic swallows and the air resonates with the chirping of grasshoppers and crickets. 

Traditional annual farming cycles of hay-cutting and grazing by livestock are essential for creating this rich mix of wildlife and keeping it in good health. Without them, a meadow loses its colour as coarse vegetation takes over and shrubs and sapling trees appear, eventually shading out all the meadow wildlife. The majority of meadows however have been lost much more suddenly through ploughing and reseeding with highly productive agricultural grasses and the addition of inorganic fertilizers. This has been driven by economics to maximise the growth of a uniform sward of rye grass to be cut for silage twice or even three times a year. These intensively managed fields may be home to less than five different species of plants, compared to up to 150 or more for a traditional wildflower-rich meadow. With 97% of meadows lost since the 1930s the effect on our countryside has been dramatic.

Because of the high demand for cheap food production that we place on land we are unlikely to see a return to the number of meadows found in the 1930s, however farmers and landowners are increasingly recognising the wider value of meadows and that they can be an economically viable part of modern farming. Unfortunately recreating meadows is not as simple as just casting wildflower seed. Those intensively managed fields with a recent history of inorganic fertilizer addition will typically have such nutrient-rich soils that introduced wildflowers will quickly be outcompeted by stronger growing grasses. To reduce the soil nutrients to former levels can commonly take more than a decade. Even where conditions are suitable for re-introducing meadow wild flowers it will usually be many years before a site will fully resemble a traditional meadow, as the establishment and spread of many of our wild flowers is a slow process.

With no quick fix then it is even more important to conserve our remaining historic meadows. We know however that they continue to be lost, often being particularly vulnerable when land changes ownership and management practices alter. The establishment of new meadows on suitable areas of land with good long-term prospects for retention and continued suitable management within a farming context is vital therefore not only to help meadows return to be part of the British countryside but also to prevent them being all but lost entirely. This is what initiatives such as Coronation Meadows and its many local partners are working with landowners in each county to achieve, and together with agri-environment schemes to support wildlife-friendly farming we believe that if we give our meadow plants and wildlife the opportunity, they will return.

Keith Datchler OBE, who sits on both the project steerign committee and the technical advisory group, explains the importance of conserving our wildflower meadows. This video was shown to delegates at 'Reversing the Trend' Biodiversity Conference which was held at Wiston House, West Sussex in July 2014. HRH The Prince of Wales spoke at the conference after visiting Keith at the Beech Estate, home to Coach Road Field, East Sussex's Coronation Meadow. (Filmed by Chris Tizzard)

 

 

One every two years The average number of wild flower species lost in every county. The majority of these are meadow and grassland species

3ha of new meadow can be created with 1ha of green hay taken from the donor meadow

106 the number of UK counties we are working in

300ha the minimum amount of new meadows we expect to create/enhance