Important for…


Just over 400 species of plants make up our meadows and grasslands in Great Britain - this is 27% of Britain's total flora. They include some of our most common and widespread species; Ribwort plantain, for example, has been recorded from more 10-km squares than any other plant. Meadows are also home to some of our rarest flowers; only a single native plant of lady’s-slipper orchid survives in limestone grassland in a secret Yorkshire locality. Between these two extremes are a wealth of flowers, some widespread, some thriving, but many declining. Of the 400 species, over a quarter are either threatened with extinction or nearly so.

Grasses are, of course, an essential component of meadows and grasslands. They have evolved to branch close to the ground, spreading from lateral buds that are produced at or just below the soil surface. When grasses are grazed or mown off, these buds remain untouched and spring into life with renewed vigour. Sweet vernal grass is especially common in hay meadows; it is rich in coumarin, a vanilla-scented compound which is released when the grass is dried. It is this grass that gives hay its characteristic hay scent.

A final mention must be made though, of yellow rattle, a grand architect of meadows, playing an unparalleled biological and cultural role in the annual cycle of growth and hay-cutting. When yellow rattle seeds germinate in the spring, their roots spread out underground. When they find a grass, they form a fist-like grip on the root and penetrate it, stealing sugars and water from the still growing victim. Starved of water and nutrients, the grass develops weakly. In this way, the yellow rattle reduces competition from the grass and has more chance of growing, along with many other meadow species. Without yellow rattle, many meadows would be just rank grass. Culturally it’s important too. When mature, the seed pods dry out and the seeds inside begin to rattle when the plant is shaken by the wind, hence the name. Traditionally, this was the signal to the farmer that the hay was at last ready to cut.


Wildlife and pollinators

Flower-rich grasslands support a variety of wildlife and hum with the sound of insects in the summer. The flower-rich grassland habitat of meadows provides an important source of nectar for many species of bee and butterfly. Meadows also provide a home for flies, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets and moths. Typical meadow butterflies include the meadow brown and common blue which can be seen weaving through grass stems as they fly from flower to flower. This abundance of invertebrates in turn attracts bats, insectivorous birds, small mammals and range of other wildlife. Swallows - summer migrants to the UK - swoop over the long grasses, harvesting insects to feed hungry broods. Kestrels hover overhead on the lookout for prey, badgers make tracks through meadow grasses, and surrounding hedgerows provide a valuable habitat for yellowhammers and other declining farmland birds.

Only 60 years ago meadows full of wildflowers and birdsong would have been a familiar sight and sound across the UK, yet they are now few and far between. Agricultural productivity can be increased through ploughing, drainage, increased use of fertiliser and herbicide application, yet this severely impacts the value of land for wildlife and has led to the loss of many traditional wildflower meadows. In many places intensively managed perennial rye-grass-dominated fields have replaced traditionally managed neutral grassland with little to attract birds or bees. The rare corncrake, a specialist meadow bird, is now extinct in lowland Britain due to such loss.


Rare Breeds

The ancient meadows of this country were managed to produce feed for our native livestock in order to carry them over the course of a long winter on the traditional farm. In many cases these meadows would have been grazed by sheep and cattle before they were “shut up for hay” in the spring. Later in the year, once the hay meadows had been cut and the hay made, the livestock would then have grazed the “aftermath” of the hay cut though the late summer into early winter. In many cases our native breeds developed traits that suited the different climates, topography and minerals and flora found in the different landscapes across the United Kingdom. These traits developed further with selective breeding into the wide variety of breeds that we see today. Many nature reserves and conservation sites are now managed by traditional breeds of livestock because they thrive on land where this traditional agricultural practice is still in use. In a sense the meadows shaped the animals as the animals shaped the meadows and their shared history is part of our valuable rural culture.

Many of our native breeds are as threatened as our meadows; several breeds are rarer than the Giant Panda. Linking the conservation of our meadows and our native livestock helps to make clear the importance of the whole management ecosystem and the part ecological farming plays in conserving our wonderful semi-natural habitats.

Image of Shetland cow © Leonamcdoo/CC BY-SA