Buttercups and orchids, Frogmore Meadow. Courtesy of Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust.

Where Have All The Flowers Gone?

23rd May 2014

Meadows are the quintessential British habitat, yet they have been allowed to vanish from our landscape within a century. At least a couple of organisations are not taking the matter lying down, though, as Jack Watkins discovers

In my imagination, when King John sat before his barons under a tree at Runnymede in the summer of 1215 to place his reluctant seal on the Magna Carta, he did so in a richly flowered field. The notion is not entirely fanciful, for Runnymede is a hay meadow of ancient origin, and, centuries later, the image of such places remains a poignant one for lovers of the traditional English countryside. When the former Nature Conservancy Council’s South East regional office conducted a public survey in the late 1970s, asking people to name remembered locations of meadows, they were overwhelmed by the response and the many expressions of personal loss at these places’ subsequent disappearance.
That survey was carried out over thirty years ago now, and evidence suggests that these grasslands, which would have been everyday landscapes for a medieval Briton, be they king, noble or peasant, have continued to vanish. It’s been estimated that only 2% of the meadows that existed in the 1930s remain. The serene, multi-coloured features that were the backdrop for the action in William Shakespeare’s plays, and the paintings of John Constable are no more. And if the visual loss is felt by us, the deficit for nature is even greater.

At the end of March, the Wildlife Trusts released a report collated from a series of studies across the country which told ‘a story of devastating losses’. The Trusts’ director, Stephen Totter, said: “Wildlife-rich grasslands have been in trouble for decades, but our newly collated information shows that the remaining hay meadows and flower-rich pastures are still at risk. We’re seeing an insidious yet catastrophic decline. The pressures are enormous: from development and changes in agricultural practices, to neglect.”

Chief among the areas to chart the decline was Worcestershire, a county long revered for its classic lowland hay meadows. It is estimated that 48 out of a total of 200 Local Wildlife Sites (that is, wildlife-rich places selected locally for their nature conservation value) have been ‘lost, damaged or reduced to sub-optimal condition’ since 2005. In Cumbria, once characterised by rolling upland meadows, 27% of sites surveyed between 2008 and 2011 no longer met the required standard, and at fifteen of these sites the meadows had, in fact, completely disappeared.

Nearer to home, according to Sarah Buckingham of the Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust, the good news that no grassland sites were deselected in the county last year comes with a caveat. “There is a lot of pressure from development in Hertfordshire. We also have the challenge of encouraging landowners and managers to keep Local Wildlife Sites in good condition. A reduction in grazing in the area has had an effect on quality. Only 30% of sites across the county are in what we call ‘Positive Conservation Management’. This effectively means the other 70% are not managed in the best way for wildlife.”

Given that these are – in theory – valued, recognised areas which, if not actually protected by statute, are supposed to be guarded by the planning system, it bodes ill for the state of our wider countryside, especially as council planners are under duress to unleash more development (not least in the Green Belt), in the interests of stimulating the national economy.

The Trusts are calling for the government to improve existing laws and enforce them more effectively, and to beef up planning policy. It is calling for a National Inventory of important grasslands in England to be created, similar to that which exists for ancient woodland, and for the sites contained within it to be properly monitored thereafter.
It also asserts that farmers should be properly rewarded for managing important grasslands through farmland conservation schemes. Farmers certainly could have a key role to play in the future of meadows for, alongside development pressures, the biggest factor in their decline has been the change in their land management practices.

Hay meadows were once an integral part of farming systems, with most farms a mixture of arable and livestock, and hay a vital source of food for the latter. With hay being cut relatively late, delicate meadow plants – like the oxlip, knapweed, ox-eye daisy, meadow saffron and the green-winged orchid – thrived. In turn, this provided a nectar bonanza for insects, which, in its turn, was good news for birds. Once the hay crop was taken off, farmers would bring their cattle on for ‘aftermath grazing’, and these provided a natural fertilizer for the grass.

This was environmentally-friendly farming before anyone had thought of the term – but silage, cut earlier in the season, before the plants have had a chance to flower, has resulted in the bland, species-poor look of most of the pasture you see today. Don’t blame the farmers. The post-War emphasis was on efficiency and productivity at a time of food shortages, and silage is a more efficient, less weather-dependent means of cutting and storing grass for livestock feed. However, it has left nature to pay the price.

Another body sounding the alarm on the plight of the hay meadow is Plantlife, which has fought a long battle to raise the profile of what it calls these ‘Cinderellas of the conservation world’ and recently announced that it was to lead a £3 million Heritage Lottery funded project called Magnificent Meadows to save the UK’s last fragments of meadow. Nicola Hutchinson, Plantlife’s Head of Conservation Programmes, emphatically rejects the suggestion that the scheme is tokenistic, saving what remains so they act as a kind of living memory in the landscape of what was once abundant.

“This is about breathing new life into meadows right across the UK,” she argues. “The Magnificent Meadows partnership will be working with and supporting the people who own and manage meadows and grassland, but it will also be giving local communities the chance to learn more about meadows, so that they can enjoy, celebrate and help protect the ones on their doorstep. There is nothing more beautiful than walking through a wildflower meadow that is a riot of colour and scent, and teaming with wildlife. We want people of all ages, now and for generations to come, to enjoy this magical experience over and over again.”

Plantlife, which, like the Wildlife Trusts, is calling for the Government to set up a National Inventory of meadows, has also joined forces with them and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in an interesting new project called Coronation Meadows (www.coronationmeadows.org.uk). This is trying to identify one flagship wildflower meadows – a Coronation Meadow – for each county. HRH Prince Charles originally came up with the idea, and we are all invited to suggest candidates. It’s a great initiative, and gets to the heart of things. Meadows really don’t have to die out if we, the people, refuse to let them go…

GOOD MEADOW SITES TO VISIT IN HERTS

Blagrove Common, Sandon
Especially good in May & June for swathes of common spotted orchids (www.hertswildlifetrust.org.uk/reserves/blagrove-common)

Frogmore Meadow, Chenies
Abundant meadow flowers here, including meadowsweet, betony, ragged robin, yellow rattle and marsh valerian
(www.hertswildlifetrust.org.uk/reserves/frogmore-meadow)

Kings Meads, Ware
One of the largest untouched water meadows in Herts.
265 species of wildflower have been recorded here (www.hertswildlifetrust.org.uk/reserves/kings-meads)

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