Wonder of the hay meadow

The glory of a traditional hay meadow
The glory of a traditional hay meadow

Written by Heather Elvidge

Since the Queen’s coronation the countryside has undergone many changes. Although we didn’t know it at the time, the 1950s were the last years of traditional agriculture.

A lot of things that were taken for granted then are much less common now. Old breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry and working horses have become rare. So have the people who work the land; today they form around one per cent of the population. And of the hay meadows, once the most common type of field, only five per cent remain.

Hay was the traditional winter feed for cattle, horses and other animals. The meadow, with its mix of grass types and wild flowers, was cut in late July or August. After the hay was gathered in, livestock was brought in to graze the grass short. In spring the meadow plants were allowed to grow and flower again.

It was silage that finished off the meadows. Ryegrass grown for silage is cut at the end of May or in early June and stored while still green, in airtight conditions. This method of making winter feed is less dependent on the weather and yields far more than the mixed-species hay meadow.

Only when they vanished did we realise just how amazing hay meadows were. 120 plant species in one field made a home for moths, butterflies, bumblebees, grasshoppers, voles, shrews and field mice. Birds ate seeds or insects; some nested on the ground. The loss of meadows devastated populations of corncrake, grey partridge and brown hare.

Rare sight

Many younger people have never had the chance to see a hay meadow. So what does one look like? There’s a clue in those wide, uncut roadside verges with their long grass, buttercups, red campion, ox-eye daisies and cow parsley. Imagine a whole field like that, only with far more species.

In summer the hay meadow is a sea of waving grasses, bounded by hedges or stone walls. It’s dotted with purple, pink, white and gold from flowers such as knapweed, hawkbit, selfheal, vetches and yellow rattle — the exact mix depends on the locality. The air hums with bees, dragonflies, hoverflies and butterflies.

Some meadows have survived in the valleys of Swaledale, Wharfedale, Teesdale, on the floodplain of the Derwent and in corners of the Wolds. If you should come across one, please respect it.

Last week the Prince of Wales launched a campaign to revive our wildflower grasslands. To mark the anniversary of the Queen’s coronation, 60 existing meadows have been designated Coronation Meadows. Each is a flagship meadow for its county, chosen because of its history and wealth of species.

The plan is to identify Britain’s existing meadows and establish new ones using seed from the Coronation Meadows. There’s a map of the 60 on the website, www.coronationmeadows.org.uk and if you know of a meadow you could add it to the list.

But we need to conserve smaller habitats too, such as roadside verges that have become a refuge for some meadow plants and animals. Enlightened councils manage them with this in mind, cutting a swathe next to the road and leaving the rest to flower and seed. If your council is one of those that scalps the lot, ask them why.