There has been a lot of publicity recently about the decline in wildflower meadows – we have lost 97% of our meadows in the last 80 years, thanks to changes in farming practice and use of herbicides. But wildflower meadows provide a rich habitat with multiple ecological niches as well as an amazing experience for human visitors (See article in The Independent). Wildflower meadows are a wonderful example of the impact of humans, domestic animals and natural processes to produce a very rich ecosystem. Their richness depends upon management – upon mowing for hay, light grazing of the stubble and the wonderful natural process that creates a balance between many different plants and grasses.
Our own meadows have different origins: those in Betty’s Wood are newly-established on a former arable field, and those in Alvecote Wood are a clearing that was heavily-grazed and unmanaged, resulting in very little diversity and loss of the wonderful mixture of wildflowers. Both suffered from over-fertility – the former due to fertilisers, the latter due to animal dung.
What is wonderful now is the way in which they have responded to management, even though this has been suboptimal over the years, thanks to difficulties with weather and access for equipment. The warm, wet June we have had so far has been paradise for so many species. We have oxeye daisy, birdsfoot trefoil, yellow rattle (a marvellous plant that subdues the grass and makes for a better display of flowers), tufted vetch, sainfoin, medick, clover (white and red), yarrow, red campion, ragged robin, forget-me-not, meadow buttercup and creeping buttercup and others besides. A few annuals thrive also, including cornflower and corncockle. At the edge of the ponds, teasel is spreading, providing food for the birds. In a damp patch, the southern marsh orchids which started off as a single plant are now multiplying and spreading too.
All of this makes a brilliant source of food for insects and nectar for bees and other pollinators. Dragonflies and damselflies hover over the meadow in the sunshine. Butterflies seek places to lay eggs on a variety of foodplants. Swallows and swifts swoop in to eat insects during the day, and bats feed at night-time. Small mammals take shelter under the thatch of grass, providing food for foxes, badgers, owls, kestrels, buzzards and red kite. The adjacent field of barley is devoid of life by comparison.
We still have a lot to learn about meadows. Creating and maintaining them is not easy – it is not just a case of flinging a bit of seed on some soil and sitting back. But it is extremelyrewarding to help reverse a widespread decline, even if our own meadows cover only about 4 acres (out of our 20 acre woodland site). If you can create a meadow, it really is one of the most wonderful things you can do to help wildlife (planting trees and digging ponds being the others). And join the Plantlife campaign to prevent councils from mowing wildflowers in grass verges until they have set seed, for this adds up to a massive wildflower meadow throughout our towns and villages, if only we could learn to value rich meadows over sterile short grass.
Meadows are brilliant. If you can find one, please spend some time in one, enjoying what they have to offer.