We are working hard to develop our wildflower meadows at Alvecote Wood, but they are immature, and have a long way to go. Just three years ago the meadow in Betty’s Wood was a field of wheat, and the meadow in the main clearing at Alvecote Wood had not been managed, and had deteriorated to just a few species of grass and wildflowers. We have an idea what we would like to achieve, but there are very few local examples that we can visit to see what we are aiming for.
So we were very privileged to visit some special meadows this week, courtesy of Richard White from Swan Farm at Grendon, Warwickshire. We know the farm itself because we purchase our wild bird seed (and bedding for our chickens) from their very good pet and equestrian supplies business. It is a rare example in this day and age of a mixed farm – livestock (cattle, sheep, geese, turkeys) plus meadows and grain crops for supplementary feed.
What we went to see, though, were the meadows. These are unimproved meadows, by which I mean that they are not managed by cutting for silage twice yearly, nor are they fertilised. Instead they are managed in a traditional way, by cutting hay in late summer when the yellow rattle starts to rattle signifying the seeds are mature. The hay it generates is rich, full of wildflowers, and much sought-after locally as feed for animals. It is then grazed by cattle, followed by sheep on a low-intensity basis to avoid damage to the ground, and for short periods to avoid build-up of parasites and reducing the need for medication to the animals. It is a traditional hay meadow, managed in the traditional way, the knowledge of which is sadly dying out as generations of farmers are brought up to think the only way is chemicals, intensive and industrial.
The meadows stretch down between the Coventry Canal and River Anker, and they are unbelievably beautiful places. First of all, it is obvious that the place is a paradise for wildlife – there are signs all around. Swallows swooping around the buildings, yellowhammer singing in the hedgerows, skylarks in the air in full song all around, flocks of lapwing wheeling in the sky, small animal tracks through and under the grass, clouds of moths, butterflies and dragon and damselflies. This is living countryside.
Some of the plants we recognise from our own meadows, such as yellow rattle, knapweed and birdsfoot trefoil, but others, such as the wonderful patches of burnet (also known as salad burnet, deliciously edible), and meadow cranesbill with their nodding blue heads and glorious luminosity. The variety of grasses is also significantly higher than ours, and well distributed throughout the meadow in contrast with ours, which seems to be more patchy.
Down by the river, there were literally clouds of banded demoiselle damselflies emerging – all too active to photograph well – and it is clear that the river and its banks are healthy, the river at this point being little more than a stream. The meadow is so dense it is difficult to walk through, particularly if you are on the short side like me – I had to resort to a kind of goose-step to get around, and that was pretty tiring. But it was so worth it.
Visiting a place like this is totally inspirational because it shows us where we want to get, and gives us at least an idea of what to aim for, and how to go about it. At the moment we can’t graze our meadows because the trees are too young and vulnerable, but grazing is obviously the way to go when they get larger. The habitat is quite similar, and we are hopeful, although it is unlikely that our recently-sown meadows will reach the same level of lush diversity that these meadows, managed traditionally for generations, have done. That is why these old meadows need to be protected and nurtured – because the replacements are not the same. We also need to nurture the knowledge of the farmers who can do this, and pass it on, before it has all gone. It became quite clear while talking to the farmer that this form of traditional farming is economically viable – less intensive, but just as profitable, because careful management of animals and land reduce costs. Our meadows are for wildlife, and meadows on nature reserves are too. But what we actually need are more of these working meadows, manged sympathetically and sustainably. It was a privilege to go there. I just hope that our great nieces and nephews will, in the fullness of time, be able to visit such places too. They cannot be allowed to disappear.
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