A Meadow, it’s just grass, right?
No, actually, it absolutely is not just grass. Such is my current obsession with meadows that I wake most mornings with lyrical words concerning them on my lips. The lyrics run like this. “To be sure, a meadow is thing of beauty, joy and wonder”. And “our meadow this summer was all those things”. But it’s much, much more than that.
So let’s clarify. What is a meadow? We’ re all familiar with Nigel Dunnett’s glorious Olympic Park meadows of 2012. Their beauty and romance captivated and lifted the spirits. They make an extraordinarily rich nectar source for bees and butterflies, are eminently suited to garden, urban and suburban environments and as a starting point for engagement in meadow world, they are marvellous. But these are ‘Pictorial’ meadows. They are not a natural part of the wider environment and they would be out of place in the working rural landscape.
The main differences from true meadows are that they do not have a range of grasses at their heart, and they include non-native species, with a high proportion of annuals. All British native meadows (and there are several types) have a splendid array of grasses at their core, and most if not all, of our native meadows have developed with humans working hand-in-hand with nature. They are a symbol of human engagement with their environment over thousands of years, so might well be expected to have many cultural resonances.
In the days before modern drugs, they were a medicine chest. The meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, of damp meadows, was the original source of salicin, a forerunner of salicylic acid, aka aspirin; Lady’s bedstraw, Galium verum, was used as mattress stuffing for its flea repellent virtues, as a dyestuff, and in cheese making. The vitamin-rich sheep sorrel, Rumex acetosa, and salad burnet, Sanguisorba minor, were commonly foraged foodstuffs – mentioned specifically by John Evelyn in his Acetaria, a Discourse of Sallets, in 1699.
Their demise is tragic. Flower-rich meadows have declined by 98% during the 20th century. Especially pertinent to us on the fertile soils of the Ouse-Derwent floodplain, is that, according to the Floodplain Meadows partnership, the decline in lowland floodplain meadows has been enormous over the past 50 years and is unquantifiable. For legion historical reasons, lowland grasslands have been replaced by the virtual monoculture of rye grass, Lolium perenne, and white clover, Trifolium repens, for silage and grazing.
Traditional meadows were managed consistently over centuries to provide a hay crop as fodder and aftermath (aftermowth) grazing for beasts, and along the way they were colonised by meadow flowers to become one of the most botanically diverse ecosystems that we had. In an ancient meadow, perennials may account for 95% of total cover, and one might find up to 38 species in a 4m2 square. In the type of meadows we are attempting to replicate (classified as MG4 and MG5 by the National Vegetation Classification system) there may occur some 95 species, including about 39 species of grasses, sedges, rushes, and mosses.
Someone or something once considered every plant of the 90-odd species that will inhabit our meadows when our plan is fulfilled, useful … and, doubtless, beautiful. And among the many ‘somethings’, I include legion butterflies and other pollinating insects, the fundamentals in the food chain. Just to illustrate my point, shown below are the basal rosettes of some of the 29 perennials that germinated this year, and which I discovered during the recent first survey. They’ll flower this coming summer. More to the point, both flower and foliage of these 7 perennial species alone are potential hosts for 207 species of insect.
Several years ago, I was tasked with the management of several meadows, one of which was fine enough to be serially enhanced with appropriate perennials. I discovered just how many of our butterflies relied on meadow grasses as a larval food source. It isn’t just about nectar and pollen. Why should it be surprising that the decline in butterflies, moths and other pollinating insects during my lifetime closely parallels the loss of traditional meadows?
One can follow similar reasoning in respect of the decline of our traditionally managed woodlands. Coppice-managed woodland, with a habitat mosaic of diversity-friendly open rides and glades, has declined by 97% since the beginning of last century. As a direct result, woodland birds have declined by 50% and woodland butterflies by 74%.
We know how ambitious our Hagge Wood project is. But if you can share our vision of interconnected mosaics of high biodiversity value in the working rural landscape, and help us make it happen, we will be taking practical steps in restoring a lost heritage and enhancing the biodiversity on our own doorstep. Who knows, perhaps others will follow? Maybe we can help them.