Nature Studies: Meadows are the wildflower experience taken to the ultimate power

If nearly all the medieval churches of Britain had been destroyed there would be an outcry. Our disappearing hay meadows deserve the same reverence

A A A

We live in a largely post-Christian age, but imagine this: what if between 1930 and 1980, nearly all the medieval churches of Britain, let us say 97 per cent of them, had been destroyed?

Would we not think, even those of us who are unbelievers, that this was a catastrophic loss? The hushed interiors and the stained glass, the Gothic naves and choirs – the spaces where, as Philip Larkin so perceptively put it in Church Going, we could be more serious about things. Would these not be sorely missed by most people, and their disappearance not be recognised as a cultural calamity?

I suggest it because there was a loss that did take place in those years, of such a scale and order, yet it went almost wholly unremarked-upon; and that was the nearly-complete vanishing of a series of wonderful and ancient human-creations whose true worth we are only just beginning to recognise: our hay meadows.

Like wild flowers? Are you perhaps even moved by occasional, very special wild-flower encounters? Well, the hay meadow is the wild-flower experience taken to the ultimate power.

A traditional hay-meadow, reaching its peak just now, in June, presents a startling superabundance of floral life. There are so many blooms of so many colours, mixed in with so many waving grasses, that they blend into a rainbow mix that seems to be fizzing, a sort of animated chaos.

From the bright golden haze of the buttercups and yellow rattle, to the white of ox-eye daisies, the mauves and maroons and purples of clover, knapweed, wood cranesbill and spotted orchids, there can be as many as 150 species in one spot, and it’s the coming-together of them all which is extraordinary. It makes for a quite incomparable display of the sheer exuberance of the natural world.

Yet this is a human construct: for thousands of years, farmers took grazing animals off the meadows in early spring, so the grass and the herbs could flower and grow tall and be harvested in July as hay, the farm animals’ winter fodder.  But then the tradition came to an end in the 20th century, and between 1930 and 1980, 97 per cent of Britain’s traditional hay meadows disappeared.

Tractors replaced farm horses, so hay was much less needed, and then silage took its place anyway. Many of the meadows were ploughed for crops during the war, or ruined with modern fertilisers as post-war intensive farming took hold. A total of 1.7m hectares has now dropped to a pitiful total of about 15,000, surviving mostly in tiny parcels scattered across the country, where few people get to experience them.

Yet the cause is not lost, and two developments in the last week give hope for the future. One was the initiative by the Prince of Wales to have a “Coronation Meadow” established in every county. The Prince’s aim is to begin a widespread meadow restoration movement. More power to him.

The other is the publication of an exceptional book, Meadows, by George Peterken (British Wildlife Publishing). This is a proper, scientific treatise by one of Britain’s leading ecologists, but it is so well written and so spectacularly-illustrated (there are more than 250 colour photographs) that it is accessible to the general reader.

More than that, it marks a milestone, for Peterken does something new: he gives our wildflower-rich hay meadows their detailed due, for the first time, as one of the most marvellous habitats the countryside has ever contained, and by doing so he plugs a major gap in our knowledge of the British landscape.

He not only sets out the history and geography, as well as the breathtaking flora of our meadows, he also gives a vivid picture of their cultural significance, especially in an inspiring chapter entitled “Meadows in the mind”, which is in essence a cultural history of haymaking, and of the significance, down the centuries, of flower-rich meadows in art.

They vanished while we were looking the other way. It was a cultural calamity. But George Peterken’s detailing of what they meant to so many generations is a singular service to perform – it gives us a true sense of the scale of what has been lost, and it gives us also the hope that, now we understand what they’re worth, some of these exquisite habitats at last may be restored.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living