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.

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

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor