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
  • @mjpmccarthy

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.