The rise and fall of meadows
Meadows were once a vital part of the landscape, but modern farming techniques caused them to die out. Peter Marren explains why we should cherish those that survive, and learns how to plant one himself
Tuesday 27 July 2010
If I do nothing else this summer, I will at least have helped to make a wildflower meadow. I feel pretty good about it, for flower meadows are in short supply. And the job is not at all easy. To make a new meadow, you first have to find an old one and take some of the seed. Then, having raked out most of the grass stalks, you rush the loot to the barn before it turns to compost. There you spread it out on tarpaulins to dry, purify the seed further through a customised wire mesh, and then shovel it into bags.
In autumn you broadcast the seed on the new meadow site (you normally avoid sowing in the spring due to drought), after due preparation. Then you wait. You might have to wait several years (the cowslips take three to flower), topping the thistles if they get too rampant, perhaps scattering more seed in any patches that remain stubbornly bare. But, very slowly at first, the bare field should mature into a meadow, a glorious simulacrum of the real thing, not merely green but gold and white and blue and purple. With luck it will last many lifetimes. And you hope, bring a lot of pleasure and pride, as well as premium-grade beef and lamb.
These are the mechanics of the trade, but there is another side to meadow making. There you are at the back of beyond, wooded hills on the horizon, flowers at your feet, skylarks bubbling overhead, amid the sweet, dusty scent of hay. You can see why the whole village used to take up scythes at harvest time. You feel close to nature, sweaty and virtuous, and in some strange way happy and carefree. Sod the world outside; here, down in the meadow, lies a small English heaven.
Until the nation began to change its mind in the 1990s, we seemed to have turned our backs on meadows. For upwards of a thousand years, these damp grassy patches of communal farmland provided fodder for the horses that worked the land and fed dairy and beef cows. Some meadows were "shut up" for hay in the spring, and cut on suitably dry sunny days in late summer. Through the seasons the field transformed from its flower-decked spring grass with bouncing lambs, to the straw-coloured grass of high summer, to the shorn plain of autumn with cattle, sheep and ponies grazing the new grass.
Then we invented tractors and combine harvesters. Hay was no longer needed to feed the horses. The meadows lost their agricultural value, and most were drained and ploughed up. Fortunately a few survived, partly through protection, partly because a few landowners still value them above rubies. But it is only in the recent past that meadows have begun to produce a new harvest – wild seeds.
These seeds are needed for a variety of purposes. Nature reserve managers may need them for quick-fix restoration schemes. They may be needed on farmland to attract government or EU subsidies. They are also in demand from local authorities for amenity purposes from new road islands to housing estates. Wild flowers fulfil twin aims: increased biodiversity, and a more attractive, cheering environment. The fact that people actually enjoy seeing cowslips, primroses and buttercups is one of the great rediscoveries of the 21st century.
A service industry has sprung up to provide wild flower seeds. Much of them come from special flower farms where wild flowers are cultivated in beds like crops (and a beautiful sight they are). Some specialist seed suppliers are good and reliable, producing genuine wild seeds of British native origin. Unfortunately many of the buyers cannot tell a cowslip from a buttercup. The result, all-too often, is what happened on the realigned A419 through the Cotswolds five years ago: not yellow cowslips but garden polyanthus whose overall colouring was a startling and un-natural maroon! Some suppliers are also less than expert. Most merchants are used to dealing with garden plants, and are unlikely to understand the intricacies of meadow making.
In 1997, the charity Flora locale was established by wildflower expert Sue Everett, together with fellow enthusiasts Miles King and Donald MacIntyre, to encourage the use of native plants, and to provide a forum and advisory service. Flora locale's mission is to match the right seed to the right place. Meadow land on deep loamy soil is not like the skin of dark soil that characterises chalk downland. For the former, plants such as lady's smock, meadow buttercup and sorrel are at home, while downland mixtures contain such chalky delights as salad burnet, small scabious and the bright yellow clusters of kidney vetch.
Balancing the right amounts of these various plants is part of the art of meadow making. The window when the most seeds, including the all-important wild grasses, are ripe is short – from the end of June through July. In the hot summer of 2006 the grass seeds had fallen by mid-July. In the wet one that followed, it was hard to find a day dry enough for a successful harvest. This year is another 2006, with early and late flowers overlapping in an unusual way.
For the main sweep, Everett uses a brush harvester which is towed by a light four-wheel drive vehicle. Instead of cutting the crop, the harvester used wide brooms to brush off the ripe seed into a hopper. This does not damage the vegetation, and one can even take a hay crop afterwards. Nor does the loss of the seeds reduce the meadow's ability to renew itself. Most meadow flowers are long-lived, and there is little space for seedlings in a dense community of grass. For these plants, seeds are more of a long-term insurance policy, and, for long-term, read hundreds of years.
While one person tows the harvester, another picks seed by hand from smaller flowers which the brushes are likely to miss. This, as I can testify, is hard, stooping work in the hot sun. The seeds of wild flowers are nothing if not diverse. Some, such as lady's bedstraw, you can "unzip" by pulling the seed head between finger and thumb. Others such as knapweed, you simply dead head. For cowslip you pick the whole stem to allow the seed time to dry within its pods. And for the pretty but finicky bird's-foot trefoil, even finding the little pods needs the eyes of a botanical hawk. Some late-flowering plants may need to be hand-harvested later on.
One particular flower is the key to success, says Everett. This is the yellow-rattle, so named because when ripe its hard black seeds patter inside their dry pods like a fairy rattle. It is a root parasite of grasses, and helps other flowers to find room to grow and flourish among the sea of grass. Unfortunately its seeds are short-lived, and, unless kept in a cold store, must be sold within a year of harvest: one more problem for the meadow maker.
But it is worth the bother. After a few years, it becomes hard to tell a properly made meadow from one that has existed for hundreds of years (only a botanist would notice the difference). The business needs practice, patience and a lot of faith. We will never quite match the ability of nature to beautify the landscape. But with enough care and trouble, we can produce meadows and downs that are nearly as good. And have the satisfaction of having created something lasting and wonderful.
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