Lottery saves last meadow

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Not Long Ago much of Britain was covered with flower-rich hay meadows like this, writes Geoffrey Lean. Now they are so rare that preserving even a small patch of them merits a royal visitation.

On Wednesday Prince Charles will inaugurate 11 fields at Clattinger Farm, Oaksey, Wiltshire, one of the largest blocks remaining in Britain, as a nature reserve. The fields, trapped in time through the enlightened obstinacy of their former owners, are just one of more than 30 important wildlife sites saved by the National Lottery.

Since the Second World War, Britain has lost 97 per cent of the meadows that were once one of the chief glories of its countryside, and they are still vanishing at a rate that will cut the remaining tiny patches in half in 20 years. Modern intensive agriculture is to blame, ploughing and draining the fields and drenching them with fertilisers and pesticides to produce crops or uniform "improved" grassland. Twenty-two species of wild flowers have become extinct.

"It's a disaster story," says Dr Simon Lyster, director of the Wildlife Trusts. "Before the war half of southern Britain looked like Clattinger Farm. The new fields are about as rich in wildlife as a car park."

Clattinger Farm was preserved because the Ody family, who owned it for most of this century, loved wildlife too much to succumb to the blandishments of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Common Agricultural Policy. Content with a small income, they eschewed modernisation subsidies and continued to farm it traditionally. No agricultural chemicals have been used on the farm and most of the fields have never been ploughed, which, says the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, makes it "unique in southern England".

Up to 38 different species of plant have been found in a single square yard at Clattinger Farm, which is home to the rare snake's head fritillary, burnt orchid and downy fruited sedge. Rare butterflies flutter through the grasses, and swifts and swallows swoop low to feed on teeming insects.

The farm was put on the market last year by a Jersey man who had bought it from the Odys, and saved by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust mainly thanks to a pounds 571,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.