Villagers fight to save last meadow from the plough

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SKYLARK MEADOW is a riot of sprawling hawthorns, brambles and hay. Home to dozens of variety of birds, butterflies and flowers, it is a classic example of what much of the country was like before the introduction of intensive farming.

Until now its owner, Somerset farmer Ted Fry, has kept it in its natural state, refusing to turn it into a carbon copy of all the cultivated, mono- crop fields of wheat surrounding it - with hedges trimmed with an almost surgical precision to maximise all available land.

But now Mr Fry has incurred the wrath of local people and environmentalists with his plan to sell it on his retirement to local arable farmers. The villagers of Bawdrip, near Bridgwater, are not normally at the forefront of topical campaigns, but their fight comes amid mounting concern over the future of the British meadow, with more than 98 per cent destroyed since the last war - mainly because of intensive farming methods - and fears they may all be gone by 2000.

So passionately do the villagers feel about losing the natural habitat of the meadow that they have pooled resources to buy the land, enabling it to continue as what villagers describe as "a step back in time".

Skylark meadow comprises two fields, one of six acres surrounded by hawthorn trees and another 13 acres of open land, which is home to breeding pairs of skylarks and snipe and where hares and deer can also be spotted. "You walk back into history when you come into the field," said Donald Rayner, who has spearheaded the campaign to buy the meadow. "Everything is there; you even get herons while next door it's just so sterile."

The meadow was discovered almost by accident, Mr Rayner coming across the field while catching up with friends on a country walk. "We'd never noticed it before. There were birds and butterflies where they shouldn't have been," he said. Rare species of flower include the burgundy-coloured common knapweed, the corky-fruited water dropwort, the meadow vetchling, along with the cuckoo flower and pepper saxifrage. Among the wildlife are hares, skylarks and several species of butterfly, including the common blue, the marbled white, the meadow brown and the ringlet, species which were once common in England but are now increasingly rare.

There are up to 70 flowering plants in the 19 acres, which Bob Cornes, conservation officer for the Mendip Hills for English Nature, described as a riot of colour. "It's got the most amazing bio-diversity and it's surrounded on all sides by a mono-culture. If the skylarks tried to nest in the adjacent fields, the birds would just be about to fledge before a mower comes along," he said.

Mr Fry, now 76 and whose late wife had enjoyed the meadow's flora and fauna, said he was sympathetic to the villagers. "It would be nice to leave it for wildlife rather than for the big farming people. There's too much of that going on. I think the artificial fertilisers can do a lot of damage," he said.

Skylark meadow would traditionally have been used as permanent pasture for grazing cattle in the summer months and providing hay in late May. But in today's market, hay can be sown and reaped three times a year and the flowers are strangled by fast-growing grass stimulated by fertilisers.

Mr Fry gave the villagers a deadline while they applied for a lottery grant, which was refused, but then the charity Plantlife, whose president is David Bellamy, stepped in with a grant that covered most of the pounds 50,000 asking price. According to Mr Rayner, negotiations are at a "delicate stage".

"This is a site of national importance because we've lost 98 per cent of our meadows," said Joe Costly of Plantlife. "Ted Fry is retiring and the neighbouring farmers were keen to buy the field, plough it up and turn in to arable land. If we weren't to conserve it, it would be destroyed altogether."

Research published by the Department of the Environment last year showed that 97 per cent of hay meadows had been converted into intensively farmed arable land since the Second World War. In the past 12 months, a further third of the surviving meadows have disappeared, leaving just 2 per cent. There is genuine concern that unless some farming practices are reversed, the traditional British meadow will have vanished entirely by 2000.

Such meadows tend to remain in the hands of elderly farmers because they declined to go down the path of intensive farming in the 1960s. "If we do switch to a more sustainable form of agriculture such as organic, then these meadows will be an important source from which to re-establish much of what we've lost," Mr Cornes said. "If we lose them, then there will be nothing to turn to."

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