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Our celebrated meadows

Posted: Tuesday 8th December 2015 by NIA

meadow Andy SlaterOur celebrated meadows

Meadows are a classic feature of the British countryside that have been celebrated, described in literature and depicted in art for centuries.

Like so many other elements of the historic landscape they are, of course, not a remnant of a pre-human wild environment, but a ‘semi-natural’ habitat that has developed through regular interventions by man.

Without management almost all of Britain would be covered in trees, and any abandoned urban site or rural field will quickly ‘tumble-down’ to scrub and then woodland. When pre-historic peoples imported the livestock which are today’s staple, the woodland they cleared was prevented from returning through a combination of grazing and cutting. Those areas that were grazed short for much or all of the year became pasture, whereas those that were allowed to grow long during the spring and summer months (to produce a crop of hay to feed livestock through the unproductive winter) became meadows.

Although our grassland habitats are a product of man, the species of plant that grow in them are known to be native to Britain. They are species that, in many cases, had evolved in very different habitats to meadows -such as woodland or tundra- or that had historically survived in grassy clearings in woodlands created by tree fall or kept open by long-ago native grazing animals such as rhinoceros, aurochs and elk.

These plant species benefited greatly from the changes that farming brought, and for many hundreds of years they together formed a widespread and diverse habitat that supported a huge array of associated insects, birds and mammals. Meadows were a stable and economically invaluable part of the mixed rural landscape, and they contributed greatly to the wildlife-rich landscape that we know is now greatly diminished.

Perhaps surprisingly much of this mixed landscape of woodlands, arable fields and permanent grasslands -though ever changing- survived the mechanisation and land enclosures (where open tracts of countryside were divided into large regular fields) of the 18th and 19th century. It was the 20th century that saw their widespread destruction.

It has been calculated that 97% of lowland meadows have either been ploughed-up or replaced by species-poor sown grasslands since the beginning of the Second World War. The reasons for this change in landuse are complex, but the food shortages of the war, economies of scale in the production of crops and the replacement of hay with alternative winter feed for livestock have all played a significant role.

Not only have these losses led to the degradation of our landscapes in the eyes of many, they have also contributed to a catastrophic loss of wildlife and the bringing of many species to the brink of extinction in Britain.

In Birmingham and the Black Country we have lost most of our meadows not only to agricultural change, but also to urban development. Despite this we still have great surviving examples of species-rich meadows right across the conurbation. These include Illey Pastures (meadows despite their name) in the south of the borough of Dudley, several in Birmingham’s Woodgate Valley Country Park and remnants in Sandwell Valley Country Park.

The Nature Improvement Area partnership chose the creation of new meadows as a priority for its work in improving the landscape of Birmingham and the Black Country for both wildlife and people. In 2013 we created 18 new meadows and in summer 2014 we will be creating many more.

To create these new meadows we use a technique known as ‘hay strewing’. This involves the harvesting of seed-rich hay from a diverse ‘donor’ meadow and the spreading of this onto a prepared ‘receiver’ site. The hay is collected and taken to the receiver site as soon as it’s harvested to ensure that as much seed as possible is introduced. Receiver sites must have the right soil conditions and are usually cleared of any existing vegetation beforehand.

We have chosen to strew hay wherever possible as it has several important advantages over the sowing of bought seed. These include the creation of a habitat that is made up of species that occur together naturally, and the guarantee that the seed is of local origin. Another great advantage of using hay is that it is the only way of introducing the seed of our native orchid species, plants which are true gems of our meadows.

Newly created meadows will never replace those lost ancient ones that had such important historic connections and which supported such abundant wildlife. They do, however, provide habitat for species that are struggling to survive in today’s intensively managed agricultural landscape. It also means, of course, that many more of us can experience the joy of being in a vibrant meadow on a hot summer’s day surrounded by wildlife.

Simon Atkinson

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