A meadow is an area of permanent grassland that produces hay. The meadow would be protected from grazing animals in the first part of the year to allow the grass to grow before being cut in mid summer. The grass is cut and left to dry, before being bundled together into bales and stacked. Hay was a vital crop because it allowed livestock – horses, cattle and sheep – to be kept alive over the winter. Once the crop of hay had been taken off the meadow could be grazed by livestock for the rest of the season.
Until recently, there was no such thing as a ‘wildflower meadow’ – the farmer was interested in hay, not pretty flowers and pollinators. But, although always dominated by grasses, over time a wide variety of more colourful wild flowers would arrive. Over many years each meadow acquired a unique set of plants, adapted to the local conditions and, most importantly, able to survive mid-summer mowing. Note that meadows are made up of perennials, quite different to the annuals found in cornfields and on disturbed ground (thus poppies are not ‘meadow plants’).
Sadly, as agriculture became more intensive, flower-filled meadows were ‘improved’ (ploughed up and re-seeded with a limited variety of grasses), and silage replaced hay. Now, only 1–2% of original, unimproved meadows survive and most people have never seen one.
The wet meadows in the Glaven Valley at Natural Surroundings may date back hundreds of years and have not, to our knowledge, been planted or seeded, so the vegetation is ‘semi-natural’. We now manage the wet meadows for conservation and intend to re-start the mid-summer mow. Unfortunately, we do not have a use for the crop of hay produced, which is too poor to sell, but it is important to remove the cut material to stop it creating a ‘thatch’ that will choke the smaller plants. Unfortunately too, management of these meadows has been neglected for around ten years, so we are going to have to work hard to restore them to their former glory.
As well as the semi-natural wet meadow, we also have a ‘mini meadow’ on drier ground a little higher up the valley side. It is possible to create an area of flower-rich permanent grassland similar to the meadows of old, especially if the soil is low in plant nutrients (high levels of nutrients encourage coarse grasses, docks and nettles). Our ‘mini meadow’ has, however, had a chequered history. Originally rough pasture, when Natural Surroundings started up over 25 years ago it was divided into three zones and sown with grass and flower mixes. Since then the zones have merged, parts have been cultivated, and there have been periods of neglect. We now have a simple management regime: a late summer cut followed by autumn and winter grazing by our soay sheep. Cutting is vital to keep the soil fertility low and prevent the build-up of a dense ‘thatch’ – a meadow must be cut at least once a year and all the cut material raked-up and taken off (the equivalent of taking off a crop of hay) – hard work then and now.