Sunday book review – Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel

9780857521453There is grass, and there are meadows. They aren’t the same.

As you travel around the countryside, particularly in the west of Britain (although, as in other respects, the country used to be less polarised than it now is), you will see a lot of grass.  It looks pretty, or, at least, quite pretty, but you should look closer. Like most greenwash it hides an ugly secret; it’s the equivalent of green concrete as far as nature is concerned.

This book is a celebration of what meadows could be like. I do not propose that all the green concrete should return to wildlife-rich meadows, but as you read this book you will regret that we have left so little space for real meadows in our countryside and in our lives.

For this is a celebration of an old meadow and the life that it supports. The author takes us through the year, in a calendrical manner and tells us of the life and times of his meadow – its insects, its cutting, its smell, its place in his heart.

The author clearly loves his meadow despite the back-breaking shearing of sheep and cutting of hay, the bites of horseflies and the prickles of thistles.  He sees its place in his life, in the landscape around him and in the history of this land.

Through the book he recounts finely observed, and very finely told, observations of nature and also of the work and worries associated with managing this small plot of land.  It’s intelligent, delightful, cultured and informative.  It’s a very good read and I feel I will come back to it each year to dip into what was happening in this meadow at the corresponding time of year.

What this book does not do, and this is not a criticism (merely information for the potential reader), is to give much explanation of why the author’s experience is such a rare one, why you can’t share it and how depleted is our stock of such places.  And it proposes no way forward to redress the green concrete/meadow balance. In that respect it resembles George Monbiot’s Feral; Monbiot’s book is wonderful at telling us how awful the present is (it is) but less strong on setting out the route to a better future, whereas Lewis-Stempel tells us how wonderful his present is and tells us little of how we might share it or why we have lost it.  That does sound like a criticism doesn’t it?  It’s not meant to be  – I recommend this book very strongly.

We don’t have many meadows like the one described in this book because our agriculture system doesn’t allow them – economics don’t allow them.  As you drive through the green concrete of the west of England, in Cheshire or Somerset, you are driving past highly fertilised grass factories.  They are close to monocultures of the most productive grasses and are cut maybe three times a year to be conserved (!) as silage.  That is modern farming, and we won’t, and shouldn’t, turn it all back to meadows like those of the author but we should be very protective of those real meadows that remain, recapture some of their value in our own gardens and not fool ourselves that we have a green and pleasant land – we have a green concreted, less pleasant land.   But that’s the price you pay for over-population, over-consumption and overemphasis on economics at the cost of quality of life.

I am, you may have gathered, naturally contrary – I’m quite inclined to take the opposite view just for the fun of it.  I’d like to think that this is more to do with being unwilling to accept orthodoxy unless I think it is right than sheer bloody-mindedness. Whatever the reason, after reading that Sir Tim Smit rated this book as one of the best five he had ever read I was slightly disposed not to like it.  I couldn’t not like it – it is too good a book.  I like it a lot. The writing is excellent and the subject is engaging.  Do buy this book. Read it and weep for what we have lost.

Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel is published by Doubleday and is available from Amazon and other outlets.

Mark Avery’s book, A Message from Martha, is published on 17 July and can be ordered at a discount before publication.






29 Replies to “Sunday book review – Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel”

  1. Thanks Mark. I am looking forward to reading Meadowland.

    You raise some interesting points and one that I have been pondering over for many years now. Given that we cannot recover the 98% of meadows that we have lost in the past 70 years, how many meadows do we want, as a society? I think this is probably the key question now.

    Clearly now there are so few wildflower meadows left we need to make sure that these surviving ones are fully protected – they should all be notified as SSSI. The Agencies need to raise themselves from their slumber and get on with this, as a matter of extreme urgency. It won;t be easy – witness the ongoing battle to save the fantastic meadows at Lodge Hill (yes it’s not all about Nightingales) in Kent. The last few SSSI grassland notifications have been hard fought and that will continue.

    It is still extraordinary to me though that we don’t know where all the surviving wildflower meadows are. We have a national Ancient Woodland inventory that can tell us where the last scrap of ancient wood is, down to less than a hectare. We have a highly accurate lowland heathland inventory – even though there is far more of this resource left than wildflower meadows. Yet we are still finding meadows as they are being destroyed. We desperately need a national (UK) wildflower meadow (and other wildlife-rich grassland) inventory.

    We know how to create new wildflower meadows (I think the best way is the one developed by Keith Datchler at the Weald Meadows Initiative – the whole crop green hay method).

    But how many do we want, and how do we stop them from being ploughed up after 20 years of ecological development when the Agri-Environment scheme rules change? I suggest that we stop thinking in terms of numerical targets of hectarage and start thinking about creating a meadow in every parish, certainly for England, Wales and Northern Ireland – and where possible in Scotland. These need to be in some sort of community ownership so they are not vulnerable to the tides that flow through agriculture, which can sweep such fragile entities away. Coronation Meadows has started this process by creating a meadow in every county. Communities I believe will be prepared to pay to support wildflower meadows for their own value.

    If we have a resource of meadows whose survival is guaranteed in this way, then a larger resource of created meadows that does “come and go” in the landscape can be supported through public payments for social and environmental goods (NOT subsidies).

    And this leads me on to my last point (you will be relieved to read). Meadows and other wildlife-rich grasslands provide society with a wide range of public social and environmental goods – from carbon sequestration, flood prevention, water filtration, and homes for crop pollinators, through to inspiration, education and spiritual experience. Oh and they produce better quality, healthier, tastier meat, milk and cheese.

    At the moment these values are given a zero or even negative financial value in agricultural economic analysis. This is the biggest challenge – to change the way economists (and therefore politicians and society) value the social and environmental goods that are intrinsic to wildlife-rich grasslands and other habitats. I am not talking about Natural Capitalism, but something far more fundamental.

    1. ” to change the way economists (and therefore politicians and society)”. I’d slightly quibble with you on that. It’s not really due to economists – they just study the reality. Farmers don’t study Keynes and Hayek before deciding whether to reseed some grassland.

      It’s also worth noting that economics has had and continues to have a crucial role in of the formation and destruction of all these semi natural habitats including woodlands, grasslands (including green concrete ones), heathlands, moorlands (including grouse).

      Vast tracts of woodland were lost in southern Britain ( and converted partly to meadows so not all bad) due to changes in industrial practices (wood -> coal).

      All economics really is is the study of how we apportion value and the consequences of that in the complex system of exchange between us. Blaming ecological systems that might not be functioning as we might like them to on economics is like blaming death on biology.

      What we need to understand is that we cannot return to any kind of pristine ecosystem because we cannot withdraw from the planet. Our impact on the ecosystem individually is always going to be massive and 70 million of us in the UK preclude any reversion to nature in some kind of original or ‘climax’ state.

      There are huge things we can do to increase bio diversity in the UK but we need IMO to stop the blame culture, stop thinking what we only need to get rind of these people or those people and suddenly things will get better.

      Wrt to meadows and nature conservation in general how about a very simple change that could be applied across the board, grouse moors, farmers, factories, housing estates, sports fields, golf courses, shopping centres – everything. How about some kind of rule that said that any landowner had to ‘leave a certain proportion of their holding ‘wilded’ in some way whether it be a strip of an otherwise manicured lawn always left, a beetle bank in a corn field, some scrubland round the back of ‘next’ some ponds on an industrial park or a proportion of every grouse or left to regenerate past the moorland stage.

      Such a regulation might be challenging and might need a lot of thought as how to implement but it could make a real difference and it would effect everybody.

      1. Giles, your characterisation of economists as objective observers who merely describe how we apportion value to things and the consequences of that in a complex system of exchange is slightly misleading in the context of Miles’ comment. Clearly people value intangible things such as the pleasure of a sunset, a beautiful view or – in the case of many readers of this blog – the wild exuberance of nature, but the methods that economists use to measure value do not capture this. Economists will ascribe a value to the beautiful view only if people will pay hard cash to go and see it but the small patch of meadow in most cases will not create any significant cash income so it is put down as being valueless. This would not matter if what economists measure and how they interpret their measurements remained in learned journals but it doesn’t; it is used by governments to direct their policies and the consequence is that little patches of precious habitat are continually swallowed up under Mark’s ‘green concrete’ or the literal concrete of out-of-town retail centres and such-like.
        It is not a question of getting rid of this kind of person or that but rather one of redirecting the way we all assess the costs and benefits of our actions so that we can ensure that the less easily measured indirect and intangible societal goods can be better reflected in those actions.

        1. Jonathan – I really don’t feel highly motivated to leap to even a small defence of economists (though I know some lovely ones, actually) but I can hear them saying that they have various ways of incorporating non-monetary values into their work – and then they would admit that none of them is a very good way, and that hardly anybody takes any notice of it anyway. That’s as far as I can go in their defence.

          1. You are right of course Mark, but measures of the flow of Dollars and Pounds and Euros and Yen overwhelmingly predominate.

          2. mmm well how about for example figuring out how to lift the vast numbers of highly impoverished people on the planet out of dire poverty while also using the worlds resources in a sustainable way? That’s a pretty important question that’s going to need some pretty heavyweight economics and politics to solve. It’s also one of pivotal importance to the future of our planetry ecosystems. The system by which we allocate the planets resources is of key importance. You simply cannot divorce economics from ecology, nor man from nature.

          3. Giles, I am not sure if this will appear in the right place in the thread but in answer to your question about whether or not economics has a role to play in lifting people out of poverty, of course it has. I don’t think I suggested that economists do not have an important role to play or that economics is not an important factor in deciding how we run the world. what I did suggest is that much economic analysis and much of the policy that is driven by it is focused on too narrow a measure of what is valuable to people. That is one reason why many development projects aimed at lifting people out of poverty have failed to do so in a sustainable way.

          4. Hi Jonathan ditto re comment order – actually IMO you have it almost completely the wrong way round. Economics is driven by what people do value if people value different things then economics change. Money is just a virtual way of accounting how much value we attribute to things and how much resources we put into them. If we want to value different things as a society we probably need to act in a more communitarian and less short term way. It’s a political issue how to bring about such a society and an issue of economics how to study it. I think really all we are saying is that we need to change the way the world works. Let’s be honest if we don’t sort out some of the really major issues facing the planet this place is going to a hell in a handcart – and pretty soon – probably within our lifetimes.

            As a great man once said – ‘Philosophers have interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.’

          5. So now ‘dim but Tim’ tory boy Bradshaw

            The rest of this comment has been deleted as the ‘person’ making it was using a false email address.

  2. Mark, I’m commenting here on behalf of the Upper Thames Branch of Butterfly Conservation.

    Looking forward to reading the book. Picking up on a comment from the blog about community meadows: yes, great idea! However, it’s worth remembering that it’s hard work, and quite expensive to maintain “traditional” meadows. We (Butterfly Conservation) manage a 4.5 hectare site, with two restored chalk grassland meadows (see It needs a lot of volunteer effort, as well as money to pay for grazing livestock. That said, the difference in the amount of wildlife (especially butterflies in our case) on our reserve compared to the wider countryside is staggering!
    (Incidentally, in answer to a much earlier question of yours, our reserve is one of the things that are worth seeing in Bucks!)

  3. I toally agree with Miles comments above. However I do disagree with one of Marks comments relating to silage production ie “we won’t, and shouldn’t, turn it back to meadows” Yes we should!! In certain cases we have to. When you have lost 97% of wild flower meadows habitat creation or restoration becomes a priority. The North Pennines hay meadows project in Yorkshire and cumbria has produced some amazing upland hay meadows with high wildlife diversity in only a matter of a few years. In many cases herb rich meadows produce an excellent mineral rich hay crop which receives a premium payment when sold to racehorse owners. Even for cattle feed this hay crop needs zero mineral supplements at certain times of year and for the general public, I certainly know what food source I would like to see in my milk products consumed. What is needed is a strong marketing initiative to promote food products created from herb rich meadows and then perhaps 60% of the Uk population would not be obese or highly overweight.

    1. Dave – yep, fair enough, good point. I was thinking primarily of those intensive dairy areas such as Somerset and Cheshire when I wrote that. A bit of re-creation would be good. I suppose what i meant was that we can’t aim to turn it all back. I should have written ‘turn it all back’ – so I’ll go back and amend the blog now, thank you.

  4. Miles,great comment and yes lets have a meadow in every parish.
    By the way sadly they do not produce better quality,healthier,tastier meat milk and cheese,if anything the reverse is true.Some of those herbs growing in a wild meadow may taint milk and cheese and some may cause serious reactions in cattle,some even poisonous.

    1. Thanks Dennis.

      While a few species of wild native meadow plants (and others such as wild garlic) may cause taint in milk, the vast majority do not, and do not affect the flavour of milk cheese and meat.

      Very little research has been carried out on this (sadly), but the French have done research which shows that cheese produced from wildflower-rich pastures have fewer rancid flavours, have a better texture and taste better than the same cheeses produced from intensive pastures and silage. Meat produced from wildflower-rich pastures has higher healthy omega 3 fatty acids than meat produced on conventional intensive pastures. For more info look at the Pasture Fed Livestock Association website.

  5. Mark, although I agree with you on most things, I don’t agree that George Monbiot’s ‘Feral’ is weak on setting out a route to a better future.

    The two main activities limiting wildlife in the uplands (and by this I mean primarily the more-or-less unenclosed hill land) are sheep grazing and grouse moor management.

    I rate you as the most relevant campaigner on grouse moors and George as the most relevant on the sheep grazed areas. I think you are spot on about grouse moors and the need to tackle raptor persecution – but have you really engaged with how appallingly bad some of the sheep-grazed deserts are? Not a hope in hell of Hen Harriers if there isn’t even a stick of heather in which to hide a nest, also worse in terms of water-run-off and soil erosion….and the sheep-grazed bits are greater in area than the grouse moors.

    George advocates some fairly minor changes to the subsidy and agri-environment rules to allow farmers to choose to stop grazing the land if they want to. This would allow some vegetation (other than grass) to grow and some proper ecosystems to develop. As ever, real life is a bit more complicated and there will areas where particular types of low intensity grazing may still be desired for various reasons (maybe some of the lower/more southern bits of uplands?) – but this could be done relatively simply through properly targeted incentive schemes. At the moment agri-environment schemes (particularly UELS) are actually paying people to keep large areas of the hills in a form of management that is preventing them from supporting anything much in the way of wildlife. In general, George’s suggestion would lead to a huge leap forward on which we could then build.

    Although George Monbiot’s style is more abrasive that yours, I do think that together you are addressing the most important issues affecting the British uplands…I’d like to see you each fully supporting the other.

    1. Greenfly – thank you for your kind words. I am in no doubt about how ghastly are the overgrazed uplands – even worse than the overburned ones. And I do support George’s analysis – which is why he gets quite a few mentions here. but I would say that Feral is stronger on the description of the problem than that of the solution. That is not really a criticism either – I am acutely aware, as an occasional writer of books, that no book can do everything and that sometimes books are criticised for not being the book that the reader would have liked to be written rather than on whether they do a good job within their own set parameters. thank you for your comment.

    2. GAEC 12 is to be dropped from Cross Compliance from 2015 onwards. I’m really surprised that as yet, I’ve not heard anyone comment on this. I would have thought George Monbiot would be cock-a-hoop.

      1. While GAEC 12 is being dropped, it looks like it will return as part of the active farmer test, so none of us are cock-a-hoop about it, no.

  6. Why stop at meadows. The amount of produce found in hedgerows would keep communities going all winter if they were managed for just that

  7. An interesting discussion and a book I look forward to reading! As a commercial farmer with 5ha of traditional meadow I’d like to echo several points. Firstly we are lucky enough to be in receipt of agri-environment funding to help us manage the meadows, although it is not really adequate for the work involved – it has to be a labour of love, cutting and carting seeding docks by hand or spot spraying thistles, and growing plugs from seed collected and then planting them out. So yes, they are hard work. We manage the meadows in a mosaic of (our) wheat and intensively managed grass (Ryegrass but with white clover – great for bees!) and all of those fields have conservation margins around them. We need the ryegrass for silage for our dairy herd but we also have a place in their ration for the sweet meadow hay (weather permitting – that’s the big risk). I love our meadows. I can’t attach photos to this but just yesterday I was taking pictures of the chimney sweeper moths and skippers and meadows browns and ringlets enjoying their warmth. Watching the barn owls hunting over them or almost treading on a hare are additional highlights. But we can also re-create ‘second quality meadows’ quite easily – not such a complex ecosystem at first but it will come with time. I was delighted with the take of our ‘floristically enhanced margins’ – (quite a mouthful) very expensive to plant – which after 2 years have a good mix of plantains, grasses, vetches and knapweeds. Still lots of docks to get rid of though! We host visits to our farm (again, funded through Natural England) to show people what we are doing and to educate them as well, to think about where their food comes from and the consequences of a cheap food economy. I give talks to groups using my photos and try to spread the message that even in people’s back gardens they can make a real difference. As a group, we farmers are often lambasted at following market economics but we have a living to make and the rule of the multiples is ruthless – witness the current pricing wars.

  8. If we are looking at Christmas reads try Adrian Bell trilogy Corduroy, Cherry Tree, Silver Ley bit dated 1930 but interesting and well written.
    Miles; Somewhere to start? A search reveals Suffolk has 421 parishes and the Suffolk Wildlife Trust has, I think, over a 100 members who have a bit of land usually down to grass which they try to have as flower rich meadow.
    It can be done commercially. A young couple won a conservation award here in Suffolk. They don’t have any land but a graze sheep on rented land and rent 80ha of wet grazing marsh. They were praised for their dogged determination in tough conditions.
    Over the past 21 years they have transformed these grazing marshes getting rid of rank growth, nettles, and willow herb and by pulling ragwort by hand. They make 20,000 small bales of hay every July, loading and unloading them by hand before the sheep are then brought in to graze the aftermath; all this involves really hard manual work
    The flora on the marshes is stunning with Southern marsh orchid, hemp agrimony, gypsywort, dropwort, purple loosestrife, ragged robin, and lady’s smock all present. The bird life is thriving too .
    Compare this to the marsh near me that has cattle on now and has had for days. It is just a pockmarked lawn with rushes and broken docks. They follow the prescribed dates I am sure. I remember the manager tearing his hair on flooding years when he tries not to poach the land but fit in the requisite grazing days.
    Plantlife on its website sites the problems it has with prescribed dates causing growth of rank grasses and suggests “A greater share of the resources available is needed to support skilled advisors who, whilst maintaining a landscape overview, can work with farmers to find the right solutions for individual farms.” This isn’t going to happen but many conservation organisations have advisors. Could they be contracted to advise and asses the progress of a site. OK they may say all sites have improved but with the flexibility to manage them to the conditions rather than dates things probably would and at present if the dates are met the money is paid anyway so there is no change financially. It is a case of the farmers boot is the best fertilizer rather than the calendar.

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