Reversing the trend – the future of meadows.

The following is a write-up, a personal one, that I did for Plantlife, the Wildlife Trusts and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust of a meeting to discuss meadow conservation which was held on 18 July this year.


Photo: Tim Melling
Photo: Tim Melling

When people come to Highgrove and see the flower meadow there they often say that it reminds them of their childhood. As time goes on there will be fewer people for whom that is true.’ HRH The Prince of Wales (Patron of Plantlife, Rare Breeds Survival Trust and the Wildlife Trusts)

In July 2014 100 people gathered at a conference in Sussex to discuss the future of meadows in the UK. The aim was, as the title of the event states, to explore how to reverse the decline in flower-rich meadows. The quote above exemplifies the problem – unless action is taken young people today will grow up in a world with so few meadows they may never see one. This paper reflects on the themes presented and discussed, and proposes action based on ideas from participants.

Why should we value meadows?
• Because they are beautiful – and the seasonal, ephemeral nature of their beauty makes them even more special
• Because they are part of our cultural heritage and history (some as old as cathedrals)
• Because they are threatened in many ways and often not protected, either from development or land use change
• Because they harbour rare plants, scarce invertebrates and declining bird species
• Because they are difficult to replace or restore once lost
• Because they are places which bring rest, joy and spiritual refreshment
• Because they provide refuges for pollinators and other insects beneficial to farming
• Because they are good at storing carbon – better than improved pastures
• Because they act as water filters, removing pollutants, and water sponges, delaying run off and reducing flooding
• Because they sustain healthier cattle and sheep which produce tastier meat and milk
• Because they produce “local food” with low food miles for livestock- grazing and winter fodder
• Because they are a precious genetic resource – and source of products as diverse as hay and honey

It seemed to this group that there were lots of reasons to cherish and protect surviving meadows and to create new ones. And yet, flower-rich meadows have declined in extent by 97% in the last century and losses continue today as hay meadows are converted to arable or to silage or when they are lost to development, or simply neglected. It is clear that the meadow enthusiasts’ views are not shared by all, or at least, that there are powerful forces at play that allow these views to count for little.

Some meadows are owned by conservation bodies whose job is to protect them. But many more are owned by private individuals, most of whom are farmers, and who usually need to make a financial return out of the land that they own. The fate of meadows depends on the individual business decisions made by those disparate enterprises. When a land owner considers what to do with a meadow, the long list of reasons why we should value meadows appear to count for little. Why is this?

First, the list of reasons why meadows should be valued is not a well-known or even a fully accepted list. Some of these reasons are more widely held than others, and some are contentious or weakly supported by evidence. Perhaps a more compelling evidence base should be collated and researched?

More importantly though, even if all of the reasons for valuing meadows were true and undeniable, many of them reflect public goods rather than private opportunities. Take carbon storage, there is evidence that swards of mixed grasses and flowers store more carbon in the soil than do single species swards. But the private land owner does not benefit directly from that carbon storage except as a member of society – it is a shared public benefit and yet it is dependent on the land owner’s decision.

And, crucially, although economists will put estimated monetary values on public goods such as beauty and carbon storage these do not yet translate into cash in hand for the land manager. Public policy currently recognises these “ecosystem services” – but that recognition is not yet being translated into public payments. This is just another way of saying what many farmers will say ‘Nobody pays me for the view, even though I help to create it and protect it’.

Given that we regard the hay meadows that remain as being precious, perhaps we should know more about the reasons why their owners and managers have kept them – these farmers are rare and precious too, and also hold a declining source of knowledge and skills in meadow management. Meadow management was once the sign of a truly successful farmer – the ability to keep animals fed all year was literally vital to sustainability. As such they are probably worthy of more study alongside their meadows. Are they the richest or the biggest farmers or the poorest or smaller farmers? Have their meadows been saved through love, by accident or through benign neglect? Or do they produce specialist goods, using rare native cattle? What are their thoughts on the future of their meadows?

At heart, we have the commercial interests of individual landowners in conflict with what might be the wishes of a broader society. However, we should not fool ourselves that the average person in the street knows much, or cares much, about meadows. People might now protest about the loss of a tree, or an ancient woodland, but not often the loss of a meadow. If nature conservationists and others feel that meadows need a better deal, then they had better spread the word further and better about the joys of meadows and their value to us all. Meadow conservation can only be strengthened by having more supporters and more advocates, and a public profile as high as ancient woodlands to have any chance of protection.

At the conference, a variety of means were discussed to create a greater public awareness and enthusiasm for meadows; open days, webcams, guided walks, visits, posters, plaques proclaiming the importance of a site, involving children in growing meadow plants for re-creation of meadows, involving artists etc. All of these might play a part in building general public awareness and local community pride in the remaining meadows.

We need to appeal to hearts as well as heads – evoking the cultural and artistic significance of meadows, as well as the botany and other science, and to capture and tell meadow stories as part of our social history, before those who remember them as part of our day to day lives are no longer here to remember them. Meadows each have a tale to tell – of the people who owned them, the workers who maintained them, the name of the horse that ate the hay, or the type of cheese made from the cows turned out to graze in late summer. Some of those tales are recorded in field and place names, or reflected in local dialect or folklore.

But their fate still lies within the hands of a relatively small number of land owners who are being pulled by short-term economics into activities that threaten the future of the last remaining flower-rich meadows. What can conservationists do to protect them?

One mechanism little mentioned in the conference, it’s almost as though it is going out of fashion, is land purchase. This is the most certain way to protect any area for nature conservation and yet this was hardly discussed. Perhaps this is because meadows are so obviously a human-created and managed habitat, which needs very exact cutting, mowing and grazing regimes, and don’t fit a ‘protect nature’ model as well as more obvious ‘wildernesses’. Land purchase by nature conservationists is essentially a means of taking land out of primarily economic activity. But taking them out of production is essentially undermining the essence of a meadow: which was created by a highly specialist and highly successful economic activity far from being a wilderness, that nature conservationists shy away from buying them.

These days, a wildlife-rich meadow is likely to be a single field on an otherwise more intensively managed farm. Nature conservationists may be unable, if they even come on the market, to buy a whole farm for the sake of one hay meadow field.

Livestock and their feeding and management are critical. Hay meadows were created for, and by, livestock. The hay provided the means of keeping the animals through the winter and the aftermath provided useful autumn grazing. Hay meadows were not created for their biodiversity: farm animals are the raison d’etre of hay meadows. Unless that link is restored some of the economic benefits of hay meadows will be lost. Optimal meadow management for economic reasons, using collected forage and aftermath grazing, relies on traditional, hardy breeds of livestock that can flourish on relatively low-quality diets rather than the high input-high output cereal and silage diets on which most of our livestock are now fed.

There are still meadows being ‘discovered’ – discovered by nature conservation professionals, that is: their owners will have known that they existed! Some of these newly discovered sites and also some existing ones are worthy candidates for legal protection through SSSI notification. Natural England, Natural Resources Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage should be encouraged and resourced by the country administrations to notify such sites as being part of a suite of nationally import meadows. This would not only protect the sites from development, but would also enable targeting of ever-limited agri-environment resources to pay farmers for their ongoing management.

In a similar vein, the form of protection provided by the existing Environmental Impact Assessment regulations could be strengthened, better enforced and made more relevant to meadows. Equally the planning system could be used more effectively to protect the remaining 3% of meadows. Because they are undesignated, both planners and councillors undervalue them.

All measures aimed to protect existing meadows would benefit from perfect knowledge of their state and location. An inventory of meadows is long overdue, and is needed for the UK to assess its progress towards meeting 2020 biodiversity commitments. It should be the responsibility of the statutory agencies, supported, respected and used by them and by the UK governments. An inventory would aid the targetting of meadow restoration to link those surviving meadows.

However, we have to return to those landowners, mostly farmers, mostly quite modest enterprises, who currently have meadows within their landholdings and who may have a variety of feelings about them. Some may see their meadows as an asset, others as a block to their aspirations and some may fear the “threat” of designation. Maybe conservationists should talk more to these crucial people, about their hopes and fears for their meadows (which we tend to think of as our meadows too).

At the conference, many talked of giving land managers more support and influencing their bottom line to support their meadow ownership. This is easier said than done, given that 97% of meadows have been lost in the last century and we are left with the last 3%.

Support to farmers need not necessarily be direct financial support – moral support can go a long way. Praise from the local community or from the wider public can help any of us as individuals, or any small business. A greater profile for wildlife-friendly farmers from their peers, from the Soil Association, LEAF, CLA and NFU would not go amiss. Should there be a meadow-friendly farmer roll of honour on which the names of the managers of the finest meadows would appear?

As well as that important sense of pride this could also lay the foundations for the currently elusive demand for specialist products – from flower-rich hay for pampered pets to artistic holidays, as well as cheese, lamb and honey . Some saw this as essential and achievable – others as impractical and over-aspirational. We see success in selling pasture fed meat as desirable and healthy – is it just a small step to develop a “meadow sweet” brand?

If we are thinking of contributing to the economic wealth of farmers so that they maintain their meadows then there are a few options. Meadow-managing farmers could be helped by their businesses (their accommodation, their meat, their cheese etc) being promoted to the wider public by conservation organisations – ‘Buy Farmer Giles’s beef – it’s reared on a wildlife-rich meadow!’ or ‘Stay at Farmer Giles’s B&B and see his wonderful meadow! It works in Romania, we heard at the conference.

Practical help can also be given to land managers – information on management methods, breeds of animal appropriate for grazing, machinery swaps and voluntary labour might make a big difference to the busy lives of some farmers. Is a Meadow Management Handbook needed with best practice and advice on appropriate breeds of animal, grazing regimes, cutting dates etc? If not, what is the best way to promulgate best practice? What role for colleges, for apprenticeships or mentors or discussion groups to provide access to experience and expertise? Or for local meadow management groups where the machinery or livestock needed can be shared? For smallholders the cost of machinery needed for cutting, tedding and baling hay is prohibitive, and contractors not available. Co-operative ownership and operation may provide the solution.

Photo: Tim Melling
Photo: Tim Melling

Rare meadows are a little like rare birds – except they don’t move about so much. Experience with restricted-range farmland species, such as Corncrake, Stone Curlew and Cirl Bunting, has been more positive, overall, than attempts to stem the decline of widespread species such as Skylark and Grey Partridge. This may be because conservationists have been able to tailor advice, money and time to a geographically restricted rural audience and speak directly to the people that matter rather than through the more scatter gun media of national grant schemes, farming unions or the farming press. If there are lessons to be learned from previous farmland conservation success stories they might be: knowing a lot about the thing you want to conserve, knowing quite a lot about the farming system but seeking solutions from the practitioners and offering financial help as a stop-gap and until government grants can take up the slack. This would necessitate a team of excellent meadow advisors with empathy for farmers and a bit of cash in their back pockets.

If, as a nation, we want meadows to be maintained for ever, and we recognise that it is not in the individual farmer’s interests necessarily to do so, then the taxpayer should be prepared to contribute to the cost of maintenance of meadows provided that ensures their long-term protection. Agri-environment schemes must be designed to work for ancient habitats such as meadows and must be well-enough funded to ensure long-term security of these habitats, and administrators broad minded enough in the application of the rules to enable the very small, very rare and very isolated to benefit. And they must work native breeds suited to meadows – livestock are an integral part of biodiversity too!

There may also be a role for local action and community level activists, in tandem with the larger scale policies and practices. There was talk of a sense of “outrage” about the plight of meadows amongst many present and examples of that same outrage being harnessed as a force for good by communities who saw local meadows being threatened or neglected. We can show farmers in our communities how much we value their meadows, and support them in their efforts to sustain them, including by what we buy. Or we can take direct action by adopting or acquiring meadows – perhaps as a very special form of village green, but even better perhaps as a very special form of community enterprise, which covers its costs by producing goods which are sold locally (perhaps in the community shop) and provides experiences which are now lost to many – a village “hay making day” instead of a village fete, anyone? Vibrant examples of this approach can be found – ranging from the Parish Grasslands Project in St. Briavels at the parish scale, to the Monmouthshire Meadows Group at the county scale.

Reversing the trend on meadow loss will necessitate re-creating meadows at a rate fast enough to counterbalance any ongoing losses and to link sites to create a critical mass of habitats and managers . HRH exhorted the conference to aspire to a meadow in every parish.

Much is being done, and much is being learned in this area, particularly through the Coronation Meadows project. Green hay from high quality meadows is being matched with nearby ‘receptor sites’ (almost always former meadows themselves where the seed bank will contain relevant plant species). Such projects are practical examples of responding to the Lawton report of more, bigger, better and more joined up patches of nature-rich habitats. Funding and implementing such projects is a priority – at present government funding is not forthcoming . But it’s not easy – or at least not easy to do it right. Scattering seeds on any bare earth is not the right answer, despite the growing market for packets of generic mixes. To spread success we need to evaluate and learn from experience and share knowledge formally and informally, as well as matching the right hay/seed to the right local opportunity.

Reversing the trend for meadow loss is a microcosm of much of the angst about the rest of nature conservation in the UK; we have lost so much, nobody intended it to be like this, we need to do something urgently or the game is lost, how do we influence a host of individual decisions made by private individuals?, what are the roles of the individuals, communities, NGOs and government and its agencies?, what are the priorities for action?, do we have the money and the will to make a real difference?, will we all work together to achieve a common goal?

Here is a list of 10 priorities for action if meadows are to be valued, protected, managed well, recreated and enjoyed – all essential if their demise is to be reversed. Not all have obvious owners or actors – but somebody needs to do each of them.
1. Raise the public profile of the value of meadows so that they and their owners receive greater public support
2. Research the services and benefits of meadows so that the evidence is even more convincing: for example in flood prevention or nutritional value
3. Transfer more meadows into conservation stewardship – by communities, skilled farmers or conservation bodies – and where necessary into conservation ownership
4. Notify all high-quality meadows under existing legislation to protect them and enable public funding and use the planning system better to protect undesignated sites
5. Capture and record meadow history , including losses, to know more about what and why we have and could restore
6. Talk to farmers who own meadows and manage traditional stock to understand their needs and aspirations and to learn and share their knowledge
7. Promote the businesses of meadow-conserving farmers and buy the products they make
8. Increase direct payments to those farmers who protect meadows in the long term
9. Re-create new meadows on former sites the “right way” and where they link with existing meadows and share skills in this specialist undertaking
10. Establish an inventory of meadows as a means of focusing efforts to where quality is poor or to join up sites and to record our successes and failures.

Photo: Tim Melling
Photo: Tim Melling

46 Replies to “Reversing the trend – the future of meadows.”

  1. I think you missed some things here Mark. What about farms owned my local authorities and perhaps talking with them to make sure the tenants of such farms do all that’s possible for meadows.
    You talk about purchasing by local wildlife trusts/conservation bodies, but with smaller trusts this could be to financially restrictive so why not consider leasing instead, the farmer gets an immediate financial benefits from the lease, the management done by the trust/conservation body takes the “burden” off the farmer.
    But does any new meadow have to be on a farm? Why not conversion of cheaper brown field sites.
    However I feel the biggest obstacle will be not only public perception but the perception also of what should like minded people like you and me. For example I stumbled across a new’ish meadow created by a farmer with a footpath and access to all despite me telling all and sundry how many people do you think I saw exploring this new meadow? Just the farmer and myself…

  2. “nobody pays me for the view” – that has to be the nastiest, most mean-spirited thing I have heard in my entire life

    1. If that is true then you have arguably lived a somewhat sheltered life! It may sound crass but it does express the fact that pretty landscapes, carbon storage, rich insect faunas and such like are public benefits but the cost of maintaining them (unless there are subsidies or some equivalent means of assistance) falls on the farmer.

  3. These meadows are truly wonderful places, as different from an ‘improved’ rye grass pasture as a sitka spruce plantation from an ancient woodland. The problem is that most are owned and managed by farmers who have bank managers breathing down their necks to ensure the overdraft gets paid and therefore need to maximise the financial return off the land. The key to reversing the trend of loss and deterioration is to find a way of making it really pay for the farmer to maintain the low intensity methods that sustain the flower rich sward. Highly priced, flower-fed, organic beef is always likely to be a small niche market and, unfortunately, selling to the supermarkets and the Macdonalds of this world will always require costs to be cut to the bone (if you’ll excuse the expression) and so it seems to me that public subsidy is the only realistic way to achieve this on a large scale. This in turn requires us to ensure that the public and the governments we elect really understand the value of these places and the urgency of protecting them before it is too late.

  4. “‘Buy Farmer Giles’s beef – it’s reared on a wildlife-rich meadow!’ or ‘Stay at Farmer Giles’s B&B and see his wonderful meadow! It works in Romania, we heard at the conference.”
    Is it time for a ‘Green tractor’ brand to show public which products on the shelves (and elsewhere) are produced in a wildlife friendly way/environment. This sounds similar to LEAF but I never see that brand on products and would the general public get it, they already know the red tractor brand so half th marketing is already done

  5. Thank you for this summary of the conference.

    As I read through your post I found myself wondering if the discussion had included the role of wildflower meadows as insectaries for beneficial insects that can offer economic benefits to farmers who wish to get off the chemical treadmill. From what I gather, the damage inflicted upon already-dwindling native meadow ecosystems by toxic chemical farming inputs seems just as relentless in the UK as it is here in the US where I live. Do you have a system of government subsidies to farmers for conservation easements in the UK?

    1. Cosima – welcome! And thank you for your comment.

      Yes we talked about beneficial insects – but whether farmers really believe in those benefits is an interesting question.

      We have payments to farmers of c£3bn pa in UK for voluntary wildlife measures. That money should buy us more benefits than it does.

  6. Jonathan is absolutely right – but there is a huge difference – you can’t miss a Sitka Spruce plantation, but the creep of improved ryegrass pasture has gone almost unnoticed – for most people, and for the landscape lobby, there is really no difference.

    The really big one for me, and under new threat from proposed powers to sell public land, is the MOD estate – one of the most beautiful meadows I’ve been on was on the MOD Dorset estate, in the safety area for the tank ranges. With much of it never fertilised or improved in any way, this is a genuinely unique resource which needs far more recognition before it too is lost because people simply don’t know it is there – and Government sees it solely as ‘surplus assets’.

  7. Well,a few comments.
    While we have views like M Parry puts on there is likely to be less done by farmers for all conservation.
    It is very difficult to get a new meadow in fact near impossible because the fields are usually much too fertile.
    Ordinary farmers are in general not going back to hay making as Silage is so much more reliable with our weather and also more productive.
    In general practical farmers would definitely say that the products from meadows provide no better taste or benefit than from Ryegrass swards and of course are no better for transport miles as it is just as easy to sell products from Ryegrass swards close to production as meadow sward products.
    Ironically the meadows that are left at this moment are on fields that would have been considered as poorly farmed.
    There is simply no way that farmers can consider meadows to be part of a viable contribution to the farm financially and this needs addressing maybe with schemes to financially reward farmers for them.
    The individuals who still maintain their meadows must do so for a variety of reasons but for certain financial prosperity is not one of them and no young farmer could afford to forego the extra financial gain from modern grass swards.
    If we want to save existing meadows someone has to find a way to pay towards them.

    1. Dennis are you not forgetting the high environmental costs of throwing masses of nitrogen fertilizer at the land in order to produce this silage. Why not cut costs and grow wildflower rich meadowland for harvest as haylage. From personal experience I know that this is preferred more by cattle than ordinary silage. Problem is that once the cattle have tried this they are loath to eat ordinary silage.

      1. Hay is high risk forage which is one of the main reasons for the move to silage over the years. We have a hay meadow in a scheme which we must leave till end of July to cut and a couple of years ago we never did get a cut off it due to the wet weather. It was a good job we did not have all our eggs in this basket as we had other fields cut for silage in May/June when the sun shone. Our best, most palatable forage comes from our temporary ryegrass leys on arable land. Our hay meadow contains too many undesirable grasses, which become coarse when left to cut late.

      2. Silage production doesn’t have to be dependant on high rates of AN fertiliser, a grass/clover sward can produce similar dry matter yields to a grass sward receiving 200kg/ha of nitrogen fertiliser.

  8. I think that a premium for meat produced using meadow hay would be feasible. I suspect that meat produced this way would have more long chained fatty acids which have health benefits. Contrast this with largely corn fed animals such as much of the beef cattle in the States where the balance of fatty acids is skewed towards Omega 6s which most people have an excess of in their diet and in large amounts is pro inflammatory.

  9. Lots of valid points here. Bottom line is that until people can and will pay more for their food, farmers like my husband need to produce as much as possible as cheaply as possible. The knock on effect of this is that on commercial farms biodiversity pays the price. Why are we putting the main focus on farmers here? True they collectively manage a lot of land, but so do local authorities, private gardeners, corporate facilities managers and yes, churches and crematoriums. Surely these have a part to play too?

  10. If someone refuses to contribute anything to the overall good of the world, refuses to create something which gives joy and delight, refuses to do something good by their fellow creatures, unless someone pays them for it, then they most certainly are mean-spirited. What other attitude does “no-one pays me for the view” communicate?

    1. As far as anyone can see no farmer is quoted – just a sweeping statement speculatively attributed to farmers by someone who isn’t a farmer

    2. The (supposed as Filbert points out) farmers’ attitude that “no-one pays me for the view” communicates the view of most people M Parry. That is to say most people who need to be paid for any work… in order to pay their bills etc.
      I wonder if you were asked to work (create or maintain something) for nothing or in fact asked to actually pay your employer for that work, how “mean spirited” your response might be?

    3. You seem to be under the impression that the view (and wildlife etc.) cost nothing to produce and therefore people should do it out of the goodness of their hearts.

      The truth is that there are farmers out there who WANT to do more but can’t currently afford to. We rely entirely upon sales of our produce to support ourselves and our work. I would dearly love to have more cattle to graze our local meadows, make better use of the forage that they produce and improve the habitats and diversity within them. The problem I face is that my market currently supports 100 head of cattle, whereas the available grazing could support, and would be better managed as a result, 400 cattle. I do not make enough money on my 100 animals to keep a further 300 for the conservation value alone, so I have to do the best I can with what I have.

      People do pay for the view when they buy from our online farm shop, and I have recently made a greater effort to share the view with our customers on our facebook page; I don’t get paid anything for grazing these meadows, and I don’t get paid for taking the pictures (which I do enjoy, but don’t really have much time to devote to), I just have to hope that people appreciate them enough to support our work by buying our beef & lamb but at the end of the day anyone can appreciate our view for free without paying a penny for it.

  11. Hi Mark

    There are two meadows close to where I live that are managed by the Wildlife Trust on land that is owned by East Northants Council. I am the voluntary warden. One meadow is grazed by around a dozen cattle throughout the summer. The other is allowed to grow until the wildflowers have set seed and is then mown by the local farmer. He keeps the hay that is produced. Then the aftermath is grazed by sheep. This method of management produces a spectacular display of flowers in the summer.

    What about the Government purchasing neglected meadows and handing them over to the local Wildlife Trusts to manage them. Then farmers could copy the methods highlighted above and come to some arrangement with the trusts, whereby management could be exchanged for produce. All sides would benefit. Meadows would be protected, farmers would get problematic land taken off their hands and the public would get wildlife to enjoy.

    1. Our current Government has a deep-seated aversity to public land ownership. See forests sell off, which would have been followed by NNR sell off etc.

  12. F C,exactly.
    The quote was something like”that has to be the nastiest most mean-spirited thing I have heard in my entire life”.
    Sir that is something of a overstatement you must simply have heard of lots of things in your life much worse than that.
    Fact is most farmers are in a business and meadows do not provide much income so all the public have to pay towards them if they want meadows to look at.
    Explain why farmers unlike any other business should provide places of pleasure as opposed to profitable ones.
    I hear moan moan moan about farmers getting payments well in the case of meadows it is needed because they are not profitable enough to avoid them being lost on ordinary farms.Strangely those critics with lots of money seem reluctant to buy land and keep as a meadow or buy land and make a meadow while moaning about farmers not keeping them.

    1. I personally think that the countryside should be nationalised . If the farmers cannot control their greed and desire to make vast sums of money at the expense of wildlife then maybe we should make all farmland into nature reserves. The fact stated that only 3% of wildflower meadows remains bears testimony to this !

  13. Mark I think that this is your best ever blog post and certainly not written on the back of a fag packet! I am surprised that there was no mention of roadside verges. If all of the roadside verges in Britain were managed as wildflower meadows then this would certainly enhance the area of meadowland in the UK. One major problem is what to do with the cut materials. If it were not loaded with plastic litter and dog poo it could be used as animal feedstuff. Possibly it could be used as material for garden compost or as an energy source in a methane producing combustible chamber. ]]

    Hay meadows even on previously fertilised land are great for wildlife but with limitations. From mid june to mid july they are alive with small mammals but after this period the small mammals end up in the middle of a bale of hay along with numerous insects including butterfly larvae.

    The solution to this is to leave strips of meadow uncut until late September/ October.The seed heads will provide a food resource for birds and small mammals. Which in turn will be predated by Barn owls , kestrels etc.Even hen harriers !!!!
    Yes we definitely need to nationalise meadows and honestly I am not just saying this to winf=d up Dennis. Or maybe I am !

    A land manager that I know turns the cut hay around 6 x so that all of he potential seed resources are made available to birds such as yellowhammers

    1. “A land manager that I know turns the cut hay around 6 x”

      Then he/she must either have more money than sense or a tedder that’s not fit for purpose. What an obscene waste of carbon.

      1. No Ernest Moss
        This guy who is not a farmer is trying to put right the injustices made by farmers and is managing his land for the benefits of wildlife. The farmer who harvests the hay crop and turns the hay 6x receives the hay for free. The amount of wildlife on this one field is phenomenal ! Insects, birds, mammals in profusion.

        1. Sorry but intentionally turning a hay crop 6 times is not only a waste of energy but also wholly unnecessary.

          Over-tedding, particularly in the latter stages of drying can cause a significant loss of brittle leaves – usually the most nutritious part of the hay crop. This effect is magnified in species-rich hay which contains a high percentage of legumes such as birds foot-trefoil, meadow vetchling and red clover.

          Turning 6 times may result in slightly more seed being left in the field, but ultimately that means less seed being deposited at the other end, such as around a ring-feeder or along a feed passage – why do you think farmland birds congregate around these areas?

  14. Surely the real issue, and one that is hardly ever mentioned, probably because most people have no concept of it, is scale: 3% – is that too much ? and, as Dennis rightly says, as meadows are almost impossible to re-create, surely we should be saving every single fragment without any argument whatsoever ? And if you asked almost anyone other than a landowner, farmer or hedge fund manager whether there should be some land we effectively all own, what sort of figure might people come up with ? 10% perhaps, 5% at worst – yet the Government wanted to sell the just 2% making up our national forests in England. Dennis is right, farmers do need to make a living – and we can easily afford to support them to preserve every one of those meadows from the money we are already spending on agriculture – except for the fact, and this I fear is where I completely part company with Dennis and farmer’s claims to be doing the right thing, that the farming lobby led by NFU has fought tooth and nail against more money going to supporting environmental farming, and for every penny they can get their hands on to propping up exactly the sort of farming that is doing the damage and is still squeezing the last, tiny, pips of environmental value from our farmed landscapes along with species like Turtle Dove which sadly have far worse to face when they reach their traditional UK breeding grounds than any gauntlet they run through the Med.

  15. Countryfile last weekend featured a Herefordshire farmer who was rebuilding a herd of Herefords who would be entirely grass fed on his grass farm. I assumed the beef was being sold locally and they showed that you could scan the ‘scan thingy’ with your tablet or smart phone and it detailed everything about the animal [several pages]- even who slaughtered it. Whilst I totally support that idea – instant nightmare of having to buy a smart phone and then spend all day in the supermarket scanning! I imagine this is a bit of niche market – but good for him if he has found one.
    I think one of the problems with finding a way to halt and/or reverse declines in old meadows is that no one really thinks about the root causes of their demise. In that cause will be a clue to the solution I think. Paying farmers not to do things is not really a long term solution to any problem, not least because agricultural land use is a ‘system’ and to expect or hope that one bit of the system can survive in another system is probably not the best approach. [Too many ‘nots’ in that line but I can’t rewrite it!] We really need to find a way of making environmentally friendly farming as profitable, if not more profitable, than the industrial scale of land use which is now the norm. That requires a rethink both by consumers, food retailers and government/EU. There is money in the system to do that – once again, it requires thinking out of the box and there seems little appetite anywhere for that these days.

    1. Absolutely Stella, the only way meadows survive in any real acreage is if they are part of a viable farm system. That is not currently the case. The concept of High Nature Value Farming recognises the importance of supporting systems, and would be a good way to direct subsidy. Our agri-environmental spend is rarely directed at supporting systems, and as a result it can barely do more than hold the line.

      In my view, a good start would be that in designated HNV areas, all public subsidy to farmers should be directed at environmental outcomes. Probably, income forgone is not an appropriate framework for delivering environmental benefits, and payments should be made on the basis of benefits delivered.

      It could perhaps also be argued that many of the problems of intensification are caused by farmers chasing profit – that’s natural, but the cost has often been borne by the environment. Maybe in HNV areas, large landowners like the National Trust could treat their tenancies as salaried positions, with the objective of delivering environmental benefit the main objective, and food production a bye product. Our current system of subsidies is a barrier to introducing new blood to land management.

  16. Dave Hickson,what a great idea have all farmland as nature reserves,problem solved as population starves and pollution and everything else killing all natural things stops completely.

    1. Or alternatively Dennis enhance farm production at what ever cost to the environment. Some RPB farm nature reserves are quite profitable and lo and behold they contain wildlife as well !! Sooner we all become vegetarians the better . Unfortunately I am not but am heading that way.

  17. Really interesting Mark, many thanks.

    ….So here’s my two-penneth:

    “Is a Meadow Management Handbook needed…..?”

    Noooooo! It’s the last thing we need. In my experience one of the greatest threats to our remaining meadows is over-formulaic, homogenised meadow management which is based on an oversimplified, rather poor understanding of the way that many of these old meadows were historically managed.
    Take hay meadows for example, many of the most biologically diverse site were managed differently from year to year. Some years they would have been mown in early summer, some years they may not have been mown until late August. In some years they may have been grazed and in others left for winter foggage. Such a diverse management regime implemented over centuries created the perfect conditions for as broad a range of flowering plants and grasses as possible, whilst also helping (e.g through early cutting) to control less desirable rank/invasive plants.
    How many meadows in HLS are managed in such a way now? Nearly all hay meadows now seem to just get mown every year and almost always after the 15th July. This isn’t traditional management, moreover a formulaic modern-management regime designed to be easy for the RPA and NE to inspect. More more flexibility is needed within agri-environment schemes as well as more appropriate training/advice given to those managing meadows.

    Priority 4 – I think we need to be very careful of assuming that SSSI designation is always guaranteed to maintain the quality of our meadows.

    There is a very interesting report by John O’Reilly titled “The State of Upland Hay Meadows in the North Pennines” (British Wildlife, Vol 21, No.3, Feb 2010). Commenting on how meadows that were designated as SSSIs in the 1980s have fared, the report highlights 33 meadows that were designated as SSSIs primarily for their high quality upland hay-meadow vegetation. These sites were re-visited/re-surveyed by the ‘Hay Time Project’, which reported a decline in at least 48% of these meadows. O’Reilly reported that NE’s own condition assessment data on these same 33 meadows did not reflect this decline. The supporting data included within the article show a staggering discrepancy.
    The author damningly concludes: ‘This discrepancy between the ‘official’ figures on SSSI condition and the actual state of SSSIs in the field is in line with my experiences with SSSIs of other habitats and in other parts of the country. As the figure for the total area of SSSIs in England in favourable condition approaches the Government’s target of 95% (Defra 2009), it becomes more and more difficult to have any faith in it”

    8 – Agreed, John Stone in his comment above hits the nail firmly on the head regarding the unsuitability of basing payments for meadow management on the income foregone framework. It’s an absurd and utterly flawed system pays a land-owner twice as much for leaving an uncultivated arable field corner than for maintaining ancient, species-rich meadow.

    10 – This should also include an inventory of sites with potential for meadow restoration or re-creation, for instance semi-improved grasslands adjacent or even low-fertility arable land which is strategically placed next to existing sites of HNV. Yes old meadows are irreplaceable and impossible to recreate, but given appropriate site conditions it is possible to recreate meadows of reasonable botanical interest.

  18. As a country that consistently imports a very large proportion of its food we cannot escape the fact that we also import phosphorus even if we didn’t import phosphorus on purpose which we also do and having eaten it we then spread it on land because that’s how it works at the moment so unless we limit ourselves to consuming only food produced here and grow it without imported phosphorus and also commit to exporting biosolids and the phosphorus it contains to places where it is wanted preferably from whence it came we have as much chance of significantly recreating wildflower meadows in a great nostalgia-fest as a snowball in the Underworld.


    1. Too gloomy, Filbert. Not everywhere gets inputs of P, which is in any case a notoriously immobile nutrient. N is much the more insidious problem. There’s lots of evidence that we can create habitats of wildlife conservation value, where there is restoration or creation potential; in the short term they may be simplified facsimiles, but still of considerably greater wildlife value than a rye grass ley.

      1. “in any case a notoriously immobile nutrient”

        That’s the point, whereas reactive N is easily depleted

    2. I can see where you are coming from Filbert, but many of the sites that offer the best potential for successful species-rich grassland creation are on stressed soils e.g. very shallow over rock or very light textured or even very wet (e.g. soil wetness class IV). Land on steep slopes (>18%) are pretty useful to. Clearly land where one wouldn’t want to be applying livestock manures or bio-solids due to the very high-risk of P transfer into surface waters.
      Furthermore, low-intensity grassland in the right locations can help to reduce phosphorous pollution. (I nearly wrote phosphate just to annoy you!)

      1. Nevertheless you wrote “phosphorous” – either for ambiguity, or just to annoy me.

        Where I am coming from is that phosphorus has been applied to most land that has been ploughed from its pre-industrial state and barring particulate loss – eg following cultivation of steep slopes by people re-creating meadows – most of it is still there. With all that that implies.

        As far as I know there is no national mass balance for P. I hazard a guess that we are accumulating P through imports of fertiliser and food faster than we lose it through diffuse pollution, soil erosion and food export. Unlike N we don’t lose it back into the air for all to enjoy, so in the fullness of time …

        There are many places where I would like to see the surplus spread, none of them rural.

        1. “…..either for ambiguity, or just to annoy me”

          Neither, combination of ipad predictive typing and non-existent proof reading.

          “eg following cultivation of steep slopes by people re-creating meadows”

          By whom and where? Certainly not something I’ve would ever countenance. Poor practice and totally unnecessary thanks to glyphosate and direct drilling techniques. N mineralisation is last thing you need if hoping to successfully establish fine-leaved meadow grasses and other meadow flora. When restoring meadows I prefer to try and keep both CO2 and N2O where it belongs.

          “As far as I know there is no national mass balance for P. I hazard a guess that we are accumulating P through imports of fertiliser and food faster than we lose it through diffuse pollution, soil erosion and food export”

          I’m inclined to agree.

  19. I wonder if when loss of wild meadows is written about the assumption is that I believe we have lost approx 97% of them that it is farmers fault.
    I would think the major loss was not their fault as they were forced during the war to plough them up to feed the population who otherwise would have been close to starving.
    The rules were so strict that any farmer not obeying that directive had his farm taken away and run by someone such as a war-ag man.
    This surely must have been the biggest loss of theses meadows.

  20. Sixty years ago this month saw me (age 4) with my grandma at her brothers farm in the Ribble valley. We were there to haytime, being a British Holstein Dairy Farm haytime was a very important time of year. Can you make enough to last the winter and beyond? Quality and volume are incredibly important. Serious stuff. Even in 1954 mechanisation was an important part of this effort. But we were there to haytime the “Home Field” This herb rich field because of its size probably 3/4 acre was done by hand. The family had been called from far and wide most of the women were in long skirts and bonnets worked with hay rakes and pitchforks shaking out and rowing up for baling. This hay was always stored separately, and when helping with the milking on family visits I would be sent to get special hay to be fed to a cow if it wasn’t “doing”. Similarly the cow would be turned out into the home field after milking. Even as mechanisation and methods moved on this field was maintained as a herb rich meadow for animals that “weren’t doing”. Twenty years later above the Lune gorge my father in law taught me to silage with a la’l grey fergie, a sidelay mower and a buckrack, but he also taught me to use a scythe and side by side we cut the “Holme Field” Cutting this herb rich field by hand is one of most amazing things I have ever done, the smells were intoxicating. Thirty years later I found myself in Ennerdale with a 2 acre hay meadow to manage. This is adjacent to a farm that is no longer farmed. Which was leased to a farm some 3 miles away he would Haytime the meadows and store in an adjacent barn for winter and lambing when access to be barn was removed haytiming was no longer viable. So we were left with a herb rich hay meadow which nobody wanted to come and cut never mind haytime. we approached the Hay Time Project, then Cumbria Hay Meadows they were all very pleased we had a Hay Meadow but couldn’t help. So I went and bought a pitchfork and a hayrake in Cockermouth, this caused a great deal of amusement in the agricultural suppliers, ” ehh lad I haven’t sold a pitchfork for years, wats gan do with it ehh”. We cut it with a Husqvarna Brush cutter/strimmer and haytimed it with a rake and pitchfork, we made haycocks on branches like ones I have seen in Norway. We fed our geese on it through the winter and they loved it. They were very tasty too. The next year Cumbria Wildlife Trust came and surveyed it for us and declared it Herb Rich Meadow, one of the best examples in West Cumbria, Wildennerdale talked about using it as a “Seed Bank” for rest of the re-wilding. I didn’t get paid for it I did it out of joy and memories and skills gained of old.
    “We don’t get pay for the view” Farming is a business, the view is by-product. Someone has to pay somewhere… I used to walk through the fields in Lamplugh watching Hen Harriers to my local farmer and buy my milk at source. If you buy milk and food at knock down prices from supermarkets, someone else is going to have to pay for the view. In my life as outdoory I work on management training exercises. I was walking behind Settle with a group of buyers from a famous Northern dairy company and one was laughing and telling the others how he had a farmer in tears about the price he was going to get for his milk!!!! No Farmers don’t get paid for the view.
    Here in the wild West we have people on stewardship schemes and they have to leave some meadows to be cut till the end of July. But due to the hot weather grass was ready to cut long before that, as a result a lot of that hay was very rough and poor quality.
    My feeling is Hay meadow schemes and the like need to be managed as part of existing farms but with flexibility.
    We don’t get paid for the view?
    We don’t get paid for the view?
    Sorry my Alzheimer’s is kicking in.

    Yes? Who will pay for the VIEW?????? YOU???

  21. Think the important thing now is to hold on to what meadows are left,it is unlikely many will be made.
    What has really happened is like several other problems the losses are not recognised until the loss is serious.
    I hope some form of payment can be given to those who tend these meadows because I feel certain that no one can make them a economic proposition for practical farming and I would hate us to lose any more.

  22. I enjoyed reading the debate. Having managed an MG4 hay meadow for 25 years we saw that it took the first five to turn it from poached to pasture. We follow a Lammas regime but the cut date varies due to weather and flooding, as does the date the beasts come on. The land owners (the EA) don’t appear to give a sh*t about the biodiversity, nor do they fund it – most of the funding has been CS with the support of NE. The public like the access (they think it’s a Council park as they can’t be bothered to read anything) but moan about the cows, they create desire lines everywhere (and break fences) and leave litter too. I feel sorry for any farmer who might have to make a living off such a landscape as in our case it’s all voluntary for the biodiversity – it’s for love but it does break my heart to see the way some people treat it.

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