Due to our insatiable demand for cheap food leading to the spread of intensive agriculture across our countryside, some 98% of our wildflower meadows have been lost. Shockingly this has happened in only the last few decades.
Once common, meadows full of wildflowers providing food for vital pollinating insects are now a rare sight across Britain. Instead much of the countryside is characterized by the plain green sheen of fields dominated by perennial rye grass; a sterile monoculture which offers little to birds, reptiles or insects.
The conservation of wild meadows, full of flowers, sedges and rushes, is vital if we are to protect and expand our remaining living countryside. Traditionally managed meadows provide living space for a whole host of wildlife; from frogs, newts, grass snakes and toads, to butterflies, moths and bumblebees, plus a host of small mammals and birds.
At Teifi Marshes we are involved in a project to conserve and restore our meadow habitats. These range from wet marshy “rhos pasture” to dryer grasslands more akin to the traditional flower filled hay meadow. We manage these areas using traditional methods, such as late summer cutting, and ensuring suitable levels of grazing from autumn through winter. Grazing animals are taken off the meadows in early spring, allowing the rich varied sward to grow. This year we will actively manage a larger area in this way. One change will be to make use of volunteers using traditional tools, such as scythes, to cut and harvest hay in areas inaccessible to tractors.
Traditional meadows can be created in gardens in both rural and urban environments. Local authorities too have an important role to play – roundabouts and road verges can make fantastic meadow habitat if properly managed.
On a larger scale, horse and pony owners can adapt the management of their paddocks to benefit wildlife, and at the same time provide a healthier diet for their animals. As owners will know, horses and ponies can suffer from a condition called laminitis, which seriously affects their feet, and is largely caused by eating grass which is too high in sugars. Grazing on a traditionally managed, species rich meadow, offers a high fibre low calorie diet, which is far more appropriate to maintaining horses in good health.
Happily a number of conservation bodies are actively restoring wildflower meadows. Advice abounds for anyone interested in establishing this wonderful habitat themselves, be it as a vital part of a beautiful wildlife garden, or on a larger scale as a smallholder or pony owner. If this is of interest to you, feel free to contact your local Wildlife Trust Officer for advice.
We have also recorded a podcast about the importance of wildflower meadows, their decline and what we can all do to help ensure we do not lose these wonderful landscapes.