It’s national meadows day and I thought this would be a good point to write something about them.
Meadows – the word is deep within our collective memory – it crops up on branded packaging for fake supermarket farms, decaying council estates from the 50s, and even beyond these shores. Meadow Lane is the location where some of the darkest action in the classic David Lynch neo-noir Blue Velvet take place. It’s the one place you did not want to end up.
The word is old – from the proto-germanic medwo – “land covered in grass which is grown for hay”, though interestingly while we follow that root, in German the word is now Wiese. I suspect that grass is used here to describe a sward composed of grasses and other wildflowers, because it would never have just been grass let alone one kind of grass. A typical wildflower meadow might contain 20 different species of grass.
I realise, writing this, that I must have written a hundred thousand words about meadows during my career. Typing it feels like I’ve picked an old book off the shelf, a much loved one with dog-eared cover and perhaps a few notes in the margin. Have I got anything new to say?
Meadows are both natural and a human artefact. Nature didn’t invent the scythe or mower – before the Romans did that, nature had its own way of preventing trees from growing and allowing herbaceous (ie not woody) plants to flourish – grazing, flooding, frost, fire – and the combinations of these created conditions we cannot even conceive. But 2000 years ago someone invented the scythe and Meadows were born – to create hay – a food which can be stored over winter. For nearly two thousand years horses, and before them Oxen, powered civilisation – before the revelation that dense energy was to be found underground, to be exploited. Horses and Oxen are powered by vegetation – and that means lots of pasture and meadows.
Being so essential, Meadows were revered, treasured, closely guarded. Woe betide anyone thinking about taking a short cut through a growing meadow. Some meadows were common land – the famous Lammas meadows of (mostly) English floodplains. Commoners chose which strip they would get to mow each year by drawing balls from a bag – some strips yielded more than others, so it was fair for the allocation to be random.
A rich culture grew up around meadows – Shakespeare often incorporated them and their need for care into his work – which, when you think about how much of Warwickshire was covered in meadows, is not that surprising…. Shakespeare drew an analogy between the need to mow a meadow lest it be taken over by weeds, and the anarchy in France after Agincourt – and places these words on the Duke of Burgundy’s lips…
The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth The freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover, Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank, Conceives by idleness and nothing teems But hateful docks, rough thistle, kecksies, burs, Losing both beauty and utility ….
Things started to change with the Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century, as farmers realised they could gather grass seed and sow it to create leys. These had fewer wildflowers and more grass, so produced a great volume of hay. Artificial fertilisers came in by the 1840s and by the late 19th century chemicals were being applied to both meadows and pastures in an effort to rid them of unwanted plants. What we now call Dyer’s greenweed (also known as Wood Wax) was troublesome in a meadow, because it is quite woody, catches the mower blade (blunting it?) and produces poor hay. Sulphuric acid (presumably a common byproduct of industrial chemical processes) was applied to it in an attempt to rid meadows of this plant. Even as industrialisation proceeded apace, horses were still central to society and culture, and they needed hay. Through the First World War, hay meadows were being mown to supply fodder to Flanders – food shortages and the challenges of getting a bulky material across the Channel to France were mentioned in Cabinet, as the space was needed for both soldiers and hay.
Imagine what Dominic Raab would have done… “I had no idea so much hay was needed to feed horses….”
But things were already changing. Motorised transport took a leap forward in that decade and the fate of the hay meadow was sealed, it just didn’t know it. Perhaps if it hadn’t been for the terrible agricultural depression which ran from 1922 to 1939, hay meadows would have disappeared more quickly. Either way, many were ploughed during the “Great Harvests” of 1941 and 1942. And the rest gradually disappeared as tractor replaced horse over the following three decades, and ryegrass/clover swards replaced wildflowers. Until today when there are perhaps 5000 hectares of wildflower meadows left.Whether it’s a 95% loss or a 97% loss is really just academic. The fact is that once they had lost their economic reason for existence, they disappeared. Cultural value was not sufficient a justification for their survival in most cases.
About half are protected by the designation of Site of Special Scientific Interest, and about half are not. Many of those that do survive are tiny, just an acre or two. They are very vulnerable to being destroyed, often by accident – especially during a change of ownership, when their value is not appreciated.
But there has been a movement now, for nearly 30 years of creating new wildflower meadows. Techniques for creating them have improved hugely even during my career and the best new ones look quite similar to those old meadows which have been around for two hundred, five hundred, or even more than a thousand years. No, they don’t have that peculiar and difficult to describe spirit of place – the genius loci, of the ancient meadows. But it will come – it’s only a question of time and use. But I wonder whether they will last long enough… how long will they last? Meadows created under a 10 year agri-environment scheme, are liable to be ploughed up and returned to a more conventional farming practice, once that scheme ends. Perhaps their future lies in urban landscapes.
Which brings me to pictorial meadows and semantics. Pictorial Meadows is a neologism – it was invented to describe a mixture of attractive flowers – mainly non-native but often including former arable weeds (that’s another story) like common poppy, cornflower and corn marigold. These mixes are sown usually in urban areas to create an attractive floral display, and also provide some limited support for local pollinators. They have a country cousin called pollinator mixes which are sown along the edges of arable fields, and have a more direct aim to benefit pollinators, which is reflected in the species which are included in the mix. Neither are meadows in the sense I describe earlier in this piece.
I wrote about pictorial meadows back in 2012 – and it created a bit of debate at the time, which you can read here . With the demise of The Grasslands Trust, much of its former web footprint has gone – but the blog survives! I was a bit harsh on Pictorial Meadows back then. I suppose my whole attitude towards conservation has changed over the past 7 years, as rewilding has forced everyone to reconsider prior assumptions, and the broader issue of why we value nature has come to the fore.
But regardless of what I think, the phrase pictorial meadows has been taken up – and in the last couple of years the media has also adopted it. This has led to some interesting confusion. Now pictorial meadow mix sown along roads has also started to be confused with wildflower-rich road verges, for example in this recent BBC story.
And, to celebrate national meadows day (today) the guardian asks its readers to send in photos of “wildflower or planted meadows or verges.”
wildflower meadows can be planted, or they can have developed from wild plants. Verges are not wildflower meadows, but they are mown so have some of the same plants – and in places they are the last refuges of wild flowers which have been evicted from their meadow homes. But I think the Guardian is using planted verges to describe the type of Pictorial Meadow that Rotherham Council planted to such great effect.
Does it matter that ancient wildflower meadows and pictorial mixes planted in the central reservation of urban dual carriageways are mentioned in the same breath, or regarded as interchangeable? After all, it’s all nature. Well, yes and no.
Long suffering readers of this blog will recall just how many times I have droned on about the importance of language in effectively communicating to a wider public why nature is important and should be valued. I have banged the drum against phrases like ecosystem services or natural capital, so it’s pretty obvious that I care, perhaps slightly obsessively, about the way we talk or write about nature. And this is no exception.
The debate about meadows reminded me of Owen Paterson, our former Secretary of State against the Environment. He had been to Australia and looked at some “very old trees” or VOTs as the Aussies described them. Some VOTs needed to be felled to make way for a new road (I think) but it was ok because thousands of new ones were going to be planted elsewhere. To OPatz, this type of offsetting was fine because the overall number of beans to be counted (biodiversity units or whatever) was greater at the end of the project than the beginning. OPatz was fine with ancient woodlands being destroyed eg by HS2 because many more new trees could be planted – I wonder now whether he genuinely believes that new trees are better than old ones, like a new car is better than an old one.
And now we have a new meadow – a pictorial meadow. It’s straightforward to create, is dazzlingly beautiful, it’s low maintenance. No need to move animals in or out of it, or worry about the weather for hay making. People are now just accepting that it’s a meadow.
The old meadow has more or less been forgotten – it’s gone out of people’s lives, long ago. Best to move on. Progress.
Is that, collectively, what we want to do? Even if a few of us don’t, is there really anything we can do about it?
Here’s a film that People Need Nature put together (thanks to Chris Tizzard and Keith Datchler) to accompany our meadow soundscape from 2017.