Recolouring The Countryside - Why We Need To Put Meadows Back On The Map

In the UK, our most intensively farmed land is a wasteland for biodiversity
Muker meadows, Yorkshire
Muker meadows, Yorkshire
Dr Trevor Dines

It pains me to say this as a botanist but far too often plants are seen as no more than a backdrop, an out-of-focus green screen in front of which our more ‘charismatic’ wildlife can appear. This apparent ‘plant blindness’ shrouds the ultimate truth, as set out by Sir David Attenborough: “plants capture energy from the sun and all life on land, directly or indirectly, depends on them. So, ultimately, plants fuel the diversity of life on earth.”

For decades, such blindness has allowed a wrecking ball to silently swing through the countryside demolishing great swathes of our most species-rich habitat: wildflower meadows.

The remarkable scale of wildflower meadow destruction

Since the 1930s we have lost over 97% of wildflower meadows, nearly 7.5 million acres destroyed. If I told you that 97% of woodland had been lost there’d be a national outcry. Within living memory, one could walk from Stratford-upon-Avon to Birmingham entirely within meadows. That’s simply impossible today.

The steady decline of our meadows is one of the biggest tragedies in the history of UK conservation. Without the roar of chainsaws or the sound of mighty oaks crashing to the ground, ancient meadows have quietly disappeared from under our feet. Meadows with undisturbed floral histories going back generations are being ploughed up in a single afternoon.

People tie themselves to trees as the chainsaws arrive, but nobody lies down amongst meadow buttercups in protest.

Why this destruction matters

Step into a meadow and within arm’s reach you can typically touch 15 to 40 different species of plant. Across the whole meadow you might see over 140 species, a concentrated diversity of flowers that’s unique in Britain.

But meadows are much more than just pretty flowers. They are unrivalled havens for wildlife.

Over 1,370 species of insects eat meadow plants, along with an army of pollinating bees, butterflies and hoverflies and a soil alive with ants, fungi, worms and beetles. On average five acres of meadow contains about one ton of insects and 40 million predatory invertebrates. Along with herbivores like hares and voles there are predators, from moles to foxes and curlews to kestrels. Meadow predators might not have the terrible tusks of more charismatic megafauna but they’re an integral part of the complex tapestry of meadows, one of the most thrilling and exhilarating habitats in Britain.

Who cares?

Coverage of the government’s pledge to take action on single-use plastics as part of ‘A Green Future - Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’ understandably dominated the headlines, but it was promising to see some green shoots of a growing recognition of the need to act on meadows.

Indeed, the plan’s foreword promises government support for “farmers to turn over fields to meadows rich in herbs and wildflowers.” The headline goal to achieve “Thriving plants and wildlife” is deeply heartening as is idea of establishing wildflower recovery areas that “would make it easier for people to visit flower-rich meadows, grasslands and heathlands close to their homes.”

While such warm words are welcome they will need to be followed up with cold, hard action if we are to actually restore our beleaguered meadows, create new meadows and better support farmers. I’m proud that we at Plantlife have led the UK’s largest grassland partnership in creating and restoring 6,000 hectares of wildflower meadows in just three years and we will continue to spearhead the charge by working closely with government to enrich and expand our magnificent meadowlands that so benefit the lives of plants, wildlife and people.

What can be done?

Our meadow flora thrives under traditional annual hay cutting and winter grazing - as practised for hundreds of years. This is the sweet spot that maximises diversity and is how Plantlife manages its meadow reserves. But there’s simply not enough land managed in this way. Intensive farmland covers 46% of our land, while scrub and woodland habitats cover 32%. Our most species-rich habitats, wildflower meadows, cover just 1%.

In the UK, our most intensively farmed land is a wasteland for biodiversity - home to just 5% of our wild flower species, many only clinging on in the thin margins of fields. We cannot allow the final surviving 1% to be ploughed up. Instead we must target the 46% of farmland and create new wildflower meadows on an ambitious scale to repair the damage.

The release of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ future farming consultation - launched this week and running for the next 10 weeks promises a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the future of English farming and the environment.” Central to Plantlife’s planned response to the consultation will be a call for the creation of more meadows on farmland. That really would deliver a ‘green future’ where the value of our plantlife becomes centre stage, not just an out-of-focus background.

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