THE SE­CRET LIFE OF A HAY MEADOW

Nat­u­ral­ist Phil Gates cel­e­brates the won­der of teem­ing life in this in­creas­ingly rare habi­tat

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents - Il­lus­tra­tions: Lizzie Harper

These rare habi­tats are burst­ing with life – so why are such fer­tile havens so frag­ile, and which species can one ex­pect to find within them? Nat­u­ral­ist Phil Gates is our guide.

At the Eg­gle­ston Agri­cul­tural Show in Tees­dale, held at the end of ev­ery sum­mer, there is a com­pe­ti­tion class called Half a Lit­tle Bale of Old Land Hay. Af­ter the judges have de­lib­er­ated, like wine con­nois­seurs sam­pling a fine vin­tage from an ex­cep­tional ter­roir, I of­ten go to ex­am­ine the pro­duce my­self.

It has a warm, sweet fra­grance, far re­moved from the acrid smell of new mown grass. To un­der­stand the source of its sub­tle aroma you would need to travel back in time to a day in June and to the meadow that it came from. Such fields can be home to as many as a hun­dred plant species, co­hab­it­ing in a del­i­cate bal­ance that de­pends on an an­cient form of hus­bandry.

Hay cut­ting, fol­lowed by graz­ing and limited ma­nur­ing, main­tains a low level of soil fer­til­ity that pre­vents any species from be­com­ing dom­i­nant, sup­port­ing a level of flo­ral bio­di­ver­sity that is breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful. There, among the grasses, you would find the sources of that com­fort­ing fra­grance: the leaves of mead­owsweet, with their vaguely medic­i­nal smell; lady’s bed­straw, with a so­porific scent that led to its use in stuff­ing mat­tresses; and coumarin-scented sweet ver­nal grass. Add to that a bou­quet of other botan­i­cal in­gre­di­ents – lady’s man­tle, cranes­bills, but­ter­cups, hay rat­tle, scabi­ous and clover, to name but a few – and then leave it to dry in the sun. This alchemy cre­ates the sweet­est, most fra­grant bale of hay, the essence of sum­mer.

There can­not be an­other agri­cul­tural crop that con­trib­utes so much to wildlife and to the ru­ral land­scape. It teems with life. At peak flow­er­ing time, these old mead­ows hum with bees, nec­tar­ing on clover and hay rat­tle flow­ers. Swarms of hov­er­flies col­lect pollen and moths lay their eggs among the leaves; a myr­iad of other in­sects live and breed here. They in turn pro­vide food for swal­lows that skim across the fields and red­starts and wag­tails that make feed­ing for­ays from the en­clos­ing walls. Stand and watch for long enough and you’ll likely see curlews and sky­larks, watch a kestrel stoop on mice and voles that scurry in the un­der­growth or catch sight of the long ears of a hare among the flow­ers.

All this is dis­tilled into those bales of hay on the show bench, where the mem­o­ries of long sum­mer af­ter­noons come flood­ing back ev­ery time I smell their fra­grance.

A BRIEF HIS­TORY OF HAY MEAD­OWS

Only about 1,000 hectares of tra­di­tional up­land hay meadow re­main, mostly in North York­shire and the North Pen­nines. A fur­ther 1,500 hectares of low­land meadow are scat­tered across the Bri­tish Isles, to­gether with a smaller area of sea­son­ally flooded grass­lands and man­aged water mead­ows that have a di­verse flora. Tra­di­tional mead­ows that sur­vive de­pend largely on fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives for farm­ers or are in the care of con­ser­va­tion char­i­ties.

The pres­ence of wood­land flow­ers such as wood cranes­bill in some old grass­land sug­gests that the ori­gins of these flower-rich habi­tats can be traced back to orig­i­nal for­est clear­ings, and that cen­turies of hay har­vest­ing, fol­lowed by graz­ing with min­i­mal nu­tri­ent in­put, main­tained a highly di­verse flora.

The plough­ing of hay mead­ows for con­ver­sion to arable pro­duc­tion be­gan in earnest dur­ing the First World War, gath­er­ing pace dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. In the lat­ter half of the 20th cen­tury, the ap­pli­ca­tion of ar­ti­fi­cial fer­tilis­ers in many mead­ows favoured vig­or­ously grow­ing grasses at the ex­pense of less com­pet­i­tive wild­flow­ers. More re­cently, re­seed­ing with high­yield­ing for­age grasses, which are har­vested with­out dry­ing to make the fer­mented silage fed to cat­tle, be­came an eco­nom­i­cally more at­trac­tive al­ter­na­tive to tra­di­tional hay-mak­ing. The lat­ter re­quires at least four con­sec­u­tive days of fine weather in our capri­cious cli­mate.

1 Hay rat­tle is a par­a­site on grass roots that steals their nu­tri­ents and re­duces their vigour, help­ing sur­round­ing wild flow­ers to com­pete suc­cess­fully. Tra­di­tion­ally, hay mak­ing be­gins when its dry seed pods rat­tle.

2 One of the first species to flower, Meadow sax­ifrage pro­duces porce­lain-white flow­ers on long stems. It dies down quickly af­ter flow­er­ing, leav­ing tiny buds called bul­bils that will be­gin growth again in early March.

3 Wood cranes­bill is per­haps an echo of mead­ows’ ori­gins as wood­land clear­ings. It’s the first large-flow­ered cranes­bill to bloom, fol­lowed by paler blue meadow cranes­bill. Both have beaked fruits that cat­a­pult seeds into sur­round­ing veg­e­ta­tion.

4 Old mead­ows are home to the greater but­ter­fly or­chid, whose pale flow­ers are pol­li­nated by night-fly­ing moths that are at­tracted by its scent. Nec­tar is hid­den in a long, slen­der spur, only ac­ces­si­ble with a long pro­boscis.

5 Ragged robin 6 Globe flower 7 Mead­owsweet 8 Melan­choly this­tle Grass­land that has never been ploughed of­ten has an un­du­lat­ing sur­face. These tall mois­ture-lov­ing species pro­duce lusher growth in moist hol­lows, while low-grow­ing species favour higher, drier hum­mocks.

9 The freshly ex­ca­vated earth of a mole hill pro­vides per­fect con­di­tions for seed ger­mi­na­tion.

10 Hun­gry swal­lows swoop low over the flow­ers and grasses on sum­mer days, feed­ing on the abun­dance of in­sects that feed and breed on the wealth of plant species in a meadow.

11 The day-fly­ing chim­ney sweeper moth is a com­mon sight in North Pen­nine mead­ows, where its cater­pil­lars feed on pignut.

12 The wing mark­ings of the Ship­ton moth re­sem­ble a witch’s face.

13 Hay meadow grasses are im­por­tant food for sev­eral but­ter­fly cater­pil­lars. Lar­vae of the meadow brown but­ter­fly feed on fine leaves of fes­cues and bents.

14 Large skip­per but­ter­flies pro­duce lar­vae that eat the coarser fo­liage of cock’s-foot grass.

15 Mead­ows are a par­tic­u­larly good source of nec­tar and pollen for hard-pressed bum­ble­bee species such as the white-tailed bum­ble­bee. Bur­rows of small mam­mals around field edges pro­vide nest sites.

16 Meadow and com­mon green grasshop­pers hatch in April and go through four nymphal stages be­fore be­com­ing winged adults in early July, just in time to es­cape the mower. Their chirrup­ing is the mu­sic of a drowsy sum­mer af­ter­noon.

Hares are fond of the habi­tat af­forded by a tra­di­tional hay meadow, as their diet com­prises mainly grasses and herbs

Wild­flow­ers bloom in Muker mead­ows in Swaledale, one of the best places to see up­land hay mead­ows in the York­shire Dales. Among the riot of flora, spot yel­low rat­tle, wood crane’s-bill, melan­choly this­tle, pignut, lady’s man­tles, rough hawk­bit, cat’s-ear and sweet ver­nal grass

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