THE SECRET LIFE OF A HAY MEADOW
Naturalist Phil Gates celebrates the wonder of teeming life in this increasingly rare habitat
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