The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
Meet the new meadow makers
The UK has lost 97 per cent of its meadowland since the 1930s. But there are enthusiasts working to repair the damage. By Faith Eckersall
Donna Cox’s happiest childhood memory is of sitting in a buttercup-filled meadow on the dairy farm next to her parents’ Surrey home. When the meadow was sold to become a golf course, she felt bereft. “When you’re small, you can’t express that upset but I think it’s stuck with me all my life,” she says.
She rediscovered this feeling of “pure joy” at the abundance of flowers and wildlife, on a visit to a restored meadow at Widecombe on Dartmoor, 14 years ago. “I was completely bowled over by the flowers growing there and the sense of wellbeing that came with them,” she says. “I immediately wanted to recreate that on our own land.”
Since visiting the meadow, Donna has become part of a growing movement to reverse Britain’s atrocious record of having lost 97 per cent of its meadowland since the 1930s.
These new meadow-makers range from gardeners who have ceased mowing a patch of their city lawn, to Prince Charles, whose Coronation Meadows project – started in 2013 with the charity Plantlife to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – has seen 90 new meadows created across the UK.
The meadow theme was chosen for the Diamond Jubilee as British wildflowers featured heavily on the Queen’s Norman Hartnell Coronation gown.
Building on the success of Coronation Meadows, Prince Charles and Plantlife have since launched Pollinator Meadows, creating fields and patches of land that link existing meadows within a landscape, to benefit pollinating insects.
In January, Plantlife received Green Recovery Fund cash to create and restore 500 hectares of meadow and are offering six apprenticeships to young people, to train in meadow-making.
Meanwhile, Facebook groups such as Making Wildflower Meadows show increasing interest and sales of wildflower seeds are soaring, too. Scottish firm Kabloom reported a “dramatic” average sales rise of 550 per cent for its wildflower “Seedboms”, with a 2,000 per cent spike in sales during the first lockdown, compared to the same period in 2019.
It was in 2006, after the sale of their publishing company, that Donna Cox and her husband bought 150 acres of woodland and pasture at Buckfastleigh in Devon. She cheerfully admits she “didn’t have a clue” how to go about creating a meadow but things couldn’t have been simpler.
Dartmoor National Park agreed to supply her with green hay – a traditional method of seeding large areas using species-rich meadow mowings from an established meadow to bump up seed levels. But the best advice she received was to “leave the land for a spring and summer and see what comes up”. She did and, like magic, flowers began appearing through the grass.
“People think we lost meadows to building, but really it’s down to meadows being ploughed up and reseeded with rye grass, plus the repeated application of inorganic fertiliser to make the soil grow more grass,” she says. “Grass thrives under fertile conditions, which is at the expense of wildflowers – they prefer poor soil.”
Donna introduced yellow rattle, the parasitic plant known as the “meadowmaker” as it reduces the vigour of grasses by feeding off their roots. Over time, she started spotting black knapweed, bird’s-foot trefoil and even some orchids on her land.
Encouraged, she then decided to postpone grazing a wet meadow area until autumn, rather than allowing it in spring and summer, and was entranced to see ragged robin and yellow flag irises arise from the previously flowerfree field.
Now she works full-time on her land and has started the Moor Meadows group, to encourage and support other meadow-makers in Devon. With 900plus members, including farmers who are restoring hay meadows, they have just celebrated the creation of their 1,088th acre of restored meadowland.
“I thought I couldn’t be the only person who was so excited about meadows, so I organised a talk in our village hall and 130 people turned up,” says Donna. They decided to form a group and she put her talents as a former events officer to good use by organising talks and a meadow-makers conference, which moved online last year.
These new meadows range from full fields like hers, to mini-meadows in people’s back gardens. The group has recently launched the Meadow-Makers’ Forum, to connect all those who are creating meadows, whatever their size.
“Before this there was no real way for gardeners, landowners and farmers who are creating meadows to connect and share knowledge or swap tips and news,” she explains. “We are hoping to change that.” Meadows are important, she says, not just because they are so vital for biodiversity, for pollinating insects and as part of our literary and cultural heritage, but because of their contribution to wellbeing. A 2019 study indicated that time spent in well-managed alpine meadows resulted in stress reduction, including lower blood pressure, for those who took part.
“Being in a meadow filled with the sound of insects and seeing the swallows and swifts swoop over is transformative,’ Donna says. “It is calming and improves our wellbeing – and if lockdown has shown us anything, it’s that we need more places like this.”
IT PACKS A PUNCH
Plantlife’s botanical specialist, Dr Trevor Dines, agrees. He is one of the UK’s meadow experts as well as being a dedicated meadowist himself, having created a Coronation Meadow on land he acquired in North Wales. He has been stunned by the biodiversity that has materialised on his three acres.
“Nowhere else has quite the full punch as a wildflower meadow,” he says. He calculates that his meadow was home to a staggering nine million flowers last year, producing enough nectar to support half a million bees per day, as well as capturing and storing carbon.
He created it by scouring up the existing grass and spreading seed-rich green hay from a nearby ancient meadow. “I’ve been talking about the restoration of meadows for years but it’s only when you face the practicalities yourself that you really understand it,” he says.
However, he is just as enthusiastic about mini-meadows, from garden strips to old graveyards and road verges. “A square metre of meadow may have up to 570 flowers on it,” he says, enthusing about the delightfully-named cranesbill, bistort, betony and greenwinged orchids he’s seen over the years.
‘I was completely bowled over by the flowers and the sense of wellbeing that came with them’
COULDN’T BE EASIER
The good news for gardeners is that creating a mini-meadow couldn’t be easier.
“If you have a lawn, just decide not to mow a patch of it, like a Mohican haircut, and see what comes up,” he says. “It can be as simple as that.”
Gardeners can also commit to Plantlife’s “No Mow May”, in which they leave their entire lawn uncut for that month, which can encourage a burst of new flora. “If you then decide to mow a shorter area, try and keep that cut to
every three or four weeks instead of each week,” advises Dines. “You’ll be amazed by the shorter flowers which will emerge and provide nectar for all kinds of pollinating insects.”
These insects become food for birds and small mammals, increasing biodiversity as well as encouraging helpful predators such as toads and hedgehogs to venture into gardens. Cutting down on mowing also saves time, money and reduces carbon footprint he says, and you can easily add visual interest by cutting a mown sward through your meadow area.
He advises buying native wildflower seeds, preferably ones appropriate to your county and its soil type, and believes that even if you can only manage a tub on your balcony: “Every flower counts.”
Petitioning local councils to reduce unnecessary verge-cutting and asking your local church to consider a no-mow policy in all or part of its graveyard can massively contribute to increasing meadowland too, he says.
“What I have discovered is that every meadow is different, even tiny garden ones that are the size of a table-top,” he says. “They change every day and that’s what makes growing them so fascinating and rewarding – you never know what you are going to stumble across.”
‘If you have a lawn, just decide not to mow a patch of it, and see what comes up’