The hay is cut – a bittersweet moment in the year of the meadow. The thick, tangled sward, the riot of colour from grasses, herbs and rushes all jostling for space suddenly lie flat, to be dried by the summer sun and become sweet hay. The cattle responsible for conservation grazing across Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust’s reserves now have a good store of hay to tide them over throughout the winter months.
This is an important and essential part of meadow management: without cutting or grazing, grasses become overly vigorous and smother the growth of delicate wildflowers. Hay meadows are the ultimate sustainable food source: growing each year with minimum input, they used to be the most important parcels of land on the farm. Consuming meat and dairy products from animals fed on native grasses and herbs (rather than grain) has significant health benefits, with increased omega-3, vitamins A and E and healthy fatty acids which can support the heart and immune system (1). Our modern intensive farming model isn’t good for us, the animals or the environment.
The hay in question is from Herbert’s Meadow: a gem of a meadow in Leicestershire, part of the Ulverscroft Valley Site of Special Scientific Interest. At 4 hectares, it is quite small in area, but more than makes up for this with its wealth of biodiversity. It holds the title of being the most species-rich field in Leicestershire. Luckily I live very close by, so have had the chance to visit the meadow on many occasions throughout the year.
Over winter the meadow can appear to be the same as any old field, but on closer inspection the basal leaves of many different plant species are there, waiting for the turn of the seasons. In June, the first flowers appear and begin to paint the meadow with colour. At this time of year, the grass height is slightly lower, allowing the beautiful orchids to be observed in all their glory.
Hundreds of orchids carpet the meadow: upright spikes of various shades of pink and purple, with a fantastic array of petals patterned with dots, streaks and spots. Common spotted and heath spotted orchids and their hybrids can be seen, with amazing diversity of pattern: I don’t think two orchids look exactly alike. Another speciality on show is the fragrant orchid. These beautiful orchids have bright, shimmering pink flowers, with a rich, sweet scent. The combined elements of the flower’s long spur and its scent increasing in intensity at dusk both indicate the method of pollination: moths! (2).
The earliest meadow species to flower include quaking grass, red clover, hawkbits, meadow buttercup, yellow rattle, pignut, germander speedwell, ribwort plaintain and crested dog’s tail. Wetter areas of the meadow have patches of bugle, cuckoo flower and ragged robin growing amongst the rushes.
Traditionally, hay meadows would begin to be cut from mid-June onwards: the herbs and grasses are at their most nutritious when in flower. In today’s landscape, hay meadows are small and fragmented, meaning that the hay cut can result in the sudden disappearance of a vast floral resource. This year, Herbert’s Meadow was cut late in the summer with a wide strip left around the edges; something I’m sure the local pollinators thrived upon. Historically, hay meadows could account for between a quarter and a third of land use on farmland (3). Having lost 97% of our meadows, it is an impoverished landscape that many species struggle to reside in today.
Later on in June, other plants become more prominent, such as betony, bird’s-foot trefoil, common sorrel and oxeye daisy. Marsh thistle sprouts here and there, an important flower for pollinators to visit, being one of the top nectar-producing plants of all of our wildflowers. The flowers are complemented by the presence of woodland and scrub surrounding the meadow. From a pollinator’s perspective, there are abundant resources throughout the seasons: willow trees for the first nectar and pollen of spring, lesser celandine and bluebells to follow and bramble flowers as summer sets in.
Looking closely at the flowers one sunny day, I saw a flash of brilliant turquoise: I had found a forester moth! Relatively rare in Leicestershire, these day-flying beauties are found in a cluster of locations in the Charnwood Forest, but a few years can pass without seeing them in some places, such as Herbert’s meadow. This was my first forester of the year; I was lucky enough to find two more individuals at Herbert’s meadow and another two at the nearby Priory Pasture SSSI. Forester moths have a local distribution, with their colonies being vulnerable to habitat destruction and fragmentation. One of its foodplants is common sorrel, an abundant plant across the county; however this beautiful moth is declining in many places. Loss of the extent and connectivity of flower-rich habitats is largely to blame, additionally; the forester may be more vulnerable overwintering as a larva in over-grazed habitats.
As July comes around, the earlier spring plants give way to others. Common knapweed, great burnet, greater bird’s-foot trefoil, meadowsweet and devil’s-bit scabious cover the meadow. The sward takes on a purplish haze as bent grasses flower, their open panicles creating a soft, misty effect and obscuring some of the shorter plants. Evidence of the larger animals that visit the meadow can be scarce: the scat of a badger here, the smell of a fox there… although once I did spot a weasel in the grass!
We had reached high summer, and peak time for bees and butterflies! On a warm, sunny day I walked around just over half of Herbert’s Meadow to conduct a survey for Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count. In 15 minutes, I had spotted 12 species of butterfly and moth and 81 individuals in total: a fantastic result. Noticing the abundance of bees that I couldn’t count at the same time as the butterflies, I walked back around again and counted 216 bees in just over 40 minutes. The meadow was absolutely buzzing with bees feeding on knapweed, marsh thistle, betony and bird’s-foot trefoil. As well as these eye-catching pollinators, many more insects fill the meadow with life throughout the summer months, including beetles, flies, hoverflies, dragonflies, crickets, grasshoppers and spiders.
Late summer and the meadow isn’t quite finished yet. Being such a botanically diverse grassland, there are plants flowering from spring all the way through to the autumn. Devil’s-bit scabious colours the meadow a beautiful shade of purple in August: one of my favourite flowers that persists until quite late in the year. The only problem I find is its name: it doesn’t sound particularly appealing, having been named after its stubby roots that were supposedly bitten off by the Devil who was angered by the plant’s medicinal properties. I think a more appropriate name for the plant would be something like ‘Meadow Button’, which sums the plant up nicely!
Beautiful hay fields such as Herbert’s Meadow were once common across our countryside. Sadly, sites such as this are tiny and scattered across the landscape. The hard work of organisations such as the Wildlife Trust ensures these habitats are managed appropriately so that they can continue to thrive into the future. Sometimes I wonder if it is enough to cling on to these small pieces of a much bigger puzzle: I believe that to truly strive to conserve special habitats, we must try to expand them where possible. If money were no object, how wonderful it would be to start transforming the adjacent arable fields using green hay techniques (to preserve plants best adapted to local conditions) to create even more wildflower meadows.
- Wilding (2018) Isabella Tree, Picador
- Biological Flora of the British Isles: Gymnadenia conopsea s.l. (2012) Meekers et al. Journal of Ecology
- Meadows (2017) George Peterken, Bloomsbury Natural History