Improving Our Hay Meadows
By Celia Chapple
“When you saw a spring meadow, the bright welcome of yellows, reds, blues and whites came upon you, sheer breath-taking beauty of sparkling stars nodding in a light sunny breeze.”
This is a description of the species-rich hay meadows that I grew up around, full of naturally occurring flowers that were a common sight in earlier times. I write this description in the past tense because hay meadows, banks and road verges have undergone a long-term decline due to human population pressures and the resultant changes in agricultural practises, and some people won’t have seen them.
They are hugely important for biodiversity – for flora, invertebrates and a suite of upland birds in particular – and they are also culturally significant for us too. Dried herbage has been a mainstay of livestock fodder since The Iron Age.
North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) has 40% of UK’s species-rich upland hay meadows. Restoration has already begun with a partnership of farmers, local contractors, and various organisations. They have identified donor and recipient meadows for the harvesting and spreading of species-rich green hay, and corridors of improved meadows have been created in dales. 237 hectares of species rich upland hay meadow have been restored, an effective doubling of the resource in the North Pennines, supporting up to a 20% increase in the UK total. Farmer-focused nature recovery continues for hay meadows and upland restoration in upper Teesdale and Swaledale under the newly-funded Tees-Swale: naturally connected programme, a National Lottery Heritage Funded 5-year scheme led by the AONB Partnership in collaboration with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.
Trained and guided by a North Pennines AONB plant ecologist, over 100 volunteers have spent many hours supporting this project. Originally, seeds were tractor-harvested from species-rich fields and spread to one requiring improvement. The success rate and cost of this method proved prohibitive, so collecting and propagating the seeds, then plugging seedlings into fields, has been established.
The Seed Collector’s Experience
Farmer-focused nature recovery continues for hay meadows and upland restoration in upper Teesdale and Swaledale under the newly funded Tees-Swale: naturally connected programme led by the North Pennines AONB Partnership in collaboration with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority. A plant ecologist has identified 20 optimum flower species for a species-rich hay meadow, and over 100 volunteers have spent many hours supporting this project. As tractor-harvesting and spreading seeds from one field to another proved prohibitive, volunteers collect, dry and cultivate seeds, then plug the previous year’s well-established seedlings into fields in the autumn. AONB staff monitor these sites.
Starting in late spring, I undertake the unusual hobby of seed collecting for this project. I collect a maximum of 10% of seeds present from a colony large enough to yield them. Beginning with early flowering species such as globeflower, water avens and pignut, I continue through the summer collecting from wood and meadow cranesbill, yellow-rattle, eyebright and melancholy thistle, ending with red clover, meadow vetchling, great burnet, betony and devil’s bit scabious, to name a few.
Seed collecting is a slow, quiet, meditative walk, often in beautiful places, sometimes in forgotten scrubby nooks, up to my waist in thistles and brambles, reaching for seed heads. I have learnt whether a species likes wet, dry or woodland conditions, how each flower stores its seeds and what its ripe seed looks like. An afternoon of handling these plants and being in their company is calming and a privilege.
Seed collecting also teaches patience. Some days I come home empty-handed as weather conditions affect seed maturity, each site having its own micro-climate. The same flower, barely formed in upper Teesdale, is ripe in a sunnier, more sheltered site elsewhere. I monitor sites for weeks and return several times before gathering seeds. Some days, the small accomplishment of harvesting a handful of the scarce wood cranesbill seed by overcoming its sophisticated seed ejection mechanism just at the time of the seed’s maturity, can make the larger problem of diminishing hay meadows seem distant, overwhelming and unachievable. If I do what I am capable of, seed by seed, small step by small step, the greater goal of giving life to these beautiful plants and meadows is possible.