East Gills Farm, Gaisgill – Claire Cornish
What are they?
Old upland hay meadows are equally cherished for their wildlife, dazzling colours and for the winter food they provide for cattle. They are mainly found on brown earth soils on level to moderately sloping sites between 200 and 400 metres altitude. In these typically small meadows (often less than two hectares – three football pitches – in size), centuries of woodland clearing, grazing and mowing for hay have favoured a profusion of the plants which once thrived in woodland glades.
Walk through such a meadow and your head will fill with the scent of wildflowers and the chattering of house martins. Delicate silver-washed fritillary butterflies flutter through the grasses, brown hares race across the open slopes, grass snakes bask on warm stones in the sun and barn owls quarter the grasses at dusk.
Where are they found?
Current estimates suggest that only 1,000 hectares of traditional upland hay meadow remain in England, and less than 100 hectares exist in Scotland. The northern Pennine valleys are the main stronghold, particularly Teesdale, Lunesdale, Weardale and Baldersdale in Durham, Swaledale and Wharfedale in North Yorkshire, and around Tebay, Orton and Ravenstonedale in Cumbria. There are also scattered meadows in the Lake District, Lancashire, Northumberland, Perthshire and Aberdeenshire.
Why are they important?
Studded with myriad flowers, upland hay meadows in bloom are a sight to behold. The best meadows may contain up to 120 flowering plants including characteristic species like globeflower, lady’s-mantle, wood crane’s-bill, pignut, oxeye daisy, devil’s-bit scabious, common knapweed and great burnet. No single grass species is consistently dominant: cock’s-foot, crested dog’s-tail, meadow fescue, sweet vernal-grass, and smooth and rough meadow-grasses ripple together in the wind.
It is both the variety and abundance of grasses and flowering plants which make these meadows so valuable for wildlife, providing a plentiful supply of nectar for bees and other invertebrates. In turn, these attract insect-eating birds like swallows and house martins in the day, and bats such as whiskered and noctule at night.
Birds like twite, lapwing, curlew, black grouse, snipe and yellow wagtail rely on these meadows for food and nesting places, and the globally threatened corncrake once set up home here too.
Are they threatened?
Hundreds of years in the making, upland hay meadows are all too quickly destroyed by intensive management. Repeated cutting for silage instead of hay has been the major cause of loss, aided and abetted by other changes in farming practices such as heavy use of herbicides and fertilisers, extensive drainage, and heavy spring grazing.
A recent survey of meadows in the Yorkshire Dales National Park revealed that less than 5% could now be described as herb-rich. A similar survey in the Peak District showed that 75% of flower-rich meadows known to exist in the 1980s had either been lost or degraded by the mid-1990s.
How are The Wildlife Trusts helping?
The Wildlife Trusts are working to prevent further loss of our upland hay meadows by looking after grasslands as nature reserves. We use traditional management techniques, such as hay-cutting and grazing at the right time, to help them to continue their colourful yearly cycle.
Many Wildlife Trusts also provide advice and guidance for landowners and farmers on wildlife-friendly practices in these areas. By ensuring that the land surrounding our reserves is looked after sympathetically for wildlife, we can create A Living Landscape: a network of habitats and wildlife corridors across town and country, benefitting both wildlife and people.
What can I do to help?
- Take part in conservation measures on your land – ask your local Wildlife Trust for advice on grazing and management methods for upland hay meadows.
- Support the work of your local Wildlife Trusts for conserving and restoring meadows – become a member.
- Volunteer with your local Wildlife Trust and help your local grassland wildlife; you could be involved in everything from scrub-cutting to wildflower surveying.
- Support wildlife-friendly, traditionally managed farms by purchasing direct from local farms.