What is a meadow? Meadows are an open habitat, free from woody vegetation made up of grasses, herbs, and non-woody plants. They are usually a mixture of perennial and annual plants. The latter are soon lost from the composition if cut before they go to seed.

The History of meadows

When we say the word meadow it is almost always synonymous with the production of hay. The process of haymaking dates back to at least the Iron age (1200 BC) when areas of grassland were allowed to grow to later be harvested and used as feed for livestock over the Winter.  These meadows were an incredibly common sight across the UK. Now due to modern agricultural practices, a loss of land to development and further habitat fragmentation we have only around 2% of the meadows remaining that we had in the 1930s, two per cent. Did you know that meadows make up only 1% of landcover in the UK, this is a tragedy when you consider they can support hundreds of species. 

The importance of meadows and a loss of diversity

Meadows are of incredible importance aside from the incredibly beautiful assemblage of flowering plants they also provide habitat for bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, hoverflies, small mammals, bats and birds, that is before we look at further ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and water retention. Humans in the UK have almost entirely fragmented all our green spaces. Motorways, and urban sprawl which means all the remaining pockets of species-rich grasslands are isolated, isolation makes them vulnerable to destruction. This is particularly the case in urban areas where we have pushed wildlife to the sidelines.

How to make a native wildflower meadow

It is relatively easy to create a locally appropriate wildflower meadow on an area of mown grassland. The key to meadow creation is diversity in adversity, low nutrient conditions allow finer grasses and higher numbers of flowering plants. Whenever you cut the area, you are wanting to remove as much of the clippings as possible, for this reason, mulching mowers are far from ideal and something such as a strimmer or scythe is way more preferable. If you stick to the following steps, you should see results after a few years:

  1. In the first year leave the area unmown after winter until the end of May, this should give you some idea of the best way to proceed. If there are already a decent number of flowering plants, then continue to do nothing until late July/early august. If, however, your meadow is still dominated by grasses keep cutting and removing throughout the growing season of this first year, allowing the grass to spend energy growing before cutting, waiting for it to get back to 20-30cm before cutting back and removing again. This is different from keeping a well-cut lawn.
  2. The timing of the later summer cut is important as going forward this will keep any annuals within your meadow. Wait for a dry spell (late July/early August) and cut the grass down to ground level again, this time leaving the clippings for a day or two to dry out (this aids seeds falling out). After a couple of days remove all the cuttings. In the first few years, you may find you have thatch (dead grass material close to ground level) this needs to removed as it stops seeds from the flowers from reaching the soil, use a scarifier or rake to remove as much as possible. This is hard work but should become less and less of a problem after successive years.
  3. If the area is still growing after the late summer cut you can continue to mow and remove as you see fit, indeed it is beneficial to have the grass short over the winter giving flowering plants a chance to get going in the following spring. This action mimics aftermath grazing which was fairly common practice on hay meadows.
  4. In the new year stop cutting your meadow area and let it grow again until the late Summer and repeat the cut a removal process, in this second year you could introduce native wildflower seed (select appropriately for your soil type), species such as yellow-rattle help to create space for wildflowers by parasitising on grass roots. Ideally, this should be as locally sourced as possible.
  5. Do not be disheartened or surprised if it isn’t a wildflower-rich meadow after one or two years, it takes time, the most important thing to do is to not cut during the growing season until late summer, and then remove the material. If you keep up the management, I promise eventually you will convert your lawn into a meadow with many more flowering plants. Signs to look out for are less vigorous grass growth and slow increases in flowering plants these are signs you are on your way to a beautiful locally appropriate meadow

Time and patience

Unsurprisingly as meadows came about due to long-standing management, the annual cutting and removal (for feed) of plants the creation of a wildflower meadow is not a quick process; beware anyone who tells you otherwise!

In recent years there has been a real trend for showy annual meadows, often using non-native species mixes with foreign seed this is not preferable, introducing non-native species have to potential to outcompete native species. They also require re-ploughing, spraying, and seeding annually, which adds extra management costs.  These types of meadows flower quickly and often at a similar time giving a short burst of flowers for pollinators. Unfortunately, much of the associated management (spraying and ploughing) harms many of the pollinators they are put in to help.

When compared to a species-rich meadow of native species which has developed over time it is chalk and cheese:

  • Requires less onerous management
  • Provides a wide variety of native species
  • Longer flowering periods
  • No need for chemicals
  • Culturally and historically important
  • Composition gets better annually

It certainly is tempting to go for the instant annual ‘meadow’ though if we are serious about wanting to provide a beautiful habitat that is beneficial to wildlife there is only one choice.

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