Permanent pasture for grazing or haymaking

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

- William Wordsworth,   Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

The time was when the English countryside was filled with the sights, sounds and smells of haymaking in the late summer. The days are long gone when farmers relied on hay for winter fodder for their animals. Meadows provided that vital resource which made the difference between life or death for the flocks and herds.

The coming of cheap, mass-produced cattle food has meant a decline in one of the most important wildlife habitats throughout Europe. Next to the hedgerow, grassy meadows bore a plethora of different species of grasses, wildflowers, herbs, butterflies and other insects. These ecosystems were a vital part of the food chain which supported such variety, such beauty and such wonder to inspire the likes of Wordsworth to pen the words above.

Meadows are generally considered to mean small areas of grassland, rich in wild plants, which is allowed to grow and seed itself year by year. Management is restricted to either grazing or cutting the field annually. There are many types of meadow, defined by climate and plant distribution (including water meadow, fen meadow and alpine meadow), but I will focus on those meadows I know best - the meadows of England.

Ancient Meadows

Meadows have been a feature of rural economies since Mankind began farming. Early farmers would permit their beasts to roam and graze within enclosed areas throughout the year whenever food was plentiful, but would often set aside some fields in which the grass would be allowed to grow. This became a cache of food for the winter season, when good grazing was difficult or impossible to find. At the close of the season, when the grasses had shed their seed, farmers would gather the grasses, along with whatever else was growing, allow it to dry and collect it together to be stored for provender.

In England, this would be done in late summer, following prayers for clement weather. Typically, the fields would be cut by teams of men with scythes, the gathering of the crop being a community effort, with men, women and children gathering the hay, and culminating in the building of the haystack. So important was this as a resource, that the culmination of the gathering would often be celebrated with a Haymaking Feast, to which all participants were invited.

Under Threat

The ancient meadows are home to many species of flora and fauna which are now threatened. Deep ploughing and use of pesticides are damaging to the ecology of these fields, and many plant species, which used to seed prolifically and spread from meadowlands, are now on the decline. Those most at threat include the Early Spider Orchid and Burnt-tip Orchid, both of which are gone from Northamptonshire and Essex, and are threatened in other counties. Deptford Pink and the herb Meadow clary are also on the decline.

Many butterflies, which relied on meadow plants for food, are also losing ground, and many are almost extinct. The Marsh Fritillary now breeds only in scattered wild grasslands and the ChalkHill Blue is also becoming rarer as modern agricultural methods (and farmer's ignorance) grow. These are but a few of the losses we face with the demise of old meadows.

It is no wonder that meadows have struck such resonant chords in British poets. They are places of wonder, a feast for all the senses. To watch the wind playing in the grass flowers and see clouds of butterflies seeking mates and foodplants for their young, to smell the rich earth and fragrant flowers, to feel Nature working around you. Birdsong from abudant hedgerows and the scurrying of the harvest mouse and shrew complete the experience. This delight will one day be gone, and we will be the poorer for it.

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