PUBLISHED: 11:47 18 June 2013 | UPDATED: 11:47 18 June 2013
Jim Dixon photographer
Jim Dixon extols the beauty of Derbyshire’s ancient meadowlands
Some 30 years ago I spent a summer as a research student with the then ‘Weed Research Organisation’ in Oxfordshire. My family were amused that the subject of my studies was the ‘rough meadow-grass’. I think they wondered why such an innocuous plant was described as being so uncouth. The rough (or rough-stalked) meadow grass is one of 500 species of meadow-grasses, that are found all over Europe, in New Zealand’s tussock grasslands and in the ‘bluegrass’ prairies of North America.
My heavily-thumbed ‘Hubbard’, the field guide to grasses, describes rough meadow grass with some poetry as being ‘common in meadows and pastures of the lowlands, especially on rich moist soils, but it is also frequent on waste and cultivated land, on pond and stream margins, and it occurs sometimes in partial shade’. As a student I was tasked with studying the reproductive ecology of this grass, recording carefully the conditions that made its seed dormant and those that encouraged its germination. My job was to watch the grass grow. George Elliot said that ‘If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which is the other side of silence.’
One of my pleasures in that summer 30 years ago was to visit field sites to collect tubs of seeds for my trials. I became entranced by the variety of grasses and flowers in those last remnant Oxfordshire meadows at Wendlebury, Yarnton and Port Meadow. I learned at first hand that farming was at once both their saviour and their greatest threat. For much of my subsequent career, I spent many summers measuring, counting, recording and trying to understand grasses and grasslands. It is now a great delight that my home and work bring me closely in touch with some of the best grasslands in the UK here in the Peak District.
In a ‘sward’ of ‘semi-natural’ or ‘unimproved’ grassland, alongside the meadow grasses, you will find sweet vernal grass, crested dogstail, common bent, red fescue, cocksfoot, Yorkshire fog and quaking grass. And a really good meadow is rich in herbs too, with common knapweed or ‘hardheads’, ox-eye daisy, the parasitic hay rattle, meadow vetchling, orchids such as the pyramidal orchid, and meadow clover. A good indicator of the best meadows is whether the clover is mainly white or mainly red, the latter indicating a richer diversity of plants. The meadows can be very dry, on the steep sides of a dale where flowers such as grass of Parnassus and harebell grow or much wetter in the hollows of a valley where meadowsweet and rushes prevail.
A meadow with abundant flowers and grasses is rich in structure and food sources for insects, birds and mammals. Birds such as linnet, goldfinch, bullfinch, song thrush, skylark and, in the higher meadows, twite depend on the botanical wealth of these meadows. In the rushier, wetter and tussocky meadows our snipe, lapwing and curlews build their nests. The brown hare is still relatively common in the White Peak, but its conservation depends on retaining islands of species-rich grasslands in the sea of improved grassland.
Several factors make a meadow richer in plants, but the most important are age and the way they are husbanded by farmers. Few of our meadows have never been ploughed or heavily fertilised, but the best are older and have not been managed to intensify them. A few centuries of benign management is all that is needed. Good meadow management involves shutting them up for hay to grow during the summer. During this time the grasses and herbs can grow to maturity, ripening their seeds and building up strength for the winter. After being cut in the late summer hay-making, cattle or sheep would be let out to graze with some natural fertilisation resulting as a consequence. Some winter muck-spreading would not raise nutrient levels too high. Today the number and area of meadows where this still happens is a tiny proportion of the Peak District.
Probably right into the 1930s, most of the meadows of the upland plateau of the Peak District would have been managed in ways that would have yielded light hay crops but a huge variety and richness ecologically. The wider availability of tractors and tractor-drawn cutters and balers, bagged nitrogen fertiliser and herbicides made controlling weeds and favouring a few productive species easier. The great agricultural revolution of the post-war years, fuelled by national and then European Union subsidies, new plant-breeding techniques and the growth of more organised and systematic means of growing grass for productivity reduced the area of truly rich swards to tiny islands.
Today, the most progressive farmers are clear that better grassland productivity is necessary to maximise the quantity and yield of milk, carcass weight gain for beef and lambs and general animal health. Air temperature and grass growth are measured before precise quantities of fertiliser are spread. Careful management of cutting, rolling and weeds and pests give the farmer uniform, high yielding fields where one species, perennial ryegrass, rules the roost and only a few weeds such as dandelions and buttercups can find a footing. Without a doubt, this is a triumph for food production and it sustains our hill farming communities in the modern world. But the vigorous growth of a handful of species in a meadow leaves little room for the wild herbs, insects and birds that are so abundant in the older meadows.
Today, our challenge is to find ways in which the modern farmer can see the value in the richness of a complete hay meadow. George Gissing said ‘It is the mind which creates the world around us, and even though we stand side by side in the same meadow, my eyes will never see what is beheld by yours, my heart will never stir to the emotions with which yours is touched.’ When the farmers can have their emotions stirred they can find ways of enveloping into the stewardship of their farms the retention and enhancement of these wonderful meadows. n