It may sound obvious but 100 years ago Britain’s countryside was a very different place. Back then it would have been awash with colourful flower-rich meadows and grasslands that were an intrinsic part of our agriculture and people’s daily lives.
The scale of the decline is breath-taking
Fast forward to today and over 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost since the 1930s, that’s a startling 7.5 million acres (3 million hectares). Species-rich grassland now only covers a mere 1% of the UK’s land area.
And what remains is mostly scattered fragments of just a few acres and vulnerable to disappearing under the plough. The seriousness and causes of the decline has been outlined in a report by the charity Plantlife.
According to the charity’s botanical specialist, Dr Trevor Dines, all that remain are just 26,000 acres (10,500 hectares) of lowland wildflower meadow and 2,223 acres (900 hectares) of upland hay meadow in the UK.
“The scale of the decline is breath-taking,” he says.
This loss of meadows and species-rich grasslands is without parallel in the history of nature conservation in the UK according to Save Our Magnificent Meadows, a partnership project led by the charity Plantlife to promote and protect our vanishing meadows.
And what are we doing about it, apart from having the first ever National Meadows Day on last Saturday, the 4 July? Yes, hopefully, this will increase awareness … but what will increasing awareness do? Will people really give up housing land, farm land, industrial farming practices, chemicals, our childish greed for out-of-season food? Personally, I doubt it.
As the article says, meadows develop as a result of traditional farming practices. Each small farm would have grown a few crops, had permanent pasture for grazing, and meadows that were cut for hay which was stored to feed the livestock over winter.Farming followed the annual cycle of growing in spring and summer, harvest in late summer and winter grazing in. WWII changed this when six million acres of grassland were ploughed to grow cereals. After the war, American industrial farming came to be adopted and the decline of our meadows went ballistic. Decades of careful management was undone in a few hours – we are a very shortsighted species!
The article says, “For the greater part, our understanding of what it was like is now confined to memory” … I don’t want this to be the case, I want the meadows back.
Meadows are vital and crucial habitat, as Dr dines says. Over 150 different species of flower and grass support a myriad of insects from bees and beetles to grasshoppers and butterflies, and they in their turn support many small animals and birds, which in their turn support the larger ones … including us! A meadow may well contain 40+ species per square metre – imagine that!
Dr Dines makes the point that as well as supporting pollinating insects the meadows they help mitigate flooding by holding on to rain water and they also capture vast amounts of carbon. Like I said we’re a shortsighted species. We’re also extremely arrogant and know-it-all, we think we can control everything, we think we know better than the Earth. After all, we’re supposed to be the most intelligent species on the planet … aren’t we?
The Earth has only been at it for about 4.5 billion years (by our current best guess) hasn’t she? What could she possibly know more than us?
Our forebears, the farmers who farmed small, who farmed along with the seasons, who didn’t wreck the land for profit, knew far better than we. They nurtured the meadows, they understood all that the meadows do. We’ve lost all that with our cleverness, technology, greed … we need to relearn it.
Dines says the future’s bright. He seems to think that because some of the wildflowers are not having such a hard time, because projects such as Plantlife’s Coronation Meadows and Save our Magnificent Meadows, are supposed to have made important gains in changing attitudes towards meadows. For me this is wishful thinking. Attitudes are all very well … but it’s still “head-stuff”, like making a to-do list and thinking that means you’ve done the work! When I see at least one million of those 7.5 million acres we’ve lost in my lifetime – yes only in my lifetime! – restored then I’ll believe that attitudes have changed. Until then it’s all a load of politico-speak, bullshit baffles brains as my dad used to say. It certainly feels precisely like that now.
We don’t need bullshit about attitudes, we need action. We need the land given back. We need people giving up things to give back to nature, to the Earth, to our planet. Would you do that? Would you give up something to return our meadows? Would you …?