How can nature be in trouble when there are flowers all over the place?

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I have spent a lot of time looking at flowers recently. I have walked past flower-rich strips planted on the edges of farm fields. I have visited chalk hillsides full of flowers and butterflies. I have marvelled at the resurgence of summer plants in areas that were formerly farmland. I have walked through wildflower meadows on private estates and in university grounds, and I have enjoyed the colour and life on roundabouts and council-maintained verges.

The picture above shows a small part of a spectacular wildflower meadow at Culham Court near Henley. Walking through this was an absolute pleasure after the hustle and bustle of Henley on Regatta day. Saturday 6th July 2019 was both semi-finals day at Henley and National Meadow Day. The latter is an annual event promoting wildflower meadows and the work of a consortium of charities led by Plantlife (http://www.magnificentmeadows.org.uk/).

In the spirit of National Meadow Day, I’d like to encourage all my readers to get out and enjoy the flowers. If you are looking for a summer day out in the south-east of England, then you could do worse than take a trip to Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust (BBOWT)’s College Lake near Tring (https://www.bbowt.org.uk/nature-reserves/college-lake). This former chalk pit has extensive areas where wildflowers are being encouraged, as well as things for kids to do, and a cafe with a view. It also has plenty of information about the particular habitats that have been created, why they are important, and what BBOWT are doing to further develop them.

There are summer flowers a-plenty in and around the village where I live, and the bees and butterflies are making the most of them. The insects are spoilt for choice as we have new flower meadows built as part of parks compensating for new housing developments. We also have a number of existing meadows managed by local councils.

Some of our local farmers are planting pollinator strips alongside their crops. One of my favourites is very close to the M4, where the sound of the traffic is almost drowned out by skylarks and yellowhammers. Our largest local council leaves some roundabouts and verges uncut to encourage the growth of plants for colour and pollinating insects. For example, one of the underpasses into my local town centre has a thriving colony of orchids.

As I write this, my local wildflower meadow has poppies, ox-eye daisies, cornflowers and ragged robin in flower. In all of the time that I have lived in this village I can’t remember seeing as many wildflowers. Unfortunately, this is a limited local highlight in a sad story of decline. According to the National Trust (NT, 2019) we have lost 97% of our meadows since the 1930s. The National Trust are currently looking for ways to increase the biodiversity on their land including planting new meadows. My local National Trust properties all have extensive areas of meadow planting.

Compared to this, our environment group’s efforts to make a wildflower area seem a bit pathetic, but hopefully every little helps. All of these new “meadows” face a similar challenge. The flora that is characteristic of a traditional English meadow thrives in unimproved soil. Unfortunately a lot of the land that is being turned back into meadows has previously been farmland (or a golf course) and hence has residues of fertilizer, pesticide and in some cases herbicide. This means that some plants (e.g. grasses and nettles) tend to do better than others. In our wildflower area, we have planted a native plant called yellow rattle to remove some of the fertility from the soil and to out-compete the grasses. We are going to let the yellow rattle do its stuff this year and monitor what else grows before deciding what to plant.

Although wildflower meadows seem to be doing quite well locally, they are all a bit samey. Visits to two chalk meadows on the northern edge of the Chilterns (The Chiltern Society’s Brush Hill and BBOWT’s Yoesden Bank) showed, even my untrained eye, the marked difference between the flora and fauna of my local meadows and that of chalky grassland. I’ve also noticed the differences between managed meadows and neglected fragments of Thames-side flood meadow.

Miles King (King, 2019) has written a fascinating piece to celebrate National Meadow Day. He explains that meadows are largely a human construct, which played an important role in our nation’s history. He also shows how our perception of what a ‘natural’ meadow looks like may well be shifting. It seems to me that we are seeing a welcome resurgence of wildflower areas in public places, but that this is not yet matched by a resurgence of other types of meadow and the corresponding species.

As well as continuing to help with our little wildflower area, I am tempted to do more to encourage a wider range of native flowers at the front of our house and to find out more about the different kinds of meadow that should be found in my part of England.

I’ll leave the final words to William Wordsworth as quoted in Meadowland (Lewis-Stempel, 2015):

“Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things
We murder to dissect.

References

NT, 2019. Making Meadows appeal. [Online] Available at: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/appeal/making-meadows-appeal [Accessed 7th July 2019].

Lewis-Stempel, J., 2015. Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field. London: Transworld Publishers.

King, M., 2019. National Meadows Day. [Online] Available at: https://anewnatureblog.com/2019/07/06/national-meadows-day/ [Accessed 7th July 2019].

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