Wednesday 30 July 2014

Say GO to the mow!

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

I’m standing in a meadow in Sussex on the hottest day of the year. The July sun is doing a good job of bleaching the scene but, even this late in the season, the straw-brown field is punctuated with colour; deep purple betony (Stachys officinalis) with its short, fat flower spikes and tall Devils’-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis) throwing blue discs above the grasses. At my feet, yellow Lady’s-bedstraw (Galium verum) is sprawled through the sward, reminiscent of its former use to sweeten the scent of straw-stuffed mattresses.

The sound is incredible too, the myriad of crickets, grasshoppers, hoverflies and bees reminiscent of a tropical rainforest. But walking through the meadow creates another sound too. The pods of Yellow-rattle (Rhinanthus minor - image right) are ripe – dry, swollen and fat with seeds that rattle under every footstep. Traditionally, Lammas Day, the 1st August, was the day to start cutting hay cut, the first harvest of the year. But farmers would instead often be guided by Yellow-rattle, the rattling a signal to farmers that the hay was ready to cut.

It can feel like an horrific act of brutality to cut down a meadow in its prime, but in fact it is the single most important point in the annual meadow cycle. It provides valuable fodder and bedding for livestock, it removes nutrients from the field, keeping soil fertility down and allowing more delicate flowers to thrive, and it keeps brambles, bracken, saplings and other thuggish plants in check. If it wasn’t for the hay cut, meadows would quickly revert to scrub and woodland, losing much of their colour and wildlife along the way.

All over the country, meadows are resonating not just with the sounds of wildlife but with tractors, mowers, hay turners and bailers. As well as providing a valuable farm income, this green hay is also being used to literally seed new meadows. The sites for these will have first been cleared and lightly cultivated, just enough to break up the soil surface. Green hay is then taken from a good, ancient, flower-rich meadow nearby and transported to the new fields where it is strewn and then either rolled or grazed by cattle. In this way, all the seed from the plants in the hay drops into the soil, ready to germinate with the first rains. The results can be spectacular, with apparently ancient meadows, full of the flowers characteristic of the local area becoming established in just two or three years. As part of the Coronation Meadows project, 12 such meadows were recreated in 2013, and over 120 hectares of restoration are planned this year.

Volunteers from local communities all over the UK are involved, helping out with both cutting and spreading green hay. Scything courses have become popular, this traditional form of mowing providing a tough work-out. In some cases, seed of special flowers, such as Melancholy Thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum) and Dyer’s Greenweed (Genista tinctoria), are being collected and grown to plant out in local meadows next year. Artists are capturing the action of the hay-cut, as well as the beauty of the meadows themselves, and sound-recorders are capturing that cacophony of meadow music that’s so much part of the meadow experience.

So, from now on it’s essential that we say GO to the mow! Not just in meadows, either:

  • If you’ve left a patch of grass unmown in your lawn, you can give it a good trim. Attack it with a strimmer or pair of shears, remove the growth and then mow the grass hard back. Treat it like a normal lawn until Christmas and then leave the same patch to grow back next year. Managed this way, the number of species and flowers is likely to increase.
  • Our flower-rich roadside verges are meadows too. As part of our Road Verge Campaign, we’re asking Local Councils to start mowing the entire width of their verges now and remove clippings where possible. If you see verges being cut for the first time now, they might have signed up to our Campaign. If not, or if they’ve been cut already, why not lend your signature to our petition?

Kicking my way through the meadow, another sound can be heard. A tractor pulls into the field with mower in tow. The farmer engages the machinery and sets to work, the tall grass reduced to strips of hay in an instant. It looks so destructive as the stunning meadow is turned to an apparently nondescript agricultural field. But this hay will soon be taken from here and put to good use. I pick some up and give it a shake. My palm and fingers are showered with the precious seed, yellow-rattle in particular. I hold a new meadow in my hand.

Thursday 24 July 2014

Commonwealth Flowers Exhibition opens in Glasgow

Seona Anderson
European Projects Coordinator

Our Commonwealth Flowers Exhibition, featuring patchwork squares celebrating national and culturally important plants from across the Commonwealth, is up and running at the Hidden Gardens in Glasgow just in time for the Games. In fact, we managed to coincide (by accident) with the Queen’s Baton Relay as we were setting up:

Many of the Commonwealth squares on display were created by Madderty Primary School in Perthshire. Others were made by folk of all ages and backgrounds: one is by a six year old school boy, another by a 96 year old man.

One is by a Sri Lanka lady who has lived in Glasgow for 35 years. We even have a patch the Magellan brown rush (right), found in the South Georgia Islands stitched by a lady from Stirling!

The exhibition is free to all and open Tuesday to Saturday 10am until 8pm and on Sundays 12pm until 6pm. Thanks to the Hidden Gardens for their support in hosting this exhibition. This project is funded by the Celebrate It fund.

More info:

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Coronation Meadows: One year on

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

Over a year has passed since our patron, HRH The Prince of Wales hosted the launch of his ambitious Coronation Meadows project. Much has happened since then and in many ways the real work has now begun. The Prince’s vision to identify a flagship Coronation Meadow in each county and then use green hay from these to literally seed new meadows is gradually taking shape.

Muker Meadows, a Coronation Meadow in North Yorkshire. Image by Don Gamble.

Here are some highlights from the last 12 months:

  • Coronation Meadows have now been identified in all but one of the 72 counties of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (just two counties remain).
  • In Scotland, where there are fewer suitable sites, Coronation Meadows have been identified in 22 of the 34 counties.
  • Restoration work in 2013 saw 12 new meadows created in 12 counties, and many of these are showing spectacular results this year with superb germination following the mild winter and the warm, wet spring.
  • Thanks to a generous grant from Biffa Award, £990k of funding has been secured towards the creation and restoration of meadows across England and Wales over the next 3 years.
  • As a result of this funding, work is underway this summer to create and restore 30 meadows in 24 counties.

Harvesting green hay to seed a new meadow.
The creation and restoration of meadows is not an easy task. It requires lots of planning, site preparation, hard work and skill. The funding from Biffa Award will now pave the way for much of this activity. But it’s matched with an equal amount of enthusiasm from meadow owners and farmers who are beginning to appreciate the true value of flower-rich meadows. With their dedication and help, the vision of a new meadow in every county can be achieved, securing a legacy for the next 60 years.

It also goes without saying that Plantlife could not be leading this project without the support we receive from our members. Why not help us do more by becoming a member?

Wednesday 9 July 2014

114 million orchids in the slipstreams of our cars

Andy Byfield
Landscape Conservation Manager

I guess I could be voted Britain’s worst driver during the summer months, for when at the wheel my eyes are invariably affixed to our glorious flower-covered road verges, and all-too-rarely on the road ahead.  A recent distraction has been the fabulous displays of pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis) across our warmer, more lime-rich parts of the countryside.  Last week I spotted them on every verge and roundabout on the outskirts of Gloucester, but a particular favourite are the pyramidals that adorn the Ilminster bypass, the gateway to the south-west, for those hauling westwards along the A303.

The Ilminster bypass was opened in 1988, and today drivers pass dense displays of the orchids on warm, south facing road cuttings along the few miles of this route, roughly 25 years after the habitat was created.  I ‘guestimated’ roughly 1100 flowering plants along the short few miles earlier this year, but suspect that there are many, many more (the Ilminster bypass is a notorious accident blackspot, so I cast only half an eye on the verges).  The great thing is that they are being managed properly – being allowed to flower and seed, before the grass cutters ‘go in’ to clean up.

Of course, the orchids and other flowers make my car journeys immeasurably more pleasurable, but in a landscape ever more devoid of colourful grassland, these verge refuges become ever more important for myriad flowers, insects, mammals, birds and much more.  Now, here is a heartening thought about Britain’s changing attitude to road verge management: on average, a typical pyramidal orchid produces 65 flowers, of which 80% set viable seed (information so far from the orchid books).  If we make the conservative assumption that each developing seed pod produces 2000 seeds (plump bee orchid pods can contain as many as 26,000!), then the Ilminster colony will produce a staggering 114 million seeds this year, to be carried in your and my slipstreams as we head away on holiday.

I am thrilled to say that the Highways Agency division that manages the Ilminster bypass verges do so very much with wildlife in mind: they do the essential verge cuts, but they do them late in the year (often even in winter).  But how very sad that so many of our verges are cut down in the prime, when plants are in full flower, destroying literally in a single swipe so much potential for bringing colour back to the countryside.

If you like the idea of 114 million orchids on our verges, why not add your voice add your voice to our campaign for better management?

Tuesday 8 July 2014

The best of our beautiful wildflower-rich road verges

Luke Morton
Plantlife Moderator

We've had a fantastic response to our Road Verge Campaign this year. Four Councils have signed up for Alan's Challenge and many, many more are talking to us, trying to find a way to improve how their roadsides are managed for wildlife. A huge part of this is down to you. We've been overwhelmed by your support. Whether its engaging your council, raising awareness, taking photos or signing the petition every action has helped. So thank you - both from us and our roadside wildlife.

Of course, we cannot be complacent. There's still a long way to go. If you haven't already, please sign our petition and if you have a friend who loves wildlife please encourage them to do so too.

With so many beautiful wildflowers being mown down in their prime, its easy to forget how wonderful our road verges can look. Thank goodness then, for all you photographers out there who've snapped some fabulous displays. We've been compiling them on a special Storify page and it never fails to brighten our day. Have a scroll through yourself and if you've any you'd like to submit please tweet them to @Love_plants.

In a couple of weeks the growing season will be over and it'll be time to "Say YES to the Mow". Dr Trevor Dines will be here with a blog explaining how and why, but in the meantime enjoy them while they last...