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Wildflower meadows are definitely ‘of the moment’ and so, not to be left out, we’ve created our very own version at the Rec. Take a look at the top of the ramped access from Brickfield Rd and you’ll see an area alongside it that frankly looks a bit bare and scruffy; that’s our wildflower meadow! Admittedly, not much to look at right now but hopefully, come the summer, it will be full of native flowers and grasses and buzzing with all sorts of insects.
The meadow was created by the Friends of Portswood Rec gardening group about a month ago, using wildflower turf sourced from SCC. First of all, we had to clear and relocate the existing turf. Native flowers grow best on impoverished soil because they find it hard to compete with certain grasses that will thrive in nutrient rich soil and crowd them out.
photo Bruce Larner - Click to enlarge
Having cleared the site and created a reasonable tilth, the wildflower matting was cut, laid edge to edge and tamped down. Unfortunately since it’s been laid, we’ve not had any rain to speak of, so we’ve got a system requiring 3 hoses and quite a lot of effort, to get water from the standpoint to the meadow. Once established, we’re hoping that it will be self sustaining, other than receiving an annual cut in the late summer. We’re told that SCC has a special type of mower that not only cuts the meadow but also removes the cuttings to further reduce soil fertility. Sadly, they can’t stretch to a scythe wielding Ross Poldark!
photo Bruce Larner - Click to enlarge
So what is a wildflower meadow and why are they so important? A meadow is a field where grass is cut in the summer, and the name comes from the old English word for ‘mown’. They have a long history going back to when humans adopted a pastoral lifestyle. There was then a need to provide feed for the animals during the lean winter months and the management of meadows to create hay, provided the solution. Naturally occurring grassland was allowed to grow once grazing animals had been removed in March or April. The grass and wild flowers it contained was then harvested and dried, usually in July, before being stored in barns and hayricks. The repeated tedding (turning) of the scythed crop over 3 to 5 days was to ensure that the hay was properly dried but also helped to spread the seeds across the field. And subsequent removal of the hay ensured there was nothing to enrich the soil which became increasingly impoverished, to the benefit of the wild flowers. Harvesting was often followed by aftermath grazing, which co-incidentally also led to a greater diversity of wildflower species. The livestock created areas of open soil allowing seeds to germinate as well as limiting the regrowth of grass.
And it is because these traditionally farmed meadows were so rich in biodiversity, that they are of immense value within the environment. The best examples could contain up to 45 species of grasses and flowers per square metre, supporting a huge diversity of insects, birds and mammals. But sadly, traditionally managed, unimproved meadows have declined by 97% since the 1930s, and there have been similar declines in dependent species.
During the 20th century a lot of meadow was ploughed up and used as arable land, especially to increase crop production during the 2 World Wars. For winter feed, farmers turned from hay to silage which is predominantly made from high yielding rye grasses. Nitrogen rich fertilizers and pesticides are routinely used to further increase production; the former discouraging wildflower growth and the latter keeping any troublesome ‘weeds’ that do appear in check, as well as killing off innumerable invertebrates. But unfortunately, all of this came at a huge cost to the environment and our biodiversity, everything from pollution of the waterways due to chemical run-off to the decimation of insect populations and its wider implications.
Click to enlarge Plantlife Coronation Meadow No copyright infringement intended
Now hopefully, the tide is beginning to turn. Many farmers are interested in moving to more environmentally friendly methods and the UK Government is proposing to incentivise this by replacing the discredited Common Agricultural Policy with subsidies based on Environmental Land Management. Plantlife, the wildflower charity is dedicated to preserving the few ancient meadows that still exist and creating 120,000 hectares of new species rich grassland throughout the UK. They’ve already made a good start having planted 90 Coronation Meadows across the country since 2013 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. And now various charities, local authorities and other public bodies are all joining in and creating their own little patch of insect paradise. At Portswood Recreation Ground we hope to have made our own small contribution!
Words by Denise Long