For hundreds of years, colourful, flower-rich hay meadows were a defining feature of the British countryside and its way of life. The 20th century saw a tidal wave of agricultural intensification sweep through the countryside accompanied by increased use of herbicides and pesticides. The flower-rich hay meadows were a major casualty of this change and 97% of those present in the 1930s disappeared. Dorset still has some traditionally managed meadows and, at the beginning of May, I went to Westhay Farm below Stonebarrow Hill on the Golden Cap Estate in west Dorset where the National Trust maintains this age-old agricultural system.
I followed the narrow lane as it rose steeply between houses and through woodland along the course of the old ridgeway road towards Stonebarrow Hill. Red campion, cow parsley, stitchwort and bluebells grew thickly along the grassy verges and bright sunlight filtered through the trees giving an unexpected transparency to overhanging leaves. Emerging from the tree cover, the lane levelled out and, to the right, the land fell away steeply in a patchwork of fields, hedges and trees towards a calm sea with just a light surface stippling.
Hidden away in this landscape is Westhay Farm, with its long, mellow-stone farmhouse set in a lush garden and surrounded by hay meadows. At this time of year, the meadows are richly carpeted with knee-high, yellow buttercups and tall, rough grass with prominent flaky seed heads. When breezes meander across the valley towards the meadows, the grasses and flowers respond, moving together in waves, like the swell on the sea below.
Partly concealed within the rough grass were tight clusters of lemon yellow flowers above thick reddish green stems. This is yellow rattle, a traditional meadowland plant, with its tubular flowers open at one end where the upper petal widens to a smooth, cowl-like structure above protruding purple stamens. A black and yellow-striped bumblebee systematically visited each flower pushing the two petals apart so that its long tongue could reach the nectar at the base. When it left with its sugary reward it also took away a dusting of pollen from the overhanging stamens to pass on to the next flower.
Yellow rattle is a hemi-parasite; although it can use sunlight energy itself by the process of photosynthesis, it does better when it also establishes physical connections to the roots of other plants in the meadow such as grasses. The yellow rattle siphons off nutrients from the grasses, suppressing their vigour and creating space for other plants to thrive. This is very important for establishing a meadow with a wide range of species.
Some of the meadows contained drifts of the glittering, brightly coloured flowers of green-winged orchids, standing defiantly in the grass on thick green stems. Many of the orchids were purple, some were magenta, some violet and a few were white or pink, lending a mosaic of contrasting colour to the meadow. Each flower was composed of several florets arranged around the stem like jewels on a bracelet. The most visible and exquisite part of each orchid floret was the broad, apron-like, lower petal with its central white stripe contained within a coloured halo. This white region was decorated with a pattern of eight or more irregular darker spots, the pattern unique to each floret and perhaps decoded by visiting pollinators. Green-winged orchids are a speciality of these meadows and their name refers to the green-veined sepals that protect each developing floret, now thrown back like wings.
The Westhay meadows were a fine sight in early May with their colourful flowers and seemingly unfettered growth. As the seasons progress, the meadows will mature, the yellow rattle and orchids will disappear, their place taken by other flowers. By July the grasses will be dry and cheerful newcomers such as purple knapweed and buttery-yellow bird’s foot trefoil will bring their colours to the mosaic. In late July, the hay will be cut, this joyous, abundant growth converted into winter animal feed.
Flower-rich hay meadows such as these were a feature of the British countryside in the spring and summer for centuries. Cultivation followed the rhythm of the seasons. Grasses and flowers grew in the warmth and wet of spring and early summer and a unique species-rich environment developed. Hay was cut in late summer and removed for winter animal feed, after the flowers had set seed. Animals grazed the fields in autumn taking advantage of the late-summer grass growth, the aftermath. No chemicals were used and the only fertiliser came from the autumn-grazing animals. The following spring, plants grew, seeds germinated and the cycle began again. This was a carefully managed land cultivation system, in tune with the seasons and their weather.
Haymaking was an important part of the rural calendar, a natural part of each year’s cycle, celebrated in literature and art. Here is part of William Barnes’ poem Haymeaken depicting a 19th century rural Dorset scene:
‘Tis merry ov a zummer’s day,
Where vo’k be out a-meaken hay ;
Where men an’ women, in a string,
Do ted or turn the grass, an’ zing,
Wi’ cheemen vaices, merry zongs,
A-tossen o’ their sheenen prongs
Wi’ earms a-zwangen left an’ right,
In colour’d gowns an’ shirtsleeves white
All this was set to change in the 20th century. Fears for food security during the two world wars led to agricultural intensification and an increased dependence on artificial fertilisers. Flower-rich hay meadows all but disappeared, a way of life evaporated and the look of the countryside changed.
It wasn’t just the look that changed. Adoption of new methods coupled with increased use of herbicides and pesticides significantly affected wildlife in the countryside. Loss of farmland birds and pollinating insects such as bees, butterflies, wasps, moths, flies and beetles has been severe.
This article appeared in the July 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.