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The beauty of our meadows - with Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust


By Spalding Today Columnist


The Trust's communications officer Rachel Shaw writes for Spalding Today:

Apparently, the origin of the word ‘meadow’ is from the Germanic word for ‘mow’. This fits with the technical meaning of the word as ‘an area of grassland that’s cut in the summer’.

It’s the crop of hay that makes a meadow what it is. Before the advent of the car, this hay crop was a vital part of the economy providing winter feed for the nation’s transport: horses and livestock. Weather permitting, the hay was cut in late July or early August and left in a 'swath' to dry. This was aided by ‘tedding’ or spreading the hay.

Lady's bedstraw and Bird's-foot trefoil. Image by Barrie Wilkinson
Lady's bedstraw and Bird's-foot trefoil. Image by Barrie Wilkinson

This helps remove moisture from the cut plants including from the seed heads. When the hay is collected and baled, the seeds are knocked back into the ground. By autumn, there is sufficient new growth or ‘eddish’ for it to be grazed by cattle or sheep. This cycle allows wildflowers to flourish. Many meadows’ flowers are long-lived perennials, they grow back from their rootstock and don’t have to set seed every year.

If a meadow isn’t cut, coarser grasses and eventually shrubs like hawthorn will take over. If it’s cut too frequently the flowers won’t have time to grow. If the hay isn’t removed the soil becomes more fertile, encouraging the growth docks, thistles and nettles.

By tradition, hay meadows are cut after July 15, but in reality, they can be cut at any time from late spring until late summer. The cutting of meadows has to be responsive to when people are available and when the weather is suitable. They can be cut much earlier than expected whilst some plants are still flowering. As long as the timing varies from year to year, this shouldn’t impact on the survival of the plants and sanctuary areas of uncut plants can provide refuge for insects and other animals.

Before the Second World War, meadows with a profusion of wildflowers would have been a familiar sight across Lincolnshire. Most of these meadows are now long gone. Estimates suggest that since 1938 as much as 99 percent of Lincolnshire’s hay meadows have been ploughed for arable or converted to improved grassland (i.e. a monoculture of grass without the flowers). The few remaining meadows are home to a living tapestry of wildflowers where bird’s-foot-trefoil, devil’s-bit scabious, lady’s bedstraw and sneezewort grow amongst the delicate quaking-grass, sweet vernal-grass and crested dog’s-tail.

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Quaking grass. Image by Mark Schofield
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