Hay meadows in the Midlands

A close up photograph of hay meadow showing red clover, sheep's sorrel and common bird's-foot-trefoil

The production of hay as a crop for winter forage was essential to the mixed farming systems of the UK 100 years ago. It was pretty much the only source of supplementary feed for livestock during the winter months once the grass stopped growing. Hay meadows were commonplace, adorning the countryside with an array of bright colours during mid-summer. Some of the best may have more than 200 species of plants (including sedges and mosses).

Quite simply, a field was “shut-up” from 1st May to exclude grazing animals so that the grass could grow tall. It was then cut, dried, stacked or baled then stored in a rick or barn until the winter. Cutting dates varied around the country but it would usually be from around mid-June to the end of July, often later in the uplands. By a happy coincidence, managing grassland in this way benefits wild flowers too. In fact, over time, more and more wild flowers appear in a meadow and in greater numbers, often aided by yellow rattle, a plant that semi-parasitises the roots of grasses, supressing their growth in the process. This diversity is hailed by conservationists but less valued by farmers because there is less bulk and arguably, nutrient value in flower-rich hay.

A variety of flowers benefit from hay meadows
A la Ronde summer hay meadow
A variety of flowers benefit from hay meadows

The widespread switch to silage making in the 1960s has meant a vast reduction in the number of hay meadows nationally but the National Trust has many meadows on its land throughout the Midlands. At our Longshaw Estate in the Peak District there is a series of hay meadows at Grouse Inn Fields that were restored after many years of being managed as pasture (grazing only). A hay making regime was reintroduced, including no use of artificial fertiliser, and the meadows began to slowly recover. 15 years later and the meadows support a great diversity of flowering plants including yellow rattle, oxeye daisy, fairy flax, common milkwort, birdsfoot trefoil, meadow vetchling, red clover, common spotted orchid, twayblade and the unusual grassland ferns, adders tongue and moonwort. Hay was taken from these meadows and spread on new areas elsewhere on the estate including the Jubilee Barn fields and Greenwood Farm which are in varying stages of “recovery” in terms of species-richness.

Grouse Inn fields haymeadows in the summer
A wildflower meadow with a barn in the distance
Grouse Inn fields haymeadows in the summer

At Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, there are three “hay meadow lawns” around the mansion house that were noted as having some wildflower interest when the Trust took on the Abbey in 1985. Soon after, the management of the lawns was changed to hay making to promote the flower interest and the response was dramatic. The spring display of cowslips is spectacular then later on other plants begin to show including yellow rattle, vetches and common orchids. Hay was used from the lawns to establish new flower-rich meadows elsewhere on the park.

As well as managing, restoring and creating our own hay meadows we also have several on our farms managed for us by tenants. These have, in the main, been present for a long time but have been bought back into a hay making regime to increase their diversity for wildlife. We have a series of beautiful meadows at Waterfall Swallett near Eyam in the Peak District plus a smaller one just south of Sheffield at Moss Valley Meadow (this has limited access). In addition, we have meadows at Hardwick Park Farm and Heath Farm in Derbyshire and in the Peak District, Blackden View Farm, Crookhill Farm, Ashes Farm and Upper Booth Farm (Access is also limited to where public rights of way cross the land).