Looking after Hill Top's hay meadows

Rangers surveying a hay meadow at Hill Top farm, Near Sawrey, Cumbria

Three hay meadows at Hill Top, where Beatrix Potter herself used to work, are flourishing again following over 25-years of work to restore the land to its former glory.

Traditionally the rich pasture of the Lake District valleys, hay meadows provided feed for sheep and cows during the winter months as well as a haven for wildlife. But due to changes in farming practices, hay meadows have been lost or degraded by approximately 97% since the 1930s.

The War effort 

The increase in food demand during World War II led to many traditional hay meadows being replanted with fast-growing grass species or ploughed up for other crops. This has had a huge impact on the biodiversity of these habitats but fortunately hay meadows rich in wildflowers are now being restored across the Lakes and the UK, to reverse the decline.

Traditional farming practices

Working with our farm tenant, Gary Dixon, here at Hill Top, we manage the land in a certain way; avoiding using artificial fertilisers and cutting the grass later in the summer for hay, which allows the plants to flower and set seed.

This is a traditional practice that goes back hundreds of years, which fosters a rich and varied habitat for a large variety of species.

" … tiresome hay time, week after week. We had not such bad luck with the hay, but so late of finishing; about 3rd week of September. "
- Beatrix Potter, letter to Esther Nicholson on 17 November 1936.

A home for wildlife

These meadows support a wide range of flower species such as yellow rattle, knapweed, oxeye daisy and clover, insects, bees and butterflies, small mammals like mice and field voles and barn owls. As well as being beautiful, wildflower meadows provide a huge food and nectar source for wildlife. With pollinators such as bees, butterflies and birds like the pied flycatcher.

Yellow rattle was one of the species found in abundance in the recent hay meadow survey at Hill Top.
Close up of wildflower yellow rattle in the meadow at Hill Top, Near Sawrey.
Yellow rattle was one of the species found in abundance in the recent hay meadow survey at Hill Top.

Annual surveys

We have been monitoring the hay meadows here at Hill Top for around 25 years. Our rangers carry out surveys in June and July to check the quantity and variety of species in each hay meadow.This helps us build up a picture of how the fields are changing year on year.

Our aim for the future is to work with our tenants to create more flower rich meadows on the farms we look after and potenially see the reinstatement of some species that have been previously lost to the Lakes.

How you can get involved

Closer to home, why not plant some local wildflower seeds in your garden to give a new home for insects, birds and small mammals in a vibrant summer border? By planting a variety of flowers there’ll be plenty of pollen and nectar for insects right through the year.

Just by being a member of the National Trust you are already supporting our work to restore traditional hay meadows. Every penny you spend with us helps us to look after the Lake District. So, thank you very much.