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Hay meadow conservation

A couple of large white-petalled, yellow-centred daisies among other wild green grassess.
Oxeye daisies in a hay meadow | © National Trust Images/Nick Upton

Hay meadows in the UK have been disappearing for many years, primarily as a result of changes in agricultural practice. This has led to the decline of many birds, insects, flowers and other creatures who relied on them for their survival. We’ve been restoring meadows at places in our care as well as working with the tenant farmers to conserve these special and unique ecosystems.

What is a hay meadow?

A hay meadow is part of a traditional farming practice that goes back hundreds of years. Grass-rich fields are left to grow untouched through the spring and summer and cut back for haymaking in late August/early September. This allows birds and insects to feed on the grasses and flowers as well as pollinate them which, in turn, will enable them to successfully seed for future years. It leads to a rich and varied habitat for a wide variety of species.

Established wildflower hay meadows can support a staggering 50 plants per square metre. From pollinators such as bees and butterflies, to birds like the pied flycatcher, meadows are alive and vibrant for several long summer months. The grasses are then dried over the autumn and used to feed animals during the winter months.

Meadow decline

Since the 1930s, over 97 per cent of the UK’s hay meadows have vanished; from more than three million hectares to less than around 12,000 remaining today, according to a survey by conservation charity Plantlife. 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 had a huge impact on the biodiversity of these habitats.

Agricultural changes

Hay produced from summer meadows used to be one of the key sources of winter forage for farm animals. The widespread switch to silage making in the 1960s led to a huge reduction in the amount of hay meadows nationally which has led to problems for the vast array of species that rely on meadow habitats.

A bulbous yellow flower with bright green leaves in a hay meadow with slightly blurred red clover and white daisies in the background.
Yellow rattle | © National Trust Images/Nick Upton

Our work with tenant farmers

We’re working with more than 1,300 tenant farmers across the country to meet our 2025 ambition for at least 50 per cent of farmland in our care to be 'nature-friendly'. As well as reinstating hay meadows, this also includes protecting hedgerows, field margins, ponds, woodlands and other habitats that allow plants and animals to thrive.

The tenant farmers are changing their grazing patterns and bringing back fields into a hay-making regime.

In Wales, we’re already celebrating the revival and restoration of 213 hectares of meadows at 25 sites across the country.

Hay meadow success stories

The White Cliffs, Dover

The Wanstone site on the White Cliffs near Dover, was severely degraded as a result of intensive farming after the Second World War, came into our care in 2017. With the help of a £1million public fundraising appeal led by the late, great Dame Vera Lynn, the 70-hectare site has been transformed into a wildlife haven for wild flowers, butterflies and rare birds

A ‘bumblebird’ seed mix was sown in the autumn to provide food for the birds through the winter and create nectar-rich plants for pollinators in the summer. Other fields were planted with wild flowers, grasses and cereal to give cover for nesting birds which helped create a mosaic of habitats across the cliffs. Helped by a wet winter in 2019, this resulted in an explosion of colour, including a sea of red poppies in early summer.

Barley was sown to remove some of the nutrients from the soil as wild flowers on chalk grassland typically thrive on low-nutrient soil. Plants now growing include bird’s-foot trefoil, crimson clover, yellow rattle, lady’s bedstraw, ox-eye daisy, self heal and several rare birds such as skylark, corn bunting, partridge and meadow pipit are now on the rise.

Calke Abbey in Derbyshire

When we took Calke Abbey into our care in 1985, there were three hay meadows around the mansion house that were noted as having some wildflower interest. As a result, the management of the lawns was changed to hay-making to promote flower growth, and the response was dramatic.

The spring display of cowslips is spectacular while other plants begin to show as spring turns into summer, including yellow rattle, vetches and common orchids. Hay was used from the lawns to establish new flower-rich meadows elsewhere on the park.

A green grassy meadow with a path through it towards a large, grand building. There are a few people walking along the path in the distance,
The hay meadow at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Bosveal in Cornwall

The ranger team at Bosveal cares for 5 hectares of hay meadows which were once part of the Bosloe estate. There have been no inputs of fertiliser or slurry to these meadows for many years, so they’re now filled with a wonderful variety of wildflowers in spring and early summer.

This style of management has improved the habitat for wildlife and wildflowers no end. Rare oil beetles and a flight of clouded yellow butterflies on migration from France have been spotted along with more regular visitors like swallows, kestrels, barn owls and bats.

Dudmaston in Shropshire

Tenant farmer Peter has adopted a low-intensity farming method and managed to change a heavily grazed sheep field into a rare and important habitat for many plants and wildlife.

The hay cut is taken in late July or August and then livestock is allowed to graze the grass short. In early spring, the livestock are removed, and the plants allowed to grow and flower, setting seed in summer before a hay cut is taken again.

Paxton’s Tower in Carmarthenshire, Wales

Nearly three hectares of restored meadows surround Paxton’s Tower in Carmarthenshire. They were enriched with green hay donated from meadows at the National Botanic Garden of Wales to enrich the grassland around the tower. This was part of a three-year project in partnership with Plantlife Cymru designed to bring back vanishing meadow landscapes across the country.

Chirk Castle in Wrexham, Wales

Six hectares of herb rich meadows have been re-established in front of Chirk Castle and they were created using seed from Bodnant and Colwyn Bay Police HQ. By using local seed sources, the resulting meadows are more resilient in the landscape and have a recognisable local character.

A brown cow looks out at the viewer, standing in a field of yellow grass in high summer

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