A meadow by any other name?

Does it matter what names we use for things?

Louise Gray at the Telegraph drew my attention to the Britain in Bloom plan to give packets of wildflower seeds to local communities to plant in their local park as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. She wanted a quote from us (we like Lou!). Thanks to the very poor mobile signal on the train from London to Dorchester, it took me about five attempts to give her a ten second quote for that article.

The seeds chosen by the RHS for Britain in Bloom were for arable wildflowers, flowers (or weeds) like cornflowers, corncockles and pheasant’s-eye. These are long gone from the modern countryside – indeed they were originally introduced in the neolithic with the crops of ancient wheat, rye and barley they grew within (I co-wrote a book about these fascinating plants – Arable Plants: a field guide).These are all annuals – in botanical speak segetal species – they grow with and through a cereal crop, flowering and setting seed with the crop.

What they are not are plants of wildflower meadows. Wildflower meadows are grasslands comprising native grasses and flowers, mostly perennial, which are grazed or mown for hay.

Veteran media gardening commentator Peter Seabrook (and proud defender of the horticultural peat extraction industry) complained in Lou’s article that wildflower meadows in public spaces could become “unruly rubbish dumps” and said “The whole idea of a wildflower meadow is I think extremely difficult and needs to be done on a large scale and requires a lot of maintenance” .

As you can see there are some mixed messages coming across here. Is it wildflowers in open spaces that attract rubbish, or just wildflower meadows, or arable wildflower plots? Do wildflower meadows need to be done on a large scale – do they require lots of maintenance? Well there are plenty of perfectly good wildflower meadows in people’s very small garden lawns, so size does not matter. And because meadows only need one or two cuts compared with the 12-15 cuts per year that regularly mown parkland require, they are far lower maintenance 9and far cheaper) than almost any other urban greenspace management practice, including tree planting. (see Trees or Turf the Woodland Trust report if you don’t believe me). Sorry Peter, but you’re wrong on both counts.

London in Bloom is one of the regional projects contributing to Britain in Bloom and they are really excited at London in Bloom because this is Olympic Year. The Olympic site in East London has created a whole range of Olympic gardens and meadows. These have been designed with the help of the people behind Pictorial Meadows, which are colourful mixes of native and exotic annuals mostly used to make derelict urban spaces more attractive.

Mad about Meadows is an initiative within London in Bloom which is encouraging people to create urban meadows in London – ranging from the teeny 60 to very small 300 square metres (sorry Peter). There are some great ideas in this – a competition for schools to create a mini meadow in an unusual place (bucket, wheebarrow) for example. But I was looking for some guidance as to what they thought a meadow was – try as hard as I could (via Google) I couldn’t track it down. There is no Mad about Meadows website, no technical advice – no description of what a meadow was. All I could find was a link to Hackney’s website describing how a new meadow was created on Stoke Newington Common using a mix of “rainbow annuals” ie a pictorial meadow.

OK so all this is great and I am all in favour of getting communities involved with their local greenspaces – this is after all what we are doing through our Community Grasslands projects.

But the problems arise when these meadows are confused with the wildflower meadows that I described above. Hackney seem to think that planting a colourful mix of annuals (mostly American species) is making a contribution to their Biodiversity Action Plan targets for Lowland Meadow (planting 1ha of new meadow in five years, harldy ambitious in itself). London in Bloom talk about creating wildflower meadows and “nectar-rich plantings” but then mix the two up time and again.

Does this matter? Well, yes it does. Wildflower Meadows have almost completely disappeared from England – there may be just 7000ha of the “real thing” left. These are beautiful, support a rich diversity of wildlife, some of it rare, and also are rich in archaeology and history. They also provide food and a whole range of other ecosystem servces. Yes they can be re-created – the Weald Meadows Initiative has been doing fantastic work doing just this.

It’s important that we don’t get confused between these type of meadows and the urban Pictorial Meadow approach – which is valuable, but for a different set of reasons. Pictorial meadows are not contributing to the conservation of Wildflower Meadows or their wildlife (and other values). And for that reason it does matter what we call things!

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This entry was posted in biodiversity, Community involvement, Ecosystem services, grasslands, mad about meadows, Olympic Meadows, pictorial meadows and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to A meadow by any other name?

  1. Anne Wareham says:

    Absolutely – this confusion is really unhelpful. It’s hard to grow the annuals without a clear site. Who’s to bet that some genuine but much less dramatic and colourful real meadow won’t be dug up somewhere so someone can have a pseudo meadow (as in arable field with no crop)?

    • milesking says:

      Thanks Anne. I think the chances of a real meadow being destroyed to create a pictorial one are quite small, compared say with the risks from tree planting. However I wouldn’t be at all surprised if valuable brownfield habitat has been damaged by tidying up and creating pictorial meadows. The difficulty, according to Buglife is that valuable brownfield habitat looks on the surface much the same as not valuable brownfield habitat- and only by surveying for the wildlife that thrives there is it possible to tell the difference between the two.

      • annewareham says:

        In areas like this (Lower Wye Valley) there are a great many small ancient meadows which get incorporated into people’s gardens. Turning them into faux meadow would be the work of a day and being so fashionable, quite likely.

        I think people do need to learn the distinction between meadow and arable field and to begin to value the less floriferous meadow or we’ll lose more than we have already. To most people they are ‘just a field’.

      • milesking says:

        you’re quite right Anne – the Wye Valley is a little bit unusual in having these very small meadows associated with the villages and they are so easily lost to horticulture – the Monmouthshire Meadows Project and the Wye Valley Parish Grasslands Project have done much to raise awareness of the valuable resource of hay meadows in that area.

        More generally there is a great confusion about terminology and value. I’m writing my first Countryfile Blog tomorrow and I think this is the subject I might start to tackle.

  2. John Biglin says:

    I liked the blog on meadows. There is a lot of rubbish talked about wildflower planting and certainly a lot of confusion as highlighted in the blog.

    The RHS initiative, though not probably acceptable to a purist, does raise the profile of wildflowers in urban areas which has to be a good thing. Peter Seabrook’s comments on rubbish are just about the management and maintenance following planting. Litter picking is hardly rocket science.

    Years ago I did some work on reinstating small urban spaces that had been subject to building works etc., using wildflower mixes. You ended up with attractive grassland that was actually native. The big difference between that and the commercial mixes now was that we used mainly seed of local provenance and the mix would be tailored to the site based upon the soil type and the plant species found in other local sites we wanted to replicate. Extremely bespoke but quite easy to do on a small scale. However you do need to get to know the flora of the local area well enough to be able to do this.

    Another good example was creating small areas of chalk grassland using chalk spoil of which we had an almost infinite supply from cemetery operations! The chalk grassland established well in small areas but again with a tailored seed mix. Must make a note to go and see how it is doing twenty years on!

    I am not suggesting this is realistic for many areas but working with a wildflower seed supplier or two we found it worked and produced grassland much more appropriate for the area but it does rely on you knowing your plants and the ground conditions.

    Just a different spin on wildflower seed planting.

    Happy to share our experience.

  3. milesking says:

    Thanks very much John. These are really good examples of what can be achieved with a bit of planning and local knowledge. I think the Pictorial Meadows approach, which is similar to what Landlife have been doing for 20 years, is valuable. But it does seem to have grabbed the headlines and now people are getting confused about aesthetic plantings, versus habitat creation. Talking about nectar and pollen mixes for our declining bees – honey, bumble or other, only confuses matters further.

  4. John Biglin says:

    Could not agree with you more Miles. I think as long as we are clear over our aims it is all ok. All these names and options have their place. Overall anything that raises the profile of wildflower meadows and their ecology has got to be a good thing.

    It is really quite brave of the RHS to do something different this year. Britain in Bloom is not just about formal gardens and flowers but the local environment in total. Hoping to get our local “bloomers” to think a bit more widely and support biodiversity initiatives.

    Great stuff from the Grasslands Trust. Happy to support and promote you when I can.

    • milesking says:

      Yes it was brave of RHS to go for something a bit different and they should be applauded for it – I certainly gave them the thumbs up in my comment in Lou’s article. Thanks for your support.

  5. I do think that pure annual meadows in areas intended to be permanent green spaces are a bit of a waste of time. It’s fine if they’re in an appropriate perennial mix to add colour in the first year, or perhaps where young trees have been planted.

    Annual wildflower meadow seed – and Pictorial Meadows seed especially – is expensive and by its nature requires extensive intervention and expense each year to re-create it. It also means a spell where the earth is bare, and that is exceptionally dull.

    For me, long grass mixed with perennial flowering plants is the ideal form of meadow for public spaces. Especially with a path mown through to invite people to walk through (and show that it is intentional). Beautiful too.

    • milesking says:

      Thanks Sue – it will be interesting to see how successful the arable wildflower plantings are, and how many communities take up the idea. At least RHS is providing the seed so that’s free to BiB groups. But you’re right – a successful arable wildflower plot is a little bit tricky to achieve and bare earth plots in public parks could quickly become err messy – well we know what dogs like to do on bare ground.

      Meadows in greenspaces are much easier to create and maintain, with none of the problems associated with annuals. Perhaps we need to get a campaign for real meadows in parks going!

  6. our local council wyre b.c just think you you can leave areas to save on mowing they quickly become unsightly full of nettles they fail to recognize the maintainace for wild flower medows of which ever sort is higher than just cutting the grass . all these idears are good but in this economic climate will they all fall by the wayside or put on the back burner

    • milesking says:

      Thanks John. It sounds to me as though the people at Wyre BC have not thought too hard about where to do meadow managment, if their meadows are full of nettles. Maintenance of meadow is actually much cheaper than regular gang mowing, because they only need cutting once or twice a year, compared with 12-15 mowings for gang mowing. So I would expect to see cash-strapped councils looking for the cheapest options for managing their green spaces. This should be good news for the environment, but it must be done thoughtfully.

  7. John Biglin says:

    Just a few things to add to Sue and John’s comment which I hope will help.

    If you are using an arable weed mix then by it’s nature you will be using ruderal (fast growing species needing open ground) species. The area would need to be rotovated to prevent turf establishing itself and squeezing out the arable weeds at the end of every year. Effectively copying what farmers do but without the pesticides and fertilisers.

    If you are looking for permanent grassland then arable weeds mixed in with pioneer species, like ox-eye daisy, and perennials will give a great flush of colour from the arable weeds in the first year but they will decrease very soon. Colour in the few years after is provided by species such as ox-eye daisies but they in turn are squeezed in time until you have the perennials and more competitive annnual species to give a long lasting herb-rich meadow. The species in the mix is critical as is the maintenance. Paths are essential to give it that conspicuously cared for look to prevent people saying that they have just left the grass to grow long to save money. You can always boost the wildflower content by scattering hay or collected seeds, from other well established local meadows over the area as well.

    Just to dispel a myth too. It is not necessarily cheaper to maintain grassland as wildlflower areas. They will need mowing, albeit not often, in the early years to slow down invasive coarse grasses and nettles. This is essential if the sward is to establish. Also gang mowers cutting at 12-14 times a year are very efficient and fast. As the cutting frequency reduces there is a point where gang mowers do not cope well and just tend to flatten the grass and leave great piles of cuttings. Different machinery has to be used which is slower and so labour costs go up. Additionally if you are really committed to establishing wildflower areas the cuttings should be removed to keep nutrient levels to a minimum which is great for wildlowers. This will incur transportation and possibly tipping costs again increasing the price. You could, of course, pile the cuttings on site. Good for reptiles such as grass snakes but not always acceptable for users.

    What is even worse is to plant trees on potentially good grassland. Meadows are precious and rare and although these newly created grassland will never reach the quality of the Wye valley meadows they will help nonetheless and should, given the right conditions, have cowslips and orchids within a decade or so.

    Initiatives like this will only fall by the wayside if we let them. Biodiversity is incredibly popular with people and the management of grassland should reflect that. Have faith and go for it but make sure you have all the arguments there. It is not easy, the results are not immediate but worth it in the long term.

  8. milesking says:

    Thanks for that comment John – very useful. A couple of points – the arable “weeds” like cornflower, corncockle etc are not ruderals, they are segetals. Ruderals colonise bare ground quickly and have a short life maturing and setting seed within a few weeks or months. Segetals grow (grew) with a crop and were adapted to set seed as the crop was harvested, so their seeds either dispersed as crop contaminants (like corncockle) or were ready to take advantage of the conditions created when the field was subsequently ploughed. Segetals tend to have good seed persistence and can reappear after decades following cultivation. If you can get the management right, arable flowers will reappear year after year, without extra seeding. The danger is that perennial weeds like docks and thistles colonise the bare ground and become dominant – these are best dealt with through cultivation and sometimes need several attempts to get rid of them. So arable wildflower plots are quite tricky to keep going after the first year.

    Oxeye daisy is a perennial – it can thrive in relatively open swards and can become dominant in a sward – I suspect it is happier in mown/not grazed grasslands hence its abundance on motorway verges. Wildflower meadows tend to support more perennials than annuals, because annuals depend on bare ground for establishment. Yellow-rattle is an annual plant of meadows, but disappears quite quickly if no bare ground is created. Yellow-rattle is great in a restored or new meadow as it parasitises grasses, creating a more open wildflower-rich sward.

    I agree paths are a great addition to an urban wildflower meadow and if there is a plan to sell the hay then paths can help prevent it being despoiled by eg dog faeces.

    Your point about meadow maintenance vs gang mowing is worth exploring further. Capital outlay on equipment is relevant. Parks departments or their contractors have already bought their gang mowers (at great cost) but do not necessarily have the kit required for meadow management eg cut and collect. If more parks departments decided to go for meadows this would drive down the cost and increase the availability of suitable kit. It’s a supply and demand issue.

    Also, by involving the local community in eg cutting and raking the small meadow area in their local open space – removes the need for expensive kit, saves money and gets the community caring for their local wildlife and greenspaces. I can hear the counter argument this approach is tantamount to replacing public services with voluntary effort – but we shouldn’t forget that many public parks were created through voluntary or philanthropic effort in the first place, and the more a local community gets involved with its local open spaces, the more likely they are to care for and defend them against other threats.

    As for tree-planting – we are very concerned that valuable grasslands are going to be lost to tree planting as a result of the jubilee woods and big tree plant campaigns. I am working with the Woodland Trust so that the guidance they provide to the public raises this issue – I will report back on progress.

  9. Excellent stuff; I come across this confusion constantly and it is increasingly unhelpful!

  10. John Biglin says:

    Thanks Miles.

    I thought talking about segetals might make the discussion a bit too complicated and I just wanted to try and keep it simple. Ruderals are going to come in anyway. That is what they do. I was thinking of things like scarlet pimpernel. A long time ago in Essex they had a project looking at rarer arable weeds (catchflys etc.) but I am not sure how far that got taken but they were certainly managing headlands for them. Really agree that arable weeds are tricky to keep going and more competitive thistles and the like soon take over. Guess that is why arable weeds are so rare even when herbicides and fertilisers are not used.

    I used ox-eye daisy as an example of something that does very well at first but I have found that after about five years or so ox-eye daisy tends to decline but that is totally dependent on the management regime. Used to be a major component of wildflower mixes and really does well on motorway embankments.

    Yellow rattle is a really good indicator and a lovely plant too. Some of those hemi-parasites are really quite amazing. I suspect restharrow is a bit similar and performs a similar role in the more open grasslands.

    Paths give grassland a cared for look. I have always found lots of resistance to long grass from users so this does help in giving the impression the site has not just been abandoned but is being cared for but in a different way. It is PR more than anything.

    I have used both forage harvesters and traditional hay cutting kit for managing wildflower meadows. Generally, parks department do not have the kit to do this sort of work. As a result I have found it best done with contractors and it is cost effective if you have large enough areas but that might change. In comparing gang mowing at sixteen times a year with flailing or similar at five cuts or less a year gang mowing was certainly cheaper but that is wholly dependent on the contractor and how comfortable they feel with the task and hence how it has been priced. That was before clearing arisings was taken into account too which would make the difference even greater. There are also enormous economies of scale with gang mowing where you are cutting millions of square metres of grass a year at fractions of a penny per square metre. So sometimes cutting less costs you more. Would be really worth exploring the economics of wildflower meadow management as opposed to traditional gang mowing. I am not aware of anyone having done that.

    Using volunteers works really well if it is small areas and the reason for doing it is wildlife management and definitely not cost cutting. I have used it very successfully in churchyards and other small areas. The added benefit comes from the fact they can talk to users and explain why it is being done and point out the interesting plants and act as ambassadors. Again spreading the word and as you say getting local people involved is one of the keys to protecting meadows for the future. Large areas are just too big for volunteers to take on board and they get demoralised just as we would when faced with a ten acre field to rake!

    Wholeheartedly agree on the tree planting front. Great that you are working with the Woodland Trust. I have never felt comfortable with wholesale tree planting. Grasslands are so much rarer and should be considered as a first option I think.

    Great discussion. Really enjoyed contributing.

    • milesking says:

      Thanks very much John. This year, as part of our Discovering our Glorious Grasslands project in Eastleigh, we will be developing some resources for communities to use when thinking about developing community grasslands – I think you would be an excellent person to comment on these resources as we develop them. Would you mind if I contact you when we get going with this aspect of the project?

      • John Biglin says:

        Hi Miles,

        The Eastleigh project sounds good. I did know Phil Lomax from Eastleigh Borough Council. Not sure if he is still there though.

        I am more than happy to comment on the resources. Just use the email address you have from here.

        Don’t be fooled by my “Parkie” background. I am really an ecologist (a real one and not an environmentalist) and land manager. A good natural historian too. Quite rare for professionals in my business I just happened to end up being “Head of Parks” for a Council. Moved on from that now.

        I will send you an article I am just writing on tree planting on the lines of what we were discussing yesterday.

        Kind regards,


      • milesking says:

        Thanks very much John. yes I guessed you werent an parkie when you knew what segetal meant!

  11. Steve Alton says:

    Hi Miles,
    I’d be interested to know if you feel there is any value in trying to create a meadow sensu stricto in a densely urban area like London? For me, ‘meadow’ conjures up not just perennials and a particular management system, but also the historical background and an element of continuity of management. I suspect the latter, at least, would be hard to guarantee in an urban setting. We’re doing a lot of work with London boroughs and the London beekeepers on flower mixes for pollinators, but would never consider calling any of our creations ‘meadows’.

    • milesking says:

      Hi Steve,

      nice to hear from you. I do think it’s well worth creating wildflower meadows in urban areas – no they won’t be exactly the same as rural ones, because of the difficulty in getting aftermath grazing. But then there are plenty of meadows on the continent which are mown-only.

      I think it’s important to recognise the difference between old, long-established meadows with their rare widlife, archaeology and history, and more recently created meadows, whether in urban or rural settings. But new urban meadows certainly have a great value – as much as anything because they bring wildlife closer to people. Planting pollinator or aesthetic mixes is also great – they just should never be called meadows,as you say.

  12. annewareham says:

    Just a small comment from a small meadow: we are able to cut and remove our hay with a ride on mower and that has to be a possible method for other people/local authorities wanting to maintain or create a small (say half acre) meadow. We did have some years at the beginning when we used an Allen Sythe and raked off, but as the sward ‘improved’ a mower could then cope. Maintenance cannot then be described as difficult, though it can be a challenge if the ground is very wet.

    Clearly it is then easy to re-mow after the first cut as necessary.

    Ours is Wye Valley old grassland and as we have maintained by cutting and removing, the Ox Eye daisies have increased, as have the orchids. We have added rattle for its beneficial effect and that is also thriving.

    Well worth encouraging other people with small areas of grassland to do the same. And, yes, applause for the two Wye Valley charities for their wonderful work.

    • milesking says:

      Thanks very much Anne. Yes a ride-on mower that can collect mowings is a very good tool for managing small meadows on even ground and is relatively cheap compared with bigger mowers + tractors.

  13. Miles – you may be interested in the response to your blog post from Nigel Dunnett (who invented Pictorial Meadows). It’s here: http://wellylady.blogspot.com/2012/02/when-is-meadow-not-meadow.html

  14. Pingback: Pictorial Mix | Moos, News and Views – The Grasslands Trust Blog

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