Wildflower meadows have been with us for millennia; in the wake of the last ice age, keystone species across the world such as wild horse, ox, bison, elk, wild boar and the aurochs (early species of cattle), developed a symbiotic relationship with the emerging grasslands. By feeding on the dominant plants and grasses, they allowed delicate and sensitive wild flowers to proliferate, creating micro-habitats for a multitude of species. 

   As farming practices developed a few thousand years B.C. and the large predators such as lynx and wolves were hunted down, mankind replaced them as top of the food chain. However, the special relationship between grazing animals and their environment continued unabated.

   “Behold the lilies of the field…” said Jesus “even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”, while, hundreds of years later, Shakespeare wrote:

   “When daisies pied and violets blue, and lady smocks all silver white, and cuckoo buds of yellow hue do paint the meadows with delight…”

   Since the second world war, when food production became a major priority, many of these meadowlands have disappeared; more than 97% to be precise. They gave way to re-seeded land, housing developments, arable land and plantation forestry.

   Yet they contain crucial biodiversity and absorb more carbon than British woodland. The constant, light level grazing, or hay making then grazing, keep the deep web of their root system constantly under stimulation and sending up fresh growth, and growing plants absorb carbon. By contrast, if these areas are neglected and allowed to become a wilderness, they become covered by mono-species such as nettle, bramble, blackthorn and dock, biodiversity dramatically declines, and while carbon is absorbed it is not at the same rates. 

   On average, British woodland absorbs about 2.5 tons of carbon per hectare per year, whereas species rich wildflower meadowland can absorb up to 3 tons per hectare in the same period. Only ‘wet woodland’ is capable of absorbing more.

   A single healthy meadow can be home to over one hundred species of wild flowers and grasses, plus the invertebrates that feed from them. They in their turn are the building blocks of an ecosystem that then supports small mammals, bats and birds. 

   They also slow floodwaters, buffer extreme weather, stop soil erosion and provide livestock with a nutrient rich diet.

   Not every species rich meadow is bright and showy with cornflowers and poppies. In fact, given two fields, one which is emerald green and the other is paler and scrubby, it is the paler scrubby one that is likely to be sheltering the tiny flowers of germander speedwell, forget-me-not, stitchwort and yellow tormentil, self-heal and bugle. The Sid Valley still has a number of species rich wildflower meadows, quietly supporting biodiversity as they have done for hundreds or even thousands of years, marked only by the buzzing of bees and the flutter of butterfly wings.

   Crucially, they support pollinators from early spring until late autumn, when other sources of pollen have dried up, and the woodland flowers of early spring have been overshadowed by a dense canopy of leaves.

Katherine Gray

   Given the symbiotic relationship between grazing animals and species rich meadowland, we would have to carefully consider any majority move towards a vegan or vegetarian diet, because the wildflower meadows would be lost, and with them the pollinators. There are a number of vegetarian and vegan landowners in Devon who support cattle grazing on their land because of their vital role in preserving and creating priority habitat, and with that habitat, carbon absorption.

   Amongst the complex needs of humanity for food, fuel and energy, not every field can be run as species rich meadowland. However, with this type of land use now running at less than 1% of total land use in the United Kingdom, we neglect it at our peril.

Katherine Gray

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