Once common place through much of Great Britain, flower-rich hay meadows have encountered serious decline in the last century. One Lancashire-based project is working to remedy that. Hannah Park reports.
Due largely to agricultural intensification between the 1930s and 1980s, flower-rich hay meadows are said to have suffered a reduction in area of up to 97 per cent nationally during that time.
But one organisation looking to reverse some of that is the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), having joined forces with the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust to deliver a hay meadow restoration project in the AONB - Bowland Hay Time.
Beginning in May 2012, the Lancashire-based project is working with farmers and landowners in the AONB to improve, restore and establish quality, species-rich meadow sites.
Now eight years in, it has worked on and restored about 150 hectares (370 acres) into species-rich meadows on some 60 different areas of ground across the AONB from farmland to community sites such as church yards and public gardens.
Three meadows at Bell Sykes Farm, Slaidburn, were the first to be restored in the project, with flora from the existing species-rich meadows on the farm used in this restoration work before going on to help many others get established.
Sarah Robinson, farming and wildlife project officer at the Forest of Bowland AONB, says: “Finding good quality, resilient meadows to use as donor sites to enable us to carry out restoration work was the first job at the beginning of the project.
“Bell Sykes is home the largest area of high quality meadows in Lancashire, and lots of farms in Slaidburn have benefited thanks to its meadows, which can be credited for helping to restore some further 60ha across Bowland.” A third generation Slaidburn Estate tenanted farm, Bell Sykes Farm is home to Peter and Linda Blackwell and their family.
The farm spans 60ha (144 acres) in total, just less than half of which is made up of wildflower meadows.
It sells green hay through the Hay Time project for reseeding new wildflower meadows, hosts a few different agricultural courses on-farm and is also home to a 100-head flock of Hampshire Down ewes.
In 1999, a 14ha (34-acre) proportion of Bell Sykes’ meadows were designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and later in 2013, as part of a Coronation anniversary campaign by the Prince of Wales, all of Bell Sykes’ SSSI meadows were also designated as the Coronation Meadow for Lancashire.
They now make up part of a network of 60 which were pin-pointed in every county through the UK as part of the project.
The recent national recognition through the latter, Peter says, brought home to him that preserving the wildflower meadows was important, but the road to this point wasn’t without its challenges.
Peter says: “The meadows were designated SSSI here because they were one of the very few unimproved herb-rich grasslands left in this area back then, but it came as a surprise to the family at the time, as the decision was made out of our hands.
“One of the prescriptions was to significantly reduce livestock numbers without any compensation and we had a lengthy battle before an agreement was reached.
We have always found it hard to make a living though and machinery and infrastructure investment has been as good as impossible.” Both Peter and Linda work off-farm now a few days each week, mechanicing and building and in retail respectively.
"The meadows were designated SSSI here because they were one of the very few unimproved herb-rich grasslands left in this area."
“There have been plenty of challenges, but the Hay Time project and Sarah Robinson especially have been a breath of fresh air,” says Peter.
“Sarah is not only very passionate about her job but has always been helpful and willing to teach.
I now have a lot more understanding about the flowers and why they grow where they do and can even name a few of them.
“It was an honour to be asked to represent Lancashire in the Coronation Meadows project, but it was also a great wake up call for the whole country in terms of how much wildflower meadows had been lost in the last 75 years.” When it comes to management of the meadows, Peter says the year starts in April when the meadows are shut up, cutting, weather dependant, in mid-July before the aftermath is left to grow and sheep brought back into the meadows in winter.
“The prescription on the SSSI meadows is to make small bale hay which is a major challenge in our climate as we have one of the highest rainfalls in the country here,” he says.
“We’ll also alternate where we start mowing each year to give the later flowering species chance to emerge.
It takes several weeks for us to hay time all the meadows even when the weather is good so generally each will have a late cut every other year at least.” Events the farm hosts through the Bowland AONB include courses on meadow creation, plant identification, bumble bee identification as well as scything courses run by a private tutor.
Bell Sykes also hosts an annually organised National Meadows Day, ordinarily held on the first Saturday in July, which celebrates all things wildflower meadow and rural crafts.
“I do enjoy these days, although quite a bit of work to set up, it is nice to meet people who take an interest in what we are doing and appreciate the meadows,” Peter says.
Sarah is hopeful that the project can continue facilitating habitat resilience across the AONB, and while there is a grant on offer for the capital work of carrying out the species transfer and restoration, as well as ongoing management payments to manage these areas as species rich meadows under the higher tier of Countryside Stewardship, this alone, Sarah says, should not be a motivator for doing so.
“One of the first questions I ask to individuals looking to get involved is what their motivation is,” she says.
“You need that real buy-in. Going forward, Sarah says she would like to improve connectivity of meadow sites.
“While the majority of species seen in wildflower meadows are not rare in their own right, they are scarcely seen in abundance in the same meadow.
“We’ve got some amazing meadows in the project, but in many cases they’re very disconnected from each other.
Restoration work typically works best in situations where the seed rain can naturally occur in addition to the work we do.
Bell Sykes’ meadows are also serving the community in other ways, with wild grasses and blooms used by local distiller, Goosnargh Gin.
Based near Bleasdale on the edge of the AONB, owners Richard and Rachel Trenchard have been working with Peter and Sarah to source and harvest a blend of wild herbs, grasses and flowers for the past two years to create their seasonal Chapter Four – Hay Time gin (pictured, inset).
Rachel says: “We’re keeping the exact blend of Hay Time a secret, but we have used flowers, grasses and leaves from species like meadow vetchling, sweet vernal grass, red clover and yellow rattle to distil the gin, giving it the unique essence of Bowland.” Hay Time is just one of Goosnargh Gin’s creations, which are all distilled in small batches using traditional methods in copper alembic stills.
The couple work with independent retailers such as farm shops, delis and independent wines and spirits stockists.
Projects For every bottle of Hay Time gin sold, Richard and Rachel donate £5 to projects in the Forest of Bowland, to encourage the education of young children about the importance of protecting these areas.
Botanicals for this year’s Chapter Four – Hay Time batch have just been picked from the meadows and gin is available now.