Meadows and grasslands were an intrinsic part of British agriculture, bursting with colour and the hum of insects, but a staggering decline has left this important habitat covering just 1% of the UK

It may sound obvious but 100 years ago Britain’s countryside was a very different place.

Back then it would have been awash with colourful flower-rich meadows and grasslands that were an intrinsic part of our agriculture and people’s daily lives.

The scale of the decline is breath-taking

Fast forward to today and over 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost since the 1930s, that’s a startling 7.5 million acres (3 million hectares). Species-rich grassland now only covers a mere 1% of the UK’s land area.

And what remains is mostly scattered fragments of just a few acres and vulnerable to disappearing under the plough. The seriousness and causes of the decline has been outlined in a report by the charity Plantlife.

According to the charity’s botanical specialist, Dr Trevor Dines, all that remain are just 26,000 acres (10,500 hectares) of lowland wildflower meadow and 2,223 acres (900 hectares) of upland hay meadow in the UK.

“The scale of the decline is breath-taking,” he says.

This loss of meadows and species-rich grasslands is without parallel in the history of nature conservation in the UK according to Save Our Magnificent Meadows, a partnership project led by the charity Plantlife to promote and protect our vanishing meadows.

They also say that in the UK, more priority species for conservation are associated with grasslands than with any other habitat type.

So to celebrate these now very rare and special spaces and to raise awareness of their striking decline, the first ever National Meadows Day was held on Saturday 4 July.

What’s all the fuss about?

Meadows develop as a result of traditional farming practices. Each small farm would have grown a few crops, had permanent pasture for grazing, and meadows for hay that were cut and stored to feed the livestock over winter.

For the greater part, our understanding of what it was like is now confined to memory 

Management followed an annual cycle of growing in spring and summer, cutting in late summer and grazing in winter. But the turning point came during the Second World War when six million acres of grassland were ploughed to grow cereals, starting the inevitable decline.

It’s a decline that continues today, decades of careful management being undone in a few hours.

“For the greater part, our understanding of what it was like is now confined to memory,” Dr Dines says.

However, a meadow remains an important and crucial habitat, he explains, with over 150 different species of flower and grass that support a myriad of insects from bees and beetles to grasshoppers and butterflies, which in turn support many small animals and birds. A meadow could contain up to 40 species per square metre.

“Few habitats in Britain can match this diversity,” says Dines.

But they’re more than biodiversity hotspots. “As well as supporting pollinating insects that are valuable for many food crops they help mitigate flooding by holding on to rain water and capture vast amounts of carbon,” Dr Dines tells BBC Earth.

And perhaps most importantly for Dr Dines, it’s the "experience" of being in a meadow.

In summer a traditionally-managed, flower-rich meadow becomes a mini jungle, alive with brightly coloured wild flowers, buzzing and chirping insects, and the sweet song of the skylark as it rises and falls overhead.

“The air is warm with the scent of flowers, sweet and floral from clover and more exotic vanilla from the fragrant orchids.

“It is what National Meadows Day is all about – encouraging people to experience this once again,” Dines says.

The future’s bright

But the future is looking as bright as some of the wildflowers. Important flagship projects such as Plantlife’s Coronation Meadows and Save our Magnificent Meadows, have made important gains in changing attitudes towards meadows.

Dr Dines says that there is now, “more awareness and understanding of the need and value of meadows, what we’ve lost, and most importantly, how to bring them back.

“The key is to make meadows a viable part of farming systems again, recognising their economic, social and environmental value.”

We want everyone to have the opportunity to experience wildflower meadows in all their summer glory again 

There have been a number of notable conservation success stories that show just what can be achieved, but this could be just the beginning.

For example, in Gwynedd, north Wales, three new meadows were created, one of which had five times more species just one year after it was restored. Seed from a reserve in Norfolk was used to restore a meadow and the year after rare sulphur clover was found. And near Stonehenge in Wiltshire, hundreds of wildflowers were restored to chalk grassland to provide food plants for butterflies.

It is worth remembering that wildflower meadows were once present in every parish in the country.

“We want everyone to have the opportunity to experience wildflower meadows in all their summer glory again – to be able to revel in the wildlife.

“Only then will we really understand what we came close to losing,” Dines says.

Find a National Meadow Day event near you and experience a meadow in summer, like we used to do.

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