Monday 2 March at Bath Royal Scientific and Literary Institute (BRSLI)

After 30 years as a woodland specialist for the Nature Conservancy Council, George Peterken developed an interest in meadows which led him to write the very popular book Meadows in the British Wildlife Collection. He himself owns a number of fields which are cut for hay in summer then grazed, in the traditional manner. Hay meadows have low fertility but are species-rich, whereas sown agricultural grassland has low species number but higher productivity: the drive for productivity led to a 97% decline in traditional hay meadows between the 1930s and 1985.

For ecologists, the term “meadow” may also encompass churchyards, roadsides, woodland rides, mountain ledges and clifftops, but the talk focused on hay meadows and particularly the cultural aspects of these. Surprisingly, we learnt that before 1940 at least 40% of meadows were less than 80 years old. Where meadows had been created on former ridge and furrow ploughed fields, cowslips grow on the ridges. Most meadows have a suite of about 15 species, but often include a few rarer species, for example Fragrant Orchid, Burnt Orchid, Small-white Orchid, Blue-eyed Grass, Meadow Thistle or even (very rarely) Viper’s-grass, which although only found in four scattered locations in Britain, is a species characteristic of ancient hay meadows on the continent: here we may be witnessing the last stages of its decline.

Although some species are ubiquitous meadow components, regional differences in plant distributions produce meadows characterised by different species in different areas. This was illustrated by photos of a Marsh Marigold meadow in Upper Teesdale; a Devil’s-bit Scabious meadow in Aith, Shetland; a Bistort meadow in Upper Wharfdale and a northern meadow with swathes of Melancholy Thistle.

Over the centuries, meadows have been depicted in art and literature in different ways. The earliest known image of a hay meadow is on Trajan’s Column, finished in 113 AD, which shows haycocks in Romania. [Trajan’s column is a pictorial celebration of the emperor’s defeat of the Dacians, in what is now Romania]. The earliest literary mention of meadows was by Marcus Terrentius Varro (116-27 BC). Mediaeval Books of Hours show men scything and women raking, as did a fifteenth century calendar by the Limborg brothers. Paintings can tell us much about the social history associated with hay meadows.

An early eighteenth-century painting of the Countryside around Dixton Manor illustrates a vast community effort to gather in the hay, including Morris Dancers. When Ford Maddox Brown painted The Hayfield in 1855, haymaking was still depicted as a bucolic activity.

Today meadows are still celebrated: Crabtree & Evelyn have a range of toiletries called “Somerset Meadow”; scything competitions are held at the annual Green Scythe Fair at Muchelney in Somerset; a legacy of the London Olympics is the extensive meadow planting around the site; and in St Briavels and adjacent parishes, the Parish Grasslands Project, founded by our speaker in 2001 to offer help and advice on grassland management, has grown to a membership of about 60 local participants.

This fascinating talk was a captivating celebration of meadows, but by necessity only a brief summary of George Peterken’s inspirational Meadows book, which every naturalist interested in the subject should read.

Helena  Crouch