July 26, 2013 7:09 pm

Prince Charles’s own baby: a scheme to protect Britain’s meadows

The Prince of Wales is seeking to protect more than 100 meadows by giving them ‘coronation’ status
Hybrid orchids at Plas Newydd©National Trust

Hybrid orchids at Plas Newydd, on the island of Anglesey, one of the newly designated coronation meadows

What has Prince Charles officially given the Queen to mark the jubilee of her coronation year? It is not a horse, another date with James Bond or a corgi to revitalise the bloodline. It is a scheme for coronation meadows. The prince’s aim is to designate up to 107 British meadows, at least one in each county, by the end of this year. They will be honoured as sites of special interest for wildflowers and will be connected to a propagation campaign.

More than 7m acres of flowery meadow have been lost in Britain in my lifetime. When each coronation meadow’s hay is cut during the next four weeks, it will be distributed, seeds and all, on to the surfaces of well-adapted meadows nearby with the hope of spreading its flowery heritage. If each meadow can breed other flowery meadows, we will begin to reverse the loss of up to 97 per cent of Britain’s traditionally-grazed meadows since 1950. The recent EU “set-aside” campaign had no such seeding programme built into it. Much of it has left yet another ugly imprint on our farmed landscape. It has perpetuated thistles, brambles and rosebay willow herb on land which it paid farmers to take out of intensive use.

The coronation meadow project is linked to the excellent charity Plantlife. Besides recognising individual meadows, the two of them intend to build up a British inventory of traditional flower meadows. At present nobody knows exactly what survives where. If you have a candidate for inclusion, go to coronationmeadows.org.uk/let-us-know-about-your- meadow and fill in the details. If there are past secrets in the long grass which you would rather not put on record, do not worry. The aim is not to write a biography of each meadow and those moments in it when you behaved like a feral hog. It is simply to record the flowery spaces alive and well in the Queen’s realm.

Coronation meadows already extend from Scotland to Cornwall, from Piper Hole in Cumbria to Cae Blaen-dyffryn in Carmarthenshire. Cowslips by the thousand have been registered on Surrey’s chalk downs. Hertfordshire has enrolled its Therfield Heath site on which purple-flowered pulsatillas still grow wild. On the Isle of Wight two acres round the Swiss Cottage at Osborne trace a history of meadow management back to 1850. In Leicestershire the Big Meadow at Loughborough is Lammas land whose records of care go back to 1762. Up and down Britain, county Wildlife Trusts have been quick to put forward important sites. We will have a national digitised meadow archive long before we have digitised patient records in the NHS. Already, coronation status has been accorded to Lady’s Mead meadow near that icon of English rural place names, Toller Porcorum in Dorset.

Scenting the hay season, I left my haven of a garden this week and went to inspect a coronation meadow as it awaits a cut. Near Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire, two traditionally managed fields have just acquired the coronation ranking after recently changing owners. This year’s high sheriff of the county, Hugh Tollemache, took me out into one of them, his new pride and joy of 12 acres. Hyde Mill meadow is one of several coronation candidates which had once been a school playing field. Over on Anglesey, another ex-playing field has attained coronation status on the National Trust property of Plas Newydd. Since it went into active “hay meadow management”, its Greater Butterfly orchids have proliferated. Welsh rugger’s loss is botany’s gain. In the fields below Stow, orchids are flowering happily where the square-leg umpire would once have given cricketing decisions without the risk of being referred to technology.

Cowslip on Chimney Meadows, Oxfordshire©Andy Fairburn

Cowslip on Chimney Meadows, Oxfordshire

I am not entirely sure about the “wholesome” claims of wild flower conservationists. Maybe there were hospital meadows in the past to which sick animals were transferred and allowed to eat a diet of “healthy” native plants. The most famous, however, were in Wales and nowadays even the Welsh would much rather send the sheepdog to the vet. I do not think that coronation meadows will do much for four-legged healthcare. Is there any serious evidence that “native breeds” of animal help wildflowers to “thrive”, as meadow protagonists also claim? Badgers do nothing to help buttercups, whereas I have seen excellent drifts of flowering scabious in fields which feed imported llamas. What, anyway, is a “native breed”, I wondered, as I looked at the high sheriff’s orchids? Amazingly, his field was grazed for much of its recent past by horses. Are old English cart-horses really kinder to wildflowers than a first-class working hunter with “alien” thoroughbred blood? Both of them share bad habits. They avoid all the nettles in a field and leave rough uneaten patches of thistles wherever they spend a summer. Horses have to be accompanied by thistle-munching donkeys if the field is to be kept neatly-cropped. Nobody, I hope, is fudging the immigration statistics by reclassifying the donkey as a “native breed”.

Some of the “rescued” plants are less attractive than their names. In meadow prospectuses I have been asked to admire “meadow trefoil”, but it is simply the seductive name for clover. Dyer’s Greenweed is a routine sort of genista and Pearly Everlasting is the dull old anaphalis with grey flowers, often banished from gardens. Orchids make everyone swoon, but in the grand scheme of things British orchids are not the world’s loveliest. What is heartening is the way they spread by seeding themselves if the meadowland is congenial. Below Stow, I cooed on Monday morning as hundreds of fragrant, spotted and pyramidal orchids poked up through the grasses in turf on limestone.

Then, there was a butterfly moment. We both think it was a Marsh Fritillary, floating above the red fescue, but neither of us is as keen sighted as 50 years ago. I promise it was not another Meadow Brown and, certainly, it fluttered ever further from the camera among some shocking pink Ragged Robin. Perhaps it was looking for the muddy patch which those native mess-makers, the horses, had made by rolling in the meadow in the past 20 years. I am endorsing the high sheriff’s fritillary-sighting because of a prominent flower in his coronation patch. Plenty of Devil’s-bit Scabious is visible, that pale lilac flower which is correctly called Succisa pratensis, not scabious at all. Succisa has a remarkable willingness to grow on damp soil and also on dry Gloucestershire limestone. It is the food plant for the larvae, no less, of the Marsh Fritillary butterfly.

Among the trefoil and the moon daisies, I am a believer, Prince Charles. Your coronation project is a really neat one. Who knows what its hay will seed next year? Invasive wild carrot? Too much knapweed and too little Bedstraw Broomrape? If it feeds some Marsh Fritillaries, I hope it will be long to reign over us. When there is a meadow in every county, I can keep my garden for cultivated flowers. I will go on coronation outings to see the random wildness that I do not want inside my own four walls.

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