One of my clearest childhood memories – growing up in the village of Knockholt in Kent – is of bringing in the hay from one of two small fields kept for grazing and feeding our horses. In the weeks before the harvest the meadow would be dotted with purple knapweed, yellow meadow buttercup and cheery ox-eye daisies.
Before the grass had turned yellow the field was cut and the hay left to dry for a week or so. Then my father and grandfather would rake the hay into long windrows before firing up our creaking, porridge-grey Ferguson tractor to collect it up into neat rectangular bales.
I’m not sure what my role in the process was, but I imagine it wasn’t especially useful. Timing was always of the essence it seemed, making sure the hay was baled before rain had the chance to spoil it, which meant that when the moment was right we worked through till the job was done. Even as a child I believe I had a sense of this being a significant moment in the year, of one time passing and another beginning. In fact, it was haymaking as a viable farming activity that was passing, and by the early 1970s – when I was “helping” with the harvest – hay meadows were already in irrevocable decline. Today, 97 per cent of the meadows that existed in Britain in the 1940s have vanished.
There is some very simple economics behind this decline. Before the second world war British farmers were charged with producing enough food to feed 16m people – today it is more like 40m. During the same period the cost of food production has increased while the number of people willing to work on the land as a career choice has dramatically reduced. Farmland came under increased pressure as a consequence of urban sprawl, and more marginal land came into cultivation – land that required more effort for lower yields. A traditional meadow produces about one tonne of fodder in the form of hay per acre, while an intensively managed pasture has an output of 15 tonnes of silage fodder per acre. Hay meadows need good timing and reliable weather to cut and bale, silage pasture less so. Add to the mix the sometimes questionable, occasionally ludicrous missives of the Common Agricultural Policy – that sometimes changed not just the goalposts for farmers but the entire playing field – and it isn’t hard to justify the economics of change.
The economic factors may be irresistible, but then so is the cultural significance of hay meadows. The hay harvest can be seen in a huge volume of art and literature across Europe and North America. Rubens and Bruegel captured labourers preparing for work, sharpening scythes and readying rakes. Pissarro, Van Gogh and Dessar painted bucolic scenes of haymakers at rest. Gauguin showed the process of hay being harvested in Brittany. George Stubbs took a break from bloodstock to depict hay carts being loaded, while de Wint and Turner featured hay being transported by boat. Hay has also given us perhaps the most famous landscape painting of all time; John Constable’s “The Hay Wain”. And there is no shortage of poetry and prose, from Robert Louis Stevenson to Oscar Wilde, DH Lawrence and Ted Hughes. The hay-related output of the poet John Clare alone is substantial:
’Tis haytime and the red-complexioned sun
Was scarcely up ere blackbirds had begun
Along the meadow hedges here and there
To sing loud songs to the sweet-smelling air
Where breath of flowers and grass and happy cow
Fling o’er one’s senses streams of fragrance now
Without the hay meadow there would have been no muse. But a midsummer drive through farming countryside today reveals acres of fields in lurid green, rolled into stripes like oversized bowling greens. The aim of silage production is a uniform grass sward, achieved through feeding and weed control, so that in a good year a field can be cut and harvested twice. This means there is little room for the numerous species of wildflowers and grasses, invertebrates, mammals and birds that relied on the low-input, low-yield hay system. Hay meadow management is based around a cycle of light grazing by sheep from October to early spring (sheep are light on their feet so cause minimal damage to the sward) then growth to harvest time, usually July, followed by a rest period to allow the meadow to recover.
The few pristine meadows that are left give an idea of what we are missing. The uplands that surround the tiny village of Muker, deep in the Yorkshire Dale of Swaledale, are some of the best in the UK. They have been afforded some of the highest levels of protection as sites of special scientific interest and special areas of conservation. The meadows are in the private ownership of several farming families but many are accessible as part of a footpath network that winds through a sublime landscape of hills and dales, stone-built barns and dry stone walls. In some places silvery grey York stone flags have been laid to ensure walkers keep to the path, rather than wandering through the precious flowers, and these ribbons of stone only add to the magic of the place. From late May to early July, Muker’s meadows are at their most floriferous. Among the more common species are red clover (Trifolium pratense) – a favourite food source for bees – yellow meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris), pignut (Conopodium majus), birds-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and selfheal (Prunella vulgaris).
The social and cultural history of the plants is as rich as the history of the meadows themselves. Selfheal is a fascinatingly grisly plant with lavender blue flowers. The name derives from its traditional use in staunching wounds; it was mixed with lard and smeared generously into the affected area. One assumes it must have worked at some level. Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) is a key component of many of the best meadows. A hemiparasitic annual, it helps to retard the vigour of the grasses it “feeds” off, helping to keep the sward more open for wildflowers. The common name comes from the seed pods, which rattle when dry, and made the plant a popular plaything with rural children. One of the most beautiful and wonderfully named plants is Cirsium helenioides, the melancholy thistle – did you ever imagine a thistle could be melancholy? It has soft, largely spineless leaves and none of the bad habits of the invasive thistle, and is topped by large purple flowers.
All of these charming and fascinating wild plants are now struggling to eke out a living in whatever space is left for them. In some areas they have found a foothold in roadside verges and other municipal spaces. But even here, as UK charity Plantlife has highlighted, they are under threat thanks to overzealous maintenance ordered by box-ticking local authorities with an obsession for “neatness”.
Disregarding the importance to biodiversity and our cultural and social history, one of the great tragedies of the loss of hay meadows is that we know so little about the complex relationships between the plants, wildlife and fungi within them. In that sense the hay meadow is as significant, and irreplaceable, as the rainforest.
Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries in London
NGS gardens to open
The National Gardens Scheme was set up in 1927 to encourage the owners of private gardens, large and small, to open their gates and welcome visitors as a means of raising money for charity. There are now more than 3,700 gardens in the NGS Yellow Book, which is published each year. Between them, the gardens attract an estimated 750,000 visitors, raising more than £2.5m per year for charities involved in nursing, caring and gardening. This weekend NGS gardens will open across England and Wales. For garden and plant lovers it is a great opportunity to see what other gardeners are up to, pick the brains of the owners and to buy unusual plants. Many of the owners offer tea and cake – as a means of raising more charity cash – so reluctant spouses and children might be happy to visit too.