Leave No Trace: The Importance of Wildflower Meadows
Say the word meadow and it immediately conjures up images of distant lazy days, the smell of hay and wildflowers, the sizzle of summer heat and the sound of the wind and crickets in long grass. Meadows are often portrayed as a natural habitat but that’s not quite the case.
What is a meadow?
At its simplest, a meadow is an open area of grassland, dominated by grasses but also including wildflowers and other non-woody plants. Shrubs and trees may be a feature but unless it’s predominantly open, it can’t be classified as a meadow.
But meadows as we know them are not natural features of the landscape – they are man-made, originally resulting from clearing wooded land for agriculture, with hundreds of years of regular management keeping woody plants at bay and maintaining a diverse mix of grasses and wildflowers. If a meadow isn’t cut or grazed then fewer more robust grasses and wildflower species come to dominate, creating a rough, tussock-y grassland with a lower species diversity.
Eventually shrubs and trees colonise, the remaining grasses and wildflowers are shaded out, and the area returns to woodland.
Why are wildflower meadows important?
A wildflower meadow in the UK can be home to up to a hundred species of plant and support a complex web of invertebrates (from the soil to the tips of the tallest flowers), mammals, birds, fungi and a host of other wildlife.
Read on to find out more about the importance of wildflower meadows to the array of species that can be found there.
Pollinating insects and bees
Pollinating insects often spring to mind when we think of meadows - drinking from nectar-rich flowers, collecting and transporting pollen – intentionally or inadvertently. Some of these species have specific preferences, for example the widespread gatekeeper butterfly loves wild marjoram, as does the marbled white butterfly which is partial to other purple flowers too.
Some bee species target specific flower types given the length of their tongues and ability to reach the nectar at the base of the flowers, whilst some short-tongued bees – such as white-tailed bumblebees – have resorted to nectar robbing: chewing a small hole at the base of a flower to extract the nectar (and without providing payment in kind through the transfer of pollen!).
Meadows are also extremely important for herbivorous invertebrates – those that eat parts of the plants, from the sap suckers to leaf chompers, including aphids, grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles and many more.
And here again there is surprising specificity – as the arms race progresses, with attackers and defenders evolving to try and get the upper hand. For example, many caterpillars have very specific food plants, with marbled white caterpillars favouring red fescue, and caterpillars of common blue butterflies primarily feeding on common bird's-foot-trefoil.
Tall, dense vegetation also provides structure and shelter for invertebrates like spiders, ladybirds and lacewings who help to control pest-insects, with some invertebrates overwintering at the base of grassy tussocks, such as meadow brown butterfly caterpillars, whilst others will shelter from the cold within old seed heads or hollow stems of hogweed and other wildflowers.
Grasslands also provide nesting for some birds such as iconic skylarks, and shelter and food for small mammals including shrews and voles, which in turn feed tawny owls and kestrels.
You may also see dragonflies zipping over the meadows, patrolling in their hunt for other invertebrates (and if you are very lucky, a hobby in turn hunting the dragonflies!).
How to maintain and protect the UK’s wildflower meadows
Since the 1970s, over 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost in the UK. This may have been through the ‘improvement’ of meadows for grazing or sileage, for example by resowing, and treatment with fertilisers and herbicides, or through loss to arable crops or development.
We are doing our bit to help reverse this loss. In 2020 alone, we sowed 19,000m2 (equivalent to 28 championship tennis courts) with seed from 73 species of native grasses and wildflowers, with volunteers and Operation Centaur’s magnificent shire horses helping us manage these valuable grasslands using traditional techniques.
Leave No Trace
We also ask for our visitors help in protecting these beautiful habitats, asking visitors to ‘Leave No Trace’ by sticking to paths and not trampling on or picnicking in the middle of the meadows. Apart from flattening the vegetation which can smother delicate wildflowers and prevent flowering and seeding, you could also be stomping on important meadow species, such as caterpillars or sitting on ladybirds.
Compaction of the ground can also deter plant growth and have a long-term impact on the meadows. It should also go without saying that in high summer, dry grass and plants are very susceptible to fire and under certain conditions even a single ember from a barbecue or cigarette can cause a catastrophic blaze. Barbeques are not permitted in the parks because of the damage they can cause and we also ask that cigarettes, like all litter, are taken away with you and disposed of properly.
The Royal Parks is committed to helping nature thrive, but it takes all of us working together to do so. Discover how you too can Help Nature Thrive.