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Meadows still shrinking fast but awareness is growing.

The National Trust's biodiversity officer Helen Buckingham explains why meadows are so special

ROMANTIC images of strolling through pretty fields filled with flowers and butterflies could be a distant memory as dramatic figures suggest that only 3% of the enclosed unimproved grassland of the 1930s survive.

The dramatic increase in the use of fertilisers and herbicides and the revolution of ley grass farming, with its cycles of ploughing and re-seeding has resulted in the loss of the majority of flower-rich meadows.

Most of the remaining rich fields are found on scattered holdings that have escaped 20th century drives for increased production. These flower-rich meadows are a precious wildlife resource - supporting a mix of once common grasses and herbs. The best examples are colourful refuges for uncommon plants such as greater butterfly orchid and wood bitter vetch.

They are an important nectar source for butterflies and often provide nesting sites and food for birds such as skylark, and reflect the cyclical nature of 'traditional' livestock farming.

Perhaps more than any other habitat they are an evocative reminder of our changing seasons and thus important to people as part of the appreciation of the rich fabric of our countryside.

In Wales there are only 1,700 hectares - 4,200 acres - of lowland meadows and the National Trust owns nearly 5% of them.

Some of the best examples are found at Berthlwyd Farm in the Brecon Beacons. Here 10 meadows support a rich mix of wildflowers and grasses, such as hay rattle, eyebright, great burnet and common knapweed. In mid summer swathes of wildflowers can be seen, including the uncommon greater butterfly orchids.

The flower-rich meadows survive here only because the farming family believed in the link between species-rich hay and the health of their stock.

This makes the farm unique in that the meadows were never improved. They exist as an integral part of the farming system with the largest part of winter fodder still being produced from the meadows. The meadows here survive as part of the core of the farm rather than as a remnant.

Berthlywd has changed farming practice with a move from mixed cattle and sheep to only sheep rearing. This means there is no longer manure (from over-wintering cattle indoors) to spread on the fields. This manure is vital for replacing the soil nutrients taken away when the hay is cut.

The National Trust is now working with the tenants to try and find a way of maintaining the productivity of the meadows without reducing the richness of these unique grasslands.

At Gwaenothle Farm on the Dolaucothi Estate a series of meadows support a rich mix of grasses with hay rattle and bird's- foot trefoil, ox-eye daisy and rough hawkbit. These are being managed as part of the organic farm with a mix of cattle and sheep. Many of these fields are surrounded by rich hedgerows making the farm the richest for wildlife on the estate.

As a major landowner in Wales the National Trust is well placed to lead the way in management and restoration of flower-rich grasslands. The future of meadows is dependent on the continuation of farming that provides the need for a hay crop to feed stock in the winter. Without an annual cut the sward would change in character.

We are working with tenants to ensure that our remaining meadows are well managed. In the long term we want to expand the area of meadows on our farms. We are using seed-rich hay from Gwaenothle to introduce meadow species to Dinefwr.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jul 11, 2006
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