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Bringing wildflowers back to Hertfordshire

PUBLISHED: 10:07 23 July 2018 | UPDATED: 10:19 23 July 2018

British meadow in bloom including poppy, cornflower and daisy

British meadow in bloom including poppy, cornflower and daisy

Barry Eastwood

Simon Leadbeater makes a plea for us all to see the manicured field, lawn and verge for what it is, a wildlife desert, and to allow wildflowers their beautiful and environmentally-key place

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Auguries of Innocence, William Blake, 1803

Bumblebee feeding on devil's-bit scabious. Wildflowers are a key food source for our pollinatorsBumblebee feeding on devil's-bit scabious. Wildflowers are a key food source for our pollinators

If, as the poet said, heaven resides in a wild flower then we must surely be waging war against it. The statistic that we have lost 97 per cent of our wildflower meadows since the 1930s may even underestimate the scale of loss – it may be closer to 99 per cent. And meadows continue to be vulnerable. Many are owned privately as Local Wildlife Sites which have very little protection, some continue to be lost to development, while airborne nitrogen pollution can reduce species diversity. They are also at risk through neglect and change of use.

The outcome is there for all to see – we now think of uniformly green countryside as natural. Andy Garnett and Polly Devlin write in A Year in the Life of an English Meadow that ‘the thing to know is that a healthy living landscape is not a green landscape. The field that you walk past, or see from your car window, so emerald green, so smoothly uniform, is a desert composed of a few strains of highly bred grasses and supporting little or no wildlife.

Common toadflax - a stunner, despite its nameCommon toadflax - a stunner, despite its name

‘The great tapestries of the Middle Ages… are not an artist’s dazzling inspiration of the celestial fields, but an accurate representation of what people saw around them… this is what the countryside looked like.’

In short, with the loss of the traditional English meadow the colour has been drained out of our countryside, and our lives.

What is a wildflower meadow? What it is not is an area of grass grazed year-round by farm animals – that is pasture. A meadow is grassland that produces a crop, traditionally used as winter feed for livestock. This regular cutting and removing of the grass reduces soil fertility, encouraging wildflowers. With the loss of traditional meadows, wildflowers are now often confined to verges or take refuge in what some writers call ‘edgelands’ – parcels of land neither urban nor country, sometimes left unmanaged.

Lady's SmockLady's Smock

I have fought several battles defending wildflowers in these in-between spaces, and invariably lost. I was once responsible for grounds maintenance at council-run cemeteries in east Hertfordshire. One spring we started mowing a little late only for lady’s smock, otherwise known as cuckoo flowers, to emerge. I did my best to garner appreciation for these diminutive flowers among my then colleagues but was ultimately instructed to mow them down to return to the managed, if lifeless, green sward. This experience was relived years later when I became a Harpenden town councillor and discovered the same flower growing on a large verge.

I now live near the rural village of Ayot St Lawrence and even here wild flora fares little better. Along my lane a profusion of greater stitchwort heralds spring, followed in the summer by hedge bedstraw and then knabweed and both field and devil’s-bit scabious. Finally, common toadflax marks the beginning of the year’s turn. With pitiless indifference these are all flailed down when in flower, and while they do seem to return, most of the lane is dominated by grass, nettles and bracken, and I suspect increasingly so.

My love of wildflowers transports me to a mostly unnoticed world where the quiet vitality of individual flowers or riotous cascade of different species somehow stills ambient noise and I only become aware of colour and the peaceful hum of busy insect life. I can perhaps attribute this love to two experiences. First, as a graduate student I visited Winston Churchill’s grave at nearby Bladon. The churchyard was full of cowslips – or cowpaigle to give it its Hertfordshire name. I don’t much remember the grave but distinctly recall losing myself amidst hundreds of cowslips one May evening, and have wanted to reproduce that feeling ever since. The second was discovering a meadow in the garden of my family home. My late parents lived just off Rothamsted Park in Harpenden. Their home was built in the 1950s, and, with their tall unruly hedge and ancient decaying estate fencing within, was one of the few houses that retained features redolent of the area’s past. On one occasion my father neglected to cut the lawn and it began to turn purple – with what I now know were the flowers of self-heal. For the last decade we left large patches to grow, and found them dominated by bird’s-foot trefoil, oxeye daisies, cat’s ear, self-heal, and more cowpaigle. Before we sold our family home in August last year we discovered agrimony, a plant I had not noticed before – wildflowers always retain their capacity to surprise.

The house was built on an old meadow, and of course, that’s one of the reasons for their national demise. But at least my parents brought something of what had been lost back to life.

Having fruitlessly tried to persuade people that wildflowers in long grass are beautiful and not symptomatic of neglect, my wife and I purchased a five acre field back in 2006 in order to create our own wildflower meadow. My parents died in early 2017 and in the months after I started to rehome some of their oxeye daisies and cowslips into our field. People walking on the adjacent footpath will hopefully enjoy a mosaic of contrasting colours gradually unfold, unaware of the memories they hold for me.

Having started to create my own wildflower meadow there are signs that the public outlook is changing. Our local Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust manages over 40 reserves, of which many have important grassland habitats, while Caring for God’s Acre, a charity dedicated to bringing our churchyards back to life as a haven for wildflowers and wildlife alike, has the Bishop of St Albans as a patron. At a national level there are three major initiatives – Prince Charles’ Coronation Meadows and two by Plantlife – Save our Magnificent Meadows and its Road Verge Campaign.

We can join the fight against unnecessary verge cutting and support wildflower charities, but where we have most control is in our own gardens. There are some 16 million gardens covering two million acres in the UK. If each one of those garden-owners created a mini-meadow it would go some way to compensate for national losses.

Finding heaven in the wildflowers of our gardens will bring colour into our lives and support our besieged pollinators who really need our help. To find out how, I would recommend the resources provided online by Plantlife at plantlife.love-wildflowers.org.uk and by Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust at hertswildlifetrust.org.uk. And by all means contact me by email at simon.leadbeater@btinternet.com

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