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I was talking to a friend about being in the cut meadow last weekend and she asked, with a tone suggesting it was a bad thing, ‘why do they have to cut it?’

I know I have a tendency to wax on about beauty and stray into the romantic (I certainly did when I wrote ‘lie me down‘ when I was in fact, er, lying down in the meadow) but there is a very practical side to meadow life – it’s not all about dreaming and buzzing bees. So, for anyone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of meadow management, I thought it worth a few words to explain that upland hay meadows here in England (and in any other parts of the world) do not exist because they have been left alone. Quite the opposite – a meadow that is diverse and successful in terms of the types and numbers of flowers and grasses is the result of partnership between land, human labour, and well-thought out grazing patterns.

‘If man had not taken hay from meadows, or grazed the land,’ writes John Feltwell in Meadows, ‘there would be no meadows, simply woodland and forest. There would always have been light woodlands studded with carpets of flowers in the spring, and clearings of wild flowers …. But the majority of meadows as we know them today have been fashioned by the hand of man and by his beasts.’

High Borrowdale upland hay meadow

before the cut

With the origin of meadows steeped in history – certainly as old as Saxon times and more probably going back to the Iron Age, with the creation of cutting tools – Britain’s meadows not only shaped the way villages were planned, but also seeped into literature. ‘There is probably no other country,’ says Feltwell, ‘which has such a meadow heritage locked up in its way of life.’

cut hay meadow

after the cut

Meadows are still part of this country’s heritage although, sadly, they are more prolific in literature than in the current landscape (as I said in an earlier blog, it is estimated that only 3% of meadows remain today, compared to the 1950s). But where they do exist, timing grazing before and after the flowering season, and leaving the full growth for long enough to allow seeds to fall and settle – is vital to their continuity and improvement. Without this management, too small a number of species dominate and the richness of variety fades, in turn offering less variety to moths, butterflies and other invertebrates.

In a couple of areas in High Borrowdale where the tractor was unable to cut – marshy and sloping ground – and where I saw a rambling celebration of betony, vetch, clover, harebells and valerian among grasses – the lack of cutting can result in less variety. Keeping a meadow abundant and diverse is hard work.

Anyone fancy popping over with a scythe?

john Feltwell’s Book: Meadows, A History and Natural History, Alan Sutton, 1992