Meadows and grasslands support a huge and breath-taking range of wildlife. They are complete eco-systems on which many species completely depend. The rapid destruction of British meadows led to a worrying decline in many of these species. For many years, conservationists have voiced their fear for the environment but their protests largely fell on deaf ears until quite recently. Being a slow decline, people simply didn’t see or understand the catastrophe which was unfolding around us all. Maybe there was an understanding that we shouldn’t care about biodiversity if it has been sacrificed in order to put food on our tables. Ironically, the loss of so many important species now threatens our ability to produce that food.
British wildflower meadows feature up to 150 different species of flowers and grasses. The diverse flora supports a wonderful array of insects and invertebrates, including vital pollinators that are a source of food for farmland birds and animals. A meadow could feature as many as 40 different species in just a single square metre of land, but unfortunately, only 3% of British wild grassland is now species rich.
Almost 90% of all plants require a pollinator in order to reproduce, it isn’t difficult to understand how important butterflies truly are. Without butterflies, many plant species would be unable to reproduce and would die out, impacting both animals and the humans alike. Butterflies encourage genetic variation in plants as they will often travel long distances to collecting nectar. This causes pollen to be distributed across plants in different locations which in turn helps create genetic variation, ensuring that plant species remain robust and resilient to diseases.
Our bees are faring as poorly as our butterflies. Over 250 species of bee including 24 species of bumble bee are native to this country but 2 of the bumble bees have become extinct in the last 75 years. The population of bumblebees alone has fallen by a disturbing 70% in the last thirty years. The Great Yellow Bumblebee is currently Britain’s most threatened bumblebee species and now only survives in crofted areas of the Hebrides, North Western Scotland and Orkney. The Shrill Carder Bumblebee is currently known to exist in only 7 locations and is seriously threatened. Developments in the Thames gateway could well destroy its most significant remaining stronghold.
Wildflower meadows are also incredibly important habitats for birds. It is no coincidence that many of the bird species which have experienced the sharpest decline in Britain are farmland birds. Flower meadows provide insects and seeds for the birds to eat but also areas for many species including lapwing, grey partridge, curlew, yellow wagtail and skylark to nest. The number of skylarks in Britain has halved in the last 25 years, the corncrake has fared even worse and is now extinct in all lowland areas of Britain, thriving only in the Outer Hebrides. The time of year at which meadows are cut is critical if we don’t wish to destroy nests, eggs and chicks form these lovely ground nesting birds. Wait until they have finished nesting before cutting.
Uncut field margins provide shelter for birds in the winter months as well as a source of nutritious seeds and insects. Insects are the only food for grey partridge chicks in the first weeks of life providing them with essential protein. Since the 1950’s, insect numbers in crops have fallen by 75%, making life for young partridge extremely difficult and threatening the existence of grey partridge. Creating (or leaving) margins and pest control will do much to help these wonderful little birds.
The myriad of insects, spiders, butterflies, bees and birds share the meadows with shrews, voles, field mice and brown hares. Bats also rely on meadows but many of our native bat species are also in decline as a result of intensive farming, development and urbanisation. There is seemingly no end to the havoc that has been wreaked on biodiversity by the loss of wildflower meadows but the problems do not end with the loss of wildlife.
Wildflower meadows and grasslands also provide other environmental benefits including carbon storage ammonia absorption and water retention to reduce flooding further downstream. Grass and wildflower field margins also help reduce run-off from arable fields, in turn reducing the quantity of nutrients from fertilizers and pesticides from entering watercourses.