Hay meadows are an important habitat for wildlife. Even though they often may look like just another green field, a closer investigation will reveal a large number of different plant species.
Bursting with life
The very best meadows may contain up to 120 different species of flowering plant and many different species of grass. Some of the special flowers of North Pennines meadows are wood crane’s-bill, globeflower and great burnet. The richness of flowering plants means an abundant supply of nectar which attracts bees and other invertebrates to the meadows. These in turn attract insect-eating birds like swallows and house martins. Even at night the meadows supply important insect food for bats.
A living link to the past
Hay meadows are thought to have evolved from woodland clearings that Neolithic people began to enlarge by cutting down trees. Over time these clearings enlarged and a tradition began of harvesting the long grass to feed livestock. This tradition has continued until the present day and in some cases the same plot of land may have been harvested for its hay for almost 6,000 years!
A walk through a flowering hay meadow is a rich experience for our senses. Delicate and differently shaped flowers bloom in many colours: from the deep reds of great burnet and common sorrel, through the yellows of meadow buttercup and meadow vetchling, to the pinks of red clover and wood crane’s-bill. On a warm day the scent of some of these flowers can be intoxicating. Add to this the chatter of swallows overhead and the sound of the wind gently moving the long grass and you have a feast for the senses!
The hay made in our meadows is an important source of winter food for the cattle and sheep kept in the North Pennines. Many farmers regard their hay as their highest quality fodder and believe that their animals are healthier when they are fed on it. This may be because some of the flowering plants dried in the hay have beneficial medicinal properties.
Rare and special
Only 900ha of upland hay meadow are thought to remain in the UK and 350ha of this is within the North Pennines AONB. Upland hay meadows are now so rare that they have been recognised at a European level and are listed as a Priority Habitat under the European Union Habitats & Species Directive.