Restoring the Magnificent Meadows of the Cotswolds

In July 2015 I volunteered with the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) to help with the harvesting of wildflower seeds from hay meadows and other species-rich grasslands. The Magnificent Meadows project is partnered nationally between the AONB, the Wildlife Trusts, Plantlife and the RSPB. I was helping Conservation Officer Eleanor Reast and volunteer Will Bowers. Since 1945, 97% of British wildflower meadows (hay meadows, water meadows, chalk and limestone grassland) have been lost. There are many reasons for this and there are a number of projects to raise awareness and physically restore this near-obliterated habitat. The loss has been catastrophic for invertebrate populations, namely the bees which are popular whilst their misunderstood habitat continues to decline. I don’t mean honeybees specifically, they play an important role in pollination but the biggest and most concerning losses are to bumblebees, with some of the rare species now confined to coastal meadows and grasslands. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust estimates that bees provide £560million to the UK economy through pollinating high value crops. But bumblebees are only a fraction of British species: there are around 250 species, 32% of which are threatened with extinction. Solitary bees make up much of the numbers here, with an amazing array of species having taken to different niches and areas of our landscape, giving us mining, mason and leaf cutter bees. Wildflower-rich meadows, along with woods, should be the fulcrum of support for our rural wildlife, instead the former has been near-destroyed and millions of pounds are now rightly being invested in their regeneration. At the same time government continues to build on remaining rich grasslands and open up more areas for fracking.

The AONB is vast and the job of Eleanor and her colleagues is not a simple one. The project aims to work with local landowners both to collect seed from their meadows but also to re-seed new grasslands where the soil conditions are suitable. Flower-rich grasslands are generally nutrient poor, this means that they haven’t been fertilised with chemicals or dung (also human excrement as I learned in the Cotswolds). This is vital because if the soil is too nutrient-rich, dominant species like nettle, bramble and hogweed will begin to overtake. Species-rich grasslands are often also rich in waxcap fungi. However, according to George Peterken, the nitrogen emitted into the atmosphere by car engines and through aviation is leading to rainfall that is actually fertilising grasslands and reducing the range of fungi as well as wildflowers. Orchids are impacted here as some species have intricate, symbiotic relationships with fungi, and the loss of fungi can therefore impact the meadow ecosystem in subtle ways.

Harvesting the meadows required a Land Rover to drag the seed harvester around the landscape and a trailer to get the thing out there. I spent most of my time trying to sift the collected seed of knapweed, yellow rattle, orchids and scabious, or else trying to photograph insects.

We were visited by BBC Countryfile’s Ellie Harrison, who is also the President of the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. Ellie is helping with the Magnificent Meadows project and was keen to see, first hand, how the work was going. Seeing Ellie driving the vehicle, though only briefly, through the field made me think of how meadows challenge our notion of the ‘natural’. They are man-made habitats which have been around in their current form for at least 6000 years, when the Neolithic farming revolution reached its nadir or height, depending on your viewpoint. Much of the meadows and farmland we have today will once have been covered by wildwood, a habitat of nature’s own making that is lost to us in Britain thanks to thousands of years of deforestation by humans. Peterken suggests that meadows originated from woodland glades that once would have been kept open by aurochs (wild cows), deer and other large grazing animals. Something close to these old wildwood meadows are wood meadows still found in Estonia and Sweden.

The seed had to be emptied onto the blue tarpaulin which was then sifted out using the homemade wooden frames and wire sieves. There was a lot of insect by-catch, most commonly grasshoppers and crickets, unfortunately losing one leg most of the time, and a few dead meadow brown and marbled white butterflies, and silver-y moths. Don’t be upset though as these are common species in the Cotswolds which will, in the long term, be able to increase in number when the meadows diversify over a wider area of the AONB.

The meadows were generally ‘over’ but there was still a lot of insect life. I think this is a stripe-winged grasshopper.

Bumblebees were busy and looking worn from their summer work. This ‘rather faded’ common carder bee was on common knapweed.

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There were a number of wildflowers still in bloom, like this white variation of greater knapweed.

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It was not entirely possible to gather seed every day. We tried to harvest at Leckhampton Hill, a site with very rich and beautiful limestone grassland. Only minutes after arriving and bringing the mower on site, a torrential downpour hit and the grassland become impossible to harvest. We had to return, seedless. I took the chance to look for insects and found a gathering of longhorn moths, Nemophora metallica. I like this little punk of a micro-moth, it looks quite tiger-like to me. I’ve had to invest in the Field Guide to the Micro-moths of Great Britain and Ireland to acquaint myself with them.

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The seed had to be spread out in the barn after harvesting. Will and I (mostly Will, whose practical skills were, for a 21-year-old, amazing and embarrassing) raked out the seed onto tarpaulins. Will diligently turned the seed so that it would stay cool. If it got too warm and mound-like it would effectively begin to compost and decompose.

Here you can see the most sought-after seed, that of yellow rattle, a wildflower which is parasitic on the roots of grasses and so can help other less dominant, nectar-rich species to move in. Eleanor said that you only need a single yellow rattle seedling to establish for the plant to take hold in a meadow. Of course the conditions have to be right, this is a plant that likes calcium-rich limestone grassland like meadows being protected and enhanced in the AONB.

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When the seed was ready it was the job of Eleanor and volunteer Will (and me) to hand-sow the seeds, carrying them from point to point in dumpy-sacks. It was a real challenge to get it right and it will take years for the plants to establish. It’s a project that needs patience as much as it needs meadows to harvest.

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My final day of harvesting took place in Tewkesbury, an area of rolling hills with hay meadows and arable land lined by trees and hedges in the valley. The weather was warm and dry and therefore perfect for harvesting. We harvested from a slither of the hillside which was designated as a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) but was in fact somewhat ‘rank’, meaning it was not so floristically diverse and instead was clogged with grasses. I did, however, find some wonderful (for spider-lovers) and a little horrifying (for bee-lovers) insect-life.

Capsid bugs are a large family of insects with 229 species, known as the Miridae, but they’re quite easy to encounter if you have a macro lens for your camera or some other form of magnification. This capsid bug was traversing the stamens of knapweed.

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The SSSI was edged by a line of trees and dense bramble. Hidden away in the bramble was this funnel-web spider that Will found. It had created a tunnel (or funnel) from which it could prey on insects. There were plenty of potential meals to be had.

A lot has been said about the importance of meadows for bees and butterflies. Bees are also important for the other creatures that prey on them. I watched this spider wrapping a solitary bee in its silk. The bee fought to try and free itself, but the strength of the webbing is not something that can be broken by a solitary bee. It was unpleasant to watch but also fascinating. You can be sure this is a scene that has been occurring for centuries in the meadows of the Cotswolds, with balances maintained within the ecological network by predators like these grassland-dwelling spiders. Nature’s beauty is indeed subjective. Don’t confuse this, though, its full-scale importance to us cannot be put in material or capitalist terms.

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Away from the harvesting there were a few signs of good government policy in action. Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) is a boring-sounding scheme which is being undertaken in different forms across the EU where farmers and other landowners receive funding from government to seed wildflower-rich margins, plant woodland, reintroduce grazing to ailing grasslands and replace lost hedgerow. This field had sidings of oxeye daisy, poppy, cornflower and a range of other native wildflowers which have been lost from British farmland in the past 60 years. Sadly, at the same time the Tories caved in to unrelenting corporate and National Farmer’s Union pressure to allow bee-killing pesticides once more, flouting an EU ban.

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Another national meadow project is Prince Charles’s Coronation Meadows scheme in partnership with the Wildlife Trusts and Plantlife. The heir to the throne loves the place so much he hung out with Eleanor in July. As for me, I got the chance to visit one near Morton-in-marsh. It was mostly covered by greater burnet, a member of the rose family that likes wet meadows and margins. The flowers were not at their full pomp in July, though the gentle spots of burnet and devil’s-bit scabious pointed to the richness of the meadow, the orchids having flowered and gone.

There were lots of insects feeding on the still flowering burnet, like this hoverfly, a member of the Sphaerophoria family.

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And this male red-tailed bumblebee was working hard on this greater burnet flower. He had a fine yellow-beard.

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I’d like to thank Eleanor and Will for all they taught me about meadow restoration and the laws of the Cotswolds. Eleanor and her colleagues obviously work incredibly hard out there trying to improve the landscape for future generations of people and wildlife. It is no simple task but hopefully it will make a big difference in decades to come meaning more bees, butterflies and beautiful, vital wildflowers.

As we trace the final sett of a south London badger it has to be asked – where next?

It dawned on me a few months ago, when a cull looked to be too stupid and ugly a prospect, that we can show no real mettle in the battle to stop the slaughter of wildlife overseas if we are seen to be slaying it without scientific basis.

I have spent time recently with Andrew Lynch, an MSc student who is voraciously charting the former range of badgers in an area of London from which they disappeared in the 1990s. A few weeks ago we entered a wood of ancient origins that is closed to the public armed with a rusty key and the permission of the landowner. We crunched through leaf litter rarely trodden by humans, through spider webs, brambles and holly. There were no paths. We discovered two specimens of Solomon’s seal, an ancient woodland plant that was surviving here in the deep shade of an unmanaged but very old and undisturbed woodland. The next day Andrew discovered a crumbled badger sett, its former inhabitants long gone. Why did they go? It’s hard to say, but that’s the point of Andrew’s work. In my view it is probably because the human population rose and the local environment felt the eventual impact of the post-war development of open fields and other pockets of woodland. They were most likely cut off from badgers living on London’s periphery. This is an animal that likes to create new colonies and does not like inbreeding. The badgers were reintroduced but their roaming nature led them to their deaths on main roads a few miles away. Amazingly we have recently had a record of badgers returning to one of the woods that is open to the public and well used. It was a moment of immense satisfaction and gave us hope for this network of dysfunctional woodlands. To think that badgers could be returning to woodlands which suffered disturbance in the Victorian times but still makes a home for owls, bats and other woodland animals, feels like a crowning moment. They will not have a sett in this area of London for many, many years, but to think that they have been by is, in part, a conservation triumph for the local community.

I find it difficult to respond to the fact that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) are contracting the slaughter of badgers in Somerset and Gloucestershire with anything other than anger. The cull is wrong, expensive, bloodthirsty, unscientific, barbaric and worst of all, it is happening. It angers me like nothing else that afflicts our environment. For British wildlife conservation today it’s worse than the Lydd Airport trump, the shameful Oaken Wood debacle, the threat to privatise the public woodland estate, the idea of 50 ancient woodlands lost to HS2, and far more sinister than the threat of ash dieback disease or oak processionary moth. I feel a deep seated sense of injustice. A cull has already been done and proved ineffective in reducing bovine TB (bTB) in any meaningful way. I believe the National Farmer’s Union and DEFRA should take greater responsibility for biosecurity and that badgers and cattle should be vaccinated, that the government should show a greater willingness to invest in this rather than focusing solely on political gains for 2015. They have, however, turned more than 300,000 people against them, perhaps for good. I am convinced, from what I’ve read and heard from all involved that it is based on political ideology – much like the government’s attempts to downgrade Lewisham A&E (deemed unlawful by the High Court) – and is purely to accrue political support from the farming lobby at the next election. I feel there is a bloodthirsty element to the cull, just like the killing of hen harriers to the point of extinction in England, the poisoning of buzzards and golden eagles in Scotland. With the badger cull we are in the throes of a witch hunt. It has the hint of Chairman Mao’s communist war on tree sparrows which backfired completely. This is the very thing we as leaders of the global conservation effort are attempting to halt overseas and now, it seems, at home.

Life and people have moved on from the days of the hunt, when the aristocracy took to the countryside to chase foxes on horseback. Wildlife is valued for more than its fur and flesh, many people in the UK have come to value the need for a connection with the natural world, and science has taught us the need for humans to maintain the environment and to repair degraded ecosystems. The repair takes on many different forms – the work of the Great Bustard Group, reintroducing this charismatic and iconic bird to Wiltshire after it was hunted to extinction in the UK; the resurgence of otters, another animal ‘clashing’ with humans where it forages from commercial fish ponds, but a welcome sign of healthier rivers in England; and then there’s the crane, a bird that was slaughtered in its thousands and now returning, like the spoonbill, to breed for the first time in over 400 years. It’s hard to say why the crane is back, but it could be because larger areas of land are being set aside for wildlife, larger reserves rather than pockets. These are great moments in the history of British wildlife conservation and are not all because of human action. Another great thing is the thriving badger population in England, of which there is no set figure. However, one thing that the badger cull reminds us is that whenever wildlife does well – foxes and cormorants being examples – it is treated with disdain and someone, often on the right wing of government, will call for a cull. Take Boris Johnson’s recent attack on London’s foxes. It is an instinctive, atavistic response, rooted in a love for slaughter that is abhorred by more modern attitudes towards animal welfare and the environment. Most pertinently it is a human failing, an inability to look at the impact we have on species and ecosystems we believe ourselves to be free from and above. When it comes to natural resources no species is more invasive and damaging than we and yet no other species has the ability to think and reflect over how we might improve our behaviour, to evolve, and improve the health of the environment not merely for ourselves.

Perhaps my lifestyle is implicated somewhere in the decline of the hedgehog but the badger is not to blame.

For me, the beauty of badgers is their very nocturnal nature, something which has inspired artists, scientists, conservationists and authors down the centuries. The image of a twilight woodland is one of the most magical, with badgers beginning their nightly forage for worms (and yes, even hedgehogs sometimes), moths taking to the wing with the moon as their guide, and tawny owls calling from the canopy, their prey of mice and voles scrabbling around in the leaf litter. If I were to talk like this to many people who are for a badger cull, I would be labelled as emotional and naïve or worse, only against a cull because I think badgers are sweet. I know that badgers predate hedgehogs but I don’t blame them for the decline in their prey. It’s an excuse used by individuals who have no scientific grounds to defend the cull. Perhaps my lifestyle is implicated somewhere in the decline of the hedgehog but the badger is not to blame. The blame for that can firmly remain with human impacts on the landscape, the lack of suitable habitat, a loss of food sources after the tidying up and poisoning of the English landscape through mass expansion of intensive agriculture after the Second World War (note that in modern times Owen Paterson went against the will of the people when voting to continue with neonicotinoid-laced systemic pesticides that kill wild pollinators and ruin the soil).

It dawned on me a few months ago, when a cull looked to be too stupid and ugly a prospect, that we can show no real mettle in the battle to stop the slaughter of wildlife overseas – migrating birds in Malta and Cyprus, lions in Africa, tigers in India – if we are seen to be slaying wildlife without any scientific basis. England is just as bad as everyone else. In the same way that we are looking to destroy our own version of the rainforests through development, we cannot truly argue with deforestation in the Amazon, the Congo and Eastern Europe when we are championing the very same thing at home. Overseas these people are barbarians, at home they are ‘doing the right thing’. And as we look for badgers in a landscape that has lost them, the loss feels peculiar with the government’s mindless slaughter of this beautiful and vital wild animal echoing in the background. I just hope that in twenty years people in Somerset and Gloucestershire will not be retracing old setts mindful of the senseless brutality that was inflicted in the past. Looking at the state of things it appears a distinct possibility.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2013