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How the Pollinating Cheshire project aims to protect wildflowers and wildlife

PUBLISHED: 00:00 28 April 2017

Gatekeeper butterfly

Gatekeeper butterfly

Claire Huxley

Meadows are some of our rarest and most beautiful natural places. They will soon be blooming again, writes Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Katie Piercy.

Swettenham meadowsSwettenham meadows

Swettenham meadows is a Cheshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve, tucked away in the rolling countryside near Holmes Chapel. The gently sloping banks of this 6.5ha reserve are home to an amazing variety and number of wildflower species.

Many sizes and colour of flower can be found here, each blooming and fading with the progression of the season only to be replaced by something even more glorious. Here the delicate white flowers of the pignut lay scatter across the drier slopes, where the bulbous yellow heads of the meadow buttercups nod in the breeze, their movements echoed by the dark purple crowns of the scabious. Common spotted orchids build up their pyramid of flowers, and ragged robin waves its explosive pink blooms at the sky. The subtle cuckooflower hides itself among the blazon marsh marigolds, while wispy meadowsweet and fragrant water mint fill the air with a refreshing scent in the wet flushes.

Between the blossoms bumblebees potter dozily, gathering up their parcels of nectar, while lemon yellow brimstone butterflies sun themselves between their own feeding trips. From the bushes summer warblers call out their song while in the ponds frogs and newts enjoy the cool water. Where else would you want to be on a sunny spring day? Here it seems is everything which makes this time of year glorious. And yet such places have long been becoming a rarity in our countryside.

Species rich meadows were once common place across the British landscape. Low intensity farming methods such as grazing with small herds, removed from the site for at least part of the year, or old fashioned hay making allowed meadows to bloom across every county. However in the last 75 years we have lost 97% of our meadows. This loss can be attributed to changing management, as farming has becoming more intensive.

Wildflower meadowWildflower meadow

Today, areas are grazed with larger herds and often all year round. Fertilisers and fast growing grass seed mixes are added to fields, and weather dependant hay making has been replaced by silage. Overall this creates a landscape within which only a few grass species can thrive, and our delicate wildflowers are trampled, grazed away or simply outcompeted. Although these methods have greatly increased our farming productivity, there is now little space for our wildlife.

Today the plight of the meadow is well understood. In many ways it is strongly linked with the plight of our pollinators. As food sources decrease, so do the species which rely on them. Some research suggests that, like us, pollinators require variety in their diet to keep them healthy. Meadows are ideal for this, providing nectar from lots of different sources. But what can be done?

The Coronation Meadows project, established in 2013, had a mandate to restore at least one new wildflower meadow in every county across Britain. The initiative, which was coordinated by Plantlife in partnership with The Wildlife Trusts and The Rare Breed Survival Trust, was launched by Prince Charles following a Plantlife report that highlighted the dramatic declines in wildflower species across Great Britain.

The project identified a suite of Coronation Meadows, of which there was one in each county. The selected areas gained their titles for being outstanding examples of species rich grassland typical of the county they were in. These meadows have since been used as a source of local seed to restore a truly astonishing number of sites across the county.

Bee scabiusBee scabius

Last year, through the help of the Coronation Meadows project, we began the restoration process on two sites in the Dane Valley. This included a two hectare field at our Swettenham Meadows reserve near Congleton. Both sites had low soil nutrients but little in the way of botanical diversity and therefore made for ideal restoration locations.

The process involved firstly removing injurious weed species such as ragwort and creeping thistle followed by intensively grazing the area to reduce the vigour of the more competitive grass species. We then power harrowed the field to create roughly 70% bare ground on which we then distributed a crop of green hay previously harvested off Cheshire’s Coronation meadow.

The next stage in the process, which will be undertaken this autumn with the help of a band of willing volunteers and supporters, involves planting out around 2,500 plug plants. In the coming years the site will be managed using traditional practices of taking a late summer hay cut followed by low intensity grazing through the autumn and winter months. Particular care has been taken to spread yellow rattle seed across the site. This distinctive looking plant gets its name from the sound of the seeds rattling loosely in the purse shaped seed heads. A semi-parasitic plant, preying on grasses, yellow rattle helps to ensure that other wildflowers prosper by reducing the vigour of the more competitive grass species.

After this initial success the Trust established its Pollinating Cheshire project with a simple but ambitious remit to restore 100 hectares of species rich grassland in a decade. This target was made more readily achievable after a generous donation from one of our corporate members, Befesa, which enabled the Trust to purchase its own seed harvester. Using this machine to sweep up grass and wildflower seeds from existing meadows last summer we went on to restore a further six hectares of privately owned land.

Brimstone butterflyBrimstone butterfly

The project now aims to target other areas across the landscape where the creation of new meadows will help improve connectivity with existing areas of species rich grassland. Joe Pimblett from the Cheshire Wildlife Trust, who has spearheaded the project said: ‘Meadows are incredibly important not just for the species they support but also for the place they have within our heritage. Through working with local landowners we are helping to bring back Cheshire’s meadows and the pollinators which rely on them.’

When is a meadow not a meadow?

Roadside verges, railway embankments, public green spaces and even our own gardens are vital wildlife and can all be managed as meadows. Many of our verges already protect a wide variety of wildflowers and can sometimes even be remnants of ancient meadows, but even areas not currently supporting huge numbers of species can blossom with the right management. Seasonal cutting, after flowers and grasses have been left to go to seed, is important. Taking away the cuttings will help stop new growth from being smothered and lower nutrient levels, encouraging a higher diversity of species. And finally keeping pesticides and fertilisers at bay is essential. With these methods hedgerow flowers can begin slowly creeping in.

Meadows appeal

By donating to Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Meadows Appeal, you will support their work to secure the future of important habitats and species, which might otherwise be lost. With your help, the Trust can continue to manage vitally important areas such as Swettenham Meadows, for the benefit of wildlife and generations to come. There are also activities you can do in your own outdoor spaces to directly support meadow wildlife. Find out how you can support the latest campaign at cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/meadowsappeal

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