England basks under a ridge of high pressure, the June day is hot and humid, and the meadow smells faintly of honey and vanilla. During the long winter months, this patch of land was as nondescript as any other; now it is a crowded multicoloured galaxy of plant life, shimmering as if under some kind of spell.
The dominant colour is the yellow haze of the meadow buttercups, with splashes of white from oxeye daisies, but the meadow reveals ever more detail as you dive in. I stoop to examine a single patch and find two dozen species, including yellow rattle, fox-and-cubs, eyebright, red clover, knapweed, lady’s mantle, pignut, heath bedstraw, bird’s-foot trefoil, and an early purple orchid. In other words, more diversity in one square metre or so than I would expect to find in vast swathes of the wider countryside, even within this national park. Chimney sweeper moths, white-tailed bumblebees and blue damselflies flit between the endless flowers.
Like all species-rich meadows, this one is the product of a specific history of interaction between people and the land. In this case, it was a working hay field that stopped being manured when a tuberculosis hospital was built in 1919. Farmers still cut the field annually, but nutrients leached out of the land, weakening the dominance of grasses and allowing flowers to flourish.
Britain once had 7.5m acres of these meadows, with their composition shaped by local factors, creating distinct regional “fingerprints”. But in the last century, as traditional farming techniques have disappeared, almost all have been lost.
There is, perhaps, a glimmer of hope. Wildflower meadows are notoriously difficult to make, but as more people are opting to let their lawns off the leash, there are cases of meadow plants like knotted clover, eyebright, meadow saxifrage and even rare orchids reappearing – in some instances a direct legacy of lost grasslands on which houses and gardens were built. It is a testament to the latent power of the land, and the miraculous results that are achieved by simply sparing the mower.
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