Meadows and dry stone walls..

Meadows that escape the incessant annual ploughing {so common in these days of intensive farming} are jewels in the landscape. For it is a sad fact that a staggering 97% of  wild flower meadows have been lost between 1930-1983, because many were converted to cereal crops and agriculturally improved grasslands.

Estimates suggest that as little as 7,500 ha, lowland meadows may remain. These grasslands are now highly localised and fragmented. Meadows that managed through grazing alone {especially with certain types of cattle} are also usually rich with wild flora.


Wild flower meadows are now largely confined to history.                    Photos -Dal

Brief history of the British landscape

traditional meadows cut for hay have suffered further losses due to the modern fad of silage making. farmers can not be blamed for many of these losses having to change the way the land is used to maximise their income due to consumer demand.

Around 7000 years ago forest covered most of the British Isles and grassland was a relatively scarce habitat confined to mountains and coastal cliff tops. deforestation and grazing progressively diminished the forests over the centuries which eventually gave rise to the diverse quilt work of grasslands that enriched our island up until the second World War. However, Britain was, at that time, committed to becoming self sufficient, as far as food production was concerned. Thus many meadows were converted. As time marched on bigger, better, more efficient agricultural machinery became common place to the detriment of hay meadows and other grassland areas. 

Meadow crane'sbill were once common among the buttercups in our meadows. Photos by Dal

With the loss of hay meadows came the loss of many species of fauna and flora. Coincidently the advent of the combine harvester saw miles of hedgerow " grubbed " out to allow access for these mechanical monsters.

The change from traditional hay meadows to silage production saw the introduction of new fast growing strains of grasses that can be cut several times a year, again, to the detriment of flora, mammals and ground nesting birds.

This detrimental state of affairs was compounded by the use of pesticides/herbicides that made many of the fields little more than green deserts devoid of many creatures which for centuries had thrived in a balanced eco-system. herbicides and pesticides took their toll on once common plants such as the corn cockle and corn buttercup. traditional hay meadows were thought to host up 100+ species of wild flora. The grass was cut in late summer which allowed flora to grow amongst it. The flora attracted insects and in turn the insects attracted birds. 

The knee high grasses of late spring and early summer allowed ground nesting birds such as the skylark and lapwing to be concealed from predators. 

The lapwing 

Photograph courtesy of Andreas Trepte

In Britain there are around 150 species of grasses recorded making them one of the largest family of flora. Due to the climate in northern England { especially in the west} grasses thrive, for it is wet and damp for many months of the year. A meadow redolent with swathes of wild flowers supports a healthy wildlife and lifts ones spirit and is easy on the eye. The buzzing of bees and a plethora on insect activity allows the birds to feed their young and all is well with the world!

Many organisations such as Natural England { formerly English Nature}, Wildlife Trusts, RSPB,and Plantlife have taken over some of the remaining meadows to preserve them for wildlife. Many species of fauna and flora are dependent on them. Through this type of conservation many species have been brought back from the brink of extinction but there is still much to do in this respect.

Drystone walls.

Many meadows in the north of England { the Yorkshire Dales being a prime example} have boundaries of dry stone walls. They spread across the landscape like silver grey snakes. these man made structures are a wild life habitat in their own right. They play host to more species than many people realise. They are constructed with stone so abundant in such localities. They are interlocked together without the use of mortar or cement, hence the name of dry stone walls. The walls are stable and enduring. There is a great skill involved in their construction.

In some parts they are known as drystone dykes, dry stone hedge or rock fence. They divide field boundaries and keep live stock confined within their walls. 

DRY STONE WALLS, help to keep animals such as these Herdwick sheep confined as well as offering shelter from the worst of the weather.

Photograph courtesy of Mark Fosh Creative Commons Share Attribution

They also divide private land from public rights of way

Photograph courtesy of Anlance Creative Commons Attribution

Why dry stone walls?

They are mainly constructed in localities where hedgerows would be unsuitable because of the land or situations open to strong gale force winds at certain times of the year or as is generally the case in northern England where there are steep slopes.

WILDLIFE AND DRY STONE WALLS-----As a wildlife habitat they play host to many creatures and species of flora. For example a stoat may well move from one upland valley to another one along these walls..They can squeeze into the many gaps and cavities if danger threatens.

Many dry stone walls have a banking of earth at their base on which vegetation becomes established {see photograph above} and leaves and other debri tends to collect, thus a micro habitat sheltered by the wall is created.   many creatures take advantage of such a habitat these include beetles,snails , woodlice, spring tail, and the larvae of many invertebrates may be encountered there.

On the exposed side of the wall it gets wet and cold, however, on the dry side it is relatively warm and dry. On this side of the wall the common toad, slow worm, wood mouse, and shrew will all take advantage of the situation, for shelter and security.

Farm animals that shelter from the weather are joined by animals such as the brown hare and mountain hare {In the far north} who will scrape out a hollow in which to crouch at the foot of the wall where it remains sheltered from the worst of the winds and and driving rain.

Basically dry stone walls are havens for wild life in an otherwise in hospitable locality and this includes many species of flora that would find it difficult to become established in such regions without them.  Plants such as stonecrops, saxifrage,lichens,ivy leaved taodflax, spleenwort, polypody, certain crane'sbill such as herb robert, are but a few examples.

Wheatears birds of upland situations will readily nest in the wall if there is a suitable entrance near the base of the wall. 

Photograph courtesy of Philippe Kurlapski Craetive Commons Attribution

The wheatear will take advantage of dry stone walls in which to nest.

Ivy leaved toadflax thrives on dry stone walls

As we have seen drystone walls are an important and specialised habitat for wildlife and the skill required in the building of them along with the hard manual labour serves the landscape and the wildlife in many ways.

Did you know that it takes approximately 1 ton of stone to construct a square meter of dry stone wall  ?

More people than ever are being taught the skill of making a dry stone wall not necessarily as a profession but in order to maintain country crafts and  traditions. 


Conservation news--Coronation meadows for sixty counties in Britian-July 2013.

Flagship meadows across 60 counties in Britain were recently unveiled by HRH Prince Charles and the Coronation Meadows Partnership, as part of a drive to conserve and promote  these precious grasslands. According to Plantlife { UK. Plant charity for conservation of wild flora}, these coronation meadows mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Queen ascending the Throne.

The project, which is led by Plantlife with partners, the Wildlife Trusts and Rare Breeds Survival Trust, will identify a meadow for all the UK's Counties by the end of the year.

To read more see associated pages below. 

Thank you for visiting.