Meadow and unimproved grassland

What is it?

Meadows are unimproved grasslands full of wild flowers and fine grasses that have long been a part of the British landscape. Cutting the grass and grazing over many years, rather than intensive modern farming methods, results in a profusion of flowering plants in the summer which in turn support a wide range of wildlife such as butterflies, spiders, beetles, waxcap fungi, and small mammals.

Why is it special?

Meadows have declined by over 97% since WW11 as they have been improved with fertilisers, re-seeded with faster growing grasses or ploughed for arable crops. Those traditionally managed meadows that remain have a flower rich sward full of uncommon plants such as betony, cowslip, dyers greenweed, devils-bit scabious, adders-tongue fern and pepper saxifrage alongside the more common plants such as common knapweed, common birds-foot-trefoil and creeping buttercup.

These flowers in turn support a wide range of insects. In mid-summer butterflies such as the common blue, orange-tip or large skipper are plentiful as well as less common species such as dingy skipper. Meadows are good for other insects too. Bumblebees, beetles and moths are all found in good quality meadows.

We monitor the vegetation in our meadows through a series of 1x1m quadrats in which all plants are recorded and this shows how the vegetation is changing over time. We also record the butterflies and insects using meadows through casual observations by staff, volunteers and visitors as well as fully repeatable invertebrate surveys.

How do we manage it?

Meadow habitats are traditionally managed either by taking a hay cut in the summer and aftermath grazing with livestock in the autumn once the grass has grown again, or by grazing alone during the summer at a low level. Which management to use normally depends on how these sites have been managed in the past so as to keep continuity, but both have the same effect of keeping the coarser stronger grasses down and allowing the finer grasses and flowering plants to have room to flourish. The meadows are then shut up over the winter to allow the site to recover. Plants such as dyers greenweed flourish with this low intensity management.

Visiting

The best time of year to visit any of our meadows is in the summer from about mid-May to mid-August when flowering plants are at their most colourful and a range of insects are on the wing, though early July on a warm sunny day will probably be best for a range of species. Do be aware that cutting of the meadows can take place from about mid July depending on local conditions, but there should always be some areas left uncut for insects to use throughout the year.

Some of the best Sussex Wildlife Trust reserves to see fantastic meadows are Brickfield Meadow on the edge of the Ashdown Forest which has the now rare Chimney Sweeper moth present, Marline Valley meadows on the edge of Hastings which are a carpet of common spotted orchids in mid-June and Badlands Meadow, part of The Mens near Wisborough Green which are full of betony in July.