Updated: Aug 29
Dr. Orton explores the history of Britain’s wildflower meadows and launches the great yellow rattle experiment.
Wildflower meadows have been a part of Britain’s natural history since the last ice age. They are essential for our biodiversity, sheltering bees, butterflies, moths and other insects. These in turn and the seeds from the flowers provide food for finches, yellowhammers, linnets, owls and bats.
Looking over a wildflower meadow, you might see birds of prey such as barn owls, red kites, kestrels, peregrine falcons and buzzards hunting for voles and shrews. If you’re lucky, you might see newts, snakes, hares and deer, which use the meadows for nesting. The bad news is that, since World War II, the UK has lost over 97% of its wildflower meadows.
The History of Britain’s Wildflower Meadows
Wildflower meadows first appeared in Britain when the landscape began to emerge after the last ice age. The harsh conditions were ideal for wild flowers because competitive grasses couldn’t take hold in the nutrient-poor soil, allowing wildflower seeds to germinate and grow.
As vegetation broke down, a richer top soil developed, allowing shrubs to take advantage of the more abundant nutrients, but this restricted light and space for the wild flowers. As the soil developed sufficient depth to support trees, the landscape turned to woodland and Britain’s wild flower meadows began to recede.
The British population grew and woodland was cleared for firewood, houses and agriculture and this allowed wildflowers to return. Farmers opened up grassland for autumn and spring grazing, then left grass to grow in the spring or summer hay. Land was cultivated for cereals and vegetables, providing ideal conditions for wildflowers like poppies and cornflowers.
The relationship between wildflowers and agriculture depends on our approach to it. Subsistence-level agriculture and husbandry allows nutrient levels in the soil to remain at a minimum, which allowed wildflowers to thrive. Agricultural practices not only prevented shrubs and trees from getting established but also the fact that there were no synthetic fertilisers and pesticides meant that wild flowers were able to take advantage of this ecological niche.
However, further population growth led to the use of herbicides – substances that are toxic to plants, used to destroy unwanted vegetation - and chemically synthesised fertilisers. World War II made clear the importance of food security and our response was the increased use of pesticides. This, along with the need for more grasslands for meat and milk, eradicated many of the wildflowers.
Housing, road-building and industry are also responsible for the decline in wildflower meadows. There has been a huge loss of biodiversity, with over 60% of British native species in decline. It is more important than ever to encourage these wild spaces to return to the UK.
We’ve used some of our land here at Orton Academy to join the national effort to restore Britain’s wildflower meadows. A problem for wildflowers is that grasses are competitive and suited to temperate climates, meaning that they can easily outcompete the wildflowers. This is where yellow rattle can help: the yellow, tube-shaped flower is parasitic on grass and its roots, so this can be used to combat the domination of grasses.
We’ve experimented with yellow rattle on different areas to see what gets the best results for establishing a wildflower meadow. Here’s an update on our progress so far:
The Bump Wildflower Meadow
We spent a lot of time last year cutting and removing the long grass, then scarifying (removing built up organic matter) with a rake. This should give enough bare soil and reduce competition to allow the wildflowers to germinate. Then we used a roller over the grass and sowed a mix of yellow rattle, knapweed, cat’s-ear, rough hawkbit, ribwort plantain, wild red and white clover, meadow bulbous buttercup, red sorrel, birdsfoot trefoil, common spotted orchid, field forget-me-not, grass and meadow vetchling, common and bush vetch, lady’s bedstraw, black medic, selfheal, pignut, betony, cowslip, wild carrot, meadow cranesbill, yarrow, goat’s beard, tormentil, ox-eye daisy, narrow leaf hawk weed and corn poppy. We did this in late summer/early autumn, which gives the seeds plenty of time to experience the winter frosts to encourage germination.
The Beetle Bank
The other side of the ‘bump’ is a beetle bank, which just means we left the grass on the raised section die off over the winter, providing shelter for predatory insects like Carabidae beetles and spiders. It’s good to have these around for farmers, as beetle banks on farms have been shown to move into neighbouring crops and reduce pest species. It also provides food and shelter for wildlife like grey partridges, hares and mice.
This is the most experimental section of our yellow rattle experiment! We took cuttings from a friend of ours who had yellow rattle on his land, then spread the cuttings over land that had been cut and scarified. Then we compressed it slightly with a mower. Then we did nothing! So far this section is growing the most yellow rattle!
The Big Field
This area was previously used for sheep grazing. Ruminants like sheep are excellent for soil fertility, but this might make it more of a challenge for the wildflower meadow to establish itself. We took a similar approach here to the wildflower meadow on the bump: we cut and removed the long grass, scarified and sowed a yellow rattle/wildflower mix of seed. The only difference was that we did this much later – in early February, which is still in time for the frosts. We've broken the rules on this one, as the common advice says to sow earlier, but we often find that ignoring the rules gives great results. Let’s see how it works out!
Find Out More:
If you’re interested in conservation and wildlife, we have a Conservation blog series that looks at wildlife and human interaction all over the world, from the altitudes of the Himalayas to the dense mangrove forests of Bangladesh! Also, come back to the blog next year for our 2023 wildflower meadow update!
We also offer online private tuition in our course, Culture and Conservation, in which you can explore the links between our natural and cultural heritage and study wildlife and cultures from across the world! This is a template of a possible study route and can be combined, adapted, or designed from scratch to suit your interests and goals.
Dr. Orton will work with you to design a course of private tutorials tailored to your needs, ability and schedule. Click the link to find out what it’s like to work with her and contact us to find out more!
For those who would like to take action to preserve our wild spaces, there’s plenty you can do. Even if you don’t have a big garden, there are plenty of things you can do to help biodiversity in your area. Why not put up a solitary bee nesting box or insect home, create a woodpile as a habitat for small creatures or leave small areas of your garden to go wild?
Think about your own area and how you can protect vulnerable but important parts of your own environment. You might even want to start your own project investigating the cultural importance of wildlife in your area. Dr. Orton works with independent scholars undertaking their own research for an independent project, people writing a book or simply those who have a personal interest. Click the link to find out what it’s like to work with her and contact us to get started!
We’d love to see what you’re doing to help wildlife in your area. Follow the Conservation highlight reel on the Orton Academy Instagram to see what we’re getting up to and tag us in to any snaps you put up!