In recent years a sizeable proportion of the population has become more environmentally aware – much of this is thanks to the rise of social media and streaming services containing documentaries that focus on sustainability and the environment.
One species that has benefitted considerably from this increased environmental awareness is pollinators – with people in both urban and rural areas sowing ‘wildflower meadows’ to provide food for the declining bee population, butterflies and other pollinators. But what do people mean by the term ‘wildflower meadow’? And do ‘wildflower meadows’ differ from one meadow to the next?
Typically, the term ‘wildflower meadow’ means one of two things. In the traditional sense, it refers to areas that are roughly 80% grass and 20% wildflowers (80/20) that are left untouched and have not been sprayed or fertilised. Traditional meadows tend to consist of field scale perennial mixtures of wildflowers – such as Sanfoin, Musk Mellow, Birds Foot Trefoil – and non-competitive, fine leaved companion grasses such as Sheep’s Fescue. If managed correctly, traditional wildflower meadows can remain established upwards of 30 years; with the appearance changing year in year out.
In comparison, the modern day ‘wildflower meadow’ is something different. Nowadays, the term is often used to describe short-term annual mixtures consisting of old school arable weeds such as Cornfield Annuals and Poppies. These areas are usually smaller than traditional meadows and can be found on field corners, margins and gardens.
Other variables that can affect wildflower meadows are both soil type and location. For example, certain varieties may take to acidic soils more successfully, whereas some may prefer heavy soils. The same can be said for location: some varieties will take better in shaded areas, whereas some will take better to areas that lay wet. There are so many variables when it comes to wildflower meadows, which is why it is always recommended to seek expert advice before sowing – whether for a traditional or short-term annual meadow.
Interestingly, many of the traditional, 80/20 wildflower meadows – which are cut for hay and grazed by livestock – are becoming more popular again. After the war, many traditional meadows were removed to grow arable crops due to food shortages. Nowadays we can produce more from less, hence the return to traditional wildflower meadows – which ultimately are more beneficial.
The main reason for the vast uptake of wildflower meadows is for conservation purposes.
The primary beneficiaries of these habitats are, as mentioned, the pollinators. Bees, hoverflies, butterflies and various other insects use wildflower meadows as local food sources and in turn they pollinate a variety of food crops which feed humans.
Wildflower meadows also benefit other wildlife. They encourage beneficial insect life that can reduce the need for pesticides in farming and underpin the food chain. For example, ground nesting bird chicks – grey partridges etc – need animal protein for the first 21 days of their lives before they can consume seeds; insects in wildflower meadows provide this – and the wildflowers also provide the necessary seed. Also, small mammals – bats, voles, shrews – will feed on the insects which will then support apex predators such as barn owls and kestrels.
Humans also benefit from wildflower meadows.. Aside from cross-pollination of food crops, another major benefit for humans is simply the beauty of experiencing wildflower meadows in the countryside and in gardens. It is important to note wildflower meadows shouldn’t be walked through if there is no path, which can be detrimental to wildlife.
A final benefit is that wildflower areas can protect watercourses by being used as a buffer zone and preventing run off and spray drift.
Obviously, there is a cost incurred when properly maintaining and managing a wildflower meadow and there are several government stewardship schemes that provide financial incentives for this.
Michael Gove, former head of DEFRA, laid out a solid plan for his preferred ‘Green Brexit’, which included substantial stewardship schemes for environmental acts, such as sowing wildflower meadows. We can but hope that Gove’s replacement, Theresa Villiers, has a similar approach to Brexit and the environment.
There are several stewardship schemes that wildflowers come under which can be found here.
Are native seeds important?
From a sustainability point of view there are several arguments to use native wildflower seed wherever possible. First, pollinators will often prefer to feed from native flowers, and the environmental impact of buying seed from abroad is greater – as is the cost. It is also advisable, when using native seed, that they are sourced as locally as possible as, again, this makes them more sustainable and more likely to take successfully. The way to do this is by using a donor site or a reputable source – such as Bright Seeds.
A future for wildflower meadows
So, despite the rather grim fact that 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost since the 1930s, there is hope! With environmental awareness at an all-time high, more wildflowers are being sown and more areas, such as roadsides and traditional meadows, are seeing a reduction in mowing to allow more flowers for pollinators – and prettier roads.