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Colouring our countryside:
meadows and the Agriculture Bill

May 2018

Ancient meadows have quietly disappeared from under our feet. Without the roar of chainsaws or the sound of mighty oaks crashing to the ground, sites with undisturbed floral histories going back generations can be lost in a single afternoon. Since the 1930s, over 97% of our meadows - a staggering 7.5 million acres - have been ploughed, ‘improved’ or built on. This is a key driver in the higher-profile declines of pollinators and birds – and a loss to us all.

The last remaining fragments of meadow are still highly vulnerable to national and local government policy on farming, housing and economic growth; the legislation protecting them is weak and there is little capacity to enforce it.

But as nature bursts into life this spring, there is new hope.

The government has promised to “support farmers to turn over fields to meadows rich in herbs and wildflowers” as part of a Nature Recovery Network in the next 25 years. This is exactly what’s needed. Yet these fine words can only become a reality with an Agriculture Bill that secures the right support for farmers and other land managers, throughout the transition and in the long term.

The meadow is a farmland system at heart, relying on grazing and hay cutting for its extraordinary biodiversity, and relying on farming policy and individual business decisions for its survival.

Without the right support, at the right time, farmers can have little option but to plough or ‘improve’ their meadows to increase production. This isn’t just a terrible loss of an ecosystem and its ‘public goods’. It’s also a massive waste of the taxpayers’ money invested in creating and maintaining meadows in recent decades.

Plantlife has led the charge in championing wildflower meadows with the UK’s largest grassland recovery partnership; now we’re calling for an Agriculture Bill that delivers:

  • Targeted long-term support for maintaining, restoring and creating species-rich grasslands on an ambitious landscape scale as part of the Nature Recovery Network;
  • Certainty for land managers during the agricultural transition, with a seamless shift from Direct Payments to the new scheme, to minimise the risk of losing any meadows;
  • Safeguards for existing habitats in the drive to create ‘new’ habitats, for example protecting species-rich arable land from initiatives to create meadows or woodland;

The benefits of getting this right will be enormous, not least value for public money. With undisturbed soils, free from artificial inputs, a meadow provides carbon storage, clean air, clean water, lower flood risk, a healthy diet for grazing animals and myriad opportunities for people to connect to nature. One field can host more 140 plant species, supporting up to 1,370 species of pollinators and other insects, which in turn attract a huge range of other wildlife.

There are sights, sounds and smells in a wildflower meadow that you find nowhere else – let’s make sure we can still find them in 25 years’ time.

Jenny Hawley, Senior Policy Officer, Plantlife

Follow @JennyHPlantlife & @Love_plants

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.

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