The meadows along the Reculver cliffs are fascinating. They were probably hay meadows back in the days before the North Sea came in so close and the turf mown into a coastal walking path for locals wanting to avoid the beach. England had thousands, many thousands of hay meadows until very recently: through to the mid-1960s to put a date to their demise. There are very few left. This is sad because those hay meadows were often ancient and some went back to the earliest days of agriculture.
In colder climates hay meadows have been a vital part of farming for almost the entire history of agriculture. Grass and the intermingled herbs were cut for hay late in summer to be fed to livestock housed in barns through snowy winters. Meadows were prized and cared for, there was no other feed for sheep and cattle in the cooler months. Not that they needed much attention, the vital thing was to prevent stock from grazing while the grass was growing. They were left alone most of the year and over the centuries this enabled them to accumulate a tremendous range of grasses and herbs. The oldest became as bio-diverse as any natural grassland on the planet.
Many years ago I was with a camping tour travelling on an autobahn through Bavaria. Our coach stopped at a lay-by for a picnic lunch and afterwards we strolled into some nearby long grass with a frisbee. (This is so long time ago frisbees had only just been invented.) It was a glorious day with sparkling white clouds and we all ran around after our frisbee until a farmer, the owner I guess of the farm, came bounding up the hillside roaring incomprehensible abuse with such ferocity and authority that we all fled back to our coach. At the time, none of us speaking German, no-one quite understood what was happening. Years later and after studying the principals behind hay meadows I came to appreciate the tall grass we were light-heartedly crushing that day belonged to a hay meadow, most probably one not long from mowing. This would have been made more than difficult by our flattening much of the gentleman’s hilltop. Our leaping about was also compacting the soil, this too was damaging. The point I am making here is apart from annual mowing meadows were left severely alone.
The intriguing thing is how old hay meadows can be. In the ’60s many were thousands of years old. In the same way as hedgerows it’s generally possible to tell how old a meadow is by counting the species from which it’s composed. As mentioned, older meadows were incredibly biodiverse and this is what made them so wonderful. Of course, hay meadows were invariably surrounded by hedgerows and these again provided a diversity of habitat for a tremendous range of fauna and flora. Hay meadows were the glory of the farming regions of northern Europe and famous as such from earliest times. One only need think of medieval needlework of pale complexioned ladies caressing unicorns on wildflower-enamelled grassy hillocks to remember meadows have been central to a way of life for millennia.
Sadly, in the ’60s, almost all Europe’s ancient meadows were sprayed with herbicides, ploughed and planted to wheat. At the time the European Common Market was subsidising cereal prices for their farmers. Hay meadows across Europe were ploughed under using ECM money and, adding injury to insult, the subsequent over-production of wheat collapsed cereal prices around the world. European marketers dumped wheat into third world countries, livelihoods of innumerable African and South American farmers were destroyed and those subsidy policies were eventually implicated in famines. So, a tragedy from whatever direction you examine it. Nowadays there are subsidies for re-instating those meadows. These go hand-in-hand with the money for replanting the thousands upon thousands of miles of hedgerows also grubbed out in the 60s.