Hay meadow restoration project

Image of a hay barn and meadow in summer

Hay meadows

Why do hay meadows matter?

Fields of gently waving grasses splashed with purple, yellow and white flowers evoke sleepy summer images all over Britain. Flower-rich meadows were once common throughout Cumbria.

They change dramatically through the season in their appearance and evoke a romantic notion of farming in harmony with the environment. Sadly, many of these images only exist as memories, as hay meadows have suffered a catastrophic decline. 

Nationally, 97% of flower-rich hay meadows have been lost between the 1930s and the mid 1980s. This was in part due to agricultural intensification converting 'herb meadows' to more productive grasslands, dominated by lush grasses.

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In the Lake District, many meadows were ploughed up during the Second World War so that potatoes could be grown. More recently this has also been done to produce silage as winter animal feed.

Recent surveys suggest that there may be fewer than 10,000 hectares of unimproved meadows left in Britain, and only 1000 hectares of upland hay meadow habitat.

However, there are still pockets of the country where hay meadows are more common because the type of land and the regional climate dictate the use of older farming practices.

In the north of England, traditional meadows are still found in the north Pennines, North Yorkshire and Cumbria. Here some of the higher altitude meadows support specialist plants species, such as wood crane's-bill and many of the lady's mantle species. There are also lowland meadows, characterised by their assemblages of more common plant species.

In addition, roadside verges near fields that have been converted to lush grasslands often act as a reservoir of meadow flower species. It also helps that many land managers are proud of their meadows and very knowledgeable about the species they support and the management required in maintaining them.

Hay meadows are important for the plants they support. A hay meadow can support an incredible 50 plant species/sq. metre! This diversity of plants, with many species coexisting in a small area, has developed over a long period of time and is partly the result of the different rates of growth and development of each species in the meadow. These species are largely stress tolerant rather than fast growing competitive species.

Such a wealth of plant species can in turn provide habitats for many different animal species including the brown hare, insects such as the great yellow bumble bee, and birds such as skylark, curlew, lapwing and twite.

Meadow Makers project

Meadow Makers was funded by Green Recovery Challenge Fund, and administered through Plantlife. It ran from March 2021 to May 2022 with three project officers: Claire Cornish - Grassland Conservation officer, Julia Sier - assistant Conservation Officer, and Shannon Horrocks - Grassland Trainee.

Meadow Life project

Funded by the Heritage Lottery fund, Meadow Life ran from April 2013 until October 2016.

Meadow Life worked with farmers, small holders, community groups, schools, volunteers and members of the public to try and restore, promote and raise awareness of meadows and their management.

Over the duration of the Meadow Life project, we restored 110 hectares of hay meadows using techniques such as plug planting, green hay spreading and reinstating traditional management techniques. Alongside this we recruited and trained a small army of volunteers who surveyed 100 different meadows and 70 verges throughout the county.

The data collected was analysed and a report written analysing how successful restoration has been and how these restored sites have changed floristically. This data has also helped to analyse how many restored meadows we have of BAP quality habitat within the county.

We held over 42 public events throughout three and a half years of Meadow Life project, including practical restoration days, scything courses, botanical ID courses, felting workshops and restoration demonstration days.

These engaged with a wide variety of different people (over 423 attendees) and we hope that it has given many people a better understanding of how wonderful and unique meadows are.

As part of Meadow Life project we also delivered educational workshops to schools around Cumbria, focusing on the importance of and threats to hay meadow habitats.

These were extremely popular and over 866 school children learnt about meadows as a result. Some of these schools then went on to grow their own plug plants and then plant these in local meadows.

Watch short film

A film by Simon Sylvester highlighting the issues faced in balancing farming for food production and managing land for wildlife.

Nationally, 97% of flower-rich hay meadows have been lost between the 1930s and the mid 1980s.
Meadow Life project
curlew in flight - copyright jon hawkins surrey hills photography

Curlew © Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

Such a wealth of plant species can in turn provide habitats for many different animal species including the brown hare, insects such as the great yellow bumble bee, and birds such as skylark, curlew, lapwing and twite.

Our partners

We're working with the following partners to enhance, restore and manage flower rich hay meadows, using traditional practices to increase plant diversity:

  • Lake District National Park Authority – Rusland Horizons Magical Meadows
  • The National Trust (restoring species-rich grassland at National Trust properties)
  • John Strutt Conservation Foundation (restoring species-rich grassland on land owned by the John Strutt Conservation Foundation)

We promote the landscape of hay meadows through events, educational workshops, walks and talks.

We spread the message about how and why we need to preserve our hay meadows.

We provide opportunities for people to grow to love and value this habitat, its beauty and its place in our landscape.

Westmorland Dales Landscape Partnership Scheme

Conserving Species-Rich Grassland

This crucial project is working to conserve species-rich grassland in the Westmorland Dales area of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.  

Without direct intervention species-rich grasslands would all but disappear within the next few decades. In the last 50 years species-rich grasslands such as hay meadows have declined by 97%!

The Westmorland Dales Landscape Partnership Scheme project aims to unlock and reveal the hidden heritage of the Westmorland Dales, enabling more people to connect with, enjoy and benefit from this inspirational landscape.

Thanks to National Lottery players the project has been supported by a grant from the Heritage Fund.

Visit the project's webpage


How wildlife and hay meadows are connected factsheet PDF

Hay meadow walks guide PDF

Hay meadow heritage and wild flower ID leaflet PDF

A guide to Managing Grasslands for smallholders PDF

How to manage and restore hay meadows PDF

Results from five years of hay meadow restoration in Cumbria 2006 to 2011 PDF

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