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Not a meadow

Does it matter what we call things?

This was the question posed by Miles King, well-respected Conservation Director of the Grasslands Trust – an increasingly vociferous and effective pressure group, campaigning to reverse the destruction of the nation’s grasslands and meadows.

Now, that’s ancient, traditional meadows, I should clarify – what Miles King capitalises as Wildflower Meadows.

What with 2012’s RHS Britain in Bloom going ‘wild about wildflowers’ (that’s arable cornfield flowers, not meadows), and the Olympics planting Fields of Gold (that’s annual seed mixes, not meadows) and the advent of MeadowMats (that’s wildflowers used as shed roofing: does that count?) and the people who manage Hyde Park letting the grass grow long to encourage wildflowers (ah – now we’re getting there, surely?): there has never been a time when meadows have been more in the public eye, yet more annoyingly woolly in definition to the purist.

This isn’t one either: the Fields of Gold
at the Olympic Park
In his blog, Miles takes particular issue with the highly successful Pictorial Meadows: annual seed mixes invented by Professor Nigel Dunnett, urban horticulture specialist, RHS Chelsea Flower Show regular and urban renewal pioneer, of the University of Sheffield’s Department of Landscape.

Pictorial meadows are transforming urban spaces cheaply and effectively: they are introducing many people who have never had much to do with nature, or the countryside, to the joys of getting up close with beauty, and teeming insect life, and the pleasures of feeling things growing under your feet.

I’ve planted them in my own garden: they are breathtakingly beautiful, full of wildlife, and one of the best things I’ve ever done. I should add – just for balance – that I’m currently also taking care of 1/3 acre of rare traditional chalk downland meadow, the top third of my garden, and that’s beautiful, full of wildlife and one of the best things I’ve ever done, too.

Read the post for Miles’s full argument, but it basically boils down to the fact that by calling themselves meadows at all, Pictorial Meadows are distracting people’s attention from ancient traditional meadows – of which there are precious few left – confusing the issue, and therefore undermining Miles’s attempts to save our traditional grasslands. To quote: ‘pictorial meadows are not contributing to the conservation of Wildflower Meadows or their wildlife (and other values). And for that reason it does matter what we call things.’

I happen to know, from regular conversations with him over the past few years, that Nigel is someone who thinks particularly deeply about our wider environment and the role plants have to play.

So when a Twitter discussion erupted last week – mainly in support of Miles’s position – I couldn’t help thinking Nigel’s voice was missing from the debate. I was curious to know his take on the subject, so I got in touch and asked him. I felt his answer deserves quoting at length.

So what about this? MeadowMat growing at the nursery
He told me a story from the very early days, when he was just beginning to work with annual seed mixtures. Gloucester Council asked him to vegetate a central reservation on a dual carriageway: roadworks and tree planting had ripped up existing grass and shrubs, and all that was left was ‘mown grass and tired landscape shrubs’.

Nigel made them an annual mix which flowered from June to November, a blaze of yellow and orange through into the autumn.

“I was contacted by a representative from English Nature,” he says. “She said this should never have been done.

“Her issue was that by making it look so easy to make these ‘wildflower landscapes’, we were giving the go-ahead to farmers to destroy meadows in the countryside because they would think that they could be made again in cities. And because these weren’t proper wildflower meadows, that was a very bad thing.”

Nigel asked her whether she would have preferred the central reservation to remain mown grass and variegated shrubs: to which her answer was ‘yes’.

‘I was staggered by this,’ says Nigel,’ because this was a nature conservationist saying that she would rather have areas offering very little wildlife value, and extremely monotonous in a visual sense, instead of these flower, nectar and pollen-rich landscapes.

‘By implication, her purist approach would both deny people a beautiful experience, and also eliminate a potential wildlife haven. People like this are dangerous in my opinion.’

This is: wildflowers in the south west
(courtesy of the RSPB via www.oursouthwest.com)

He points out that research has shown that far from non-natives having little wildlife value, the opposite is true. He says the general consensus now is that diverse flowering meadows and gardens are highly valuable to invertebrates, regardless of where the plants come from.

‘What I am doing is working, and it is highly successful,’ he says. ‘It is bringing flower-rich landscapes into the heart of the city, into the everyday landscape. This isn’t the nature reserve approach, where people are kept away from valuable sites and only those in the know can visit them, or make the choice to travel to them.

‘What we are doing is making meadows in places where people have no choice but to walk through them, live with them, look out on to them. And therefore they do have to have a different character.’

His final point struck a particular chord for me: I dislike the entirely unnecessary polarisation of gardener and nature conservationist almost as much as I do the whole gardener vs designer dichotomy. Though it may be in a different key, we’re all, surely, marching to the same tune.

‘People like to see things in such simple black and white terms – things are either one thing or the other: it’s either a meadow or it isn’t.

‘To me, life isn’t so simple. Things are in shades of grey. So there is a whole continuum of meadow types, ranging from flower-rich and annual, through to grassy, perennial and with little flower.

‘The key thing to me is that the pictorial meadow type approach, whether annual or perennial, opens the doors, or the floodgates to the much wider use of the native wildflower meadow because it makes meadow landscapes far more acceptable and part of the norm, and enables them to be used in high profile, high intensity places that would formerly be preserved for intensive horticulture.

“The use of the word meadow is deliberate. People can identify with it, and it makes sense. Of course it isn’t a meadow in the purest sense, but then the same applies for countless other things that I can think of that are popular and well-liked.
‘I would suggest the argument in [Miles King’s] blog is entirely misplaced and focussed on the wrong thing. Rather than attacking a concept that is really entirely positive and is bringing huge benefits for urban biodiversity compared with what was there before, I suggest that the real fire should be on the rural landscape and the covering of thousands and thousands of hectares with monocultural crops with minimal habitat value.

“Compared to this, the concern over the naming of a few tens of hectares of flower-rich landscapes is rather trivial.”

**stop press** Miles King’s response to this post is included among the comments below