Work has started restoring our hay meadows to their former glory
PUBLISHED: 22:28 26 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:13 20 February 2013
Work has started restoring our hay meadows to their former glory, as Charlotte Rowley of Cumbria Wildlife Trust explains Pictures by Michelle Waller, Andrew Walter and Rob Grange
Fields of gently waving grasses splashed with purple, yellow and white flowers evoke the summer countryside all over Britain. Sadly, many of these images only exist as memories, as hay meadows have suffered a catastrophic decline since the 50s. But help is at hand.
High up at the head of the wind and cloud-swept dale of Mallerstang a group of conservationists and volunteers are hiking towards Hell Gill Bridge carrying trowels, dibbers and 3,000 plug plants to restore once flower-rich meadows. We are walking across a holding on the border of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the eastern edge of Cumbria to garden on a large scale.
Our destination is two traditionally-managed upland hay meadows at the head of Mallerstang Common, high on the east side at around 400m just below fell land. Hell Gill Beck flows to the south east and as we get close we hear the rumble of the waterfall running down the famous Hell Gill.
Owned by Gordon and Patricia Alderson, the meadows have recently been selected for the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme along with other wildlife-friendly parts of their farm. The government scheme funds landowners to look after their acres for wildlife by changing the management including reducing the number of grazing animals and the amount of artificial fertiliser applied to the ground, removing non-native trees and re-wetting drained bogs.
Weve not been in the scheme that long but we were previously in the Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme for ten years, so were continuing the work we already started. Jane Wright from Natural England came to see us and together we have decided the way forward, says Patricia.
Were really pleased with all the help thats been given to us and were looking forward to seeing the results next year. It was all quite simple: after mowing, the volunteers came to put in the plug plants, we then left it a month before we put the animals back on. Weve also reduced the amount of time stock is in the fields after lambing in springtime to let the wildflowers get away early in the year.
The meadows at Hell Gill form part of a portfolio of restoration work carried out by Cumbria Wildlife Trust for Cumbria Biodiversity Partnership over the last five years. Hay meadow ecologist, Claire Cornish, who hails from the Lune Valley, has been working on the project since it began. Higher altitude meadows, like those at Hell Gill, have specialist plants such as wood cranes-bill and ladys mantle which are only found in the north where we have a short growing season and cool, wet and windy summers.
Jane and I walked the two meadows in early April and found a variety of upland meadow species in the Hell Gill fields but some of the typical larger plants like black knapweed, great burnet and melancholy thistle are missing, says Claire. The sward was made up from grasses - cocks foot, common bent and meadow foxtail 2012with wildflowers daisy, pignut, woodrush, ribwort plantain, two kinds of buttercup and common sorrel. We even found a northern hay meadow specialist ladys mantle.
Traditionally managed hay meadows are great for bees, insects and upland waders curlew and lapwing.
An area equivalent to 140 football pitches has been restored since the project began and all are carefully assessed before a restoration and management plan is drawn up.
Some of the meadows have been lightly harrowed and then strewn with green hay full of seed collected from a flower-rich field nearby. This works very well some plants like yellow rattle, eyebright, red clover and hawkbit but other perennial plants are planted by hand so I can be confident they will succeed, says Claire.
Meadow restoration is a long term commitment it can take well over a decade or more.
The next step is to start linking up these meadows so that new living landscapes can be created. Cumbria Wildlife Trusts funding ends this winter and a nail-biting wait is underway to find out if an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund has been successful.
Hay meadow meanders
The Hell Gill meadows can be seen from footpaths to the west of Hell Gill Bridge. Park on the B6259 around Mallerstang and take one of the many footpaths that head up to The High Way/Helgill Wold.
Download other hay meadow walks at Ravenstonedale, Tarn Hows and Yewfield, and Watermillock from www.cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk/hay-meadows.html
The project was funded by Esmee Fairburn, Tubney Charitable Trust, SITA, The Peter de Haan Foundation and Friends of the Lake District. The Trust works in partnership with Natural England and many local organisations to identify, assess and restore meadows in the county.
Cumbria Wildlife Trust members provide essential funds for hay meadow restoration and other projects to protect and restore Cumbrias Wildlife thank you. If you are not a member you can join by calling 01539 816300 or online at