Wildflower Meadows: What can be found in Oxfordshire and why are they important?

July 2024

Imogen Parker

This year, the 6th July is UK National Meadows Day, so it seems fitting to join in with the celebration of these wonderful wildlife habitats in this month’s blog.

There are different types of lowland wildflower grassland, including those referred to as meadow or pasture. Traditionally, a meadow is predominantly a grassland habitat managed for haymaking, and a pasture is enclosed land that is grazed by livestock.  However, in recent years the term ‘meadow’ is often used to describe an area with wildflowers which are allowed to flower.  Many people will be aware that we have lost a staggering number of wildflower-rich grasslands within the last 90 years.  The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew state that ‘Wildflower meadows are one of the rarest habitats in the UK and we have lost 97%’. The 2023 State of Nature Report found that ‘vascular plant distributions have declined on average by 23% since the 1930s’. Included within this group, are plants adapted to low fertility conditions and low competition, such as those found within unimproved meadows.

Dropwort at Hurst Water Meadow, Dorchester-on-Thames. The meadow was associated with Overy Mill water management system. Overy Mill was mentioned in the Doomsday Book

Traditionally, hay meadows are typically ‘shut up’ for hay (livestock is excluded) for several weeks over much of the spring and summer, and, after cutting, the fields are aftermath grazed.  Haymaking to feed livestock has been practised for centuries and this land management practice is recognisable as part of our social and cultural heritage.  After the Norman Conquest, meadows had their own land category in the Doomsday Survey of 1086 (English Heritage). Established hay meadows in the UK often support high levels of biodiversity, including rare or less common plants, fungi, farmland birds and invertebrates. After cutting, the hay is turned at least once a day to allow the crop to dry. This process typically takes about three days and allows seeds to drop onto the soil. The cutting and removal of the arisings prevents both a dense ‘thatch’ establishing and nutrients from building up in the soil, thus benefitting the wildflowers that thrive in the poorer soils we associate with meadows.

In this blog, I will refer to wildflower grasslands managed by cutting, with or without spring or aftermath grazing.  In Oxfordshire we have some exceptional lowland meadows, many of which are designated and protected sites. These include the meadows found on the heavy clay or alluvial soils bordering the Thames, Thame, Cherwell and Ock Rivers and their tributaries.  The historic floodplain meadows around Oxford include Oxford Meadows Special Area of Conservation (SAC), which is recognised as supporting vegetation communities which are ‘perhaps unique in the World’ in the selection criteria for designation and reflects the importance of continuing the traditional management that has been undertaken within these fields for centuries.

There are many meadow projects being undertaken within Oxfordshire, some are small community projects and others are larger, landscape scale initiatives.  These projects are important for helping to connect and link our fragmented lowland grasslands. Included in these areas are churchyards, village greens, grass verges and even gardens managed as hay meadows.  Two of these projects include a community green space, Warwick Spinney, at the edge of Benson in South Oxfordshire, and the work undertaken within community meadows by the Nature Recovery Network, which supports nature recovery projects in Eynsham and surrounding parishes.  Both Warwick Spinney and the community meadows project at Eynsham received funding from TOE's (Trust for Oxfordshire's Environment) Local Environment Fund, which was key to the enhancement plans becoming a reality. Every year towards the end of the summer at Warwick Spinney, volunteers scythe an area of grassland enhanced in 2019 with wildflowers, including Yellow Rattle.  In the photo below, you can clearly see the impact that the Yellow Rattle is making by suppressing patches of grass within the field.  Nature Recovery Network volunteers planted bulbs of Snake’s-head Fritillary within some of their community meadows at Eynsham. Snake’s Head Fritillary is Oxfordshire’s county flower and this iconic spring plant of floodplain meadows is fertilised by bumblebees.  

Patches of Yellow Rattle, also known as the ‘meadow maker’, within Warwick Spinney, Benson. Management of this site is overseen by Benson area Nature Group

As well as being biodiversity ‘hotspots’ and having a fascinating history, many of Oxfordshire’s long established, or restored lowland meadows, are accessible to members of the public and wonderful places to visit at this time of year.  These places, although often bursting with nature’s energy in summer, are also tranquil to us in a way that is visceral. We ‘feel it’ and maybe we have great childhood memories of experiencing such places in our formative years.  I remember the ‘buzz’ amongst the stillness and the fascination of watching flying hoverflies seemingly watching me. They always had quicker reflexes than me, much to my amazement!  My most recent meadow walks have been around Hurst Water Meadow and Hinksey Meadow.  I have included some photos I took at these incredible places in this blog.

Snake’s Head Fritillary, a great food source for bumblebees in spring, at Dovehouse Close community meadow in Eynsham. Planted in autumn 2023 with funding from UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF)

Wild Oxfordshire’s website has plenty of information on how to tell Oxfordshire’s meadows and grassland habitats. From ‘No Mow May’, to managing roadside verges and creating and manging community meadows.

Look out for this year’s Big Give Christmas Challenge ‘supporting community meadows and margins’, when we have the target to raise £10,000 in just one week. We have secured £5,000 thanks to a generous Wild Oxfordshire supporter – the challenge is to match it! Most importantly, it will support our work with Community Groups across the county who do amazing work to look after their patches of wildlife.

(Osney Mead Local Wildlife Site), owned and managed by Oxford Preservation Trust, supports the nationally- scarce MG4a meadow grassland community and Snake’s Head Fritillary

You might also like:

Copyright © 2022 Wild Oxfordshire. All rights reserved. | Our Privacy Policy | Terms & Conditions | site by im23