On the 10th of July, I visit Horseshoe Meadow with a friend from Hornsea; she’s a ceramicist who has an interest in pollen, and uses its structures to inform her pieces, and we’re thinking of each making some work we can display together, which grows out of the same location.
The weather, for days, has been very wet, but the forecast looks ahead to a few fine days and Pete has warned that mowing is imminent; due to lockdown, I have not watched the meadow grow and thrive during 2020, as I did in 2019, when it transformed itself from a field of green grass studded with dormant varieties of plant I struggled to identify in their sleeping state, to a resplendent habitat supporting a vast ecology of species.
Yarrow and knapweed in the grassward before harvest
I’m a visual artist, not a naturalist, but I’m fascinated with plants and wildflowers, and keen to learn more about ecology through study of meadows. Even today, when I realise my steel-toe-cap boots won’t keep my feet dry and my progress is a squelchy one, I’m captivated by being ‘inside’ the meadow. I’m sorry to have missed so much, but my project is a long-term one; hopefully, next year will be different, and this year I can follow the regrowth, and then dying-back of the meadow going through summer, autumn and into winter.
Both years I have missed the mowing.
By now, writing this on the 3rd of August, the grass will be adorned with its vast jewels in the form of hay bales, fragrant, heavy and intricate. Last year there were eleven. I wonder how many there are this year, one of very different weather, where the height of the sward prior to mowing seemed quite a bit shorter.
2019 hay bale
Until I began visiting the meadow, I hadn’t given consideration to meadow management. I suppose I had thought that a lovely field interspersed with wildflowers, kept like that all by itself. As a ‘townie’, living right on the opposite end of the same bank of the Humber estuary that the reserve occupies, actually, I had never experienced a meadow. It was something to be imagined, read about in poetry, and observed through rustic woodblock prints or country church stained glass - a mind-set tinted with presumptions. Although I knew there would be folklore associated with the process, again, it was a back-of-the-mind kind of instinct more than anything else.
So, why do we cut/mow/graze a meadow?
‘Strictly speaking, a meadow is an area of grass cut for hay. It is ‘shut up’ against cattle between March and June or July, mown, and then grazed until the following spring. But such places are an agricultural anachronism and the bulk of grass is now grown in ‘leys’, which are regularly ploughed, sown with a single species of high-yield grass, and cut for silage in the spring. Outside the network of nature reserves, true hay meadows survive in any numbers only in the Somerset Levels and the Pennine Dales.’
R Mabey, Flora Britannica, 1996, P398
As well as for use for animal fodder, in conservation terms, the meadow also needs cutting to encourage species.
Fergus Garret writes (from a meadow-gardening point of view):
‘Much of conservation was scorned on [in the 1990s] … especially among agriculture students, who looked on it as nonsense. But when you think that 98 per cent of our species-rich ancient meadows have been lost in this country since the Second World War and consider the associated damage done to wildlife, you soon realise the importance of habitat protection. Life in a meadow is rich: by this I don’t just mean impressive beasts such as grass snakes and wasp spiders, but with a combination of bugs and beetles, bees and flies, chirping crickets and grasshopper galore, shrews and voles, slow worms and butterflies and moths - all of it part of an intricate web of life.’
Bee fly species on ox-eye daisy
Meadows at Great Dixter and Beyond
There is a skill in knowing when best to mow; like heathland, most grassland is a man-made habitat, dating from when Bronze Age humans cleared our natural woodland to grow their crops.
As usual, my companion reading is Meadowland: the private life of an English field; it’s easy, interesting, packed full of history. It’s a book that communicates the life of a meadow with warmth, humour from a depth of connection with the land. John Lewis-Stempel writes:
‘Mowing grass for hay always brings a headache, especially if mowing an old-fashioned meadow the old-fashioned way. Not until the third week of July are the curlew fledglings grown enough to take wing … [and] there are other wild things to take account of in the timing of the hay cut. Not until the last week is the yellow rattle seed properly set, and this is one of the plants I wish to encourage. Then there is a skylark still sitting, but I peg out a plot around her so she will be left unharmed in a unmown island. The meadow pipit is on her second brood, so she too gets a private island.’
In some places, a combination of cutting and grazing is used. At Great Dixter, ‘Grazing some areas rather than cutting is important because it creates patches of tall and short vegetation, adding structural diversity - which is of great importance in encouraging insect diversity. The habitats of insects vary: for instance, tall, stable swards favour web-spinning spiders, whilst shorter swards are ideal for grasshoppers and crickets.’ Meadows, P34.
At Horseshoe Meadow, livestock isn’t used; the site is not fully secure, and is lined on the east side by a public footpath, and at the south end butts up to a defence to minimise the amount of water that comes through at particular high tides and weather conditions.
Armed with images from my recent visit, and last year, as well as a few specimens and some visual studies made both in the field and in the studio, I’m looking forward to creating work with this particular field in mind. Where it is and what surrounds it, is as important to me as the content - and I know that this is all in the mix for what that content is.
Some pressed specimens from the meadow
Painting in the meadow
I’m hoping that next year, I can be more involved with the rhythm of the meadow, so I can know some of these considerations particular to Blacktoft. I want to know more about how the grasses and plants support the fauna, in turn supporting and hopefully enhancing the bird species - I can see from what reading I have done so far, there is a general pattern, but also a very individual one in relation to each place - and although having been visiting Horseshoe Meadow for 18 months now, I am still at the beginning of that particular journey.
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