I recently blogged my time in Romania, a country that still has sprawling meadows crammed with wildflowers. In Britain, we’re not so lucky; 97% of our lowland meadow is gone, swallowed up by the industrialisation of farmland.
The surviving fragments – that 3% – are often small and isolated. But some of those relics are magnificent.
Today is National Meadows Day in the UK – a celebration of those bits of wild grassland that we still have. I have some of the best meadows in England on my doorstep, some of which are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest or Sites of Nature Conservation Importance. Others are just sitting there, unprotected, which is not the most comfortable feeling.
What lives in them? Everything! Harvest mice, small reptiles, gorgeous butterflies, rare snails, bizarre fungi, and enough insects to befuddle my identification skills. I hardly have space to show all the flowers; a single square metre can host 15 species. Here’s a sample, anyway:
Perforate St John’s wort
Sainfoin and buttercup
These are places to walk softly and listen, and be dazzled by the sheer splendour of life.
There are two observation challenges while walking in nature: the first to find the hidden species, and the second to see the beauty and importance of common, obvious things that seldom capture much of our time.
There is a national trail in Surrey that reveals plenty of both. The North Downs Way is south-east England’s most absorbing footpath, threading through over 150 miles (250km) of chalky hills, ancient beechwoods and rolling farmland. I live on it, or very nearly; it runs through my parish on its pilgrimage to Canterbury and the sea.
It is big enough to feel uncrowded, human-wise, but the wild is there to offer its company.
Amethyst deceivers bring royal purple to the forest. The name reflects their variable shape which can outfox identification. These clustered on a fallen beech, joining moss in a living shroud.
The beech that still stand are catching the light as though it were a cricket ball flying towards them in the season’s last match.
Flowers, too, are still shining. Poppies redden the edges of arable land.
Scarlet pimpernels peep through the grass.
And here – the harbinger of spring, resting on a grass stem coloured by autumn:
It is a brimstone, and although at rest it mimics a leaf, on the wing the male is brilliant yellow. One of our longest-lived butterflies, it hibernates through the winter.
Whatever wild dramas autumn and winter bring, it will be oblivious.