Thursday, February 09, 2012

When is a meadow not a meadow?

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
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


Janet said...

Fascinating post and some great arguments for and against. A recent Sarah Raven programme emphasised the importance of natural corridors for wildlife, in particular butterflies. As long as there are suitable flowers in the planting I would have thought it was better than a sterile municipal planting.

Anne Wareham said...

it is a shame that Nigel is insisting on the name 'meadow' for something closer to a cropless arable field. It does confuse things, it is bound to cause difficulties.

We might as well argue the benefits of calling frogs toads...

Wildgardener said...

Excellent post, thanks. I find I'm totally with Miles - and with Nigel, which is confusing.
Yes, Wildflower Meadows (with caps) desperately need protection, but they also need the wider public to care about them - not just an in-the-know elite.
Surely, by bringing pictorial meadows to the urban landscape it opens minds to the simple beauty of meadows of all sorts. That should offer an opportunity to Miles and co, shouldn't it?

VP said...

It's tricky - I can see both sides of the argument and can agree with both!

I'm with Wildgardener - we should grasp the opportunity this presents. By showing what's possible in an urban landscape is surely a better way to start the dialogue about conserving and improving the distribution of our native meadows with the majority of people who may never see one in real life?

I believe this debate is set to run and run - not just with respect to meadows either. I'm expecting to see lots of debate about native vs non-native species in general with the possibility of some surprising results re which are 'best' in terms of encouraging greater biodiversity in our gardens and urban landscapes.

Anne Wareham said...

The Arable-without-crop is SO different - a Grassland Meadow (maybe we have to adopt our own term?) will disappoint many who are excited by the colourful flowery A-W-C and do the cause of Grassland Meadow no good at all, I suspect.

As well as leaving people bewildered - great way to kill interest...


The Constant Gardener said...

And here's Miles King's emailed comment:

"thanks for your post Sally - very interesting.

Let me just quote some other things I wrote in my blog:

"Pictorial Meadows, which are colourful mixes of native and exotic annuals mostly used to make derelict urban spaces more attractive." That's praise.

"Mad about Meadows …. there are some great ideas in this – a competition for schools to create a mini meadow in an unusual place (bucket, wheebarrow) for example" More praise.

"all this is great and I am all in favour of getting communities involved with their local greenspaces – this is after all what we are doing through our Community Grasslands projects." yet more praise

"the urban Pictorial Meadow approach – which is valuable, but for a different set of reasons" yes it's valuable.

I actually defended BiB's proposal to plant arable wildflower plots against Peter Seabrook's attacks, in the Telegraph article.

At no point did I attack Pictorial Meadows for what it is and I am not taking issue with the concept of Pictorial Meadows. I'd just like to clarify that.

you quote Nigel as saying 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."

This is not addressing my argument at all. It conflates the general value of pictorial meadows for wildlife eg common invertebrates, and the specific value of Wildflower Meadows for a range of wildlife that is dependent on them, including priority species which are often specialists of long-established meadows.

So, does it matter what we call things? I would argue that in order to ascribe values to things it is important that we use the right labels to accurately describe them. This is a universal truth and is as true for meadows as it is for anything else. If it doesn't matter what we call things, why bother with taxonomy? Where would gardening be without taxonomy? Getting the names of things right is also very important for conservation.

Nigel can talk about shades of grey and continuums but if Hackney Council claim they are contributing towards their biodiversity targets by planting a rainbow annuals mix on Newington Common then something has gone wrong."

Oxonian Gardener said...

Pictorial or wildflower, both forms are meadows in my mind and just as different plants, and planting schemes, each has their place. Wildflower meadow conservation should be at the top of environmental agenda. But I don't see the point about pictorial meadows harming, the wildflower meadows at all. As you pointed out, that is down to urbanisation of the countryside, monocultural, use of chemicals and fertilisers etc. The pictorial 'meadowing' of derelict urban spaces should be encouraged. Appreciation of flowers, wild of otherwise, should be encouraged, particularly on wasteland areas. The accusation of pictorial meadows not contributing to insects and wildlife, seems faulty and would need to be backed up by evidence. I do know that native insects have evolved to feed on native wildflowers and hence have specifically designed mouth parts. However, insects continue to evolve and if they are able to feed of our highly propagated/foreign garden plants, why would that not be the case for a pictorial meadow? And if that is an issue, why not point the argument towards the majority of councils, whom are still allowed to create those abhorrent municipal planting areas that present absolutely NO value to insects at all?

VP said...

Anyone who's seen how the remaining wonderful colourful chalk grassland here in Wiltshire is won't be disappointed at all after seeing a Pictorial Meadow.

The Constant Gardener said...

Thank you all for your comments - this is such an interesting debate.

It might be of interest to know that Nigel also said (in a bit I edited out for reasons of length) that he's now getting people accusing his Pictorial Meadows of being too good for wildlife - i.e. luring insects away from native meadows onto Pictorial Meadow plantings. His take on that was - well you can't have it both ways.

I think personally that although I think both Miles and Nigel have very valid points, there are far worse threats to the survival of traditional wildflower meadows than Pictorial Meadows which on the whole are doing a very good thing (Petra I totally agree with you about municipal planting - but the tide is turning there, I'd argue, thank goodness).

I see my own little strip of chalkland meadow buzzing with bees and blue butterflies, with who knows what rustling around at the foot of the plants.

There is a hedgerow between that and a field of around 20 acres or so. Right now it's grazing, with a large flock of sheep: before that, it was an arable field full of barley I believe.

It is like a desert in comparison to my little patch of uncultivated meadow. There are more buzzing and scuttling things in my comparatively tiny strip than in the whole of that massive stretch of land (don't tell the farmer - but I've been in there to look for some. Zilch. I'm sure there's some there that I can't see: but the fact that there's so much wildlife in my meadow that I can actually see it is evidence enough.)

That, to me, is an infinitely more important issue to tackle. Debating whether or not to call annual flower plantings meadows is for me a total red herring, which itself is distracting people from the far more knotty problems we really need to be discussing.

But that's my point of view: and I'm always more than happy to hear yours!

Lapidarius said...

The problem with 'pictorial meadows' is that they are ending up in our countryside - where they are self-seeding about, competing with the precious few native wildflowers that are left, and doing more harm than good.

Some of our rarest and most threatened pollinators (shrill carder bumblebee, to name one) rely on red clover, vetches, black horehound and other native wildflowers. They'll never feed on California poppies, bishop's flower and candytuft. By popularising the pictorial meadow, we have missed the opportunity to create habitats for these insects, which will continue to die out despite of sowings of non-natives.

Yes, non-natives contain nectar and pollen, and yes, there will be hundreds of butterflies and bees visiting them, but only the most common, generalist feeders that are doing well anyway. Not the ones we actually need to help.

What's more, in her programme, SR sprays weedkiller over nettles, thistles and dock (native caterpillar food plants) to sow her meadow to 'feed the pollinators'. It's the age old problem of gardeners wanting to see butterflies, but refusing to accept the fact that they spend most of their lives as caterpillars. They too, will find no refuge in a pictorial meadow.

Benedict Green said...

Pictorial Meadows are relatively easy to achieve in urban situations, both physically and more importantly psychologically for council and residents. It's hard enough encouraging people to start planting in this style (over more traditional lawn/bedding/lawn) and a change of mind set is needed. I believe pictorial meadows provide a palatable solution that residents like and councils can easily achieve and they generally provide infinitely more biodiversity than what they replace.
Of course in the countryside we need to do more to encourage native meadows, but that's a separate issue which can only be helped by the greater public awareness that urban meadows generate.
@lapidarius is this true? If these species are becoming invasive that would be serious, but I've not heard this before.

The Constant Gardener said...

Benedict - Nigel Dunnett says the idea that these species are becoming invasive 'has no basis in fact'.

He would say that, of course: but I'd like to see the facts, figures and research on which these accusations are made, please.

Lapidarius said...

I didn't say they were becoming invasive. An ecologist friend of mine recently described the bumblebee Bombus terrestris as "equivalent to the urban fox", but whether it becomes invasive remains to be seen. This species could be competing with other bumblebees though, as it emerges earlier from hibernation, and therefore takes the better nest sites. But - as far as I know - this is all speculation at the moment.

Pictorial meadows may help boost local populations of some of the more common butterflies (which are in decline), but not if their caterpillar food plants are destroyed in the process.

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