Why are meadows essential for the environment and our mental health?

Meadows play a huge role in keeping the planet and its inhabitants healthy and happy, but they urgently need protecting. British zoologist and science writer Wilson Wall and research plant physiologist David Morgan, co-authors of The Secret Life of a Meadow, discuss the importance and restorative powers of meadows…

WORDS: Stephen Tolmie
ILLUSTRATION: Lauren Thorley

What is a meadow and what is their practical purpose?

‘Sitting in a meadow is a balm for the soul – a meadow is the most peaceful and gently restful place I can imagine,’ says Wilson Wall. ‘Without meadows, we would lose pockets of diversity and serenity that cannot be replicated in parks and gardens.’

But what exactly constitutes a meadow? Nineteenth-century English romantic poet Christina Rossetti described them in her poem, In the Meadow – What in the Meadow?, as a place of ‘Bluebells, buttercups, meadowsweet | And fairy rings for the children’s feet’ – a depiction that might have appealed to fellow poet William Wordsworth who, writing several decades earlier, in 1798, declared himself ‘still a lover of the meadows’ in his Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.

Both poets, however, would have understood that meadows met a practical as well as an artistic need. ‘A meadow’s purpose was to grow hay,’ says Wilson. ‘They would be cut once a year, probably in July, and left to recover for a few months before animals would be allowed onto them to graze in September.’ Indeed, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the size of the hay crop was pivotal in determining how comfortably people would survive the winter. It didn’t just feed milk and beef herds, but also the animals that were used to pull ploughs and carts.

Why are meadows vital to ecosystems?

Meadows may not be as central to agriculture as they once were, but they’re vital in many other ways. They store carbon through photosynthesis, slow down water run-off – reducing the chances of flooding and water pollution – and contribute to biodiversity. They also provide shelter and nesting material for small mammals such as mice and voles. A single acre of one wildflower meadow can support enough nectar-bearing flowers for almost 100,000 honeybees, which are essential for the pollination of food crops and the preservation of the ecosystem.

Other pollinators, like butterflies, benefit from the buffet offered by meadows. In fact, diversity of animal species increases with diversity of plant life. The European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism, which works to encourage low-intensity livestock farming, has carried out surveys in the meadows of Moieciu de Sus in the Carpathian mountains in Romania and reports that up to 46 species of butterfly have been recorded living among the many wildflowers and grasses there.

And then there are birds that feed off the butterflies. In Britain, blue tits are major consumers of caterpillars, and numerous bird species live on the habitat’s flying insects, beetles and spiders.

Why meadows are beneficial for people’s physical and mental health

In addition to their vital role in protecting the health of the planet, they’re also good for individual health. Conservation charity Plantlife Cymru – which is linked to Plantlife UK, the organisation behind No Mow May – reports that high blood pressure can be lowered by simply looking at a wildflower meadow for just six seconds.

For a project called Magnificent Meadows Cymru, Plantlife helped create a 1.7km walk – the Meadows Health and Wellbeing Route – between Ysbyty Gwynedd, a hospital in Bangor, North Wales, and the meadows at Eithinog Nature Reserve. At different times of the year, the walk promises fine views, the golden yellows of bird’s-foot trefoil flowers and the prospect of hearing willow warblers.

Meadows certainly provide a soothing contrast to much of modern life. ‘If you go to sit in a meadow, what you get is a tremendous range of sounds,’ says Wilson. ‘Not just bees, but crickets. If you sit and wait, you might even hear voles scurrying around.’ There’s comfort in knowing the insects don’t care about human concerns, they just get on with their routine, which helps to maintain the meadow. In their book, Wilson and David speak of the joy that meadows bring, how there’s always something for children to discover there – ‘Food for the soul’ is how they put it.

Of course, one of the most obvious pleasures of a meadow is its appearance. Few things are as magical. In his poem, The Last Mowing, US poet Robert Frost celebrates ‘tumultuous’ displays of ‘all shapes and colours’. Gail Austen, postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Kent in the UK, studies how characteristics of biodiversity can help improve human wellbeing. She says that while people often talk of their appreciation of green spaces it’s often the non-green/brown colours that people love more – the brighter and more varied hues, perhaps, of those bluebells and buttercups that caught Rossetti’s eye. And just as our love of green spaces might be more complex than it seems, so is our love of sound. ‘People often talk of “peace and quiet”,’ says Gail, ‘but often they mean the sounds of nature, non-human sounds.’

The appeal of a meadow’s scent, too, has long been recognised. In the past, people would scatter meadowsweet across the floors of their homes for its sweet aroma. And scents trigger memories in a more pronounced way than sights and sounds. ‘Smell goes directly to the limbic system of the brain, which is primarily emotive,’ says Gail. This could explain why a deep breath in a recently mown meadow works wonders for lifting the mood.

Why are meadows in decline and what can be done about it?

The type of meadow adored by Rossetti and Wordsworth is disappearing – the UK has lost 97 per cent of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s. In the US, experts calculate that Yosemite Valley’s meadow acreage is less than half of what it used to be (standing now at 300 acres), while in some parts of Germany, floodplain meadows declined by about 80 per cent between the 1960s and the 2010s. There are different reasons for the decline, some of which lie in changing agricultural practices prompted by commercial pressures. Many modern farmers, for example, harvest their hay from fields where only one type of grass is grown – a uniform sward of rye grass, which offers little sustenance for seed-eating birds. They’re also more likely to maximise their yield by mowing the field more frequently, sometimes four times a year. This means that any emerging wildflowers are cut down before they have a chance to bloom.

A surprising, unexpected threat to meadows can come from rewilding projects. Wilson notes that there’s ‘a danger that people might get carried away with planting trees’, yet wildflowers can’t grow if dense foliage is blocking out their sunlight. And, while rewilding literally lets nature run its course, Wilson describes meadows as ‘a joint act between man and nature’. The drive for biofuels could also present a problem. Getting fuel from grass has many merits but it’s vital that grasses are not taken from existing meadows.

Meadows need to be managed. They need to be monitored to check that squirrels and jays aren’t planting acorns that will grow into trees, and mowed, so that their cycle of fresh growth can continue. But it goes both ways. People need meadows, for the sensory pleasure they can bring, their contribution to biodiversity and their role in storing carbon. Wouldn’t it be great if more people could be like Wordsworth and say they’re ‘still a lover of meadows’? And wouldn’t it be even better if future generations had the same chance?

The Secret Life of a Meadow by Wilson Wall and David Morgan is published by White Owl, an imprint of Pen & Sword books


You can read more articles about nature and mental wellbeing in the latest issue of Breathe magazine.