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Upland Hay Meadows

Upland hay meadows comprise the single NVC community MG3, sweet vernal grass Anthoxanthum odoratum - wood crane’s-bill Geranium sylvaticum grassland. These are characterised by a dense growth of grasses and herbaceous dicotyledons, up to 80 cm in height. Species found include pignut Conopodium majus, great burnet Sanguisorba major and lady’s mantle Alchemilla spp.

Upland hay meadows have been formed as a result of traditional hay making practices taking place in a sub-montane climate typified by high rainfall, low temperatures and a short growing season. As a result of this they have developed a mix of plant species that is more closely related to that found in the mountains of the Alps and Scandinavia than of lowland Britain.

Upland hay meadows support a rich variety of plant species and are also important nesting sites for breeding birds such as lapwing and yellow wagtail. Historically, upland hay meadows were also used by the globally threatened corncrake, and the loss of meadows is thought to be one of the reasons for the decline in this species, which is thought to be extinct as a breeding bird in the Region.

Current status

Within the UK, upland hay meadows are found almost exclusively in the north of England. Their main concentration is in the North Pennine Dales. There is no past data for the occurrence of upland hay meadows, but it is thought likely that they have been much reduced during the 20th century by agricultural intensification. Recent estimates indicate that there are less than 1000 ha in northern England.

Most examples of this type of grassland occur within enclosed farmland but fragments do exist on roadside verges and river banks. The existing sites are generally small, each less than 2 ha in area. Teesdale and Weardale (together with some of the Yorkshire Dales) are widely acknowledged to possess the finest concentration of upland hay meadows anywhere in Britain.

Threats

  • Agricultural improvements through ploughing, drainage, re-seeding, and the application of inorganic fertilizers and slurry.
  • The shift from hay-making to silage production, with more frequent and earlier cutting, reduces the opportunities for plants to set seed and damages nesting birds and other animals.
  • Changes from mowing to spring and summer grazing can result in the loss of plants and animals intolerant of summer grazing and adapted to traditional hay cutting management.
  • Lack of farmyard manure for use as fertilizer as fewer cattle are being kept on upland farms.
  • Increases in grazing intensity and duration, particularly in spring, can lead to a decrease in botanical diversity.
  • Increased supplementary stock feeding associated with higher grazing levels leads to increased nutrient loadings and localised ground damage.
  • Abandonment and lack of management of grasslands leads to reversion to rank grassland, and eventually to the development of scrub or secondary woodland.
  • Inappropriate management (such as too regular cutting or complete lack of management) can damage the conservation interest of grasslands on roadside verges.

Opportunities for protection and enhancement

  • Payments for the traditional management of hay meadows are available under the Environmental Stewardship Scheme. The Northumberland National Park has management agreements on a number of traditional hay meadows.
  • The 'Seeding Change' project run by the Northumberland National Park and the 'Haytime' project run by the North Pennines AONB both aim to improve the condition of, and create new areas of, upland hay meadows.