22 Dec 2021

Our Blooming Meadows are Booming

Bruce Langridge

What a great year it’s been for our orchid-rich meadows here at the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

We now have around 40 acres of hay meadows that include the range of plants that would, around 100 years ago, have been dotted all across Wales. But, over the past 100 years, we’ve lost more than 97% of these meadows, and all the associated birds, butterflies, plants, fungi and other biodiversity that would have depended on them.

This extraordinarily high level of loss not only wiped-out wildlife but also affects climate change. Recent studies have shown that species-rich meadows may hold as much carbon as mature woodland.  The loss of rainwater-retaining meadows near towns and villages has also contributed to the increase in flooding events, a bit like replacing a sponge with a smooth plate.

BUT. There’s now a growing tsunami of meadow restoration projects to reverse this loss and we are helping to make this change.

In 2020, we started to collect and sell wildflower seed from our Waun Las National Nature Reserve. It was only a modest amount but it sold out quickly. So, this year, we significantly increased the amount of wildflower seed that we harvested thanks to the joint effort of a great team of Botanic Garden staff.

Using a brush harvester funded by Kathryn ThomasBiophilic Wales project, our estates team – run by Tom Campbell – massively exceeded our estimates about how much seed we could collect. With the help of the two Johns, Luke and apprentices Rowan, El, Ellie-May, Glenn, Dan and Osian, the team harvested 210kg of yellow rattle, eyebright, great burnet and orchid-rich seed from our five hay meadows – Cae Trawscoed, Cae Tegerianau, Cae Gwair, Cae Derwen and Cae Waun. Have a look at the image of the map to see where they are.

Our Horticulture Project Officer Katie Benallick and Science Officer Dr Kevin McGinn then helped  Tom and his team to dry out and sieve the harvested wildflower seeds in our Pantwgan Farm cattle sheds and Garden glasshouses. Later in the summer, our farmer Huw Jones organised for green hay to be cut from the unharvested parts of our hay meadows and spread onto several neighbouring farmers’ fields in Llanarthne and onto the flood meadows of the Bishop’s Palace in Carmarthen. This was paid for by our Dyffryn Tywi project run by Helen Whitear and Kellie Cridland.

We also received the help of our former Head of Horticulture Laura Davies.

Laura is currently studying for an MSc in Environmental and Conservation Management at the University of Wales Trinity St David. Laura spent many days carrying out botanical surveys on our hay meadows and on the field around the National Trust-owned Paxton’s Tower in Llanarthne, another site to receive our green hay as part of Plantlife’s Magnificent Meadows project. Laura’s survey work will greatly help us to not only monitor the changes to our own hay meadows as they continue to mature but also the impact of green hay on a new meadow restoration site. One of Laura’s most exciting observations was that greater butterfly orchid Platanthera chlorantha have taken only two years to establish on one of our meadows that we only started to restore in 2019 – Cae Gwair. On the same meadow, we later found broad-leaved helleborine Epipactis helleborine for the first time and, in late autumn, mycologist Emma Williams found several waxcap and other grassland fungi species, a really surprising discovery but one that proves our organic farming policy over the past 21 years has helped nurture.

This was also a great fungi season for our other hay meadows, with more than 100 fruiting ballerina waxcaps Porpolomopsis calyptriformis on Cae Tegerianau and a spectacular amount of the internationally red-listed citrine waxcaps Hygrocybe citrinovirens in Cae Trawscoed.

We showed these to a delegation from South Wales Trunk Roads who, we were delighted to hear, are busy turning many of their roadsides into meadows. As a result of their visit, our wildflower seed has been sown into the roadsides of the M4 leading onto the Prince of Wales Severn Bridge.

South Wales Trunk Roads were just one of many organisations and individuals to have bought all of our wildflower seed. All 210kg of it. It makes me very proud to think that our wildflower seeds will soon germinate into plants that will be trapping carbon, soaking up rainwater and providing shelter and food for a huge variety of biodiversity in the public parks, school grounds, orchards, allotments, roadsides and farms in Ammanford, Lampeter, Porthcawl, Cardiff, Swansea, Powys and, of course, the Prince of Wales Bridge.

Next year, we’ll continue to monitor our fields to make sure that seed harvesting isn’t damaging them. If we see signs of this, we’re planning to rotate our harvesting, leaving a meadow alone every four years or so.

But we’ll also be harvesting again. We’re expecting demand to be high so we’re looking to take pre-orders before we start cropping next July 2022. If you’re interested in pre-ordering wildflower seed, you can either write to me bruce.langridge@gardenofwales.org.uk or my colleague Huw huw.jones@gardenofwales.org.uk /07500 897574.