Why a dramatic decrease in the amount of English hay meadow has serious implications not only for the bee population but also the whole food chain.
A hay meadow is a hungry bee’s convenience store, says Rachel Bennett.
“It must be hard for a bee,” she said.
“Many British crops only flower at certain times of year, but hay meadows flower all spring and summer, so bees can refuel there at any time. The loss of hay meadows is one reason British bees have been declining.”
Figures show 97 per cent of English upland hay meadows disappeared over the last half of the 20th century, and in the Peak District, wildflower meadows declined by 75 per cent between the 1980s and 1990s. Meanwhile, around Europe, over a third of bee species are in serious decline. All of which has implications for our own food, said Rachel, lead National Trust ranger at Longshaw.
“We need hay meadows so we have healthy populations of pollinators like bees and butterflies that then go and pollinate our own crops and fruit trees.”
The flowers are food for bees, the bees are food for birds’
July 1 is National Hay Meadow Day, and Longshaw will be holding its first ever ‘bee safari’ led by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. The free family events on the day include the chance to carry out conservation work with rangers at Longshaw’s Yarncliffe Barn fields, where staff and volunteers have helped meadow plant species increase by nearly 60 per cent since 2015 by, for example, removing invasive plants like ragwort.
There’ll also be advice and spotters’ guides to old English flowers like marsh orchid, yellow rattle, lady’s bedstraw and bird’s foot trefoil.
“Many people are familiar with the problems facing the honey bee, but not so many people know a lot about our wild bees,” said Rhodri Green who works on the new ‘Pollinating the Peak’ project, backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, which is holding a series of events this summer. There’s a special focus on the little-known and strangely-coloured bilberry bumblebee, a Peak District National Park priority moorland species with lemon and orange stripes on its abdomen.
“The bilberry bumblebee is a beautiful creature whose numbers appear to be declining,” said Rhodri. “Having already lost two of England’s native bumblebees in the last 80 years, we are asking people to help by taking simple actions such as gardening for bumblebees and other pollinating insects, or joining our BeeWalk monitoring scheme.”
He added that a loss of flowers for forage and hedgerows for bee nesting sites, along with an increased use of fertilisers and pesticides, has led to a decline in bees over recent times.
Hay meadows where bumblebees thrive are part of our cultural history, said Rachel. For hundreds of years, farmers would allow grasses and wild flowers to grow in fields with poor soil, with the resulting hay gathered later in the year to feed cattle and sheep over the winter.
But as technology improved, farmers and land managers improved their yields by adding fertiliser to fields, deterring wildflowers which thrive better in soil with low nutrients. Practices changed again when the detrimental effects on biodiversity of the new methods became clear, and environmental stewardship grants were brought in to help manage meadows more traditionally again.
“It’s all good for the nutrient cycle,” said Rachel. “That’s a posh phrase for food chain. The flowers are food for bees, the bees are food for birds, which are then food for foxes and birds of prey.”
An example is a monitored kestrel nest at Longshaw, which produced nine chicks over two years, an unusually high birth rate showing there’s plenty of food for baby kestrels.
Rachel remembers the child’s eye view of hay meadows when she caught grasshoppers as a girl.
“Traditional hay meadows are like jungles to children, who get a real sense of wonder as they walk through next to bugs and bees and butterflies, and it would be nice if all children could experience that feeling. In our fields you might even see a vole, or a kestrel hunting for one if you’re really lucky.
“Meadows are returning to the Peak District, which is fantastic, because they’re part of the English summer. They’re in our poetry, our paintings and our music. They’re a part of us.”
Visit National Trust Longshaw Burbage and the eastern moors or Bumble Bee Conservation for details.