Striking a balance over Dales hay meadow management

The Askrigg Bottoms hay meadow SSSI with tower of St Oswald’s Church in the background.

The Askrigg Bottoms hay meadow – one of the most special places in the Yorkshire Dales National Park – is about to be cut.

Farmer Tom Tennant is paid just under £500 a year from the Government for managing the 2.8 hectare meadow in a traditional way, without use of chemical fertiliser.

A condition of his Environmental Stewardship agreement is that the meadow mustn’t be cut before July 15 to allow wildflowers to set seed.

Farmer Tom Tennant
Tom Tennant outside his home in Worton in Wensleydale.

So while most Dales farmers have been busy cutting since early June, in this most ‘growy’ of years, Tom has had to bide his time – and he is not entirely happy about that.

He said: “The meadow is the way it is because of the way it has been farmed. We’ve been here since 1851. All these hay meadows used to be like that. I like to see it.

“But it’s gone back a bit. We’re being told how to farm it. The meadows never used to be farmed to a date, but to a season.

“The cutting dates can be over the top; [the crop] can go rotten if it gets an early start in spring.”

Natural England and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority are currently trialling a new agri-environment hay meadow scheme in Wensleydale which has no prescriptions on cutting dates. In the future it might be a better fit for farmers such as Tom.

Another concern is that the crop from the Askrigg Bottoms meadow, and other such traditionally-managed meadows, makes for poor fodder.

“It’s a low feed product – fill belly stuff,” said Tom.

It is true that when the nutrient value of hay from a traditionally-managed meadow is compared with hay from an improved meadow, there is no contest, although the herbal qualities of the former are appreciated for treating poorly livestock.

Traditional, flower rich meadows began to disappear in the Dales in the 1970s as farmers improved their fields to produce more grass, reducing the need for them to buy in food and concentrates.

My uncle, a retired Dales farmer, told me that before he improved his meadows, the farm could support 20 dairy cows and 200 breeding sheep. Afterwards, from the late ‘70s, it could support 40 cows and 300 sheep.

For farmers of my uncle’s age, and Tom’s age, the deeply ingrained culture is to make the land more productive for livestock. That’s perhaps why the aim of conservationists – to protect the last few remaining flower rich meadows, and try to bring some back – can grate.

In Tom’s words: “The country people are being told how to farm by the town people.”

Helen Keep, the senior farm conservation adviser at the national park authority, said that she would like to see a “happy medium”, with a network of flower rich meadows established to provide “stepping stones” for pollinators.

“Farmers need to be viewing their farms not just from an agricultural perspective but from how environmentally valuable they are, too,” she said.

“The payment Tom is receiving to maintain Askrigg Bottoms is based on restricting agricultural operations, to prevent an increase in ‘productivity’.

“However this meadow not only provides a biodiversity benefit, but also a pollinator benefit, a carbon store and a landscape benefit, to name but a few. Tom should be rewarded for all of these aspects, but he is just rewarded for one of them.”

She suggested that not all meadows needed to be quite as special as Askrigg Bottoms (notified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1984), with its common spotted orchid, melancholy thistle, great burnet and meadowsweet, to be of high nature value.

Melancholy Thistle in the Askrigg Bottoms meadow.

Other less diverse meadows, which have managed to hold on to tough species such as red clover and yarrow, still provided staple food for pollinators.

Striking the right balance between productive farming and nature – between Tom’s beautiful meadow and the meadow next door which was taken for silage weeks ago – is perhaps one of the greatest challenges for farmers and conservationists.