Dales hay meadows

Meadows at Halton Gill, Littondale

Meadows at Halton Gill, Littondale

The hay meadows of the northern Pennines are a special habitat in their own right and are renowned for their display of wild flowers in June and July. They are normally on neutral soils.

Traditionally the farmer has used these enclosed fields to provide a stock of hay for winter feed, clearing the stock off in May and allowing the grass to grow before cutting it later in the year, in July/August. They have been managed at a low intensity, with no or only light dressings of manure. This allows plants to grow and seed and provide the dramatic displays which are so much appreciated by visitors as well as botanists.

Dramatic with buttercups in summer, these meadows are also home to species such as sweet vernal-grass, pignut, yellow rattle and common cat’s-ear. In wetter, often riverside, areas marsh foxtail, great burnet, marsh marigold, bistort, lesser pond sedge are found. But the characteristic species of Dales hay meadows is wood crane’s-bill and the northern meadows are often referred-to as crane’s-bill meadows. Other larger species such as meadowsweet and pignut are found. The stable, established sward tends to prevent the growth of annuals, apart from early-growing species yellow rattle and eyebright.

In Langstrothdale, meadows have a wide variety of herbs including sneezewort, early marsh orchid, the beautiful bird’s-eye primrose, great burnet, globeflower, a typical flower of cool, damp habitats, and meadow saxifrage.

The richer meadows have many species, varying according to soil, slope and aspect. The lower, flatter fields are neutral and have sweet vernal-grass, pignut, smooth lady’s-mantle, wood crane’s-bill, common bistort and common spotted-orchid. The damper slopes have globeflower, sneezewort, great burnet, zigzag clover, alpine bistort and melancholy thistle, together with some rarer orchids. Drier, acid, banks have bluebells in Spring with bilberry and adder’s-tongue fern later.

Where the road runs alongside the river there is a group of meadows on steep uneven limestone land. The rich meadow flora is supplemented by uncut calcareous banks often flushed by base-rich water and supporting a wide range of species. In one group of fields, to the east, there are several habitats close together. The slopes are rich in species, with orchids, adder’s-tongue fern, devil’s-bit scabious, melancholy thistle, hoary plantain and quaking-grass. Several meadows have early-purple and less common orchids and twayblade. Damp slopes support sedges such as carnation and glaucous sedge, with blue moor-grass, bird’s-eye primrose, grass-of-Parnassus, butterwort, marsh hawk’s-beard, globeflower and marsh valerian. The flatter areas have lady’s mantle, cowslip, pignut, bugle, rough hawkbit, water avens, selfheal, sweet vernal-grass and downy oat-grass.

At Yockenthwaite there are six fields on steep south-facing slopes. The upper and lower sections are cut for hay but the steep central slope is just grazed, producing elements of both pasture and hay meadow vegetation. The neutral riverside area supports sweet vernal-grass and common bent, with common knapweed, pignut, yellow rattle and wood crane’s-bill. The shallow limestone soils of the upper ‘bench’ support a calcareous community containing meadow oat-grass and downy oat-grass, with common bird’s-foot trefoil, autumn hawkbit, bugle, devil’s-bit scabious, hoary plantain, fairy flax and common milkwort. There are three species of orchids here and two ferns, all of which indicate old grassland.

A little lower down the valley, the meadows in upper Wharfedale can be seen well from the Dales Way, below Lord’s and Fosse Woods and at Wibberton’s Fields, and are especially species-rich, with quaking-grass, heath-grass, betony, devil’s-bit scabious, and great burnet. The regionally rare small-white orchid is to be found in the area.

The meadows around Kettlewell are ‘amongst the finest examples of this habitat in the Yorkshire Dales National Park for their rich mixture of grasses and flowering plants.’ The riverside meadows have grassland with red fescue, common bent, sweet vernal-grass and quaking-grass, with sedges such as glaucous sedge and herbs including great burnet, meadowsweet, rough hawkbit, devil’s-bit scabious, melancholy thistle, water avens, red clover and marsh horsetail. Pepper saxifrage, normally a lowland plant, and adder’s-tongue fern also occur here. In wet areas marsh-marigold is found and the nationally rare northern spike-rush has been recorded. The same three grasses dominate the drier limestone grassland, with crested dog’s-tail, yellow oat-grass, Yorkshire fog and cock’s-foot. The herbs include pignut, adder’s-tongue, ribwort plantain, and red clover with yellow rattle, bulbous buttercup and orchids. The three calcareous fields east of the road are grazed rather than mown but stock are excluded during the growing season. The species found reflects this management and bloody crane’s-bill, a plant which is curiously rare in the Dales, can be found here. Other species include salad burnet, wild thyme, lady’s bedstraw, limestone bedstraw, common rock-rose and cowslip. Among the less common flowers, the buttercups make a splended show.

At Little Lathe near Coniston there is a small meadow typical of unimproved northern hay meadows. The grassland includes crested dog’s-tail and smooth meadow-grass with herbs such as great burnet and pignut.

The former grounds of Grassington Hospital have been cut for hay in recent years and are ‘one of the finest examples of an unimproved herb-rich neutral grassland in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.’ Since there has been no nutrient input and no grazing a typical hay meadow has developed, with great burnet, lady’s mantle, common knapweed, rough hawkbit, cat’s-ear and field wood-rush. Locally, melancholy thistle, sneezewort and wood anemone occur. In damp patches marsh valerian, devil’s-bit scabious, marsh ragwort, water avens, meadowsweet and can be found. In among the trees are meadowsweet, sneezewort and rosebay willowherb.

Cockerham Meadows, near Thorpe, are dominated by sweet vernal grass with red fescue, Yorkshire fog and perennial rye-grass, with some crested dog’s-tail, cock’s-foot, meadow fescue and smooth meadow-grass. The herbs include two lady’s mantles, Alchemilla xanthochlora and A. glabra, water avens and common sorrel. The wetter northern and eastern parts have lesser pond-sedge, bugle, melancholy thistle, marsh hawk’s-beard, cuckooflower, meadowsweet and grass-of-Parnassus. Steep banks west of the stream and by the road are more calcareous, with hairy oat-grass, quaking-grass, adder’s-tongue fern, cowslip and yellow rattle.

Far Mains and Far Limekiln Close Meadows are unusual in that they have both meadow and wood cranesbill, both of which are characteristic of old meadows. There are two types of grassland, one with crested dog’s-tail, perennial ryegrass and yellow oat grass, and the other with crested dog’s-tail, perennial ryegrass, sweet vernal grass, red fescue and quaking grass. The herbs include cowslip, great burnet, yellow rattle, ribwort and hoary plantain, red clover, meadow buttercup, common mouse-ear and lady’s mantle Alchemilla xanthochlora.

Do not assume that sites mentioned here have public access. Please use only public footpaths or ask permission for access. Conservation of our wild heritage depends on the goodwill of landholders – please don’t abuse it!