Hay meadows are an iconic feature of the English countryside and are of great agricultural importance, providing farmers with food for their livestock during the winter months as well as ecological importance.
Upland hay meadows are characterised by a suite of species including sweet vernal-grass, wood crane’s-bill, pignut, great burnet and lady`s mantles. They also provide an important feeding habitat for a wide range of bird and insect life. They are confined to areas with a history of non-intensive hay-meadow management at 200-400m altitude in the upland valleys of northern England and Scotland. Recent estimates indicate that there are less than 1000 ha in northern England and Scotland is believed to have less than 100 ha.
Lowland hay meadows are characterised by crested dog’s tail and common knapweed, these are nationally widespread but declining. Other typical species are red fescue and common bent-grass, with a range of wild flowers such as bird's-foot trefoil, meadow vetchling, common cat's-ear and yellow rattle. Less common species are meadow saxifrage, green-winged orchid, common twayblade and lesser butterfly-orchid. These meadows are of national biodiversity importance.
The Yorkshire Dales National Park contains a large proportion of the national upland hay meadow habitat. It is centred around Langstrothdale, Ribblesdale, Swaledale and Arkengarthdale. In addition, the nationally rare plants lesser butterfly-orchid, burnt orchid, montane eyebright and small-white orchid also grow in or in close association with this habitat. The Hay Time project has been a very successful hay meadow restoration programme in the Yorkshire Dales. It is hoped that this practical work will continue through environmental stewardship higher level scheme grants.
As farming methods intensify there is a risk that the number of hay meadows will continue to decline and this habitat continues to be listed on the UK list of priority habitats for biodiversity action.