Magazine article Geographical

A Vanishing Idyll: Few Sights Encapsulate the Essence of Summer Better Than a Hay Meadow in Full Bloom, and July Is When Many Wild Flowers Are at Their Peak

Magazine article Geographical

A Vanishing Idyll: Few Sights Encapsulate the Essence of Summer Better Than a Hay Meadow in Full Bloom, and July Is When Many Wild Flowers Are at Their Peak

Article excerpt

Motorways, new towns, industrial estates, airport runways Britain has witnessed many encroachments upon its natural landscape and every year sees more of the countryside lost to concrete, bricks and bitumen. While no type of wildlife habitat has escaped the spread of the developer's bulldozer, none has suffered a greater impact than the traditional hay meadow. In the past 70 years, around 95 per cent of Britain's meadows have disappeared.

For generations, the blooming wild flower meadow was a much-loved image of the English countryside idyll, as symbolic to the summer as the red robin to a white Christmas. However, images of a farmer's field covered in a blanket of multicoloured wild flowers are more likely to be seen on a greeting card than on a country drive in July.

Although the expansion of cities and roads has eaten into England's green and pleasant land, the primary cause for the loss of native hay meadows has been the post-war spread of intensive agricultural practices. These wildflower-rich habitats began to disappear during wartime when vast acreages of traditionally managed grassland were converted to arable production. After the war, the practice was intensified by the sowing of high yielding, fertiliser-fed pasture, such as rye grass. As a result much of the country's flower-rich grassland was lost forever.


In terms of biodiversity, the importance of this vanishing habitat cannot be overstated: a typical old hay meadow can support around 150 different plant species, many of them rare and flowering for just a few weeks in mid-summer. An uncut meadow in full bloom is also an important refuge for many of Britain's threatened birds, notably ground-nesting species such as skylarks, curlews and partridges, each dependant upon the cover of tall grasses and wild flowers to complete their breeding cycle by concealing nests and fledglings.

Overhead, swallows and swifts swoop low over the grasses to devour airborne insects. Dozens of different flowering plants provide an environment rich in pollen and nectar for bees, butterflies and moths, and the foliage and grasses supply food for caterpillars--natural prey for birds, bats, mice and voles.

So, when a meadow is transformed by abandoning the late summer cut for the plough and sowing of arable crops, far more is lost than a kaleidoscope of colourful wild flowers--as attractive and photogenic as this is.


As with many landscapes, meadows are usually captured as a sweeping view with a wide-angle lens to convey the expanse of rich natural colours. Wide-angle lenses are also ideal for achieving front-to-back sharpness across the whole frame. Even larger apertures deliver good depth of field on a wide-angle lens, but by stopping down to f/11, f/16 and further, you ensure no part of the scene is out of focus.

However, if handholding the camera, image blur is still a risk as each stop down in aperture results in a slower shutter speed. This can be avoided by either increasing the ISO setting to maintain a faster shutter speed, or using a tripod to keep the camera absolutely still and a remote release to take the picture. If using the latter technique, be careful about where you position the tripod legs, just as you should resist the temptation to wander through the flowers, because excessive trampling can flatten rare meadow plants and even destroy bird nests. For this reason it is best to stick to paths, fence lines and other marked boundaries.

Part of the responsible photographer's preparation should also include purchasing a field guide of the area you're visiting to help identify wild flowers and other plant species, as well as the fauna to be found. Illustrations will help you identify the local flora, particularly useful for captioning close-up images once you're satisfied with the general wide-angle view of the meadow. Then is the time, particularly on a bright day, to sit down and immerse yourself in the flowers and switch to a macro lens to isolate individual flowers and insects, and even capture life-size images. …

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