Wildflower meadow habitats

Background

Wildflower meadows offer a diverse, and typically exceptionally attractive, habitat for the pleasure of young and old alike. The twentieth century saw a sharp decrease in the variety of wildflowers in the UK countryside. This was due to changes in agricultural policy and practice, particularly increased field drainage and herbicide use, and the growth of urban sprawl.

Over the past two decades, renewed interest in wildflower habitats has grown with concerns for biodiversity protection and augmentation. Coupled with this concern has been increasing interest in the restoration of old, mismanaged wildflower meadows and the creation of new meadows through, for example, agricultural set-aside programmes and other countryside stewardship schemes. Allowing open habitats such as wildflower meadows in urban settings for the provision of native or naturalised grasses, wildflowers and flowering plants offers several advantages:

  • Plant diversity attracts insects and other invertebrates (including butterflies, bees, spiders and millipedes), birds and mammals
  • Flowering species add a changing palate of colour to the urban environment throughout the seasons
  • Active involvement of the local community in managing the site encourages ownership values to be fostered – activities may range from mowing to the collection of seeds for use at a new location or for sale.
  • Opportunities for education and recreation abound (ranging from nature studies to art lessons).
  • Even small plots of wildflower planting can change the feel of a setting, so that the creation of a wildflower meadow as part of an urban greenspace can bring a little piece of countryside into the town.

Practical considerations

Despite their floral and faunal diversity, and the aesthetic benefits that wildflower meadows offer, they are occasionally shunned by the local communities for whom the urban greenspace is intended. This may be because of their untidiness in autumn and their physical height (in comparison with mown grassland), which may be seen to impede access for humans but not for dogs, and can lead to perceptions of wilderness or waste-ground and abandonment. This is especially the case in more formal greenspace settings. Where fears or negative perceptions are expressed, they can be managed at the local level through community engagement and education events, signage or even fencing.

Wildflower meadows may pose a number of additional complications that can undermine their suitability in an urban greenspace. First, the site needs to be appropriate for wildflowers in terms of the soil’s depth, description and nutrient status. Second, the management of a wildflower meadow is different from that of closely mown lawns or grasslands: long-term goals and commitment are required to see a wildflower meadow established and flourishing. Wildflower seed is more expensive than grass seed and, while unlikely to be prohibitive, cost may need to be considered in light of the management regime and its associated commitment.

Most semi-natural grasslands in the UK, including wildflower meadows, exist on nutrient-poor or seasonally waterlogged substrates. For example, phosphate, nitrogen and potassium levels are in the lowest category of the ADAS index for soil nutrients (0 or 1). On rich, fertile soils, wildflowers are rapidly smothered by stronger, faster-growing grasses and woody plants. Therefore degraded soils typical of urban environments (especially brownfield sites) offer a unique opportunity to (re-)establish wildflowers if they are not overcompacted. It is necessary to undertake a survey of the soil resource before attempting to establish a wildflower meadow. An appropriate annual management regime will also need to be adopted to encourage the wildflower meadow to establish and not be overrun by grasses, brambles, weeds (such as dock and thistle) or shrubs. Where the soil nutrient status is too high for the establishment of wildflowers, several options may be considered:

  • Establishment of an alternative habitat
  • Physical amelioration of the soil substrate (for example soil stripping or soil inversion)
  • A carefully planned and executed regime of mowing and removal of cuttings to reduce fertility slowly.

Whether the site is immediately suited to wildflowers or needs some preparatory amelioration works, an appropriate management regime is needed for the long-term success of the meadow. The desired wildflower habitat may be managed as either a flowery spring or summer meadow, but rarely both. Annual mowing or grazing must be undertaken once in the year, when the flowers have set and shed seed, as many of them are annuals and bare soil patches are needed to allow continued recolonisation.

Species selection need not be a major complication in the creation of a new wildflower meadow, provided the local environmental conditions are considered, including pedology (the study of soils in their natural environment), hydrology and the local climate. A wide variety of wildflower seeds are available from specialist suppliers. Most naturally occurring habitats have a local resonance – species relate to their locality, underlying substrates and geology, climate, hydrology and ecological characteristics. A similar resonance should be sought in creating habitats to ensure the biodiversity has a long-term future. Native and naturalised seeds of local provenance should be used. Agricultural cultivars should be avoided. These principles are usually set out in the local Biodiversity Action Plan, which will also help guide your species selection. If in doubt, seek expert advice from county wildlife bodies to ensure successful establishment.

Case studies

Docklands

Research by the Land Regeneration and Urban Greening Group at Forest Research has been undertaken for specialised meadow developments planned within the open space of the Thames Barrier Park, the more naturalised areas of riverside planting at Bow Creek Ecology Park (a history of Bow Creek Ecology Park is provided by the Royal Dock Trust) and at Russia Dock within the Surrey Dockland redevelopment. These projects involved investigation of soil conditions, choice of suitable plant cover, recreational assessments of the areas and suggested management options for the sites.

Soil inversion

The preliminary findings of Break New Ground, a partnership between Landlife, the National Forest, the Eden Project, the Forestry Commission, the Woodland Trust and Natural England were reported in 2006, showing that trees and wildflowers planted in soil inverted to a depth of a metre have improved establishment success. The success can be summarised as:

  • Tree – increase tree growth, survival rates and root formation
  • Biodiversity – support the creation of floristically rich, low-fertility habitats with increased biodiversity and reduced numbers of noxious weeds
  • Climate change – increased ability to cope with drought, more robust plantings with respect to increased wind speed
  • Society – increased use and involvement by the community, improved economic returns, reduced herbicide use, increased practitioner capacity-building
  • Sustainability – a positive contribution to UK’s sustainability agenda, including biodiversity, climate change, environmental enhancement, the Sustainable Communities Plan, the Rural Strategy 2004 and the Sustainable Food and Farming Strategy.

What are the alternatives to soil inversion:

  • Selection of grass and wildflower species most suited to local conditions
  • Establishment of an alternative habitat (revise site design or objectives)
  • Nutrient stripping through a regime of growing, mowing and removing cuttings offsite to reduce fertility.

Services

Forest Research has over 40 years’ experience in establishing vegetation on brownfield sites. This research provides impressive knowledge of habitat, tree and plant species selection and establishment on these types of site. Forest Research provides consultancy and research services to the Forestry Commission and external clients.

Forest Research has extensive experience of conducting soil surveys, including soil mapping and description of the chemical and physical constraints of a soil resource (e.g. nutrient levels and availability). Accurate local information is a must for informed decision-making, planning and designing of urban greenspace, and selecting the correct seed mixture for wildflowers.

Forest Research provides advice and recommendations on the selection of plant species, alteration of ground conditions and management regimes needed to promote successful wildflower establishment. Appropriate habitat and species recommendations are made on the basis of local conditions and site objectives.

Forest Research will conduct research into techniques for the sustainable establishment of urban greenspaces and associated habitats, including development of best practice. We welcome the opportunity to undertake such work as part of a research collaboration with interested parties.

Further information

Forest Research Best Practice Guidance

Sinnett, D. (2006). Maximising Biodiversity (PDF-289K). Best Practice Guidance for Land Regeneration, BPG Note 9. Farnham, UK: Forest Research.

Other resources

Agate, E. (2002). The Urban Handbook. 2nd edn. Doncaster: British Trust for Conservation Volunteers.

Ash, H.J., Bennett, R. and Scott, R. (1992). Flowers in the Grass. Sheffield: English Nature (now Natural England).

Luscombe, G. and Scott, R. (1994). Wildflowers Work. Liverpool: Landlife.

ODPM (2005). Biodiversity and Geological Conservation. Planning Policy Statement 9, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Norwich: Stationery Office.

Online resources

Jeskyns – a space from the past, for now and for the future (Forestry Commission).

Maintaining wildflower meadows (Royal Horticultural Society).

Plantlife International (The Wild-Plant Conservation Charity).

Wild flower meadows (Naturescape).