It’s not every day you see something “very special and rare”. Yet that’s what I could boast last night, having visited two of the finest wildflower hay meadows in the Yorkshire Dales.
Right now the Dales are looking gorgeous. But many of the meadows that you see, those carpets of gold, are not what they used to be. They have been improved through the application of muck, fertiliser and sprays. A meadow with more grass and fewer flowers means more fodder for the stock.
Flower power payments (compensation for keeping meadows unimproved) have been around for decades. But they have a bad name. Current and previous schemes are widely regarded as far too prescriptive and bureaucratic. A sure fire way to niggle a farmer is to tell them how to farm.
In Wensleydale, a new approach is being piloted. A total of 19 farmers have entered bits of land into a “Results-Based Agricultural Payment Scheme”. They are being paid according to results, which means there are no prescriptions to follow on cutting dates. The principle is straightforward: the more species-rich the meadow, the higher the payment to the farmer.
But just how does it work in practice? That’s the question which took me to Sheena Pratt’s Dale View Farm in Thornton Rust yesterday afternoon. She was hosting a training event in which members of the National Park Authority’s farm team showed farmers how to “score” their meadows, and therefore work out what payment was due.
It’s fair to say that the farmers in the scheme are some of the most open-minded in the Dale, and yet they remain circumspect.
As they gathered in the village institute, Tom Fawcett from Nappa Scar put it bluntly: “It’s farming first and this second,” he said.
“If you have a small farm, all the costs are going up. The only way to stand still is to grow more grass [in order to be able to feed more stock]. If people want to see these hay meadows, they’ve got to be prepared to pay for them.”
Sheena Pratt got heads nodding when she said schemes needed to be much more flexible. She explained that in some years she had had to “sit and watch the fine weather” until the prescribed cutting date, by which time the rain had come and it had become impossible to get the crop in.
World put to rights, we headed out to the meadows. The Authority’s Farm Conservation Adviser, Jane Le Cocq, led the way, aptly carrying a book under her arm entitled “What’s that wildflower?”.
The farmers had been handed maps of the two meadow fields, each with a green line drawn diagonally across them, as well as the all-important scheme scorecard. The scorecard is a three-page document. It contains a list of 34 “positive plant species” and eight “negative plant species”. An orchid, for instance, brings you four points (the most you can get for any species), while nettle, as a negative species, scores minus two, as does the dreaded dock.
Into the first meadow we went and Jane explained that the green diagonal on the map was the “transect line”. We would be walking along this line, stopping ten times at equal distances apart. Each time we stopped we would count the flower species in a one-metre square quadrant around our feet.
This is where the fun started. In the second quadrant we found two of the most important indicator species for hay meadows: yellow rattle and sweet vernal grass, which is what gives hay its sweet smell.
Another species, ribwort plantain, or “ribgrass” as it is known locally, was abundant.
“Ribgrass, my favourite,” said Sheena. “The sheep love it. They’ll pull it out of the hay first. And because the sheep love it, I love it as well. I’ll do anything to grow that.”
Farmer Carol Bell picked a blade and said she’d be taking it home to study. Another piped up: “I’ve eaten mine”.
As we went along the transect it became clear that some flowers had passed their best, such as pignut, while others, such as greater burnet were just beginning to flower. Jane advised that it’s worth farmers walking along the transect two or three times during June so as not to miss any species.
The first meadow seemed to get better and better and at the final, tenth stop, we saw a pink pool of ragged robin beside the purple patch of wood cranesbill.
It was time to tot up the scores for each species. Rattle, for instance, with a species score of two, had been found in nine of the ten quadrants. That meant it contributed 18 points to the total meadow score.
In the end it was decided that totting up the total meadow score would best be done back at base, but it was highly likely that the meadow would score 200+ points, a result which would trigger the highest payment of £371 per hectare. As the field in question was just over a hectare, that would net the farmer a payment of about £400.
The first meadow was good, but the second was even better. It is no exaggeration to say that Jane along with Helen Keep, the Authority’s Senior Farm Conservation Adviser, quaked with excitement when they came across quaking grass.
By now the group had dispersed, with the farmers studying quadrants on their own. “People soon pick it up,” said Jane.
Could this sort of scheme be part of a post-Brexit farm policy for England? The National Park Authority certainly hopes so.
“I see this as the future, definitely for the uplands,” said Helen, stressing that farmers were the best people to speak for the scheme. “These are very special and rare places.”