Little Green Space
by Penny Bunting
The Peak District is packed with beautiful, diverse habitats that support all kinds of plants and wildlife. Our moorlands are home to ring ouzels, mountain hares, common lizards, and the rare bilberry bumblebee. Grassland species include curlews, lapwings, and early purple orchids. Also, woodlands across the region support thousands of species, from butterflies and birds to bats to badgers.
One habitat that you may not have heard of though, is the woodmeadow. Little known in the UK, woodmeadows are mixtures of woodland and meadow that combine the biodiversity of both habitats, and are exceptionally rich in wildlife.
Woodmeadows probably originated 7,000-8,000 years ago, and were once common in Scandinavia. They are mosaics of managed trees and grassland, in roughly equal proportions. Historically, woodmeadows would have provided hay, grazing, hanging pasture (tree foliage for animal fodder), wood for fuel, and timber for building. They also offered food in the form of berries, mushrooms, and nuts, as well as plants that could be used as botanical medicines.
Woodmeadows can support a huge variety of plantlife – more than 70 plant species per square metre. And this in turn supports all sorts of wildlife. This is partly because woodmeadows have more areas of open land than other woodlands, creating habitat edges – where biodiversity is often most abundant.
The Woodmeadow Trust (www.woodmeadowtrust.org.uk) is a pioneering charity taking practical action to address the catastrophic decline in biodiversity in the UK, with the goal of promoting a national network of woodmeadows.
The trust says woodmeadows could help transform the UK's crippled biodiversity. In living memory, the UK has lost 97% of wildflower meadows, two-thirds of orchards, hundreds of thousands of ponds, and hundreds of thousands of kilometres of hedgerow. It has also become one of Europe's least-wooded countries – with 56% of species in decline and 15% threatened with extinction.
Because woodmeadows are superb carbon dioxide sinks, as well as boosting biodiversity, they can help tackle climate breakdown. Woodland can store up to 12 tonnes of carbon – and meadow three tonnes – per hectare per year. Woodmeadows can be any size, and can be created almost anywhere: in gardens, urban areas, parks, farmland, and woodland.
The Trust’s flagship project is Three Hagges Woodmeadow, created in 2012 on a former barley field near York. Effectively biodiversity-free only a few years ago, more than 1,000 invertebrate species – including over 30 with a high nature conservation status – have now been identified at the site.
The project offers hope of rapidly tackling declines in nature by establishing similar biodiversity hotspots UK-wide – including here in the Peak District.
“Wildlife has moved into our woodmeadow at a speed that's taken experts by surprise, even though the site is in its infancy and won't mature for many years,” said Ros Forbes Adam, Project Leader at the Woodmeadow Trust.
“This is a real cause for optimism. It shows that woodmeadows could help reverse the UK's catastrophic decline in biodiversity, if created on a large scale and connected to other habitats to form wildlife corridors. Our aim is to see a woodmeadow established in every parish in the country.”
Woodmeadows such as these feature a huge diversity of wildflowers that form a blaze of beautiful colour in the spring and summer, attracting insect pollinators such as bees, butterflies and hoverflies.
Another common feature of woodmeadows are the messy edges between woodland and meadow.
These offer niches for a wealth of species – a system famously described by Charles Darwin at the end of The Origin of Species as a 'tangled bank'
When ponds are added, this can attract even more species, including dragonflies, damselflies, water beetles and pond snails, and offer a breeding site for newts and frogs.
Create a mini wood meadow
New or existing orchards, wildflower mini-meadows, hedgerows, ponds or woodlands can become forms of woodmeadow – including under-planting trees with pollinator-friendly shrubs, creating wildflower meadow areas in orchards, and ensuring lots of habitat edges.
Ideally, in larger spaces, they should include flower-rich grassland merging into a graduated woodland edge – a close equivalent to lost hedgerows – with flowering and fruiting shrubs and small trees, alongside a high canopy of taller trees. Properly managed, this produces a structural diversity that offers a haven for a wide range of wildlife, buzzing with insects, and alive with birdsong.
If you have enough space, start by planting some trees. Hawthorn, crab apple, wild cherry, blackthorn, hazel, rowan and oak are all native trees that are excellent for wildlife. Or you could plant a small group of apple, pear or plum trees to create a small orchard.
Next, underplant the trees with nectar-rich shrubs such as mahonia, flowering currant, honeysuckle or bilberry. Then add in some herbaceous perennials that will tolerate partial shade – bluebells (but not the Spanish variety), bugle, aquilegia or pulmonaria, for example.
Including some spring-flowering bulbs such as snowdrops and crocus will provide early season nectar for insects emerging from hibernation.
Avoid cutting the grass that borders your woodland area. Allowing it to grow longer will encourage wildflowers to grow – and creates a wild edge, similar to the habitat found under hedgerows, that can form a corridor for all sorts of wildlife.
If you want to give your meadow a helping hand, the easiest way is to introduce plug plants to existing grass. Planting should take place from January to April, and plants should be grouped in clumps of three to five plug plants per square foot.
Greater bird's-foot-trefoil, common knapweed, lady’s bedstraw, common sorrel, meadow cranesbill, ox-eye daisy and field scabious are all good wildflower species to include. It’s also recommended to grow yellow rattle in your meadow – this helps slow down the growth of the more vigorous grass species, allowing other wildflowers to thrive.
Even if you don’t have much space, you can still create your own mini version of a woodmeadow. Underplant existing trees with some of the nectar-rich plants mentioned above, and let some of the grass bordering this area to grow long – it’s a quick and easy way to boost biodiversity in a small space.