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.
Macro lenses are widely available for all DSLR cameras from around 50mm up to 150mm focal lengths. The longer the focal length, the greater the distance you can place between you and your subject while still making a 1:1 life-size image.
When attached to a cropped sensor camera, such as the popular APS-C sized format, these focal lengths increase by a factor of approximately 1.5x. But of greater potential effect is how that magnification factor also increases from 1:1 to 1.5:1, in other words 50 per cent larger than life.
The down side of such image magnification is that any movement of the lens or alteration to the plane of focus will also be magnified. When it comes to depth of field, macro lenses are the opposite of wide-angles: even with the lens stopped down to the smallest aperture, depth of field remains extremely shallow. As a result, most macro photographers prefer to switch off the autofocus and rely instead on making precise adjustments manually. When photographing close-ups of meadow flowers, you need bright, even lighting and a very still day. Even the slightest breeze can blow a petal out of the zone of focus.
For this type of photography a tripod is pretty much essential to keep the camera and lens – and the narrow plane of focus – in a fixed position. To further ensure the chosen area of the composition is in focus, a remote release should be used to trip the shutter. In the absence of a remote release the camera’s self-timer makes a good alternative.
For photographers who enjoy macro, and flowers in particular, the British hay meadow provides a wealth of subject matter. The range of flower species to be found varies according to subtle differences in soil type, climate, local geography and, of course, land management practices employed.
There are three main types of meadow: upland (no more than 1,000 hectares remain in England), lowland (some 15,000 hectares) and seasonally flooded meadows, which vary in area according to the level of water inundation in winter. For all three types the best time for the photographer to visit is in the second half of July, just before the hay cut.
Despite their scarcity, upland hay meadows can be found in the dales of northern England, such as Teesdale, Lunedale and Weardale in County Durham, Swaledale and Wharfedale in North Yorkshire and near Orton and Ravenstonedale in Cumbria. Wild flowers and plants to look out for include wood cranesbill, Ragged-Robin, globeflower, adder’s-tongue fern and lady’s mantle.
While not as rare, lowland meadows are more widely scattered with good examples in the East Midlands, East Anglia and West Country shires of Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire. Most flower-rich meadows are home to yellow rattle, while other lowland species to see in the summer months include lady’s bedstraw, clustered bellflower, hoary plantain, salad burnet and the rarer dyer’s greenweed, green-winged orchid and greater butterfly orchid. Even if you’re not familiar with any of these flowers, the colourful and descriptive names provide plenty of clues about what to expect!
Species to be seen in the winter flooded meadows, marshes and river flood plains include marsh-marigold, lady’s smock, meadowsweet and devil’s-bit scabious.
Although Britain’s meadows are a scare habitat, recent years have seen greater public awareness of their plight. Probably the greatest public advertisement for the beauty of the traditional meadow occurred at the 2012 London Olympics with the creation of a flower meadow on the banks of the Lea Valley. Here, James Hitchmough, of the Department of Landscape at the University of Sheffield designed and planted 25 acres of British native perennial wildflowers.
This small wild flower haven shows that it is possible to create, and not just to restore, rare habitats. The Wildlife Trusts has identified more than 6,000 local wildlife sites where native meadow flowers are known to exist. Those actively managed by the Trusts include many of the best surviving examples in Britain. If you fancy photographing the colour and splendour of an iconic British meadow, there can be no better place to start than to contact your local Wildlife Trust.
The Meadow: An English Meadow Through the Seasons, by Barney Wilczak; Frances Lincoln; £28.98 (hardback)
Meadows, by George Peterken; British Wildlife Publishing Ltd; £26.95 (hardback)
A Year in the Life of an English Meadow, by Andy Garnett & Polly Devlin; Frances Lincoln; £20.00 (hardback)
Lens option: Macro lens
Whatever make of DSLR camera, there are plenty of specialist macro lenses, ranging from focal lengths of 40mm up to 180mm, or even 200mm. A typical example is the Sigma APO Macro 150mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM lens (£680). It offers true 1:1 life-size magnification, 38cm minimum focusing distance, and full-time manual focus override for precise adjustments.