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Swaledale’s beautiful wildflower meadows

I’m just back from walking the Herriot Way, a 52 mile hike through Wensleydale and Swaledale. Doing the walk in late May we were blessed to see some of Swaledale’s iconic wildflower meadows in full bloom.

Swaledale is famous in the Dales for its hay meadows, which provide fertile land for wild flowers and grasses to survive. We walked along many public footpaths in single file so as not to damage the meadow, on well-defined paths built from the floors of old Yorkshire Mills long since gone.

The meadows around Muker and Gunnerside are perhaps best known and are particularly stunning between May and June, the views often photographed and appearing in calendars, book covers and social media.

During these months the valley floor turns into a carpet of colour with daisies, buttercups and red clover making up the bulk of the flowers. But there are lots of other varieties of flowers also contributing to this beautiful display with less familiar species like wood crane’s bill, melancholy thistle, yellow rattle, pignut, lady’s mantles, rough hawkbit, cat’s-ear, globeflower, lady’s-mantle and grasses such as sweet vernal grass, common bent and crested dog’s-tail.

The area around Muker has such a diversity of plant species that the area has been designated a “Site of Special Scientific Interest” or SSSI. This along with being classed as a Northern Pennine Dales Meadows Special Area of Conservation (SAC) gives the Meadows special protection.

Interestingly, in 2013 60 Meadows across Britain were chosen as “Coronation Meadows” by the Prince of Wales. The criteria being that the meadows were “jewels in the crown” and places which were abundant in wildlife and awash with colour. Four of the meadows near Muker were awarded Coronation Meadow status.

Even though many of the Meadows in Swaledale are now protected, they are still in the main privately owned and actively farmed. Whilst there are public rights of way as part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park people are encouraged to follow the Country Code and walk in single file on paths so as not to damage the meadow.

To get the best out of these meadows, grazing animals are excluded from them and the hay is usually cut later in July so as to maximise visitors opportunity to see these spectacular Dales vistas.

When the meadows are cut, the hay is an important winter fodder crop for the farmer’s livestock. These livestock are then allowed to graze the fields in the autumn to keep the fields low and their hooves break the ground to allow more of the dropped seed to enter the soil and grow.

The Yorkshire Dales Hay meadows are nationally important because over the last seventy years 97% of the UK’s hay meadows have been lost, mainly due to changes in farming methods. Interestingly the Yorkshire Dales National Park now contains about a sixth of the UK’s remaining upland hay meadows – so are not just beautiful but environmentally significant.

There are now national conservation projects in place to restore hay meadows and increase diversity where they have been degraded of species. Wildflower seed is either harvested by specialist machines in diverse meadows called a donor meadow to be spread on new fields which have degraded called receptor meadows. Sometimes the cut hay is taken directly from a donor meadow and laid over a receptor meadow and as it dries out the seeds fall into the ground of the new field.

Other places to see wildflower meadows in the Yorkshire Dales include Dentdale Meadows, Askrigg Bottoms Meadow (Wensleydale), Yockenthwaite Meadows (Langstrothdale) and Grassington Meadows (Wharfedale).


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