Hugh Harris: Muker Meadows

Yorkshire Dales

Driving through Swaledale’s iconic hay meadows alongside the B6270 between Reeth and Keld you get a sense of the meadows great agricultural importance, providing farmers with food for their livestock during the winter months as well as their ecological importance.

Upland hay meadows are characterised by a suite of species including Sweet Vernal-grass, Wood Crane’s-bill, Pignut, Great Burnet and Lady`s mantle. They also provide an important feeding habitat for a wide range of bird and insect life. They are confined to areas with a history of non-intensive hay-meadow management at 200-400m altitude in the upland valleys of northern England and Scotland. Recent estimates indicate that there are less than 1000 ha in northern England and Scotland is believed to have less than 100 ha.

Lowland hay meadows are characterised by Crested Dog’s tail and Common Knapweed, these are nationally widespread but declining. Other typical species are Red fescue and Common Bent-grass, with a range of wild flowers such as Bird's-foot trefoil, Meadow Vetchling, Common Cat's-ear and Yellow Rattle. Less common species are Meadow Saxifrage, Green-winged orchid, Common Twayblade and Lesser Butterfly-orchid. These meadows are of national biodiversity importance.

The Yorkshire Dales National Park contains a large proportion of the national upland hay meadow habitat. It is centred on the Swaledale and Arkengarthdale area. In addition, the nationally rare plants Lesser Butterfly-orchid, Burnt Orchid, Montane Eyebright and Small-White orchid also grow in or in close association with this habitat. ‘The Hay Time’ project has been a very successful hay meadow restoration programme in the Yorkshire Dales. It is hoped that this practical work will continue through environmental stewardship higher level scheme grants.

At Risk?

As farming methods intensify there is a risk that the number of hay meadows will continue to decline and this habitat continues to be listed on the UK list of priority habitats for biodiversity action

Muker Meadows SD9197

Many of the upland hay meadows that surround the village of Muker on the B6270 are species-rich or undergoing hay meadow restoration. The meadows are actively farmed, privately owned and some of them are protected as part of the Muker Meadows Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the Northern Pennine Dales Meadows Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The Muker area provides one of the best places to see upland hay meadows from public rights of way in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, as some of the public footpaths take you right through the middle of these stunning habitats.

Hay meadows are at their best for a very short time after grazing animals have been excluded and before the hay is ready to be cut. Therefore, the best time to see the Muker meadows and other similar meadows such as those in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale is between late May and early July. At this time of year you may see many wild flowers typical of this habitat, such as the commonly seen Meadow buttercup Ranunculus acris, Selfheal Prunella vulgaris, Pignut Conopodium majus and Red Clover Trifolium pratense; the less common Bistort Persicaria bistorta, Eyebright Euphrasia, Yellow-rattle Rhinanthus minor and Betony Stachys officinalis and even some of the specialist plants of upland hay meadows such as the Globe Flower Trollius europaeus, Lady’s-mantle Alchemilla, Wood Crane’s-bill Geranium sylvaticum and Melancholy Thistle Cirsium heterophyllum. These wild flowers are accompanied by hay meadow grasses such as Sweet Vernal-grass Anthoxanthun odoratum, Common Bent Agrostis tenuis and Crested Dog’s-tail Cynosurus cristatus. It is this assemblage of plant species that is indicative of the nationally scarce upland hay meadow habitat. ‘The Hay Time’ project aims to restore species-rich hay meadows within the Yorkshire Dales National Park, as well as promote a greater understanding and enjoyment of these special grasslands.

When harvested, hay is an important fodder crop for the farmer’s livestock. Therefore, please keep to the public footpaths, walk in single file where the paths cross a hay meadow, take care not to trample the growing hay and follow the Countryside Code. Please keep dogs under close control, preferably on a lead, and please clean up after them. There is a whole network of paths around the village of Muker where the botanist or walker can responsibly explore or walk without trampling on these special habitats.