National Meadows Day: Why saving and protecting wild flower meadows can help deliver a green recovery

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By Ian Dunn, Plantlife Chief Executive

Meadow in north Wales © Matt Pitt
Meadow in north Wales © Matt Pitt

Although it seems a very long time ago, in 1984 my first job after graduation was as a team leader with a job scheme established to help minor repeat offenders re-enter the workforce through taking on environmental work. Responsible for a small team, we spent six months planting trees, clearing streams of debris and loading fly-tipped tyres in their hundreds into skips. We undertook manual jobs that today would need a plethora of health and safety sign-offs but we were outside and contributing.

It is so far back in time that I can no longer recall the scheme name but it was local council run and had a truly amazing impact. Besides the satisfaction of a cleared, free-flowing stream or a tyre-free layby, by the end of the contract all three of my team had jobs to go to and were on their way again to long term employment.

This tiny, local scheme I was involved in in 1984 acts as a memory jolt to what we were once doing and how we might do so again. Although small and local it was impactful for the environment and for those it employed – simply put – it offered green employment.

There are plenty of conversations about ‘tipping points, or bifurcations’ but it is clear, whatever we call it, that as a society we need to take a new road. I believe we need a nation-wide focus on nature, supported by a ‘Marshall Plan’ on green recovery, green jobs and nature based solutions. I’m not just talking of lots of small schemes like the one I was involved in all those years ago, but a broad, well-funded, government-backed job supporting programme to make lasting change; change in the health of nature, health of people and equal access to gainful employment and development.

Meadow in Wiltshire Photo credit: James King
Meadow in Wiltshire Photo credit: James King

Plantlife is one of a national partnership of organisations calling for a National Nature Service as part of the government’s response to the pandemic. The challenges we face today are unquestionably on a scale that can be daunting. As a consequence of Covid-19, we have both a major health problem and a major economic one to contend with. The health problem goes far beyond the lives lost and includes those who have lost loved ones and had life changing health interventions delayed of postponed. The mental health crisis and the additional deaths this year say it all. Economically, experts advise we are heading towards an unemployment rate of between 10-15% and a debt larger than our entire annual GDP. Our Government is not coming out of this crisis covered in glory. Challenges enough? Now place this on top of the growing climate change challenge, the increasing loss of biodiversity, broad ranging social inequality, progressive degradation of oceans and soils, plastics infiltrating all areas of our planetary systems and desertification alongside the loss of tropical rainforests at an unprecedented scale – and you have a rather compelling call to action.

It was hugely disappointing therefore that from a £5 billion ‘ambitious’ new funding deal announced by the Prime Minister on June 30th less that 0.01 percent is dedicated to nature. That is less than zero point zero one percent! Are memories of how important nature was to us all during the worst of shutdown so short? Contrary to suggestions, this is the complete opposite of being ambitious – it is rehash of old policies and old ways and will further contribute to climatic, environmental and nature degradation. It is simply not good enough.

Crested cow-wheat © Tim Pankhurst
Crested cow-wheat © Tim Pankhurst

We are therefore calling for Government to invest in a scheme that will create tens of thousands of jobs, improve the health of nature, people and the planet, and contribute to a green, sustainable recovery. That is to build, build, build a green economy.

We have so much we must do and we need a work force to do it: we must make our open spaces wilder with greater biodiversity; we must mitigate and hold back the impact of climate change through holistic and effective nature based-solutions: flood management, soil regeneration, healthy food systems, we must insulate our houses and accelerate the reduction of emissions; not just carbon but nitrogen, methane, water vapour. Where we can, we should be capturing carbon and looking at sensible geoengineering, we need a step change in financial markets and ethical investment; the list is endless.

The National Nature Service is a scheme that finally recognises nature at the heart of all aspects of our economy and therefore at the heart of all aspects of employment. It would fund extensive training across schools, colleges, universities, short-term courses and all aspects of adult education. It would support employers with funds directly leading to nature facing jobs. It would measure and deliver tangible benefits to the natural world we love and rely upon.

The restoration and creation of wildflower meadows can act as a central plank of the green recovery we need. A staggering 97% of British wildflower meadows have been eradicated in less than a century and species-rich grassland now covers less than 1% of the UK. This devastation of meadows, and loss of wild flowers like wild strawberry, ragged robin and harebell, is driving disastrous declines in our bee and butterfly populations. The remaining isolated fragments of meadows that have survived the bulldozer or the plough are home to an unprecedented richness of plant species that have evolved over millennia and they must be better protected under law. But protection of existing meadows alone is not enough. In addition to making forests and we must make more meadows for the myriad of benefits they bring including biodiversity, carbon storage, flood prevention, and water purification. They can be a cornerstone of the green recovery; building back better for nature while stimulating a boom in skilled jobs in the rural economy. Creating new and healthy grassland habitats also means creating homes for a fifth of all priority species requiring active conservation.

Plantlife has a great deal of expertise in the practical restoration of native wildflower meadows and pasture. Working in partnership with farmers, communities, Councils and local businesses, there is tried, tested and costed model ready to be rolled out across the UK. To achieve this there needs to be a scaling up of the harvesting, growing and use of native wildflower seed. There also needs to be a scaling up of contractors with the right skills who can carry out this work and deliver restoration and seeding of wildflower meadows. Once restored wildflower meadow management will contribute towards larger scale provision of high-quality grass-fed livestock production, and permanent pollinator habitat beneficial for crops and wildlife. All these will support skilled new jobs in the rural economy.

This Saturday, Plantlife is helping everyone celebrate the magic of meadows even if they are not able to physically get to one this year. The #NationalMeadowsDay online celebration will demonstrate the value and vulnerability of meadows and also provide an uplifting summer experience after months of lockdown. In these strange and challenging times there is more need than ever for increased connectedness to nature and that is why Plantlife will be sharing the sights and sounds of a meadow in all their glory this Saturday. Please tune in and share and show the love for these special, vulnerable habitats that can act as an engine room for economic and societal recovery.

You can stay up to date on the campaign to save our magnificent but vanishing meadows at / /

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