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Hay Meadow, Askrigg Credit: Ken Readshaw

Hay Meadows

Hay meadows are an iconic feature of the English countryside and are of great agricultural importance, providing farmers with food for their livestock during the winter months as well as 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 mantles. 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 around Langstrothdale, Ribblesdale, Swaledale and Arkengarthdale. 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.

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.

Crested Dog’s-tail

Cynosurus cristatus

Family: Poaceae

This is one of the easiest of grass species to identify when in flower due to its characteristic flower head which is flattened on one side. Cattle and sheep like the young leaves but they leave the stiff, hard stems which have been used in days gone by in straw hats.

Common Knapweed

Centaurea nigra

Family: Asteraceae

Also known as ‘Hardheads’ due to the hard, knobby flower heads that form prior to flower formation and persist once flowering is over. When in flower (June to September) it attracts many insects to its purple florets and has been rated as one of the best five plants for pollinators. It is a member of the daisy family, hence its flowering heads are actually collections of many flowers (‘florets’) grouped densely together. Like Thistles (to which Knapweeds are closely related), each flower head can produce hundreds of light seeds.


Yellow Rattle

Rhinanthus minor

Family: Scrophulariaceae

The Yellow-rattle gets its name from its bright yellow flowers and the sound of the ripe seed rattling inside the seed-capsules. This annual plant is unusual in that it is semi-parasitic and gains part of its water and nutrient requirements by parasitizing the roots of grasses and other herbs. This characteristic has made it a useful plant in hay meadow restoration projects where it reduces the domination of vigorous grasses and herbs such as perennial-rye grass and white clover enabling other wild flowers to become established.

Sometimes known as ‘Hay rattle’, this plant is common in species-rich hay meadows in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, such as those in Ribblesdale, Garsdale, Dentdale Upper Wharfedale, Wensleydale, Swaledale and Arkengarthdale. As an annual plant, its survival depends upon the seeds being shed before the grass is cut for fodder. Therefore the best time to see this species in the Yorkshire Dales is in late June and early July.

Wood Crane’s-bill

Geranium sylvaticum

Family: Geraniaceae


This is a plant of damp woodlands that is found also in the upland hay meadows of northern England. The occurrence of a shade-loving woodland plant as a component of the hay meadows has led some to speculate that the hay meadows were derived from woodland or, at least, were situated in close proximity to woods that have been lost subsequently.

The flowers yield a blue-grey dye that was used in ancient Europe to dye war cloaks, the colour being thought to protect the wearer in battle. For this reason it was called ‘Odin’s Grace’. It is also called ‘Thunder Flower’ in North West England.

Wood Crane’s-bill has been shown to be an important flower for Bumblebees but it is also favoured by small wasps and other insects.


Montane Eyebright

Euphrasia officinalis subsp. monticola

Family: Scrophulariaceae

Eyebrights are a group of wildflowers that are key to a suite of plant species found on upland hay meadow habitat. Many botanists shudder at the mention of Eyebright identification because the differences between the species are so subtle, so to identify sub-species takes something special. But there are a select few such as Alan Silverside and John O’Reilly who enjoy this challenge. The rest of us rely on specialists for these difficult groups.

It flowers on upland hay meadows amongst Globeflower, Devil’s bit scabious, Marsh valerian, Meadowsweet, Water avens and Marsh hawk’s-beard in late June and early July. It has unusually large flowers and paler grey-green leaves compared with most other eyebrights. It is very similar to Euphrasia officinalis subsp. rostkoviana but can be distinguished by the presence of long glandular hairs on the upper stem and leaves. These can be seen with a x20 hand lens or under the microscope.

Nationally it has been found on upland hay meadows in Northern England and Southern Scotland at altitudes of between 200-455m. Locally, there have been pre-1990 historic records for it in the Malhamdale, Langstrothdale, Garsdale and Sedbergh areas of the Yorkshire Dales National Park but it was suspected that it may have been under recorded due to a shortage of specialist surveyors. So in 2012, YDNPA commissioned a comprehensive search for montane eyebright in upland hay meadows. It was found at five sites in Langstrothdale and Ribblesdale with scope for further sites, a training course was held for local botanists and recommendations have been made for its conservation management.


Related publications can be purchased at the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust’s On-line shop.