In the 1800s my great-great-grandfather G. W. Lee farmed 4,000 acres in the upper catchment of the River Bure. At the time, of course, there were no tractors on the land. Farms were worked by men and women and by heavy horses. To cultivate such extensive farms, my great-great-grandfather kept ten teams of shire horses, each team comprising four animals. That’s 40 hardworking heavy horses, each needing to be fed. Unlike today, horses – and virtually all the other animals on farms – had to be fed directly from the land. The horses’ winter feed was oats and hay.

In the decades following the Second World War, we have forgotten the tremendous national significance of hay in our recent past. Not only were hundreds of thousands of working horses fed hay on farms; but so too, in cities, were the countless dray horses which delivered goods for industry and trade.

Until the early 19th century, every farm with working horses had fields devoted to growing hay. The hay I buy for my three guinea pigs today is largely Timothy and ryegrass. Historically, however, hay meadows were a diverse and living habitat, crucial not only for armies of working horses but also for a host of farmland flowers, mammals, insects and birds.

Great British Life: A Chalkhill Blue. A Chalkhill Blue. (Image: Philip Precey)

Hay meadows were permanent features of the landscape. This meant that grasses and other plants established lasting roots and developed complex relationships with soil fungi, bacteria and other life. These meadows had never been treated with synthetic fertilisers. The community of plants which grew in them depended solely on naturally available nutrients. This led to competition for resources between species and consequent diversity. A tremendous range of wildflowers grew alongside grasses in hay meadows, each plant community determined by the the soil, the aspect of the field and the availability of water.

A sunny field on northwest Norfolk’s Cretaceous chalk might have supported ploughman’s spikenard, kidney vetch, horseshoe vetch, large thyme, wild marjoram, greater knapweed and, its parasite, knapweed broomrape. This was the habitat of forester moths and six-spot burnets, of chalkhill blues and teeming clouds of meadow browns, gatekeepers and ringlets. Above them, the air was surely thick with skylark songs; and from the hawthorn hedges at the meadows’ edges came the happy songs of whitethroats and of yellowhammers.

Elsewhere, on the sandy, glacial soils of much of Norfolk, meadows shone with cheerful bird’s-foot trefoil and the sulphur blooms of mouse-ear hawkweed. Among them perforate St-John’s-wort must have bloomed and the graceful spires of agrimony, wild parsnip and wild carrot. Field voles scurried between dense clumps of grasses here, hunted by hushwing barn owls, and harvest mice wove their round maternity nests.

Great British Life: A hare. A hare. (Image: John Bridges)

By the middle of the 20th century working horses had largely been replaced by tractors. When my uncle took on his farm, from my great-great-uncle Jimmy, son of G. W. Lee, just one working horse was in the stable. The rest of the farm was mechanised. At one stroke, the need for hay on thousands of farms across the country had been removed. It is thought that 97% of hay meadows were ploughed up in the UK through the 20th century, their area reduced from three million hectares to just 12,000 hectares now.

Even where grass continued to be grown and harvested as winter feed for livestock, it became biologically impoverished. With the invention of nitrate fertilisers, and the move from hay to silage, most remaining meadows became far simpler swards of fodder grasses, supporting none of the diversity of the UK’s timeless hay meadows.

As these meadows were ploughed up or simplified, the loss of farmland biodiversity across the country was catastrophic. Gone the ancient interactions between species in the soil. Gone the soil’s capacity to hold water and sequester carbon. Gone the vibrant stands of wildflowers. Gone the skylarks, the grey partridges and hares. Gone the swirling eddies of once-common butterflies.

But at Norfolk Wildlife Trust we have a vision for the future of Norfolk’s landscape, in which wildlife is diverse, abundant and accessible to everyone, in their daily lives. We have a vision in which rare species’ futures are secure; in which common species are truly common; and complex, fully functioning habitats are all around us, everywhere. In which nature is for everyone, our birthright and our joy.

Great British Life: A skylark.A skylark. (Image: Stefan Johansson)

All across the county, in partnership with countless farmers, landowners, gardeners, schools, authorities and local groups, we are working to reverse the catastrophic declines in wildlife of the 20th century, recreating habitats where they have been destroyed and reconnecting habitat fragments which persist.

Happily – with time, money, determination and a dose of love – we can restore hay meadows to something very like their erstwhile glory. Where meadows still exist, the most important thing is to restore traditional management, such as scything, raking and removing cut hay to strip nutrients away, giving wildflowers the chance to compete with grasses.

Where hay meadows have been destroyed, sometimes we can recreate them. First we need to monitor soil fertility. If nutrients are artificially elevated, wildflowers will be outcompeted by thuggish grasses. If soil nutrients are low enough, we can re-establish wildflowers from seed. The most appropriate source is green hay from the nearest intact meadow. If this is too expensive or too difficult, other sources of native wildflowers – appropriate to the soil type – may be considered.

Great British Life: Norfolk Wildlife Trust wants to create more meadows in Norfolk to encourage biodiversity. Norfolk Wildlife Trust wants to create more meadows in Norfolk to encourage biodiversity. (Image: James Adler)

We have a vision of a Norfolk in which skylark song is everywhere in living hay meadows and is known to everyone. We have a vision of a Norfolk in which clouds of meadow browns and gatekeepers are commonplace. In which every child has looked into the jasper eyes of hares.

And we know this vision to be possible, with the undying support of Norfolk’s people. For almost 100 years you have understood our mission and our purpose and you have stood beside us as we have delivered it. Starting now with hay meadows, our vision for the recovery of Norfolk’s habitats and wildlife is in our hands, together.

At Norfolk Wildlife Trust we have launched an appeal to support our conservation work and support the creation of more meadows across Norfolk. Donate today to bring the joyful sights and sounds of summer back to our countryside by visiting