Half hidden behind high hedges off a country road in the north west corner of the county of Shropshire, England, Melverley Farm is a 47-acre (19 hectares) working farm of traditional hay meadow and pastureland. The patchwork pattern of its small, odd-shaped fields may have been created straight from the original woodland clearances, which probably started in the mid-16th Century. The high, thick hedgerows between the fields are what is left today of that woodland.
Under the grass, the patterns made by 19th Century horse drawn ploughs, when the fields were once used to grow crops, can still be seen. An early change to pastoral farming preserved the ridges and furrows under the meadows, before they could be flattened by later day ploughing methods. Spaced 2.5m to 4m apart, these ridges are typical of a 19th Century ridge and furrow system found only in the northwest Midlands.
In the hay meadows the grasses and other plants are left to grow, until being cut (once) in the summer, spread on the field to dry, then gathered into hay bales for animal feed. Many plants, insects, and birds are adapted to this cycle. In fields which have been traditionally used for hay, like Melverley's, the number of species present builds up. The traditional hay meadow is defined by its great diversity of native plants.
The UK Biodiversity Steering Group (1995) made conservation of traditional hay meadows1, old hedgerows, and ponds a priority. Melverley Farm has all three of these habitats. It has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)2, and is of national importance for its meadows. In the UK, 98% of traditional hay meadows have disappeared in the last half of the 20th Century, with the change to more intensive farming practices3. On Melverley, traditional low intensity farming has led to a rare and fragile habitat, which has taken centuries to create. The hay meadows, hedgerows, trees, and ponds are rich in plants, mammals, birds, and insects.
Plants, Butterflies, and Moths
In Melverley's meadows, 150 species of herbs4 and grasses have been found. Some of these are typical old hay meadow plants, many with names which are a reminder that they are a part of the country's history:
Dyers greenweed (Genista tinctoria) - a characteristic plant of ancient meadows, used to produce a yellow dye, a use that goes back to the 14th Century. Combining the dye with blue woad made a colour which became known as Kendal green.
Spiny restharrow (Ononis spinosa) - a small, pink-flowered plant, whose tough stems once stopped the harrow in its tracks.
White flowered Sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica) - used in the Middle Ages for toothache and stuffy heads. The smell was said to be enough to cause sneezing but, failing that, it was powdered and stuffed up the nose.
Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor)- colouring the hay meadows yellow in spring, yellow rattle is so-called because of its rattling seed pods. It is partially parasitic on grass, which helps keep the grasses under control, leaving room for other herbs to grow.
Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) - popular in Tudor times for flavouring, it was used by Henry Vlll's cooks. It would have been added where lemon juice might be today.
Other easily found plants are vetches (Vicia spp), common spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) and lady's smock (Cardamine pratense), also known as 'Cuckoo Flower' and 'Milkmaid'.
Melverley's thick hedgerows of full grown trees and shrubs are a tangle of oak, ash and willow, hawthorn and holly, blackthorn (Humus spinosa), elder, crabapple, bramble, dog roses (Rosa canina), and honeysuckle, a haven for birds and small mammals.
The variety of plant life supports a myriad of insects; 19 species of butterfly and 82 species of moth have been counted. Significant among the butterflies (for Shropshire) is the ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus). The moths include the common carpet (Epirrhoe alternata), green pug (Chloroclystis rectangula), shoulder striped wainscot (Mythimna comma), the five spot burnet (Zygaena trifolii), and small fan-footed wave (Idaea biselata). Like the plants they're worth preserving just for their names.
The farm stayed within the hands of one family from at least the mid-16th Century until 1995, when it was bought by the Shropshire Wildlife Trust after the death of the gentleman who had farmed it, using the old ways. Overseen by the Trust, the farm is now run by a tenant farmer, maintaining traditional low input, low output farming practices. These avoid the high levels of soil disturbance, fertiliser, and herbicide, which most of the native grasses and plants cannot tolerate. It also avoids using cultivated high yield grass species, with which native species cannot compete, and which provides little in the way of food for many insects.
Without some management, including grazing and mowing, meadows like these would become overgrown with scrub. Although most of the meadow species don't depend on being cut, Yellow Rattle, a significant plant at Melverley, benefits from the distribution of its seeds in the process of hay making. Melverley Farm is a case where conservation requires continued cultivation. The meadows are cut in July and grazed over winter. The pastures are grazed through the year, but left to grow in summer.
Melverley Farm lies just north of the village of Ash, in Shropshire, on the road past Ash Church, leading to the section of the A525, which joins Whitchurch and Nantwich. There is no open public access, as it is a working farm. But it can be seen from this road and from a public footpath running along the farm's northern boundary.
Travelling from Ash towards the A525, Melverley stretches along the right hand side of the road, from the first right-hand turn off after the church to the next public footpath sign. The Shropshire Wildlife Trust occasionally organizes walks round the farm.