The wildflower meadows of Swaledale
Historically hay meadows were a vital source of animal fodder which is used to help feed farm animals through the winter. The wildflower meadows of Swaledale and other similar dales have been in existence for centuries. However modern farming practices have drastically changed the farming landscape. As a result hay meadows are no longer as important as they once were. Nowadays the fields are harvested much more often during the growing season to produce sileage, not hay.
However hay meadows’ importance as a natural environment to encourage rare species of flora, insects and fauna has more recently been recognised. In the most biodiverse meadows about fifty species of plant are found in just one square metre! The preservation of modern wildflower meadows is supported by them being given Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) accreditation or similar levels of protection.
There are hay meadows throughout the Yorkshire Dales, each with their own unique species of flora. The best examples are found in Langstrothdale, Ribblesdale, Arkengarthdale and Swaledale. This article is concerned with a visit to the latter.
Wildflower meadow management
A mature hay meadow takes many years to create, to allow the variety of flora to become established. The process follows an annual cycle.
At the start of spring the farmer’s livestock are allowed to graze in such meadows to allow them to eat some fresh food having been fed on hay through the winter. In the late spring they are removed to allow the meadow grasses and flowers to grow. Finally hay harvesting happens as late as possible in the summer season. The reason for this is to give as many late flowering plants as possible a chance to flower.
Muker in Swaledale
Muker is a small village in Upper Swaledale located near the confluence of Straw Beck and the River Swale. The name ‘Muker’ derives from an old Norse term for ‘the narrow newly cultivated field’ which suggests that this area has been farmed for over a thousand years.
Visiting Muker is always a pleasure as it is a gorgeous little village, seemingly untouched by the modern world. The drive from Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria via Birkdale into Upper Swaledale is through stunning scenery. If I can think of any reason to make this journey I do!
As luck would have it recently I had good reason to drive through Swaledale. I knew that in June the wildflower meadows near the village should be reaching maturity, before being harvested. On driving past the meadows at Gunnerside I saw they hadn’t been harvested yet so my hopes were high.
Having parked in the long lay-by just outside Muker I strode past the Farmer’s Arms pub (resisting the temptation), and past the Elizabethan church of St Mary the Virgin (yet again resisting the temptation!). The path heading north out of the village towards Keld leads to the meadows.
Muker Meadows SSSI
There are four wildflower meadows in total near Muker. The path through them is paved although I’m not sure why. Maybe the stones were put in relatively recently to help protect the fauna? Maybe the flagstones have been there years? Either way they make route-finding a doddle!
In the first meadow the flowers are predominantly buttercups but in each successive meadow the diversity of fauna gets greater and greater.
Also in the first meadow there is a sign asking people to stay on the path. As some of the flora is so rare every step is being taken to prevent it being damaged.
Keep to path sign in Muker meadow
In the summer, when the meadows are in flower, I don’t think this sign is necessary as the meadow vegetation is so thick that walking through it takes effort. After the hay has been harvested though the field looks pretty normal. I can therefore understand why steps have been taken to try to protect the area. Even out of season the plants need protecting.
Oh, also dogs can’t read so I shouldn’t have been entirely surprised when I had to spend time cleaning dog poo from one of the feet my tripod. Ewwwww!
Photographing Muker’s wildflower meadows
Anyway, once I had cleaned up I was ready to do some photography … but where to start? As far as detail shots go there is almost too much to take in. What to focus in on? What is rare? What is as common as muck? Sadly I’m no botanist.
Fortunately as I was mulling this over a real botanist walked past and I was lucky enough to strike up a conversation with her. Over the next half hour, she told me all about the flowers that were on show, pointing out each in turn. As she did so I took plenty of notes. The information was like pure gold! When she asked ‘do you now want me to tell you about all the different species of grasses on show?’ I was tempted to say ‘yes’ but didn’t. She had already been very generous, time was passing and I needed to take some photos. If she does happen to read this then please get in touch: I owe you a big thank you!
With this new found knowledge I started taking a few detail photos of the meadows’ wildflowers.
Buttercups, pignut, red clover and hawksweed in Muker meadow
In the above photo buttercups and red clover can clearly be seen. As can yellow rattle, pignut, hawksweed, wood crane’s-bill and eyebright. There were also daisies, plantain, lady’s mantle and self heal aplenty. As well as many species of grasses such as sheep’s sorrel … almost too much to take in!
Taking pictures of loads of flowers is easy enough in a place like this but I wanted to try to isolate one particular species. Being a landscape photographer I have a variety of lenses but none of them are capable of dealing with such small subjects. This problem was made greater as I had to stick to the path so my options were limited. I tried anyway and by focussing in on a small cluster of hawksweed got this photo:
After a couple of hours in the meadows my time was up. I hadn’t got that many photos, mainly as I had to keep waiting for the wind to die down, but was happy with what I had.
Looking back along the path to Muker I saw the chance for one last photo though: a panoramic photo of the meadows looking back towards the village. The result was this shot which is actually composed of five individual photos stitched together:
The overcast skies made photographing the meadow flowers much easier as the light was more diffused. However it didn’t look so good on this photo so I cropped it out. And its much the better for it too.
The track back to Muker village
I didn’t want to retrace my steps so walked back along the track contouring the western side of the valley. And it turns out the track is a great vantage point, looking back across the meadows towards the village. Time for one last photo stop.
Wandering through the wildflower meadows of Swaledale when they’re in flower is always an experience. To also come away with some photos I am happy with is an extra bonus. And thanks to an unexpected meeting with a botanist I know what the photographs are of too!
To view these and other photos from the Dales please head to my Yorkshire Dales photo gallery.