Ageing a Meadow; Hay Samples; Manual Scything Course

I recall a fellow meadow owner once telling me about a technique for ageing a meadow by counting buttercups. At last this week I managed to track down the research, originally carried out in 2009 by John Warren at Aberystwyth University. Click here to read the whole paper, which is enlightening and not too full of scientific jargon.

The basic premise is that you collect, or count, the flowers of 100 creeping buttercups, Ranunculus repens, which is a common grassland, and indeed garden, “weed” throughout much of the UK. A normal creeping buttercup flower has 5 petals, but aberrant flower mutations occur where there are more than this number of petals.

Warren explains that since the creeping buttercup largely spreads by vegetative means with runners, or asexual non seed reproduction, then for every one flower found with more than 5 petals, you can assume that the meadow is 7 years old. So if, say, you find 14 such flowers in 100, then the meadow is about 100 years ago.

Knowing that our meadows are likely to be quite old, we thought we’d try this out. You have to distinguish the creeping buttercup from other common field buttercups, like the meadow buttercup and bulbous buttercup, and apparently the accuracy of the system tends to break down after July (though frustratingly the paper doesn’t say whether this is the beginning or end of July!), since flower morphology naturally changes a bit with flowers produced later in the season.

Wandering back up from the bottom field we walked through our “Cae efail” (blacksmith’s field) and picked the first 3 flowers we found. Much to our surprise they all had 6 or more petals. Encouraged, we continued, and the final tallies below showed firstly that roving independently across the field we both seemed to find a similar ratio, of typical 5 petalled to more petalled mutated flowers. In addition you’ll notice that Fiona was a more efficient collector. I’d only got 18 and 30; she had 36 and 65, so an average of just over 36% of more than 5 petal flowers.A little maths implies a meadow age of well over 200 years…

Warren’s paper describes quite clearly how such an obviously visible macro mutation can be maintained within a population simply by vegetative means, and that by sampling populations from across the country from meadows of known age, the simple 7 years per mutant flower formula seems to hold good.

We were clearly at the end of the creeping buttercup flowering period when we performed the count, but this is definitely something we’ll try next year in our other fields. Being able to confirm that our meadows’ ages are closely linked to the age of the construction of our house, which dates to the early 1700’s or so, is very exciting, and confirms what a special opportunity we have here to restore at least some of the meadows to a more floriferous and diverse state.

I’d be delighted to hear from any other members, either this year, or next, on how they get on if they carry out this count on their meadows.


Margaret Bide, a CMG member just over the border in Cellan, recently came up with a great idea for anyone interested in contributing, at this September’s meeting at Myddfai. A sort of hay sample / display.

All meadows are unique environments, and individual hay samples should reflect this.The idea is that anyone could bring along a sample of hay taken from their meadow, perhaps with a photo or two of its site of origin and some brief location details.

It might create a talking point, and some of the more expert plant ID’ers who will be present might be able to have a look at what’s obvious in the samples. For sure the samples will vary greatly.

I was lucky enough to be able to visit Margaret’s meadow which she’s managed for over 30 years, and it was instantly obviously very different to all of ours, with many more taller grasses, and a great floral mix too. Margaret is going to manually cut, and dry indoors a sample taken from a 1 metre square patch, since she struggles to find anyone to process her crop these days. Perhaps folk could bring along a sample in a suitably large airy bin liner type bag, to minimise mess? I’ll try to remember to bring a dustpan and brush!


A reminder that there’s still time to book a place on the manual scything course to be held in August…

Introduction to scything course

Cae Blaen Dyffryn, nr Lampeter, Carmarthenshire

Thursday 24th August 2017, 10am – 4pm and

Saturday 26th August 2017, 10am – 4pm (repeat)

– see the events page for more details.

I’m very grateful to all the folk who let me know that the beetle I featured in the last post was a Devil’s Coach Horse, or Common Black Cocktail, Ocypus olens. A bit more research revealed that in Irish mythology, where it’s known as the Devil’s beetle, or Dar Daoul, it was thought to imbibe evil powers by eating the bodies of sinners, (not too far fetched centuries ago, since it does indeed consume carrion with its powerful mandibles) and then be capable of killing someone with just a look.

People were encouraged to kill it if they found one, but with great care, because of these feared mystical powers. Apparently the only safe way was to lift it with a shovel and hurl it into a fire.

Or even turn its mythical powers to your advantage, and here’s a hint for those doing the manual scything – apparently some Irish reapers imprisoned beetles in the handles of their scythes to improve their scything skills…

Julian Wormald


Thanks for reading, and remember I’m always happy to receive any suitable articles or photos to include as blog posts. Please send them to me…

Julian Wormald…


6 thoughts on “Ageing a Meadow; Hay Samples; Manual Scything Course

  1. Something that is not clear to me about the age of a meadow is how do you define the point at which it became a meadow? To put it another way, if you estimate that the meadow may be 200 years old then what was it before that? Presumably it must have been managed in a way that killed off most or all of the buttercups for the technique to work.


    • An interesting point Colin, and maybe one to put to George Peterken in September? What would hillsides/valley bottoms have looked like before they were first turned into pasture? I guess any form of ploughing would have set the clock back to zero, as far as the buttercup ageing concept goes, or before that a first clearance from forest/scrub to pasture.


      • Forest clearance you are probably correct. If it were scrub would there not have been creeping buttercups? Was ploughing 200 years ago efficient enough to kill off creeping buttercup? Even if it took out 90% the remaining 10% would still have the same mutation ratio as the 100% had, so once it spread again it would be back at the same ratio as before the ploughing. I suppose manual cultivation over a number of years would do it. Would heavy grazing kill it eventually I wonder.


      • I don’t have the answers I’m afraid Colin, to what are valid questions…. my guess is that ploughing followed by, say, cultivation of some sort of other crop, on a regular or annual basis could certainly take our more than 90%. I agree that scrub would probably have had some pre existing buttercups in it, though perhaps not many actual plants once a dense canopy had formed. Vestiges of stem/root bases could clearly regrow into morphologically identical plants, after incomplete cultivations. One of my issues, which I mulled over when making my rush film, is the apparent dearth of information on what land use was actually like around here 200 years ago. Or 300, or 500! At some point the hills would have been mixed deciduous forests, I guess, and the valleys a different mix of wet woodland or even bogs – though in our lower fields enough preserved bog oak type tree trunks exist in the depths, to suggest wooded conditions even in these wet areas. Did you check out Warren’s trials with pollen, and seed germination from both 5 petalled and mutant forms, which he collected, and grew on and which went into much more detail on stability and heritability of these traits than I felt was appropriate for this piece? It’s well worth a read, if you haven’t managed to yet….though it doesn’t answer any of your points!! Or indeed the issue of when the cut off (time of the year) is for reasonably accurate flower petal counting! It’s clearly not something you could claim any accuracy over, but I did feel it was sufficiently interesting to float past eagle eyed readers!


      • Yes, absolutely most interesting and thought provoking. Hence all the questions which we don’t know the answers to (I didn’t expect you to know the answers by the way, they were intended as stimulation for further conjecture).


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