What happened when St Nicks worked with volunteers to give our local green spaces some love and attention: a report on the Meadow Keepers project compiled by Natural Habitats Manager Jonathan Dent and Projects Assistant Esther Smith.
Grasslands are all around us in York, but we can often walk past them without a second thought. But did you know how important they could be to our environment and our communities? Over the last few years, St Nicks’ Meadow Keepers Project has worked with volunteers and the general public to raise awareness of, and make positive changes to, grassland sites across York. Our Meadow Keeper Champions have made a real difference, while spending time in nature and learning new skills such as, our favourite, scything.
At their best, urban grasslands are abundant in wildflowers, buzzing with wildlife and create a beautiful piece of the countryside in the city for people to spend time in. We have a lot of grassland in York, in our meadows, by our rivers and even around our city walls. There are 9,000 hectares of grassland in and around York, that’s about a third of the size of the City itself. However, in recent years, these fantastic spaces have not all flourished as well as they might, and some are isolated, a little unloved and light on wildlife.
This is where the St Nicks’ Meadow Keepers project came in. Between May 2017 and December 2018, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, we worked with local green community groups to improve 15 sites. Based on what these groups told us, we created our Meadow Keeper Champion programme to offer training, support and advice so that groups could grow their skills and knowledge and put their own effective, user friendly plans in place to help each grassland thrive.
We were keen to include scything as part of the skills boost for our Champions. As well as being a great upper body workout and offering a rare opportunity to pretend to be Poldark, this wonderful heritage skill is great for effectively managing grasslands. Scything isn’t something most people can just pick up quickly after one session, so it was important for us to provide several sessions so that people could really master the technique.
We ran a total of 113 practical Meadow Keepers sessions. Those taking part learnt important grassland management tips such as leaving small areas of uncut grassland over winter for insect and mammal cover, recognising the importance for wildlife of misunderstood grassland plant species like ragwort, thistles and nettles and how to sow and plant the right mix of plants.
It is always important to know which wildflowers and grasses already exist if we are to effectively improve sites, so we helped the Champions and other volunteers survey the grasslands, with 15 grassland plant identification walks taking place. We also led pollinator identification walks for 52 people so that they could understand which pollinators (like bees and hoverflies) live on each site, making it easier to manage for them. When we began the project we knew we needed to enlist leading professionals to develop our identification and survey skills to ensure we could offer groups and our champions a full training package for grassland management. John O’Reilly of Ptyxis Ecology imparted all his wisdom to ensure we had to skills to be surveying grasslands while leading Naturalist Steven Falk inspired our team to consider management for the benefits of pollinators with a series of inspiring workshops.
To raise awareness we reached around 1,000 members of the public through holding events aimed at families. These included sowing and planting sessions, pollinator walks, wildflowers walks and, with schools, bulb-planting events. Two annual Meadows Keepers Scythe Fests were held, attended by over 150 people. We also took part in the unusual and inspiring Pollinarium project as part of the York Mediale in 2018 and had a go at scything the York’s historic city walls (re-enacting how they used to be maintained!) as part of York Bloom Festival.
At the end of the project, detailed, up-to-date grassland management plans were put in place throughout York, including monitoring schemes to make sure these wonderful spaces are continuing to flourish.
But it doesn’t end there.
This summer we began testing a Grassland Quality Survey Pack which has been developed, in partnership with The Stockholm Environment Institute and Ptyxis Ecology, from learning from the Meadow Keepers project of the need for an accessible method for volunteers to survey monitor grasslands. We continue to support many groups in York by providing more training so that groups can do even more. We have relished the opportunity to work again with our Meadow Keeper Champions, and we know that this will have huge benefits by making sure skills can continue to be developed across York.
And it’s not too late to get involved. We run regular volunteering sessions where you can try your hand at scything, surveying, sowing and planting.