National Trust to plant 1,200 hectares of flower-filled grassland in Devon

A network of flower-filled grasslands sweeping from the fringes of sandy beaches to moorland edges is being created by the National Trust in the south-west of England.

The network will eventually stretch across 70 miles from close to the border with Cornwall in the west to the slopes of Exmoor in the east.

Steven Morris 

Designed to boost flora and fauna – and be a balm for human visitors – the new grassland is due to cover more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of land in north Devon by 2030.

The first of the sites have been sown by the trust this autumn and flowers should begin popping up in the spring. These will later be used as “donor sites” with seeds taken from them to plant up more spots over the years, a cost-effective way of scaling up the scheme.

A yellow kidney vetch flower.

Kidney vetch is one of the species that will be sown this autumn. Photograph: Clive Whitbourn/National Trust Images

Ben McCarthy, the head of nature conservation and restoration ecology at the trust, said the loss of flower-rich grasslands had led to life and colour being drained from the UK’s countryside.

He said: “Flower-rich hay meadows and pastures are a hugely important habitat that remain under constant threat from pressures including agricultural intensification and inappropriate management. These colourful and species rich habitats are critical to conserving many of our threatened plants as well as the wildlife that rely on them.”

The new habitats should draw in a wide range of wildlife including voles, bats, birds of prey and butterflies and the trust says they are also a good way of helping combat the climate emergency.

Meadow brown butterflies on oxeye daisy at Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire

Meadow brown butterflies on oxeye daisy at Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire. Photograph: Kate Groome/National Trust Images

McCarthy said: “Making changes to the land we manage ourselves and working with our tenant farmers to restore these wildlife rich grasslands secures better soil health, helps lock in soil carbon and improves water quality in our rivers as well as supporting wildlife such as pollinators.”

One of the first sites is at Arlington Court, near Barnstaple, where wildflower seeds such as birds-foot trefoil and knapweed have been sown in areas of the sprawling parkland.

On the coast at Woolacombe, species such as kidney vetch, viper’s-bugloss and salad burnet have been sown because they will do well in dunes and on clifftops.

The network will eventually stretch across 70 miles from close to the border with Cornwall in the west to the slopes of Exmoor in the east.

Joshua Day, project co-ordinator at the trust in north Devon, said it would not be a continuous strip but rather a series of pockets of grassland. “It might be a patch of grassland on the edge of a village or, on a grander scale, fields full of flowers.”

A field of yellow cowslip flowers.

Cowslip flowers, once common in the UK, are vital for pollinators like bumblebees. Photograph: Justin Minns/National Trust Images

The first 200 acres have been sown with 31 types of seed – 1.3 tonnes-worth – ranging from yellow rattle, which is known as a meadow maker as it creates good conditions for other wildflowers to grow, to oxeye daisy, good for invertebrates and human mental wellbeing as they make such an attractive sight.

These spots will become donor sites for the remainder of the project over the next eight years. Donor sites take up to three years after sowing to reach maturity before they can be harvested.

Day said: “We’ll leave the grasslands to really establish themselves for a couple of years and harvest the first seed in 2025. Every hectare we harvest from a donor site will provide us with seed to sow two more hectares.”

It is estimated that using donor sites and phasing the project could save the conservation charity more than £3m.

The charity Plantlife says that 97% of species-rich grassland has been lost in the last century.

Day said: “Once-common species such as eyebrights and cowslips have become ever rarer and this has had a disastrous impact on the species that are reliant on these flower-rich habitats like bumblebees and other pollinators.”