Recreating pre-war East Anglian meadows at King’s College, Cambridge

Creating a picture-perfect image last summer, the unforgettable sight of two Shire horses mowing the wildflower meadow at King’s College was certainly a memorable one.

Student Sky Wallis. Picture: Keith Heppell

Happily, the horses will be back to mow the meadow in the week beginning August 22 – on the Tuesday, Thursday and Friday – but before then, we spoke to head gardener at King’s Steven Coghill about how the meadow is seeded.

“It was planted originally as an annual/perennial meadow,” he explains, “but as the annuals start to fade away the perennials, which come back year in, year out, start to establish themselves. It’s essentially modelled on an East Anglian hay meadow, and East Anglian hay meadows aren’t re-seeded, they just basically settle down and they flower and they also produce lots and lots of grasses.

“So we’ve got a lovely mix of native grasses plus wildflower seed that would naturally occur within these meadows before the Second World War happened and then selective herbicides came along. In other words, it’s a sort of a meadow that would be associated with the East Anglian countryside dating back to about the turn of the 20th century.”

King’s College head gardener Steven Coghill with student Sky Wallis. Picture: Keith Heppell
King’s College head gardener Steven Coghill with student Sky Wallis. Picture: Keith Heppell

Steven adds: “Hay meadows are sustainable things; you don’t have to spray them, you mow them once a year with horses – you think about the carbon burden of actually mowing it once a year with horses and it’s next to nothing.

“We mow it, we bale it, we then give the bales away to other people who want to create wildflower meadows, or feed their cat or their horses, and it’s a wonderful thing; there’s nothing not virtuous about it – it is a virtuous circle, which is lovely.”

On the meadow’s impact on biodiversity, Steven, who has been head gardener at King’s for seven years, says: “Essentially we’ve got five times the biodiversity going on in the meadow than we have on the flat road grass next door to it.

“We have all of the native bats hunting over it, we have a massive amount of moth activity, and we also have lots of insect activity. We’ve found insects moving about in the meadow that haven’t been found before in that environment in Cambridge – it’s quite remarkable.”

Steven also highlighted the work of Dr Cicely Marshall, a research fellow at King’s who has carried out a lot of the baseline biological survey, calling her “an absolute legend”, and student Sky Wallis, who recently graduated from the college, who did some of her degree research on the meadow.

King’s College head gardener Steven Coghill. Picture: Keith Heppell
King’s College head gardener Steven Coghill. Picture: Keith Heppell

Sky, who studied biological and natural sciences, specialising in zoology, said: “I think the first involvement I had with the meadow was in the second year of my studies, I applied for a project that was assessing the below-ground biodiversity

“So I was looking at these little microscopic worms called Nematodes and we were seeing if we could assess the soil quality through looking at these worms – that was the first bit of research I did there. There was a significant difference in what we saw on the meadow side and the lawn side.”

Does Sky plan to stay in Cambridge and study the meadow further? “Unfortunately not, no,” she says. “I’ve come back to Leeds, where I’m from, but I would have loved to stay if I could afford it!” She adds that she is due to have an article published on her research in Nature in Cambridgeshire later this year.

[Read more: Shire horses mow King’s College meadow, Shire horse used to harrow Stourbridge Common in Cambridge]

Highlighting how King’s College is helping other wildflower meadows to grow and develop, there’s another one over at Jesus College, which has come about through King’s. Lee de Grammont, head gardener at Jesus College, said: “North Court was originally sown in 2020 using seeds harvested from the King’s College wildflower lawn.

“In full bloom, the poppies, cornflowers, oxeye daisies and corn marigolds create a carpet of colour and provide a haven for bees and butterflies.”

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