A meadow is an open habitat, or field, vegetated by grass and other non-woody plants. They attract a multitude of wildlife and support flora and fauna that could not thrive in other habitats. They provide areas for courtship displays, nesting, food gathering, pollinating insects, and sometimes sheltering, if the vegetation is high enough, making them ecologically important. There are multiple types of meadows, such as agricultural, transitional, and perpetual, each important to the ecosystem. Meadows may be naturally occurring or artificially created from cleared shrub or woodland.
Especially in the United Kingdom and Ireland, the term meadow is commonly used in its original sense to mean a hay meadow, signifying grassland mown annually in the summer for making hay. Agricultural meadows are typically lowland or upland fields upon which hay or pasture grasses grow from self-sown or hand-sown seed. Traditional hay meadows were once common in rural Britain, but are now in decline. Ecologist Professor John Rodwell states that over the past century, England and Wales have lost about 97% of their hay meadows. Fewer than 15.000 hectares of lowland meadows remain in the UK and most sites are relatively small and fragmented. 25% of the UK's meadows are found in Worcestershire, with Foster's Green Meadow managed by the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust being a major site.
A similar concept to the hay meadow is the pasture, which differs from the meadow in that it is grazed through the summer, rather than being allowed to grow out and periodically be cut for hay. A pasture can also refer to any land used for grazing, and in this wider sense the term refers not only to grass pasture, but also to non-grassland habitats such as heathland, moorland and wood pasture. The term, grassland, is used to describe both hay meadows and grass pastures.
The specific agricultural practices in relation to the meadow can take on various expressions. As mentioned, this could be hay production or providing food for grazing cattle and livestock but also to give room for orchards or honey production.
A transitional meadow occurs when a field, pasture, farmland, or other cleared land is no longer cut or grazed and starts to display luxuriant growth, extending to the flowering and self-seeding of its grass and wild flower species. The condition is however only temporary, because the grasses eventually become shaded out when scrub and woody plants become well-established, being the forerunners of the return to a fully wooded state. A transitional state can be artificially-maintained through a double-field system, in which cultivated soil and meadows are alternated for a period of 10 to 12 years each.
In North America prior to European colonization, Algonquians, Iroquois and other Native Americans peoples regularly cleared areas of forest to create transitional meadows where deer and game could find food and be hunted. For example, some of today's meadows originated thousands of years ago, due to regular burnings by Native Americans.
A perpetual meadow, also called a natural meadow, is one in which environmental factors, such as climatic and soil conditions, are favorable to perennial grasses and restrict the growth of woody plants indefinitely. Types of perpetual meadows may include:
The perpetual alpine meadows in Uttarakhand, India (western Himalayas).
A desert meadow near Walla Walla, Washington USA.
Perpetual meadows in Oregon, USA.
Natural meadows and grasslands at Lake Baikal, Russia.
Artificially or culturally conceived meadows emerge from and continually require human intervention to persist and flourish. In many places, the natural, pristine populations of free roaming large grazers are either extinct or very limited due to human activities. This reduces or removes their natural influence on the surrounding ecology and results in meadows only being created or maintained by human intervention. Existing meadows could potentially and gradually decline, if unmaintained by agricultural practices, but a reintroduction of large grazers could influence meadows to reappear as natural habitats in the landscape. Mankind has influenced the ecology and the landscape for millennia in many parts of the world, so it can sometimes be difficult to discern what is natural and what is cultural. Meadows are one example.
As extensive farming like grazing is diminishing in some parts of the world, the meadow is endangered as a habitat. Some scientific projects are therefore experimenting with reintroduction of natural grazers. This includes deer, elk, goat, wild horse, etc. depending on the location. A more exotic example with a wider scope, is the European Tauros Programme.
Some environmental organization recommend to convert Lawns to meadows by stopping or reducing mowing. They claim that meadows can better preserve biodiversity, water, reduce the use of fertilizers. For example, in 2018 environmental organizations with the support of the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs of England, concerned by the decline in the numbre of Bees worldwide, in the first day of Bees' Needs Week 2018 (9-15 July) give some recommendation how preserve bees. The recommendations include 1) growing flowers, shrubs, and trees, 2) letting the garden grow wild, 3) cutting grass less often, 4) leaving insect nest and hibernation spots alone, and 5) using careful consideration with pesticides.
Some subtypes of meadows:
Closely related habitats: