ONE of the most important hay meadows in the Yorkshire Dales National Park has been cut – weeks after many others.

The Askrigg Bottoms hay meadow was made a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1984 because of its common spotted orchid, melancholy thistle, great burnet and meadowsweet – considered to be of high nature value.

Farmer Tom Tennant is paid just under £500 a year from the government for managing the 2.8 hectare meadow in a traditional way, without use of chemical fertiliser. A condition of his Environmental Stewardship agreement is that the meadow must not be cut before July 15, to allow its wildflowers to set seed.

Most Dales farmers began cutting in early June, but Mr Tennant had to bide his time – which did not entirely please him. His family has been at the farm since 1851 and he says the meadow is the way it is because of the way it has been farmed.

He said: "The meadows never used to be farmed to a date, but to a season. The cutting dates can be over the top; the crop can go rotten if it gets an early start in spring."

Natural England and the National Park Authority are currently trialling a new agri-environment hay meadow scheme in Wensleydale which has no prescriptions on cutting dates. In the future it might be a better fit for farmers such as Mr Tennant.

Traditional, flower rich meadows began to disappear in the Dales in the 1970s as farmers improved their fields to produce more grass, reducing the need for them to buy in food and concentrates, but able to stock more sheep and cows.

Helen Keep, senior farm conservation adviser at the National Park Authority, would like to see a happy medium, with a network of flower rich meadows established to provide 'stepping stones' for pollinators.

She believes farmers need to view their farms not just from an agricultural perspective but from how environmentally valuable they are, too.

"The payment Tom is receiving to maintain Askrigg Bottoms is based on restricting agricultural operations, to prevent an increase in ‘productivity’. However this meadow not only provides a biodiversity benefit, but also a pollinator benefit, a carbon store and a landscape benefit, to name but a few. Tom should be rewarded for all of these aspects, but he is just rewarded for one of them."