No West Lothian question

Wildflower meadows are a haven for wildlife. For hard-pressed pollinators they are a fantastic resource. People love them too, and when in full bloom they are one of our most popular habitats. Creating and regenerating them is a growing tactic in the battle to help biodiversity.

Beechwood Park, July 2019

Given the range of nectar- and pollen-rich species that are found in meadows it’s fantastic that council such as West Lothian are doing their bit to restore and establish these habitats. When they are buzzing with insects and in full bloom wildflower meadows are a sight to behold. Just like Bernie Sanders woollen mittens, they have a very practical purpose and they look good.

It’s reckoned we have lost somewhere in the region of 97% of our wildflower meadows since the 1930s. That 97% figures never becomes any less eye-watering in being repeated.

Working closely together West Lothian Council and Buglife Scotland have seen the popular B-Lines project as an ideal vehicle to deliver important change. Tapping into £40,000 funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, and a further £13,000 investment from West Lothian Council, has enabled an ambitious project to take hold.

Buglife’s B-Lines are a roaring success. In this instance they will create 4.8ha of wildflower meadows across public parks in West Lothian. That mosaic approach is good practice which provides stepping stones for pollinators to travel from one area to another.

But creating meadows is one thing, getting local communities to embrace them through all their stages (for let’s be honest they don’t always look like a floral picture-postcard) means delivering workshops with schools and community groups to raise awareness of our vital pollinating insects and the hugely beneficial role of wildflower meadows. This ‘show and tell’ approach increases public support.

Wildflower meadows are being created in two ways. Firstly there is the method that relies on rotovating areas of amenity grassland, and then sowing wildflower seed by hand in autumn or early spring

The second method is more about identifying sites with potential and applying sympathetic management to bring meadows back from the brink.  Where traces of wildflower meadows or patches are found the route to success means changing the maintenance regime and encouraging wildflower species to once again grow naturally.

But whether it is a planting or nurturing approach all of the meadows being created are perennial meadows, meaning the plants should, with any little luck, return each spring (unlike annual meadows, which have to re-seed).

Consideration is always given to the often differing local conditions. Meadows on wetter soils are sown with a ‘wet meadow’ mix of seeds, with species that thrive in wet conditions. All seeds are of Scottish origin with the intention to plant them within their native range. That usually ensures success, but as with all things in nature there are few guarantees and from year to year things can change.

However, it is agreed that the key to a meadow thriving beyond its initial establishment is sympathetic meadow management.

West Lothian Council and Buglife are clear on what is required and stress that there is no ‘plant and walk away’ solution.

All meadows are cut once a year, usually in autumn although sometimes in early spring. This annual cut prevents grasses, docks, even self-seeded trees, crowding out the wildflowers which would in time accelerate a return to scrubland. To support as many insects as possible, cutting must come after all the plants have stopped flowering – hence either a late or very early cut.

Furthermore, for the cut to have real value must see all the cut material (arisings) removed.

Given that West Lothian Council want to encourage as much floral variety as possible this is a follow up action that is crucial. If arisings are left on the ground, they fertilise the soil, increase nutrients, and cause meadows to become dominated by one species.

By removing the arisings each year, nutrients are reduced, the dominant species weakened and all wildflower species have a better chance of competing for survival. It is for this reason too that fertiliser should never be used on wildflower meadows.

The meadow’s floral friend ‘Yellow Rattle’ has long been recognised as an ally in the battle to bring back meadows. This is a parasitic plant that feeds off grass, weakening it and allowing the other wildflowers to survive. West Lothian Council try to use this plant wherever the conditions permit. But, as with most gardening, all wildflower meadows in parks are an ongoing experiment!

If reading about the work going on in creating West Lothian’s B-Lines has made you hanker to go and view it close up then here is a list of some of their latest sites:

  • Beechwood Park – Linlithgow;
  • Rosemount Park – Linlithgow;
  • Learmonth Gardens – Linlithgow;
  • Almond Park – Craigshill, Livingston;
  • Balbardie Park – Bathgate;
  • Eliburn Park – Eliburn Livingston

And if you want to get a complete ‘before and after’ sense of the process then, come summer, you could head along to one of these parks: Stewartfeld in Broxburn,  or either Almondvale, Howden or Livingston Village in Livingston.

Eliburn, before and after the wildflower meadow works

You may be surprised to see that all of these meadows have wooden stakes placed around them for the first growing season. That is simply to protect that site and remind everyone that they exist and to prevent mowers from cutting them! That may seem a very cautious step, but it is surprising how there can be slips ups between the planting of a meadow and the management. All it takes is for a change in personnel, or a contractors looking to follow a previous year’s approach, and the good work can be undone unintentionally. 

West Lothian Council are quick to point out, quite rightly, that there are multifunctional benefits in allowing some areas of grass to grow longer.  These benefits include not only contributing to the health and wellbeing of residents who will likely enjoy the return of nature, but in reducing the flow of rainwater over the ground and storing rainwater. This helps to stop drains overflowing, provides food and habitats for small mammals and amphibians and reduces erosion through run off (especially on slopes and very wet areas).

They haven’t forgotten the opportunity bulbs offer either. There have been various mass bulb planting exercises carried out here. Three areas in Broxburn’s parks have been planted by machine with tens of thousands of bulbs, this in turn will provide flowers from February right through to June. It’s a low maintenance route to pollinator-friendly success giving a vital early season feeding source for emerging pollinators. What’s more these areas will probably only need cutting a couple of week after the last flowers have died off.

Finally, there is a climate change angle we should celebrate. Rain gardens are being installed in West Lothian’s Council area and these are low maintenance, planted areas, designed to hold water when it rains, which then allows the water to slowly seep away into the soil or evaporate over a long time. This help to relieve pressure on the drainage system when it rains heavily, reduces the likelihood of flash flooding, and is good for wildlife. These dry out when there’s no rain, and include drainage swales and bog gardens.

So no West Lothian question here – good things ARE happening in West Lothian.