Skip to main content
A floor level photograph of countless buds sprouting from the earth

Countryfile: Plant Britain

Discover the possibilities of plants, and how they can transform your wellbeing and community

About this programme

Plant Britain is all about encouraging community gardens and planting wildflowers in a two-year initiative to help combat climate change, help wildlife and pollinators and transform our own wellbeing.

To find out more, go to the BBC programme pages .

Discover the range of qualifications from the OU related to this programme:

A photograph of John and Isabelle smiling in a lush green garden

Copyright: BBC

A photograph with a frame full of grass and wildflowers growing in a meadow

The diversity of meadows and how to create your own patch

Meadows are beautiful habitats, that have developed over many hundreds of years, but are now one of the rarest grassland types in the UK.

They are the product of a traditional low-input farming system involving hay-cuts and grazing. They were documented throughout the country by the Domesday Book of 1086, when they were vital for providing hay as winter feed for animals. This traditional management resulted in the distinctive character of the meadows we see today

Over the past eighty years, there has been a widespread transformation in farming practices from traditional low-input management to more intensive agricultural systems involving inorganic fertilisers and a switch from hay to silage production. These changes have reduced the diversity of the countryside. The expansion of urban development has further contributed to the loss of habitat. 

A photograph of a meadow stretching off into the distance, full of tall grass and flowers with purple, red and white heads

Immerse yourself in wildflower meadows

Dr Clare Lawson and Professor David Gowing explore wildflower meadows - one of the countryside’s most glorious sights, filled with grass and flower species, and providing a haven for wildlife.

Typical species include ox-eye daisy, knapweed, hay rattle, and meadow vetchling

Wherever you are in the country you’re probably closer than you think to a meadow. Although some sites are privately owned and closed to visitors, many of the best examples of meadows are looked after by conservation charities such as the Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust as nature reserves and are free to visit. The best time to visit is early Summer to enjoy these colourful landscapes at their best, before the grass is cut for its nutritious hay. Please keep to paths to avoid trampling wildlife or the hay crop. The view is just as good from there!

Typical species include ox-eye daisy, knapweed, hay rattle, and meadow vetchling. Look out for common spotted orchids and, in the spring, cowslips, orchids and fritillaries. Sweet vernal-grass (which gives hay much of its characteristic scent) and crested dog’s-tail are typical grasses although it’s the herbs that give the meadows their colour including red clover, lady’s bedstraw, and devils-bit scabious. Meadows do not just offer a visual delight - immerse yourself in the sounds and sensations of a meadow too as the flower-rich sward attracts birds, bees, dragonflies, and crickets to create a natural background melody to any visit.

Explore further

For sounds and sights to transport, soothe and uplift you, enjoy this video, or see how you can get out and make the most of nature with these links below:

Floodplain Meadows Arts and Crafts Competition

If you have been inspired by the stories and images from Countryfile, budding artists of all ages are being asked to take part in a national arts and crafts competition to help raise awareness of the UK’s diminishing floodplain meadows. Today it is rare to come across the iconic species-rich floodplain meadow without actively seeking it out – there are only around 200 left in the UK, encompassing about 3,000 hectares. However, clusters of sites can still be found in the flat valleys of lowland rivers, including the iconic Lammas Lands of the upper Thames, the River Ouse in Huntingdonshire, and on the River Derwent in Yorkshire. Here you will see flower-rich swards with cuckoo flower, meadow buttercup, common sorrel, meadow vetchling, and oxeye daisy, followed later in the summer by taller species such as meadowsweet and great burnet.

The Open University and the Floodplain Meadows Partnership have launched a competition encouraging people to visit a local floodplain meadow and to create a piece of art that represents the importance and beauty of these natural habitats. Anyone can enter the competition and judges are hoping artists will use a wide variety of art and crafts to capture the essence of a floodplain meadow. From sketches and paintings to sculptures, ceramics, and even video, the competition is open to everyone and prizes include a £250 Field-Studies-Council voucher and a fabulous meadow-produce hamper.

Artists are encouraged to be as creative as possible whilst also thinking about the various roles a floodplain meadow plays. Budding artists can find their local floodplain meadow on this map  and you can find out more by clicking here. 

Photo of a meadow full of poppies

What meadows do for us

As a society, we depend upon our countryside for many goods and services: food production, recreation, regulating hazards such as floods, and mitigating climate change through carbon storage.

A table showing the volume of carbon that appears in different types of soil

(Mean carbon density data from the Countryside Survey 2007 reported in Chamberlain et al., 2010 and from Lawson pers comm.). 

The countryside has a key role in providing benefits to society, which will become increasingly important in the context of climate change. We recognise meadows as colourful and vibrant, and we value their wildlife, landscape, and cultural history. However, meadows can play an important role in providing other benefits too.

It is important to recognise meadows as part of the farming system. They are used for livestock production, providing both a hay crop and sustainable grazing. Furthermore, the production of many agricultural crops is dependent on pollination, with 75% of crop species requiring assistance from insects (Klein et al., 2007). Meadows support many of the plants most highly valued by pollinators.

One area that is often overlooked in the climate debate is soil. Soils are a major store of carbon, holding the largest pool of terrestrial carbon in the UK (Ostle et al., 2009). Conserving and increasing soil carbon is vital in the context of climate change. Grasslands store carbon below ground in the soil. Provided their soils remain undisturbed, species-rich grassland can store large amounts of carbon.

A diagram showing the rooting structures of floodplain meadow plants

The diversity of plants, roots, and their rooting strategies appear to be key to carbon storage in the soil. Recently published research (Yang et al., 2019) showed that restoring higher species-richness and increasing root biomass increased the rate of carbon sequestration in grassland communities. Meadows are a diverse habitat with up to 40 plant species recorded per m2, with a hugely diverse range of root systems.

As extreme rainfall events become more common as a result of climate change, the ability of floodplains to accommodate floodwater becomes more important. Nature-based solutions are a key focus of the UK government’s COP26 climate summit.

Meadows appear to have an important role in storing carbon, particularly in floodplains with their deep alluvial soils. Alongside their soil-carbon storage benefits, species-rich meadows within a floodplain have another role to play: regulating flood events. They provide essential space for floodwater to spread out. 

As extreme rainfall events become more common as a result of climate change, the ability of floodplains to accommodate floodwater becomes more important. Nature-based solutions are a key focus of the UK government’s COP26 climate summit. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), nature-based solutions are: “actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”. To meet the challenge of climate change, a variety of different habitats across the countryside will be required to provide the environmental goods and services society needs. Meadows will be an important one providing valuable habitat for pollinators, storing carbon and floodwater, and will play an integral part in a low-intensity farming system.

Meet the academics

Prof. David GowingProfessor of Botany - Science, Technology, Engineering & MathsVIEW FULL PROFILE
Prof. David GowingProfessor of Botany - Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths

I am a botanist and a plant ecologist interested in how species coexist.  My particular focus is species-rich grasslands from around the world.  I have worked in European meadows, South African fynbos and Siberian floodplains.  I direct a consortium of organisations interested in conserving traditional floodplain meadows and promoting the ecosystems services they provide.

I teach mainly in the Environmental Science curriculum area, producing modules both with a science focus and an interdisciplinary approach. My most recent module is entitled “Environment: responding to change” in which we try to equip students with the skills to engage meaningfully in current debates around biodiversity conservation, climate change and food security.

I have previously been an academic consultant on a number of BBC TV series including: British Isles: a Natural History (2004,) The Nature of Britain (2007) and Secrets of a Living Planet (2018.)

I currently advise the National Trust, a Wildlife Trust and a Parks Trust on their ecological conservation activities.

Dr Clare LawsonLecturer in Environmental Sciences - School of Environment, Earth & Ecosystem SciencesVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Clare LawsonLecturer in Environmental Sciences - School of Environment, Earth & Ecosystem Sciences

Clare's background is in plant ecology and she's fascinated by wildflower meadows, their biodiversity and relationship with traditional farm management. Much of her research work has focussed on species-rich grasslands and how they respond to a changing environment. Clare's current work explores the relationship between floodplain meadow plant communities, water-regime and soil carbon, but also looks at the potential to restore these habitats within floodplains. 

More on nature and the environment

Autumnwatch 2019 - Presenters - Hero image BBC

Autumnwatch 2019

It's Halloween week and Autumnwatch is back, celebrating the very best of the UK's wildlife.

Read Article
Presenters from Springwatch 2020, BBC

Springwatch 2020

In a spring like no other, we’ll be bringing you inspiring stories from the natural world.

Read Article
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall releasing bird on Hugh's Wild West

Hugh's Wild West

Lifelong nature-lover Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall pursues his fascination with the wildlife of the West country.

Read Article

Explore the OU

A cropped photo of students with documents scattered in front of them.

Open University courses

An image of the OU poster for 'A Perfect Planet'

Order a free OU Poster

A young woman on a computer in a cafe

OU subjects A-Z

A photograph taken in a cafe. A mug is in focus in the foreground, and a man using a laptop is out of focus in the background.

The latest OU news

A photo of a person using a laptop and notebook, and a small dog resting its head on the user's arm

About distance learning

A top-down picture of a man using a laptop at a desk

Free courses

A photo of a man wearing a red hoodie and headphones walking away from the camera, on a busy path by a road

Hear from students

About our BBC partnership

For over 50 years The Open University and the BBC have worked together; co-producing hundreds of hours of programming and bringing learning to life for millions. Find out more about our unique partnership.

OU website