‘Orchid!’ shouts my eight year old son as he spots a wild orchid we haven’t seen before. Usually he spends our walks around the farm carrying sticks stuffed into the back of his t-shirt so he can pretend he’s a ninja, but after weeks of lockdown, his keen eye has also been turned to orchid spotting.
He’s finally caught our obsession with these beautiful British wildflowers. As we excitedly traipse over to see a new patch of orchids springing up in our haymeadows, I wonder why it is these of all the wildflowers which makes us all stop and take note. These colourful spikes are surrounded by clovers, buttercups, self heal, plantain, trefoils and vetches, yellow rattle and knapweed, early forget-me-knots and lesser stitchworts, all of which are beautiful and relatively uncommon given modern farming practices. Amongst them, the orchids stand tall, unmoved by wind or rain, like a wildflower flag shouting that the haymeadow is back. After fifty years of post-war industrial farming which has seen the destruction of 97% of our British wildflower meadows, haymeadows are once more thriving on our farm. With these orchids, the variety of grasses and other meadow flowers come the insects to pollinate them. The bees and beetles, the grasshoppers and butterflies, and in turn the animals and birds supported by them. Haymeadows are one of the most biodiverse habitats in Britain, supporting up to 40 species per square metre. To borrow an old trope, haymeadows aren’t just any field.
But perhaps more importantly, orchids are also an indicator of the diversity we can’t see. Managing fields as haymeadows means they are cut after the wildflowers and grasses have had a chance to seed. So thousands of orchid seeds will spread all over the field each year. Small and numerous gives these seeds reach, but no food supply to support new growth. Instead orchids rely on fungi present in the soil to provide them the energy to germinate. And fungi in the soil is a marker of health and vitality beneath our feet that has almost disappeared thanks to monocultures, intensive agriculture and chemicals.
Haymeadows support wildlife and the animals that graze them. They nurture the soil underneath, provide protection against flooding with their vast network of roots, and capture carbon. If we’re lucky, we can spot the wild orchid standing amongst it all, rare, beautiful, and significant.