The Snakeshead Fritillaries, Fritillaria meleagris, at Cricklade’s North Meadow in Wiltshire are an amazing sight. You so rarely get the opportunity to see a field full of wild flowers in the UK these days. They are often confined to the edges if present at all, regrettably preferred to vast expanses of monoculture. The Fritillaries form a mass in the centre of the field at North Meadow. A carpet of pink and white dots stretch seemingly as far as the eye can see in April/May.
80% of UK Population
The Saxon village of Cricklade dates back to the 9th century. Its North Meadow is special. It contains 80% of the UK’s total population of Snakeshead Fritillaries, Fritillaria meleagris. This eye-catching flower is a floodplain rarity. Excellent site management means that the population is thriving and even increasing. By contrast, many traditional floodplain meadows have been lost to so-called agricultural improvement. North Meadow owes its survival to an ancient form of common land ownership and management. Its ongoing survival is supported by the Floodplain Meadows Partnership and Natural England using traditional methods.
North Meadow is an example of a Lammas meadow. Such meadows were treated as common land between the 1st August (Lammas) and 1st February (Candlemas). The term comes from Anglo-Saxon Christian usage and means Loaf Mass. Lammas Day marked the start of the corn harvest. Commoners were allowed to graze their livestock on the meadows until closed for the hay crop. They were entitled to their own hay from allocated strips of the land in the summer.
Experts seems to disagree whether Fritillaria meleagris is a native flower. Streeter states probably native. Stace says doubtfully native. Kew elaborates that the flower’s native status has been a hotly debated topic. The first record of the plant in the wild in the UK only dates back to 1736. It is therefore regarded as an introduced species or neophyte, despite old country tales that it sprang up wherever Roman boots had marched across the land.
The plant is considered to be native to a number of European countries. It is unfortunately extinct in the Czech Republic and Belgium. Its survival is threatened in Romania, the Ukraine, Hungary, Switzerland and Slovakia. It has naturalised status in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Baltic region.
The doubt cast over the flower’s native status has repercussions for the flower’s inclusion in published works about English and British rare and vulnerable plants. The Snakeshead Fritillary may not be truly native, but it is popular and we have adopted it as our own. There are many naturalised populations in the UK. Gardeners like to cultivate it. Records show that it has been planted here since 1578.
Cricklade’s Fritillaries are the subject of extensive, annual research by a team of experts and volunteers. The results show fluctuations over more than 15 years. Decreased flowering is attributed to years of excessive flooding (2004, 2009 and 2013). Increases seem to relate to summer flooding. The removal of grass by flooding benefits seedlings with additional light. This remarkable study reveals that dormancy is an important life stage for the Fritillary. It appears to be able to survive for 3 years or more without flowering. This dormancy period is not restricted by any particular life stage. The plant’s resilience must be a huge benefit if adverse conditions prevail in some years on the floodplain.
The ongoing traditional management of North Meadow has preserved a wide diversity of plants numbering almost 250 species. The plants in turn support a complex ecosystem of insects and birds. As I walked around the marked-out footpaths, I saw and heard many different species. The characteristic spring call of a cuckoo is a much rarer occurrence than when I was a child. Cuckoos have declined by 65% since the 1980s. I was delighted to be accompanied on my walk by a the call of a very vocal cuckoo at North Meadow. It was an extra thrill as I gazed at the vast expanse of Fritillaries.
References and Further Reading
- British Trust for Ornithology (?): Cuckoo decline. Breeding Bird Survey.
- Cricklade Court Leet (2021): What is North Meadow?
- Floodplain Meadows Partnership (2021) Snakeshead Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris). (Leaflet available free at North Meadow entrance, Cricklade).
- Floodplain Meadows Partnership (2021): Floodplain Meadows – A Technical Handbook.
- Kew Science (2021): Fritillaria meleagris L. Plants of the World Online.
- Rothero, Emma (2014): Snakeshead Fritillary – defies climate change. YouTube. Open University.
- Rothero, Emma & Lake, Sophie & Gowing, David (Eds.) (2016): Floodplain Meadows – Beauty and Utility. A Technical Handbook. The Floodplain Meadows Partnership. The Open University.
- Stace, Clive (2016): New Flora of the British Isles. Third Edition. Cambridge.
- Streeter, David et al. (2016): Collins Wild Flower Guide. 2nd Edition. William Collins. London
- The Fritillaria Group (?): Where to see our native Snake’s Head Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris).
- The Wildlife Trusts (?): Snake’s-head Fritillary.
- Wolstenholme, Robert. S. (?): The History of North Meadow, Cricklade. Natural England.
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