The meadows are a surviving part of ancient and secondary woodland, scrub, fringe grassland and spoil from past mining activities.
In August 2003 the Arkwright Society purchased the Dunsley Meadows as an act of rescue. Designated a County Wildlife Site by the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, the old hay meadows became Derbyshire Dales District Council's first Local Nature Reserve.
The meadows, which adjoin Slinter Wood, consist of seven small fields that once were part of the extensive upland commons of the villages of Cromford and Middleton on which the villagers had grazing rights. Five of the fields were enclosed by the mid eighteenth century and the two upper ones, nearest to the woodland, almost a century later. Over time the stone walls became derelict but conservation work is under way to rebuild them, enabling volunteers to learn the age old craft of dry stone walling whilst helping to return the meadows to their former glory.
Dunsley Meadows were purchased by the Arkwright Society because of their intrinsic association with Slinter Wood. The meadows are important as a surviving part of the mosaic of ancient and secondary woodland, scrub, fringe grassland and spoil from past mining activities which characterises the limestone dales. They are recognised as a traditional hay meadow habitat, which is a “priority biodiversity habitat” both locally and nationally. Moreover it was clear that recent management, ranging from complete neglect to overgrazing, was degrading the site but that timely intervention might reverse the process.
The essential tool of management which was agreed to restore this habitat is carefully controlled grazing which now occurs between July and November of each year. As a result, it has been necessary to install fencing and gates to regulate the movement of cattle and to protect species from being grazed at vulnerable times.
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A walk through Dunsley Meadows
In the meadow the strong woodland influence is important. Some woodland flowers such as bluebell, anemone and bugle grow here, and along the wood edge there is distinct tall-herb, damp meadow which is different from the species in the main body of the fields.
Meadowsweet, an ancient plant in Britain, is typical. Its pollen has been found in Bronze Age burial urns – possibly as a flavouring for mead. Its leaves are very palatable to cattle and the plant is vulnerable to grazing early in the season.
The colours of flowers in a meadow reflect their attraction for different insects. May is a white and yellow phase with white meadow saxifrage and yellow buttercups. The small white umbellifer, pignut, along with yellow bird's foot trefoil, follow. Pignut produces its leaves very early in the year and is intolerant to grazing at this time. Pignut survival relies on a regular set of seed; it cannot regenerate by any other means. It is pollinated by the early flying solitary bees which nest in the soil. In turn it is the food plant for the caterpillars of the dusky chimney-sweeper moths which fly in June and visit the bird's foot trefoil for nectar. Late in the summer comes a blue and pink phase with meadow crane's bill, musk mallow and devil's bit scabious. These plants flower late and are not favoured by a hay cut in June. The scabious particularly needs to be protected from grazing until September.
Volunteers are crucial to the work achieved in Dunsley Meadows and there is still much to be done: continual monitoring of the site, controlling the invasive weed ragwort, ongoing restoration of the many more hundreds of yards of dry stone walling, as well as future restoration of the derelict hay barn.