12 April 2010
Snake’s head fritillary is one of our earliest flowering and beautiful meadow flowers, with its dusky purple and lilac chequered bells nodding from slender stems. It occurs in ancient flower-rich floodplain meadows often under traditional ‘lammas’ management . During the spring/early summer a hay crop is grown and sold off in lots to local farmers. The hay is cut after 1 July when the wildflowers have set seed and has to be removed by mid August. After the hay is cut the meadow becomes common grazing land for sheep and cattle during the autumn and winter months.
Latin name: Fritillaria meleagris
Population numbers: Fritillary is now one of our rarest meadow plants having declined dramatically due to the drainage and agricultural improvement of its floodplain meadow habitat over the last 50 years. More recently gravel extraction, urban and industrial development, and water abstraction have added to the pressures and losses. It is now confined to less than 30 sites in the river basins of the Midlands, East Anglia and Southern England of which only a handful support significant populations. Whilst it is known to have been cultivated as garden plant since 1597 it was first recorded in the wild in 1737, a curiously late discovery for such a striking plant. This fact has fuelled much debate over whether it is a naturally occurring species in England
Where to see and when: Undoubtedly the best place to see fritillary is North Meadow National Nature Reserve, Cricklade where hundreds of thousands of plants flower in mid to late April creating a purple haze across the meadow. Natural England organise fritillary walks around the meadow at this time. Many of the other good sites are in and around Oxford, the best known of these being Magdalen College Meadow in the heart of the city. Typically a tenth of all flowers in any population are white, although white flowers predominate at Lugg Meadow in Herefordshire.
What’s being done: Most remaining fritillary meadows benefit from statutory protection and Natural England works with the owners/tenants to ensure appropriate management regimes are implemented. In addition its meadow habitat is benefitting from the efforts of the Floodplain Meadows Partnership an innovative project focussing on research, management, promotion and restoration of rare and declining floodplain meadows in England and Wales.