King's Chapel lawn is set to become a meadow this spring/summer.Simon Lock

King’s College is leading the way in forging a new Cambridge tradition. After 300 years of pristine, well-kempt grass, the college intends to refashion its famous lawn into a meadow “in a bid to tackle climate change.”

In the face of calls for divestment from fossil fuels and arms industries, this environmentally motivated move may seem tokenistic. Nevertheless, it should be lauded as a significant step in recognising the need for rewilding areas of land in the UK, a conservation issue that is often overlooked in the pursuit of more holistic environmental concerns, such as reducing carbon emissions and fossil fuel usage.

“While the pristine grass may look idyllic, it serves absolutely no significant ecological purpose and sustains little to no wildlife.”

King’s is far from insincere in its efforts to restore a habitat under serious threat, and other colleges should take note of this example. Meadows accommodate vital – yet vulnerable – ecosystems within the UK, and the Cambridge backs, as they currently stand, are an ecological disaster.

While the pristine grass may look idyllic, it serves absolutely no significant ecological purpose and sustains little to no wildlife. Meadows, on the other hand, are equally picturesque, and are havens for thousands of species of plants and animals. Our colleges should seize the opportunity to contribute to the restoration of a severely undervalued habitat that has been obliterated over the past century. Since the 1930s, 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost in the UK and nowadays, meadows cover just 1% of the UK’s land area. The beautiful fields of flora and fauna that were once a feature of every village have been lost.

The traditional meadowland that remains in the UK can be found predominantly in Yorkshire and the Pennines, with little coverage in the South of England. Turning the Cambridge backs into an Eden for wildlife could mark an innovative step in understanding the need for a revised approach to managing our rural landscape. Over 150 different species of flower and grass are supported in meadowland, which sustains a myriad of insects, mammals and birds. Rare wildflowers could be cultivated, and pollinating insects would thrive. The beloved bumblebee is just one example of a creature that would benefit from this new habitat; their population has been in decline over the past 80 years, with two species becoming extinct. Smaller mammals could prosper in the long grasses, sustaining birds of prey – such as kestrels and owls – that are finding it increasingly difficult to survive on our crowded island.


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Extensive agriculture and the lack of any truly wild landscapes have decimated the habitats of so many of our native species that once thrived. It is hypocritical how, as a nation, we lament the deforestation of the Amazon and the destruction of habitats across the globe when we don’t even realise that extensive farming across the British Isles has contributed to our own national ecological disaster.

Even our national parks cannot be acknowledged as truly wild. The mountains of the Lake District would ordinarily be covered with trees and plants, providing a haven for wildlife, if it weren’t for the livestock grazing them. In contrast, conservation projects in Scotland – where the deer population has been reduced to allow the landscape to recover from their extensive grazing – has seen trees return to the glens, and insects and animals benefit from these efforts.

Meadows remain among the most biodiverse habitats we have in the UK; indeed, few habitats match the diversity in the plants and animals it can sustain. While some may understandably be cautious in hailing King’s decision as a progressive combatant towards climate change, any accusations of tokenism should not demean the fact that transforming their famous lawn into meadowland will quite rightly thwart tradition to set an example for issues of land management that are frequently ignored in the UK. More colleges should cultivate this new and potentially vital tradition for posterity.

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