As appealing as tidiness is, grass is too important to the environment, to agriculture and to biodiversity to be tamed
My sigh of pleasure was more or less involuntary. I suspect it happens to every visitor to Audley End. It’s not the sort of place where you think how marvellous it would be to own such a house: instead you think how marvellous it would be to dwell in such a landscape – and call it mine.
It’s Capability Brown, of course. He laid it all out in the 18th Century, reshaping the land, diverting the River Cam to make a lake, quarrelling with the owner, Lord Braybrooke and planting trees with his unique grasp of the rhythm that lifts a human heart.
Mature trees punctuating a low sward with musical precision, leading the eye to a glimpse of water: this is not gardening, it’s a recreation of the human heartland. Everywhere I looked the grass was low, and that added to the beauty. The water and the trees are not enough on their own: they need the low sward to set it off: to bring out that involuntary sigh.
But as I looked I began to feel that something was slightly amiss. This was an ersatz paradise. The clue was in the trees: majestic mature trees that dipped low, some as far as the ground. And that’s wrong. My eye, my mind, my heart demanded that the lower branches make a straight line: pruned not by human hand but by the mouths of browsing animals, taking a break from the grazing of the grass.
There were no large mammals here. The grass was not grazed, it was mowed. The grass was short for reasons of cosmetics rather than nutrition. I was at Audley End to lead a nature walk, but as I walked, I found rather less nature than I had hoped for. Nature is not the priority here.
I saw no places where the grass had been left to grow long, where wild flowers could flourish, where bees and butterflies could forage. It was all incomparably lovely, but it wasn’t real. It wasn’t a place that lived. It was like walking through a landscape put together for a model railway.
The place is run by English Heritage, and I sent them a series of emails about mowing. They either didn’t answer them at all or explained that they were far too busy to respond to questions about grass management. Perhaps they found the subject too trivial to bother with. People sometimes feel like that about wildlife conservation: particularly when it clashes with ideas of how nature should be organised for human requirements. That determined silence made the subject of the mown sward more intriguing than ever.
Yes, the low grass, the fine trees with their horizontal browse line, the grazing mammals, the glint of water beyond: I have sat in such a landscape a thousand times, and I have lived in it too, for it is the landscape of the African savannah, the place where humans first walked upright. We have changed many things over the last four million years or so, but our idea of the perfect landscape remains constant. It is, perhaps quite literally, in our DNA.
And so we seek to recreate this heartland landscape wherever we can, in the manner of Capability Brown or in a suburban back garden. In the latter we may lack big stands of mature trees and we may not even have room for a small pond, but we can always establish a sward of grass. Once we have done so, we want it short. We want it to look as if it had been grazed. So we mow. And then we mow again, and then we mow again. It satisfies something deep in our souls.
Grasses form the family Poaceae, which comprises 780 genera and about 12,000 species. That includes wheat, barley, rice and maize, which between them fill 51 per cent of all human energy needs. Perhaps counter-intuitively it also includes bamboo and sugarcane. So here is the fascinating fact – the USP – of all species of grass: the growing bit – the place at which the cells divide and growth can take place, technically the meristem – is not at the tip, as it is in most plants. It’s near the bottom.
That may not sound all that exciting, but it’s central to the way life on land operates. It means you can eat grass without killing it. You can munch away at it, but it keeps coming back for more. This strategy evolved as a defence against grazing animals: the plants get eaten but they go on growing. At the same time, it makes the life of grazing animals possible: they won’t eat out their own supply of food if it keeps growing. So the ever-growing, self-replenishing grasses feed large mammals and our ancestors followed these mammals and ate them whenever possible. When you live on a well-grazed sward you can survive, and every now and then, you can feast.
We are no longer hunter-gatherers, but we still rejoice in a low sward. The more we mow, the more grassy it becomes: competing plants, those without the lower growing-point, can’t stand repeated mowing (or munching) and die; the places they vacate are filled by grasses. Thus grazing mammals effectively manage the grassland in a way that favours the grasses: and so do mowing humans. Or you could say that the grasses exploit both grazers and mowers to their own profit.
Some non-grass plants can cope. Strategies that evolved to defeat grazing mammals will also defeat humans. Daisies have a low, flat rosette of leaves that avoids both blades and mouths: their flowers stick up when there’s a break in mowing or munching, and they will set seed if given half a chance, but even when the flowers get chopped down the plant survives in leafy form. The keenest mowers hate this and treat their lawns with selective herbicides, seeing the daisy as a deadly enemy.
In this way the mown sward has come to mean something more than the atavistic feeling that God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world. It also makes it uncompromisingly clear that we humans have control. We have been fighting a war with nature for 12,000 years: since the invention of agriculture. The mown sward celebrates our victory: nature is in its place: under the thumb, under the blade. Sighs of relief all round.
Such a sward sends a message out to other people as well, for it tells them that you are in control not just of nature but of your own life. A ragged front lawn in a respectable community is like flying a flag that reads, “I am an alcoholic”. It makes you an undesirable element, a non-fitter-inner, a person who allows seeds from undesirable plants to spread into the well-tended gardens of neighbours.
The mown surface is everywhere, a deep and meaningful part of our lives. Low grass is the best place for children’s play: you can run and roll and tumble and then get up again laughing, even during the most boisterous games. The games children played on low swards evolved and were formalised and codified to become the great sports of the world. Many sports are unthinkable without grass and mowing machines.
Football, in all its protean forms – Association, Rugby, American, Gaelic, Australian Rules – is still almost universally played on grass. Tennis was invented for grass and Wimbledon, its greatest tournament of them all, is still played on grass. Golf is played on carefully mown grass that makes a dramatic contrast with adjacent unmown areas: the wild unmown is the enemy, to be avoided whenever possible. Golf is a game not only on but about grass. In bowls the sward is shaved lower than the pile of a carpet. In cricket the nature of the grass surface is crucial to every match ever played and in a Test match, the way the grass changes over five days is endlessly discussed.
Grass is hugely important in agriculture. It provides pasture for cattle and sheep, and it provides winter fodder for cattle in barns in the form of hay (dried grass) and silage (fermented grass). An animal reared for beef requires – estimates vary wildly – between six and 25 kilos of food to provide a single kilo of meat.
This transfiguration of grass – a food inedible to humans that becomes, by passing it through cattle, a substance that humans eat and feast on – is the magic of the short sward. The ideal view of savannah, recreated in the parks of great houses – grazed by deer or cattle according to choice and income – tells us that we are safe and comfortable, with easy access to both food and water. One glimpse of such a view and our worries about the immediate future vanish.
Cheap mowing machines have put a scaled-down version of this vision within reach of us all. We can all put nature in its place. We can all have nature on our own terms: we can all make it tidy. The sight of unruly grass, growing tall, with an uncontrolled mixture of species, is genuinely distressing to many people, especially when it’s close to human habitations and workplaces. But now we can do something about it: and mostly, we do.
The fact is that tidy grass is like a tidy house or a tidy desk: lifeless. In most homes the inmates tidy up in a brief frenzy before the visitors come: day-to-day life is inescapably messy. You tidy your desk only when something important has got buried; working life is also messy.
Tidiness is against nature. This realisation has triggered a change in the way we think about the mown sward. If we want life, if we want nature, we must hold our atavistic yearning in check and ease up on the mowing. And that has increasingly dictated policy on mowing, and not just on wildlife reserves.
The NGO Plantlife took this up, starting a campaign for No Mow May: it has been adopted by the National Trust and won widespread support. The idea is for gardeners, local councils and land-owners to stop mowing in May: to let the wild flowers in the seedbank grow and allow the insect pollinators to feed.
It’s a good and successful campaign: widely taken up with its simple demand and catchy slogan – and also because the issue of declining bee populations has really hit home. You don’t need to know that every third mouthful of food you eat is the result of pollination to grasp the idea that losing pollinators is a bad thing.
There has been a growing rejection of mowing for the sake of tidiness. “We only cut grass verges for safety reasons, not appearance,” Norfolk County Council, my local organisation, told me. They have also established 111 Roadside Nature Reserves: strips positively managed for wildlife. Verges provide important connectivity between good wildlife sites: lines along with flying insects can travel if the management is right.
Matt Shardlow, CEO of the invertebrate charity Buglife said: “We are fairly single-minded in wanting to maximise the area of wildflower-rich grassland. Where grazing is not available then mowing twice a year at the most, and leaving some areas for longer, would be the advice.”
This extends to the farmed landscapes, where subsidies are available for field margins to grow shaggy with tall grasses and wildflowers. Jake Fiennes, general manager conservation at the Holkham estate in North Norfolk, takes this further: “We should treat these areas like hay meadows. We must mow them and turn them and bail them for hay for forage or bedding.” That stops the cut plants from acting as a mulch and unnaturally enriching the soil, to the detriment of most species of wild plants.
This sudden rejection of the low sward is no small thing. At base it’s nothing less than a revolution in human thought. It amounts to an acceptance that the 12,000 year battle between humans and nature is over: that defeat for nature has become nothing less than a rout. With this comes an acceptance that this is a pyrrhic victory: one that damages the victors as much as it does the losers.
And it has brought about a widespread desire to make amends, to try and set things right, to try and put the toothpaste back into the tube. Such a desire is changing our aesthetics of landscape. Increasingly, when we see a mown sward we wince and bemoan the loss of an opportunity for life and regret the outdated thinking that lies behind it.
But when we see a shaggy overgrown patch of grasses and wildflowers we are now less inclined to say how sloppy, how third-rate, how altogether untidy and disgusting – instead we applaud the unseen site manager for enlightened thinking and intelligent practice.
Our love of a prospect with low grass lies deep in our being, deeper than did ever plummet sound. But deeper still lies our awareness that we are not, in the end, separate from the rest of creation: we are part of nature and nature is part of us. We are beginning to move beyond our obsession with the mown sward. In that lies the tiniest sprig of hope.
Simon Barnes is a journalist and author, previously working at the Times both as its chief sports writer and as a wildlife columnist.