I can trace my interest in nature back to childhood walks in the 1960s with my grandparents and their whippet Rip, to West Meadow and Lord’s Ground near the fenland village of Willingham in Cambridgeshire. With their tall hedgerow elms and a kaleidoscope of wildflowers, these ancient pastures, teeming with rabbits for Rip to chase, were magical to me and a stark contrast to the surrounding arable fenland and market gardening. Three years ago when my Grandma died I inherited her family photo albums. In them I found pictures of her as a child with her sisters and brothers clutching small bunches of cowslips and other wildflowers. I have tried to revisit these childhood haunts, but as far as I can tell this part of my family’s history has all but gone.
Sadly, disappearance is a familiar story when it comes to wildlife-rich grasslands. Recently The Wildlife Trusts have been gathering information on the state of locally important grasslands in England – sites like ancient meadows, traditional pastures and road verges – all of which provide vital space for nature. The snapshot of information we have collected so far makes depressing reading and so today we are launching a new e-petition and campaign to ‘Save our Vanishing Grasslands’.
This is not a new problem. By 1980 97% of all traditionally managed lowland meadows had gone. Losses to other semi-natural grasslands were almost as great. Charities such as The Wildlife Trusts, Plantlife, the Grasslands Trust (like many grasslands, now sadly gone) have long highlighted the loss of our beautiful meadows and pastures. It’s proving difficult to outpace the rate of attrition. Despite our best efforts, grassland habitat is still disappearing. Wildlife -rich grasslands are fading away, and because the overall remaining area of habitat is so small, every single site that is lost or damaged now is a real tragedy.
There are so many reasons why our wildlife-rich grasslands are worth protecting: precious soils and seed-banks, wildlife habitat, carbon and water storage, hotspots for pollinators, living museums of farming and social history. In my own patch in Worcestershire, as elsewhere, much has been done to protect grasslands, mainly by the acquisition of nature reserves, and through working with farmers and landowners to manage and create grassland habitats. Add to this the fact that land prices, particularly in the lowlands, have risen to such an extent that land acquisition can no longer be the sole strategy for protecting wildlife-rich grasslands – and it’s clear we have to work at a larger scale and use a range of approaches.
Worcestershire – renowned for its classic lowland hay meadows – is a good example of the challenges we face. Here we estimate that 48 out of a total of 200 grassland Local Wildlife Sites have either been lost, damaged or reduced to sub-optimal condition since 2005. That’s around 240 hectares of diverse, interesting, beautiful habitat lost. And that’s just in one county, measuring only Local Wildlife Sites, since 2005. Furthermore a report on the condition of important grasslands in the county published in 2009 found that less than half of the sites sampled were in favourable condition.
Some sites have been lost to development or through ploughing. Some precious grasslands have been converted to gardens or overgrazed by horses or livestock. Others have been planted over with trees. But many more have simply deteriorated to such an extent that the plants and animals that make them special have disappeared. This leads to “de-selection” as a Local Wildlife Site (there is simply not enough good habitat left to justify keeping the Local Wildlife Site designation) and, with this a loss of any protection the site had – however meagre – via the local planning system. So not only are we losing (bio)diversity and beauty from our countryside – our overall area of protected land is being eroded away. It’s the story of what is happening to nature across the country. The precious wildlife sites we have saved will remain isolated and vulnerable without concerted efforts to connect and extend them where we can.
An additional factor is agricultural change and what this could mean for wildlife. Natural England estimate a loss of 288, 960ha of permanent pasture since 2005 (1). This is a complex statistic to analyse in terms of impacts on wildlife but in some places it will reflect a continual intensification of land management and pressure on wildlife and ecosystems.
Grasslands don’t occupy the same place in our psyche as ancient woodland but in my view they should. Traditional and wildlife-rich grasslands are seriously undervalued. They’re easily overlooked and, sadly, all too easily destroyed. They are probably the most vulnerable of habitats – even slight exposure to artificial fertiliser, for example, can cause serious damage. Yet grasslands, along with woodland, open water, heaths, uplands, bogs, parks and gardens are an essential part of our network of spaces for nature.
So what do we need to do, and why now?
Government is in the process of making decisions about the final stages of implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in England – specifically on revised cross compliance rules and new greening measures. Both are linked to direct payments made to farmers. We are lobbying Government on both issues and the next few weeks are critical. But there is a need and an opportunity to call for other mechanisms to be used to strengthen grassland protection.
Wildlife-rich grassland used to be a common sight in the countryside. If we don’t wake up to this decline, John Clare’s “wild flowers studding every inch of ground” or “the field flowers free for all” will only exist in a few protected nature reserves. If you agree that something urgently needs to be done to save our vanishing grasslands please sign our e-petition.
We’re asking the Government to:
1 Improve existing laws and policies and effectively enforce them – Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) Regulations need to be strengthened and grasslands should be given better protection through planning policy.
2 Support wildlife-rich grasslands on farmland – Farmers should be fully rewarded for managing important grasslands (e.g. through farm environment schemes) and stronger requirements for protection should be attached to the direct payments all farmers receive from the public purse.
3 Award statutory protection to more grassland sites that deserve it – Species-rich grassland sites that qualify should become protected SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) as quickly as possible.
4 Set up a national grasslandinventory – A new national inventory of important grasslands in England needs to be established with sustained monitoring of sites in the future.
5 Restore more wildlife-richgrasslands – Grassland restoration projects delivered in partnership with landowners by local Wildlife Trusts, Plantlife and others should be encouraged and sustained..
Colin Raven is Director of Worcestershire Wildlife Trust
(1) Permanent pasture assessed here is ‘land used to grow grasses or other herbaceous forage either self seeded or sown that has not been included in the crop rotation for 5 years or longer’. In the absence of official figures for 2012 and 2013, an average annual loss rate of 0.92% derived from the 2005 -2011 period has been applied to derive losses for 2012 and 2013.