Guest blog – Let’s not let our wildlife-rich grasslands fade away by Colin Raven

Eades Meadow, Worcestershire Wildlife Trust nature reserve. Photo: Paul Lane
Eades Meadow, Worcestershire Wildlife Trust nature reserve. Photo: Paul Lane

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.

Photo: Paul Lane
Photo: Paul Lane

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.

Photo: Chris Ellery
Photo: Chris Ellery

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.

Photo: Andy Bartlett
Photo: Andy Bartlett

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.

Photo: Cumbria Wildlife Trust
Photo: Cumbria Wildlife Trust

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_100x132Colin 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.

Upland wildlife-rich grassland, Cumbria. Photo: Cumbria Wildlife Trust
Upland wildlife-rich grassland, Cumbria. Photo: Cumbria Wildlife Trust
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14 Replies to “Guest blog – Let’s not let our wildlife-rich grasslands fade away by Colin Raven”

  1. It's great to see the work of The Grasslands Trust being taken forward by the Wildlife Trusts.

    Long may it continue.

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  2. Clearly "Save our Vanishing Grasslands" is a project worth supporting. But then so is "Save our Magnificient Meadows" http://www.plantlife.org.uk/about_us/news_press/magnificentmeadowslaunch

    SOMM meadows includes support from 5 county wildlife trusts. None of whom are cited in the SOVG briefing.

    Whatever happened to Lawton's bigger, better, more joined up? or even Living Landscapes line about "acting in concert"?

    The two projects sound like they are completely separate. We undermine our shared ambitions with this sort of competition. I hope both can work together for a unified effect that will be greater.

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    1. Sadly, I have to agree. Its a worthy cause however isn't this diluting what should be a combined effort? Isn't that the point of partnership? I get the impression the first the Trust's partners in Saving Our Magnificent Meadows heard of this was unfortunately this blog. One does have to wonder what the HLF might make of a partner of a project they've invested in launching a very similar sounding campaign a short while in advance and not notifying anyone about it. Isn't there a danger it'll steal its thunder?

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    2. David – thanks for your response. I will try to offer some reassurance!

      Wildlife Trusts are a partner in the Saving Our Magnificent Meadows project (and the, not entirely dissimilar, Coronations Meadows project) and we work closely with Plantlife. Plantlife and its important work are referenced in the campaign – both in the e-petition (pt 5) and in the briefing (and also in Colin’s blog above). We will be adding more content to the website including links to meadow restoration projects we are involved with (e.g. Coronation Meadows) so people can find out about them.

      The SOVG campaign has been put together quickly to raise awareness of this issue. So it hasn’t had the longer lead-in that larger delivery-focussed partnership projects tend to benefit from. This is because over the next few weeks we have a very short window of opportunity for influencing the final stages of the CAP implementation process in England - on cross compliance, greening and the new environmental land management scheme, which will all determine the future fortunes of our grasslands.

      We began collecting data from Wildlife Trusts on local grassland sites around the country as part of our national response to government greening proposals as part of CAP implementation. However once the extent of recent grassland losses started to become clear from information provided by local Trusts, we felt we needed to do something immediately to raise awareness of this - on the basis that we could also use a short-term campaign to support our lobbying in these final stages of CAP (particularly given how dismal much of the CAP reform process has been for wildlife).

      We will be speaking to Plantlife and other organisations about longer-term campaigning on this issue. And we are looking forward to working further with Plantlife to make and restore more amazing meadows.

      Thanks for your support and I hope this helps to reassure you a bit.

      Adam Cormack (works for the Wildlife Trusts)

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      1. Adam - that is very reassuring.

        I trust that both will align as best as they are able so they are fully complimentary. I didn't expect this to be a Judean People's Front v People's Front for Judea sort of thing, but together we will achieve more, and it is the result that matters more than anything else.

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      2. "The SOVG campaign has been put together quickly"

        Maybe that's part of the problem.
        More collaborative working will make the conservation movement stronger especially when this government has stopped listening and acting.

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  3. Mark, how about a competition to see which Racecourses have the greatest number of species of wild flowers. Race courses are also important grasslands, include the areas within the centre of the course. Could be an antedote to loosing on the horses.

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    1. Has there been any work on this? I know there has been a lot on the wildlife value and care of golf course. If anyone can point me in the direction of biodiversity and racing I'd love to see it.

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  4. Think the bit about permanent pasture is perhaps not correct and a red herring,I would think the only way N E could estimate such a colossal difference is to use the agricultural census and in my opinion that should be only used for agricultural purposes.
    Not that it really matters as it is a complete red herring as most permanent pasture is not wild flower rich anyway and in general is mostly really productive pasture land using fertiliser which the wild flowers cannot then compete with grasses.
    Never understand why totally irrelevant figures of dubious quality are ever used when except for that issue a very good case made.

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  5. As with so much of our wildlife, wildflowers have just vanished from the wider countryside. I really wonder how many people under 45 could actually picture a wildflower meadow. We have grown used to our impoverished land and those that have never known anything else will not be aware of the losses. Is it possible to love and cherish something that you have never seen, or smelled or walked through? Unfortunately recreating wildflower meadows [whether fields, verges or parks] is not as simple as reseeding - the soil has changed, the air has changed and the climate is changing. What I grew up with [as did Colin Raven] may already have been lost forever. Once again we have all shut the stable door long after the horse bolted.

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    1. Stella, I don,t think our wild flowers get much coverage on TV. I have campaigned for many years for springwatch and autumnwatch to show wild flowers in the areas they visit to present the programmes from. A great opportunity was ignored when the series was presented from the Cairngorms, with alpine and conifer woodland plants nearby but ignored by the presenters. It is always the case that programme researchers do not bother to ask those who know the natural history of an area what can be seen there. It is almost like the BBC etc. do not like to admit that they really know very little and they would be seen as such if they did ask the public in advance of programme making what to film for the series. More flowers please as well as other branches of natural history such as mosses, liverworts, fungi etc. I used to call springwatch the bird, bill and badger show. No offence to Bill. I do not watch the programmes now as they are too repetitive. There used to be a series called a walk on the wild side, where "experts" in various subjects walked in the countryside and explained the landscape and natural history while a cameraman stayed by a pond or river etc. and filmed the comings and goings of wildlife through the day. Oh for the "old days."

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  6. The problem is that the management required by species-rich meadows falls outside productive agricural systems. And as agri-environmental payments are only compensatory, and have little real incentive element, meadows are as likely to be neglected as managed well. This is compounded by an industry leadership which sees any outside interest in environmental matters as tree huggers placing red tape in the way of farmers right to trash the countryside in the name of producing cheap food.

    There are several main ways this could change. The first is the one broadly described by the Trusts: establish the resource and use regulation to conserve it effectively. I would add another. All Pillar 1 payments in the Uplands should be linked to ecosystem service provision - clean water, biodiversity etc., and in the lowlands, Defra should promote a more pro-active approach to delivering networks using payments for ecosystem services, supported by effective regulation. We need intensive agriculture, but we do not need it everywhere at the expense of everything else.

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