New evidence of vanishing grasslands

Thursday 3rd April 2014

Lowland hay meadow cpt Cumbria Wildlife Trust

The Wildlife Trusts call on Government to save remaining wildlife-rich grasslands and help farmers halt ‘catastrophic’ decline.

We are calling on Ministers to take full account of the value of our remaining wildlife-rich grasslands and the threats they face as they make these decisions

A dramatic decline in our remaining wildlife-rich grasslands is highlighted by The Wildlife Trusts today.  Reports collated across the country tell a story of devastating losses.

Wildlife-rich grasslands provide great benefits to society and are vital resources: for bees and other pollinators which we all rely on; for the abundance of nature which depends on wild grasses and flowers, from butterflies to barn owls; for securing soils and enabling landscapes to hold and filter water, preventing flooding and pollution; for carbon storage, and as living museums which have evolved over millennia.  These beautiful and valuable habitats are vanishing – and the dazzling array of species that depend on them are under threat.

Stephen Trotter, The Wildlife Trusts’ Director, England, says:

“Wildlife-rich grasslands have been in trouble for decades, but our newly collated information shows that the remaining hay meadows and flower-rich pastures are still at risk.  We’re seeing an insidious yet catastrophic decline. The pressures are enormous: from development and changes in agricultural practices, to neglect.  

"The Government is currently making decisions on how it will implement the greening measures of the Common Agricultural Policy and how it will target grants to farmers in the future.  We are calling on Ministers to take full account of the value of our remaining wildlife-rich grasslands and the threats they face as they make these decisions.”

The Wildlife Trusts are also calling for a review of protection for environmentally important grasslands – more must be done to strengthen policy and regulations to prevent further losses. Stephen Trotter explains:

“If we don’t act fast we’ll lose the natural heritage that has inspired writers and artists through generations – from Shakespeare to Hockney.

"If we don’t act now we’ll lose an important natural resource that benefits farming, wildlife and people.  The shocking examples of our best sites in decline should be a wake-up call for Government to start working now with farmers, local authorities and nature organisations to halt the loss.”

The Wildlife Trusts have been collecting information on the state of valuable grassland sites in England such as ancient meadows, pastures and road verges.  The information gathered so far has provided a snapshot of the situation on the ground. The data is startling. For example:

  • Nottinghamshire: out of 392 Local Wildlife Sites containing neutral grassland 99 (25%) have been de- selected since 2005.
  • Worcestershire: in this county renowned for its classic traditional lowland hay meadows, it is estimated that 48 sites (24%), comprising around 240 hectares, out of a total of 200 grassland Local Wildlife Sites have been lost, damaged or reduced to sub-optimal condition since 2005.
  • Cumbria: surveys of upland hay meadow Local Wildlife Sites between 2008-2011 led to the de-selection of 35 (27%) out of a total of 128 sites. At 15 of the sites the traditional hay meadows previously present had completely disappeared. In the Lake District National Park surveys of 223.47 hectares of hay meadow wildlife sites between the late 1970s and early 2000s led to a staggering 183.26 hectares (82%) being de-selected as Local Wildlife Sites. 

These beautiful and valuable habitats are vanishing and the dazzling array of species that depend on them are under threat

We have many more examples of grasslands being lost altogether or of no longer meeting the criteria for selection as Local Wildlife Sites.  These are wildlife-rich places selected locally for their nature conservation value based on important, distinctive and threatened habitats and species.  

In many parts of the country they are the principal wildlife resource but their designation is non-statutory and their only protection comes via the planning system.

The fact that these officially-recognised grasslands are in decline is an indication of a severe problem across the wider landscape.

The Wildlife Trusts are calling for a full review of existing protection for environmentally important grasslands.  We are 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 (eg 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 grassland inventory – 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-rich grasslands – Grassland restoration projects delivered in partnership with landowners by local Wildlife Trusts, Plantlife and others should be encouraged and sustained.

The Wildlife Trusts are today launching an e-petition aimed at Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, for five weeks.  Please sign and share it.

Notes for editors:

Wild plants and animals under threat from grassland decline include:

Curlew, snipe, lapwing, small pearl bordered fritillary butterfly, marsh fritillary butterfly, lesser butterfly orchid are among the huge range at risk from the decline of species-rich grasslands.  Many species are under threat on a regional rather than a national basis.  For example, the precious culm grassland in Devon is home to the last breeding curlew in the county.  In Nottinghamshire, species found on calcareous sites such as harebell, pyramidal orchid, frog orchid and bloody cranesbill are at risk.

Quotes from Wildlife Trust staff across the country:

“I visited the area about three weeks ago. It is probably 10 plus years since I last visited the place, when it was a wonderful downland area, with scrub and rabbit-grazed grassy areas covered in chalk downland plants.  All the scrub has been removed and the soil has been ploughed, raked and there is now a crop in the field.  The farmer has ploughed/raked right up to the woodland edge.”

“We have recorded a continued decline in quality across most sites surveyed over the past decade.  This insidious loss is continuing apace.”

“It was shocking to review our hay meadow Local Wildlife Sites and discover that a whole valley had lost almost its entire meadow resource.  One holding had 21 meadows, all gone.  In one area nearly all meadow Local Wildlife Sites have been improved and are unrecognisable now.” 

You can download our Save Our Vanishing Grasslands briefing below and you might like to visit grasslands web pages.  Please sign and share our e-petition too.


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save_our_vanishing_grasslands_final.pdf5.32 MB

Tagged with: Living Landscapes, Grasslands