What is happening to wildlife-rich grasslands?

Park Gate Down in Kent cpt Ray Lewis

Grasslands are under severe pressure from development for housing and business.

Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust has been campaigning against a planned development for housing and employment in the Ashfield district of Nottinghamshire that would damage 30% of the largest calcareous grassland Local Wildlife Site in the county, leading to the loss of 30 hectares of this valuable habitat, with a further area damaged through landscaping.

Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust has consistently and vigorously objected to the application, but it was approved by the Local Planning Authority in March 2014. These kind of losses to development are happening despite the fact that public bodies have a duty under section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, to have regard to the conservation of biodiversity in England when carrying out their normal functions.

There are some alarming recent examples of grasslands restored under farm environment schemes being ploughed up when schemes end.  In Shropshire, areas of grassland that had been in a 20-year Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme in the Clun uplands in south Shropshire were ploughed in 2014 - a change to the land that is bad news for breeding curlew and could put species like the rare small pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly at risk.

Some precious grasslands have been converted to gardens or over-grazed by horses or livestock. Others have been planted over with trees. Many are rapidly deteriorating because of poor management

Some precious grasslands have been converted to gardens or over-grazed by horses or livestock.  Others have been planted over with trees.  Many are rapidly deteriorating because of poor management.  Modern machinery and the increased use of fertilised grass for silage fodder means that traditional hay meadow management has declined.  Remaining meadows, and also some of our wildlife-rich road verges, are often cut early – before flowers have set seed.  In many areas cutting is now done all at once - damaging the wildlife that has made its home in the meadows.  Many meadows that would traditionally have been cut in late summer have also been converted to grazing pastures.

Lack of any management is a significant cause of grassland decline in some areas.  A 2008 report by Norfolk Wildlife Trust concluded that 69% of a sample of 60 grassland Local Wildlife Sites visited in 2005-2008 were in poor or declining condition.  The main problems were inappropriate management and no management, with lack of resources for management a key issue.  The Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust reported that the majority of 21 grassland Local Wildlife Sites (covering c103ha) de-selected since 2005 had lost their wildlife interest due to lack of management, which had also led to the value of a further seven sites declining significantly.  In Lincolnshire, half of the grassland Local Wildlife Sites are roadside verges: despite strong support from the Highways Authorities, there is little budget for management that will ensure their future.

“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.”

 - Wildlife Trust staff member, southern England