What problems need to be tackled?

Moving hay cpt Birmingham & Black Country Wildlife Trust

The loss and deterioration of wildlife-rich grasslands happens gradually and in a piecemeal way and often goes unnoticed.

Very often landowners want to help by bringing deteriorating sites into better management- but there is a shortage of grants to help manage sites- especially the smaller fragments

Although our local information provides a strong indication of the problem, there has never been a single national inventory of environmentally important grasslands.  So the scale and the value of what is being lost is difficult to measure and is not fully acknowledged.

We have been urging the Government to do more for our special grasslands through implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) 2015-2020.  But there is little sign of any commitment from Defra to fully tackle the issue through the requirements attached to othe direct payments that all farmers receive (the “cross compliance and “greening” rules).  This is despite the fact that the new EU CAP rules give Member States the option of doing more to protect our grasslands, for example by applying a no ploughing rule on any that are considered to be environmentally sensitive.  

The new environmental land management scheme for farmers (NELMS) will undoubtedly help bring SSSI grasslands and some other sites into good management.

However, incomes from crops like maize provide a far higher level of income, so payment rates for the new scheme must be set at appropriate levels, incentivising farmers to protect their wildlife-rich grasslands.  We believe that the fate of many grassland sites now hangs in the balance and will be determined by impending Government decisions on CAP implementation in England.

Some of England’s best grassland sites have legal protection through their designation as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).  But there are many important sites that do not have this level of protection and in some parts of the country there are relatively few SSSIs.  For example only 1.56% of the land area of Nottinghamshire is SSSI, though Local Wildlife Sites cover 10% of the county. These local sites are refuges for nature and help create the ecological networks needed to support viable populations of species- but their protection is reliant on the goodwill of landowners and how Local Planning Authorities implement planning policies.

For grassland habitats that don’t have legal protection and that are vulnerable to changes in agricultural practices, the Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) Regulations should prevent their deterioration and destruction.  Projects that will increase the productivity of such areas for agriculture, eg fertilisation, cultivation or re sowing, must be screened by Natural England to see if they need consent to proceed.  But the regulations are weak and poorly enforced.  The threshold at which they apply is two hectares or more, so many small but important fragments of grassland are being lost - even in our most valued landscapes.  For example, in the last two to three years, two high quality grassland sites that fell beneath the threshold have been lost to ploughing in the Peak District National Park.

Very often landowners want to help by bringing deteriorating sites into better management- but there is a shortage of grants to help manage sites- especially the smaller fragments.