Curlew - Damian Waters - drumimages.co.uk
What is it?
The marshy grassland known as purple moor grass and rush pasture occurs on poorly drained, mainly acidic sites in lowland areas with high rainfall and wet soils. It is often found with other habitats, such as wet heath, scrub and dry grassland, making up a patchwork of diverse places that support a wide range of insects. It mainly occurs on gently sloping land or on floodplains where it may be periodically flooded during the winter.
In the past, purple moor grass and rush pasture was cut for hay during dry summers, but this practice is now in decline. Today, only a few sites are managed as hay meadows, and most are kept as rough grazing for cattle and horses.
Where is it found?
Purple moor grass and rush pastures are most frequent in the west of the UK, extending eastwards where wet soils are found. It is estimated that less than 70,000 hectares remain with important concentrations in Cornwall, the Somerset Levels, the New Forest, East Anglia, South Wales and Pembrokeshire.
Why is it important?
Purple moor grass and rush pasture is chock full of wildlife, with up to 50 different plant species present in just four square metres of grassland. Usually dominated by large tussocks of purple moor-grass, more uncommon plants, such as lesser butterfly-orchid and fragrant orchid, can also be found among the vegetation. In the south, meadow thistles add splashes of purple in mid-summer, and in the north, globeflowers add striking bobs of yellow.
Flowing water may create flushes which provide an exceptionally rich area for species such as fairy flax, the insectivorous common butterwort and the rare lesser clubmoss.
On more acidic soils, purple moor grass and rushes may be interspersed with tall herbs like wild angelica and the pungent meadowsweet, plus lovers of damp conditions like ragged-robin and water mint. Here, orchids include the heath spotted- and southern marsh-orchids.
Among the grasses and flowers, curlew and lapwing breed, skylark rise up in song and reed bunting blend into the muted colours of reeds. Snipe may be seen darting for cover when disturbed and grasshopper warblers can be heard imitating the insects they are named after.
Purple moor grass and rush pasture is particularly important for its populations of marsh fritillary and brown hairstreak butterflies (UK BAP priority species). Common frogs breed in shallow pools between tussocks, and may be hunted by otters. Grass snakes and adders take advantage of the sunny patches between tussocks for basking.
Is it threatened?
Farmers rightly take pride in the increases in agricultural productivity which they have achieved through ploughing, drainage, increased fertiliser and herbicide application, and increased grazing. Sadly, the costs for conservation have been high and the once familiar sight of purple moor grass and rush pasture is now rare.
How are The Wildlife Trusts helping?
The Wildlife Trusts are working to prevent further loss of our purple moor grass and rush pasture by looking after areas as nature reserves. We use traditional management techniques, such as hay-cutting and grazing, to maintain them, and we are re-wetting areas that have dried out for example through upland drainage schemes.
The Wildlife Trusts also provide advice and guidance for landowners and farmers on wildlife-friendly practices in these areas. By ensuring that the land surrounding our reserves is looked after sympathetically for wildlife, we can create A Living Landscape: a network of habitats and wildlife corridors across town and countryside, which are good for both wildlife and people.
What can I do to help?
- Take part in conservation measures on your land – ask your local Wildlife Trust for advice on grazing and management methods for wet pastures.
- Support the work of The Wildlife Trusts across the UK and become a member of your local Trust.
- Volunteer with your local Wildlife Trust and help your local wildlife; you could be involved in everything from scrub-cutting to wildflower surveying.
- Support wildlife-friendly, traditionally managed farms by purchasing direct from local farms.