Upland calcareous grassland - Priestcliffe Lees - Matthew Roberts
What is it?
Surprisingly, the bleak, windswept and exposed hillsides of our upland areas can support a wide range of wildlife. Upland calcareous grassland, in particular, supports many rare species and some that are more commonly found in the Alps! You might typically find the blood-red heads of salad burnet, carpets of yellow common bird’s-foot-trefoil, delicate eyebrights and the nodding, heart-shaped heads of quaking-grass.
Upland calcareous grassland occurs on shallow soils which have developed from a variety of calcareous bedrocks such as limestone, but also some sandstones and volcanic rocks. It is usually found above an altitude of 250 metres, but occurs all the way down to sea level in north-west Scotland. Higher rainfall, lower temperatures and stronger winds all combine to make these grasslands different in character to those of lowland calcareous areas. They are often used as rough grazing land for livestock or registered as common land.
Where is it found?
Nearly half of the UK’s 21,900 hectares of upland calcareous grassland are found in Scotland – an area that’s just a fraction of the size of Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park. The main English concentrations are in the North Pennines and Cumbria. Upland limestone turf also occurs in County Fermanagh and North and South Wales.
Why is it important?
Unlike some other habitats found at higher altitudes, upland calcareous grassland comprises an exceptional range of plants: up to 350 different species flourish on some sites including those restricted to lime-rich soils such as upright brome, blue moor-grass and common rock-rose. Above 600 metres, calcareous grasslands are often peppered with arctic-alpine plants such as the rare spring gentian, alpine forget-me-not and mountain avens.
In turn, this carpet of rich wildflowers supports a plethora of wildlife including large numbers of butterflies (such as the nationally scarce northern brown argus), moths and other insects, as well as small mammals and birds.
In the uplands, limestone sites with rocky outcrops and scree are important for snails as the limestone provides the calcium they need for their shells. Solitary bees dig their nests in bare patches of soil, while declining breeding birds, such as skylark, curlew and lapwing, set up spring territories.
Is it threatened?
Upland calcareous grassland has suffered extensive loss and damage as a result of agricultural intensification including the increased use of fertilisers and herbicides, and intensified ploughing and reseeding. Scrub encroachment is a problem where there is not enough grazing; but, on the other side of the coin, too much grazing can destroy these fragile habitats through erosion and species loss. In some areas, limestone quarrying and the in-filling of disused quarries have caused significant losses.
How are The Wildlife Trusts helping?
Wildlife Trusts help to protect upland calcareous grassland by managing nature reserves which contain it and by providing advice to landowners and farmers on how to look after these fragile places.
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 calcareous grasslands.
- The Wildlife Trusts are working to protect and restore grasslands for wildlife across the UK, you can support our work by becoming a member of your local Trust
- Volunteer with your local Wildlife Trust and help your local grassland wildlife; you could be involved in everything from scrub-cutting to butterfly surveying.
- Support wildlife-friendly, traditionally managed farms by purchasing meat and wool products direct from local farms.