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HABITATS HABITATS SERIES SERIES Meadows and Pastures Meadows and Pastures Introduction Wales is a land of meadows and pastures, a patchwork of green fields on lowland farms and extensive tracts of rough grazing in the uplands. With 1.3 million cattle Grasslands, ancient and modern and 12 million sheep, it is no wonder that the landscape is predominantly pastoral. What to look for and where to Behind the image, the reality of this grassland heritage has changed dramatically. find them There has been a revolution, enabling the number of livestock kept on farms to increase two- or three-fold during the last fifty years. But in the process, the wildlife- Conserving and restoring rich grasslands that provide a link with the past have largely gone, along with the wildlife-rich grasslands traditional farming methods which maintained them. These flower-rich grasslands Managing grasslands are places of great beauty. Now that so many have been lost, there is a much greater awareness of how precious they are. What can be done to help? This booklet focuses on the remaining wildlife-rich grasslands of the lowlands. It Places to visit covers grasslands managed as meadows and pastures; meadows are shut off from grazing animals during part of the growing season so that a hay crop can be taken, while pastures are grazed but not cut. It describes how these grasslands can be recognised and discusses how they can be conserved and restored through sympathetic management. With the goodwill of landowners and managers, and with new financial help through schemes such as Tir Gofal, the future for flower- rich meadows and pastures at last looks brighter. The natural grassland heritage of Wales reaches back to the end of the last ice age, ten MEADOWS AND PASTURES thousand years ago. As the ice sheets retreated, forests of oak and ash spread over much of the landscape. Within this blanket of woodland, grassland was mainly GRASSLANDS, confined to rocky outcrops and streamsides and also to glades created by storms, other natural disturbances and the activities of beavers and large grazing animals. ANCIENT AND Then people began clearing the woodland to create grazing for domestic animals and MODERN open ground in which to sow cereal crops. Plants and herbs of woodland which were adapted to grazing and to light, open habitats, became the constituents of these first agricultural grasslands. These ancient grasslands provide a link with the past and with the earliest human activities in Wales. This link can be seen very clearly in some of the grasslands around hill forts and other ancient settlements. Forest clearance progressed until grassland covered much of lowland Wales. In the early part of the last century, most farms had fields of permanent pasture and hay- meadows. These were managed to provide a year-round supply of food for livestock, using traditional farming methods which had been employed for generations. During the Second World War, new Government policies to increase home food production coincided with technological advances in farm management leading to a revolution in agriculture. Tractors replaced heavy horses, chemical fertilisers supplemented farmyard muck, and geneticists bred more productive varieties of plants. In the next few decades, many marshy grasslands were drained and flower-rich meadows vanished under the plough. The newly cultivated land was turned over to arable crops or was resown with new varieties of ryegrass and white clover. Species-rich grassland has also disappeared because of quarrying and opencast mining, urban expansion and road development, afforestation and the creation of new reservoirs. A relatively new threat has come from encroachment by scrub, bracken and rank grasses following removal of stock from grasslands which are difficult to graze or unrewarding to the farmer. Overall, it has been estimated that across England and Wales only 3% of the enclosed unimproved grassland present in the 1930s survived the following 50 years. Most remaining unimproved grassland in Wales is found on scattered farm holdings that have escaped the 20th century drive for increased agricultural production; some also persists where the terrain is too wet or too steep, or the soils too poor, for agricultural improvement to be worthwhile. Some species of animals and plants are now virtually restricted to these ‘islands’ in a ‘sea’ of less hospitable improved land. This isolation means that the wildlife of unimproved grassland may be vulnerable to MEADOWS AND PASTURES local extinction if conditions become unfavourable, and there is no adjacent habitat to move to or recolonise from. The marsh fritillary, a declining species of butterfly which has one-third of its known British colonies in Wales, is an example of a species whose future depends on a grassland habitat that is becoming increasingly patchy and precarious. WHAT TO LOOK Unimproved meadows and pastures are likely to be rich in wild plants and animals. Seventy years ago such grasslands were common, but most have been converted to FOR AND WHERE bright green, high productivity swards. The easiest way to recognise the remaining wildlife-rich pastures is to look carefully at the sward to see whether it contains a TO FIND THEM variety of herbs and grasses. Hay-meadows before they are cut will be awash with colour if they are unimproved, but grazed pastures will need to be examined more closely. Among the more frequent flowers of old meadows and pastures on neutral soils are common knapweed, common bird’s-foot-trefoil, oxeye daisy, rough hawkbit, cowslip and bulbous buttercup. Sweet vernal-grass was responsible for the sweet ‘coumarin’ scent of many a farmer’s hay crop, and, along with crested dog’s-tail, is still common in many meadows and pastures. The familiar but declining field mushroom is also a feature of undisturbed grasslands where the soil is neutral. Unimproved grasslands are particularly important for species of fungi which live on dung, although these too have declined. Insects which inhabit dung, such as the hornet robberfly, are disappearing, perhaps due to the dosing of stock with certain persistent chemicals to treat worm infestations. Such grasslands are also full of insect life. The meadow brown butterfly and six-spot burnet moth are among the more conspicuous species that can be found during summer. Yellow meadow ants build the large mounds which are sometimes found in old pasture undisturbed by cultivation or mowing. Snipe and curlew breed in marshy and rushy pastures, while skylarks and linnets make their nests in the drier grasslands. Corncrakes were once a feature of traditionally managed meadows in Wales, and the restoration of appropriate cutting regimes in late summer could aid their return. The flowers and insects which thrive in any grassland will depend on its locality and MEADOWS AND PASTURES aspect, its current and past management, how free-draining or wet it is, and how lime-rich or acid the soil is. Grasslands on free-draining lime-rich soils may contain common rock-rose, salad burnet and wild thyme. Insects associated with these grasslands include several species of butterfly, including silver-studded blue and brown argus. Among other invertebrate groups, the spectacular great green bush-cricket occurs locally on sunny slopes in south Wales. Grasslands on dry acid soils are more likely to contain species such as tormentil, heath bedstraw and heath milkwort. Where the grass is short, rings of fairy ring champignon and red and yellow waxcaps may punctuate the pasture in the autumn. In wetter conditions, grasslands dominated by purple moor-grass and rushes may contain localised plant species such as meadow thistle and whorled caraway. The declining marsh fritillary butterfly is particularly dependent on this habitat in Wales. Unimproved lowland grasslands are now scarce and precious. In order to find out CONSERVING AND how many remain, where they are and what species they contain, CCW carries out RESTORING WILDLIFE- systematic surveys by trained field staff. A field-by-field survey of the whole of Wales found that 90% of the 1.1 million ha of lowland grassland has been agriculturally RICH GRASSLANDS improved, nearly all of which would once have been species-rich. Much of the remaining 10% had been partially modified, losing much of its wildlife value. Follow-up surveys have been carried out to assess the conservation importance of the best of the remaining sites. With so few wildlife-rich grasslands left, the battle is on to stop any further losses. The very best grasslands are notified as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This provides a mechanism for owners and occupiers to discuss management of the land with CCW. They may then enter into management agreements which provide payments for looking after the grassland wildlife. Agreements may specify when meadows should be cut for hay or how many cows or sheep should graze and at what times of year. Several of the most outstanding grasslands in Wales are managed as nature reserves. These include National Nature Reserves (such as Rhos Llawr Cwrt in Ceredigion) MEADOWS AND PASTURES managed by CCW and partner organisations, Local Nature Reserves (such as Great Orme’s Head in Conwy) managed by the local authority, and Wildlife Trust Reserves (such as Pentwyn Meadows in Monmouthshire) which are often managed with the help of volunteers. Grasslands of high wildlife value may also be protected if they are listed as Wildlife Sites or Sites of Nature Conservation Importance (SNCI) by the local Wildlife Trust. Some local authorities have a laudable policy of not normally approving developments which damage such sites. Another increasingly important means of protection is achieved when the owners of such grasslands enter into voluntary management agreements available through the Tir Gofal agri-environment scheme. Tir Gofal is administered by CCW and partner organisations and is available throughout Wales. Farmers are paid for undertaking to manage their land in an environmentally sensitive way, maintaining wildlife-rich habitats and, if they wish, establishing new habitats of wildlife value. Grassland restoration of this kind requires a long-term commitment and can take several decades to reach fruition. Overall, the Tir Gofal scheme offers a real opportunity for conserving and restoring lowland grasslands of all types wherever they would naturally occur. The future of the remaining unprotected lowland grasslands depends on the goodwill of their owners and managers, some of whom may not appreciate what very special places these wildlife-rich grasslands now are. Farmers who manage their land sympathetically are making a vital contribution to the conservation of grassland landscapes, habitats and wildlife. MANAGING If grassland is not regularly grazed or mown, rank grasses and scrub will soon start to take over. Both meadows and pastures need to be managed sympathetically if their GRASSLANDS unique wildlife is to thrive. The type and number of grazing animals, the duration and season of grazing and the timing of any hay cut may all have different effects on grassland animals and plants. Pasture Most grassland is managed as pasture for sheep, cattle or horses. Sheep predominate on the dry acidic and lime-rich pastures, but cattle and horses are better at coping with the taller swards and wetter conditions of marshy grassland. Wild rabbits may MEADOWS AND PASTURES also have a considerable influence in the drier types of grassland. All grazing animals feed selectively, preferring some plants to others. In addition to grazing, natural movements of stock create small patches of bare ground. Cattle and horses typically produce an uneven sward. Sheep nibble close to the ground and rabbits graze the vegetation very tightly. Most grassland plants are perennial and long-lived. Some spread vegetatively and do not need to set seed every year; others reproduce primarily by seed and gain footholds where mole hills, rabbit scrapes or hoof prints create openings for seedling establishment. A number of scarce grassland fungi, such as various waxcaps and earth stars, require short-grazed turf. Enclosed fields may be grazed throughout the growing season, which in low-lying and coastal parts of Wales means the greater part of the year. Unless stocking levels are very low, grazing prevents the sward from becoming tall, favouring low-growing plants. Conversely, too heavy grazing can lead to loss of sensitive species. A patchy sward, with its mixture of short and tall vegetation, will allow tall species to thrive while light can still reach lower-growing plants that might otherwise be smothered. Tussocky growth in lightly grazed areas provides habitat for small mammals, and scattered scrub or hedgerows favour insects which require different plants for food and shelter at different stages in their life-cycle. The cockchafer beetle is one example: in its larval stage it feeds on grass roots but as an adult it depends on the flowers and leaves of shrubs. Hay-meadows Hay-meadows have the stock removed in the early part of the summer to allow the grass to grow on in preparation for cutting. This regime suits many plants, which can flower and set seed before the mower moves in. This is the reason why hay- meadows can be so species-rich and colourful. It is also a reason why silage-making, with its early and often repeated cutting and association with fertiliser application, is inappropriate for conservation management. Although hay-meadows can be spectacularly rich in flowering plants, hay-cutting has a sudden disastrous effect on the invertebrates that live among the tall grasses and herbs, and hay-meadows are not especially rich in insect species. Old, unploughed pastures, in which grazing removes the vegetation slowly leaving invertebrates with time to move, often support a greater diversity of invertebrate life. Organisations and individuals all have a role to play in conserving and restoring MEADOWS AND PASTURES biodiversity – the variety of life. After the UK Government signed the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992, it set out its conservation objectives in the UK WHAT CAN BE Biodiversity Action Plan. A series of habitat action plans set targets for lowland grassland – to arrest the depletion of wildlife-rich lowland grasslands, to restore the DONE TO HELP? condition of those remnant examples suffering from inappropriate management, and to re-establish swards of wildlife value. When it comes to saving our unimproved meadows and pastures, individuals and organisations can make a significant difference. For example, local authorities can help identify and protect important grasslands through their local Biodiversity Action Plans and by protecting grassland sites of nature conservation importance from harmful developments. Wildlife Trusts and organisations like Plantlife establish and manage grassland nature reserves, and you can help by joining these voluntary bodies. If you own, manage or have influence over grassland which may be important for wildlife, you can help by finding out what species you have in the site, avoiding sudden changes to the management, and contacting your local Wildlife Trust for advice. By taking an interest in wildlife-rich grasslands and spreading the word about what beautiful and vulnerable places they are, we can all help to ensure that flower-filled fields are there for our children to enjoy. There are nature reserves with wildlife-rich grassland in all parts of Wales which you PLACES TO VISIT can visit and enjoy. Most of these are owned and managed by the local Wildlife Trust; others are managed by the local authority or by CCW. Denmark Farm in Ceredigion is managed by the Shared Earth Trust; it is devoted to environmentally sensitive farming, and is an excellent place to see how the wildlife value of agriculturally improved grassland can be improved through sympathetic management. A number of farms entered into the Tir Gofal scheme are also designated as educational sites – contact your local CCW office for details of sites near you. If you’d like to order a printed copy of this booklet which includes full colour images, please go to www.ccw.gov.uk or contact the CCW enquiry line on 0845 1306 229.
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