A wide-ranging approach is adopted in this plan to lowland grasslands treated as lowland meadows. They are taken to include most forms of unimproved neutral grassland across the enclosed lowland landscapes of the UK. In terms of National Vegetation Classification plant communities, they primarily embrace each type of Cynosurus cristatus - Centaurea nigra grassland, Alopecurus pratensis - Sanguisorba officinalis floodplain meadow and Cynosurus cristatus - Caltha palustris flood-pasture. The plan is not restricted to grasslands cut for hay, but also takes into account unimproved neutral pastures where livestock grazing is the main land use. On many farms in different parts of the UK, use of particular fields for grazing pasture and hay cropping changes over time, but the characteristic plant community may persist with subtle changes in floristic composition.
In non-agricultural settings, such grasslands are less frequent but additional examples may be found in recreational sites, church-yards, roadside verges and a variety of other localities. Excluded from this plan are maritime grassland communities confined to coastal habitats (which will be covered in maritime cliff
action plans), Anthoxanthum odoratum - Geranium sylvaticum
grasslands (which are treated in a companion action plan for upland hay meadows
) and Molinia - Juncus
pastures (which are covered in the purple moor grass
and rush pasture (Molinia-Juncus
As indicated in the Habitat Statement included in Biodiversity: the UK Steering Group Report, Vol 2 (1995), unimproved neutral grassland habitat has undergone a remarkable decline in the 20th century, almost entirely due to changing agricultural practice. It is estimated that by 1984 in lowland England and Wales, semi-natural grassland had declined by 97% over the previous 50 years to approximately 0.2million ha. Losses have continued during the 1980s and 1990s, and have been recorded at 2 -10% per annum in some parts of England. Extensive agricultural modification of unimproved grasslands has also been recorded in Scotland between the 1940s and 1970s. Recent conservation survey findings in Britain and Northern Ireland reveal that the impact has been pervasive, and an estimated extent of less than 15,000 ha of species-rich neutral grassland surviving today in the UK is given in the Habitat Statement.
The plan concentrates on meadows and pastures associated with low-input nutrient regimes, and covers the major forms of neutral grassland which have a specialist group of scarce and declining plant species. Among flowering plants, these include fritillary Fritillaria meleagris,
dyer`s greenweed Genista tinctoria,
green-winged orchid Orchis morio,
greater butterfly orchid Platanthera chlorantha,
pepper saxifrage Silaum silaus
and wood bitter vetch Vicia orobus
. Lowland meadows and pastures are important habitats for skylark and a number of other farmland birds, notably corncrake
which has experienced a major range contraction across the UK.
The overall outcome of habitat change in the lowland agricultural zone is that Cynosurus - Centaurea grassland, the mainstream community of unimproved hay meadows and pastures over much of Britain, is now highly localised, fragmented and in small stands. Recent estimates for cover in England and Wales indicate that there is between 5000-10,000 ha of this community in total. There is an especially important concentration in Worcestershire and other particularly important areas include south-west England (Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire), the East Midlands & East Anglia (Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk), in various parts of Wales and in West Fermanagh and Erne Lakeland in Northern Ireland. In certain areas, such as in the old district of Brecknock in Powys, remnant examples are locally aggregated. Scotland is estimated to have between 2000-3000 ha of this community, with particular concentrations in the crofting areas of Lochaber, Skye and the Western Isles. Local data for Northern Ireland are less complete, but the West Fermanagh and Erne Lakeland ESA in NI contains an important concentration of the resource.
Unimproved seasonally-flooded grasslands are less widely distributed. They have lower overall cover, but there are still a few quite large stands. Alopecurus - Sanguisorba flood-meadow has a total cover of <1500 ha and is found in scattered sites from the Thames valley through the Midlands and Welsh borders to the Ouse catchment in Yorkshire. These include well-known but now very rare Lammas meadows, such as North Meadow, Cricklade, and Pixey and Yarnton Meads near Oxford, which are shut up for hay in early spring, cropped in July, with aftermath grazing from early August; nutrients are supplied by flooding episodes in winter. Cynosurus - Caltha flood-pasture is also now scarce and localised, with probably <1000 ha cover in England and Wales. Scotland is estimated to have 600-800 ha of this community.
It will be important to ensure that such periodically flooded grasslands are taken into account during implementation of the action plan for coastal and floodplain grazing marshes
; actions in the two plans need to be closely integrated.
Agricultural intensification has led to the extensive development of nutrient-demanding, productive Lolium perenne grasslands. These are managed for grazing and also silage production which has widely replaced traditional hay-making. Where fertiliser input is relaxed or in swards which have only been partially improved, Lolium - Cynosurus grassland is common; in many respects this is intermediate between improved and unimproved lowland neutral grasslands but has few uncommon species and is generally of low botanical value.
Links with other action plans
Lowland meadows are an important habitat for corncrake Crex crex
and a number of farmland birds, including skylark Alauda arvensis
. Their requirements should also be taken into account in the implementation of the plan.
Current factors affecting the habitat
The factors currently affecting lowland meadows reduce the quality and decrease the quantity of the habitat, and its fragmentation brings increased risk of species extinctions in the small remnant areas.
Agricultural improvement through, drainage, ploughing, re-seeding, fertiliser treatment, slurry application, conversion to arable and a shift from hay-making to silage production.
Decline in the perceived agricultural value of species-rich pasture and hay in farming regimes.
Abandonment leading to rank over-growth, and bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) and scrub encroachment.
Supplementary stock feeding, associated with increased stocking levels, which can lead to eutrophication as well as localised poaching.
Application of herbicides and other pesticides.
Atmospheric pollution and climate change, the influence of which is not fully assessed.
Reduced inundation frequency and duration, in water-meadows and floodplain grasslands associated with abandoned irrigation schemes, and lowered water tables as a result of land drainage, flood alleviation engineering, surface and ground water abstraction, floodplain gravel extraction and other activities.
Floristic impoverishment due to heavy grazing pressure and changes in stock species and breeds.
Precise data for the cover of unimproved neutral grassland communities within Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are unavailable. In England, there are approximately 400 SSSIs with Cynosurus - Centaurea grassland and 66 SSSIs with Alopecurus - Sanguisorba floodplain meadow. Several National Nature Reserves in England hold unimproved neutral grassland; particularly notable are Mottey Meadows in the West Midlands and North Meadow in Wiltshire, which have impressive stands of flood-meadow, and Fosters Green Meadows in Worcestershire which has dry unimproved neutral grassland.
In Wales, unimproved neutral grassland independently qualifies at 103 SSSIs which collectively support 282 ha of the habitat; there are no NNRs with substantial examples of dry unimproved neutral grassland. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, a number of SSSIs, ASSIs and NNRs include Cynosurus - Centaurea grassland.
Unimproved neutral grassland is present on approximately 350 SSSIs in Scotland.
Lowland hay meadows (Alopecurus - Sanguisorba community) are included in Annex 1 of the EC Habitats Directive. Five sites in England have been proposed as Special Areas of Conservation by the UK government. The Directive does not currently cover Centaureo - Cynosuretum grasslands.
Management, research and guidance
Management agreements have been established for many neutral grassland SSSIs, so that favourable low-intensity farming methods are maintained. Unimproved neutral grasslands are also included in a variety of recent UK agri-environment schemes which provide complementary incentives for farmers to conserve this habitat across wider agricultural landscapes. These include ESAs, the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (England), the Habitat Scheme, Tir Cymen (Wales) (which will be replaced in 1999 by the new all Wales agri-environment scheme Tir Gofal), the Countryside Premium Scheme (Scotland) and Countryside Management Scheme (Northern Ireland). For the most part, protection of remnant semi-natural pastures and meadows is given high priority; measures to restore modified stands or develop new species-rich swards are more limited. Certain ESAs, such as the Somerset Levels & Moors and the Upper Thames Tributaries, are of special importance for periodically flooded grasslands.
A major contribution has been made by various non-governmental organisations to the conservation of species-rich lowland meadows and pastures in many parts of the UK through the establishment of nature reserves.
Background research to support the conservation effort has included extensive descriptive regional survey. Recent estimates indicate that modern (post 1975) survey coverage for unimproved neutral grassland in England is about 70%. Survey in progress in Wales has achieved ca 80% coverage and is due to be completed in 1999. Survey coverage is considerably lower in Scotland and is estimated to be ca 30%.
Research required to provide appropriate guidance for conservation management falls into two major categories. The first concerns the relation between management treatments and habitat composition. In this respect, unimproved neutral grasslands are relatively well understood, and benefit from exceptionally long runs of data from the Park Grass experiment at Rothamsted and Cockle Park in Northumberland, as well as more recent studies at Tadham Moor on the Somerset Levels. Nevertheless, there are several major issues which require further resolution, including appropriate forms and levels of minimum-input nutrient application, the relative efficacy of different types and breeds of livestock (sheep, cattle and horses in particular), desirable hydrological regimes in wet grasslands, and the timing of hay harvesting.
The second main need concerns guidance for habitat restoration and expansion. Several studies currently in progress are investigating possibilities for establishing species-rich grasslands by cessation of nutrient inputs, seeding and turfing with wild species and arable reversion. The role, if any, of direct seeding using wild species in habitat restoration and expansion requires further assessment; guidelines for selecting seed sources of local provenance need to be agreed. A less well-researched component concerns spatial aspects of habitat rehabilitation at a landscape scale, where the main concern is to counteract the detrimental effects of isolation and small patch size.
Additionally, there is a need to assess the impact of atmospheric nutrient deposition and climate change in this and other types of lowland grassland and to undertake autecological studies of priority species.
There is also a lack of information on the invertebrate fauna associated with restored lowland meadows. Research might look at the colonisation of these grasslands by invertebrates, and the stability and resilience of these communities in the longer term.
Proposed actions with lead agencies
Policy and legislation
Ensure the conservation requirements of lowland meadows are taken into account in the development and adjustment of agri-environment schemes; design measures to suit local needs and in particular target local concentrations of remnant semi-natural neutral grasslands
. (Action: CCW, DANI, EHS, NE, MAFF, SNH, SOAEFD, WOAD)
Develop and implement strategies to restore and expand the cover of unimproved neutral grassland, taking into account the need to ameliorate the negative effects of small patch size, fragmentation and isolation. (Action: CCW, DANI, EHS, NE, MAFF, SNH, SOAEFD, WOAD)
Support initiatives to conserve unimproved neutral grassland within local government development plans and related policy, in forest management and planting schemes and by special projects. (Action: EA, DETR, DoE(NI), FC, LAs, SEPA, SO, WO)
Ensure that the conservation requirements of floodplain hay meadows are taken into account in Water Level Management Plans. (Action: EA, IDBs)
Site safeguard and management
Keep the extent of SSSI/ASSI coverage under review and notify further sites as necessary to fill significant gaps. (Action: CCW, EHS, NE, SNH)
Secure, by 2004, the uptake of positive management with owners and occupiers of SSSIs/ASSIs, where necessary to achieve favourable conservation conditions, and promote the uptake of such agreements on other wildlife sites. (Action: CCW, EHS, NE, SNH)
Consider the need to manage further key sites as National Nature Reserves and, where appropriate, support acquisition and management by conservation organisations. (Action: CCW, EHS, NE, SNH)
Encourage the development of new management techniques where required, e.g. for weed control, and the setting up of local farm networks, e.g. for livestock provision, that help to ensure sympathetic management. (Action: CCW, DANI, EHS, NE, JNCC, MAFF, SNH, SOAEFD, WOAD)
Contribute to the implementation of relevant species action plans for rare and declining species associated with lowland meadows in conjunction with the relevant species steering group. (Action: CCW, DANI, EHS, NE, MAFF, SNH, SOAEFD, WOAD)
Encourage, develop and disseminate best practice for unimproved neutral grassland management, in particular the integration of conservation management into agricultural practice. (Action: CCW, DANI, EHS, NE, LAs, MAFF, SNH, SOAEFD, WOAD)
Produce and disseminate guidelines for appropriate methods and approaches to establish new stands of lowland hay meadow of wildlife value. (Action: CCW, EHS, NE, SNH)
Encourage the use and establishment of private and public demonstration sites, with special linkage to agri-environment schemes. (Action: CCW, DANI, EHS, NE, FC MAFF, SNH, SOAEFD, WOAD)
Promote conservation and management of Special Areas of Conservation as part of a European network and if a review of community coverage of Annex 1 of the Habitats Directive is undertaken support adequate coverage of this habitat within the site network. (Action: CCW, EHS, NE, JNCC, SNH)
Recommend favourable measures for unimproved lowland grassland conservation during future negotiations in Europe to revise the Common Agricultural Policy. (Action: DETR, MAFF)
Encourage actions at a European and international level which will help improve our understanding of the conservation of the resource at a UK level and promote measures which will strengthen the conservation of this habitat in Europe and elsewhere. (Action: CCW, EHS, NE, JNCC, SNH)
Research and monitoring
Contribute information to a World Wide Web based catalogue of survey information as a means of improving access to information on lowland meadows. (Action: CCW, EHS, NE, SNH)
Undertake vegetation survey and assessment of unimproved neutral grasslands in parts of UK with poor survey coverage, using standardised and repeatable methodology. (ACTION: CCW, EHS, NE, SNH)
Formulate quantified and spatially referenced targets to expand the total cover of lowland meadows of wildlife value across the UK, with particular emphasis on amelioration of habitat fragmentation, by 2005. (Action: CCW, EHS, NE, SNH)
Review and promote research into the best ways of integrating modern agricultural practices with the conservation of species-rich grasslands in lowland farmland. (Action: CCW, DANI, EHS, NE, JNCC, MAFF, SNH, SOAEFD, WOAD)
Review current research and where appropriate promote applied research to inform the conservation and restoration of different forms of dry and floodplain neutral grasslands. (Action: CCW, DANI, EHS, NE, JNCC, MAFF, SNH, SOAEFD, WOAD)
Review current research and where appropriate promote research on the establishment and expansion of species-rich neutral meadows and pastures, covering methodology and landscape ecological components. (Action: CCW, DANI, EHS, NE, JNCC, MAFF, SNH, SOAEFD, WOAD)
Encourage and support conservation studies on scarce animal and plant taxa associated with unimproved neutral grasslands with particular relevance to amelioration of damaging impacts from habitat depletion and fragmentation. (Action: CCW, EHS, NE, JNCC, SNH)
Evaluate the need for impact assessment of the effect of atmospheric nutrient deposition and climate change on community composition, and commission research as appropriate. (Action: CCW, EA, EHS, NE, JNCC, SEPA, SNH)
Develop and implement appropriate surveillance and monitoring programmes to assess progress towards achieving action plan targets. (Action: CCW, DANI, EHS, NE, JNCC, MAFF, SNH, SOAEFD, WOAD)
Communications and publicity
Seek opportunities to present neutral meadow and pasture conservation in the scientific press and popular media. (Action: CCW, EHS, NE, JNCC, SNH)
Encourage appropriate public access for observation and enjoyment of lowland meadows. (Action: CCW, EHS, NE, SNH)
Consider commissioning marketing studies into ways to promote agricultural products from unimproved neutral grassland. (Action: CCW, DANI, EHS, NE, MAFF, SNH, SOAEFD, WOAD)
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Fuller, R.M. (1987). The changing extent and conservation interest of lowland grasslands in England and Wales: a review of grassland surveys 1930-84. Biological Conservation, 40, 281-300.
Hopkins, J.J. (1990). British meadows and pastures. British Wildlife, 1, 202-13.
Jefferson, R.G. (1997). Distribution, status and conservation of Alopecurus pratensis - Sanguisorba officinalis flood plain meadows in England. English Nature Research Report No.249, Peterborough.
Jefferson, R.G. & Robertson, H.J. (1996). Lowland grassland - a strategic review and action plan. English Nature Research Report No.163, Peterborough.
Jefferson, R.G. & Robertson, H.J. (1996). Lowland grassland - wildlife value and conservation status. English Nature Research Report No.169, Peterborough.
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Smith, R.S., Corkhill, P., Shiel, R.S. & Millward, D. (1996). The conservation management of mesotrophic (meadow) grassland in Northern England. 2. Effects of grazing, cutting date, fertiliser and seed application on the vegetation of an agriculturally improved sward. Grass & Forage Science, 51, 292-305.