Looking out of my office across the Pennine Dales landscape (well we are all allowed a few minutes of our working day looking out of the window aren’t we?!) the importance of the grasslands to the local agricultural sector is very clear. We are now well into lambing time and the meadow and other in-bye grasslands are full of Swaledale ewes and their young offspring. A few cattle have also been turned out of their inside winter quarters and are enjoying feeling the sun on their backs for the first time in months. What this means is that the grasslands are being utilised to capacity and are grazed tightly like bowling greens and there is little space for our spring plants to flower.
Of course this is normal. Grazing has been part of our grassland management for thousands of years, and is essential to maintain wildflower and other wildlife interest. But is everything rosy?
For many years there have been concerns that the floristic interest of our upland hay meadows has been declining and that many of the characteristic species including wood cranesbill, melancholy thistle and globeflower are disappearing. A great deal of effort has and continues to be put into conserving these meadows, and agri-environment schemes are now much better at agreeing nutrient inputs, cutting dates and in some cases winter grazing levels. In addition projects such as Haytime have been restoring large areas of meadows by spreading green hay from nearby species-rich sites. However are we doing enough to conserve these rare and beautiful grasslands?
The abundance of white dots I am looking at might be one issue. Yes meadows have always been used for lambing, but were they always grazed quite this hard? Sheep numbers increased markedly from the 1950s onwards, and although they may have reduced in some areas over recent years are still at much higher levels than when historical records show the wildflower meadows were in their ‘hay day’. Are these higher levels of spring grazing having an impact on some of the wildflower species – removing or stunting the growth of some of the larger ‘herb’ species? Are additional nutrients being added through supplementary feeding? And as the seasons appear to move further forward, as our climate changes, is farming (and agri-environment?) now out of sync with the growth of the plants themselves? Agri-environment agreements generally stipulate a mid May ‘shut up’ date in the uplands, but would we be better bringing this forward and or basing it on some other factor such as the flowering of a particular hedgerow plant? Would this help ensure that our hay meadow management works better with the wildflower species we are trying to conserve?
The real question may be, “does the management of wildflower-rich hay meadows actually still fit with modern farming management”, even in the uplands where farming is still relatively un-intensive. Can we continue to expect these hay meadows to maintain their wildflower interest when they are managed as an integral part of a more intensive farm management (with the grazing and nutrient pressures that this brings) or should we be considering taking the most flower-rich of our hay meadows out of mainstream farming management completely?
And what about the impacts of climate change? How can we help species move either upwards (i.e. altitudinally) or northwards in response to a warmer (and possibly drier) climate? Should we already be taking steps to help meadow plants spread from their little walled enclosures into adjacent grassland areas – and how can we do this when the management of meadows and pastures is so rigidly defined and implemented? Lots of questions but perhaps the answer lies partly in the messages of Bob Gibbon’s recent blog for The Grasslands Trust. We need to start thinking beyond individual habitat types and start removing, or blurring some of the straight lines from our thinking and landscapes. A lot is being said about ‘landscape-scale’ wildlife management, and now is the time to start to make this happen. Maybe the longer term future of some of our upland meadow wildflower communities is as woodland glades and tall-herb woodland edges rather than in isolated walled fields – and actually isn’t this where they developed from in the first place? If so let’s start thinking this way when we create or manage woodland areas, and let’s also try and create more ‘fuzzy’ tall grown wildflower edges to the heather moorlands which rise above the sharp green line of the Dale bottom grasslands. Might now be a time for new and creative thinking rather than just trying to preserve the old?
Paul Evans, Conservation Officer – North East England