I was lucky enough to spend most of last week at Dorset’s wonderful Kingcombe Centre and meadows, teaching Bristol University MSc students how to identify plants and plant communities, and talked a bit about their ecology and conservation too. They were a good bunch of students, interested in conservation and that makes teaching so much easier – as does wall to wall sunshine. I normally teach this course in June but we were there in May this year. The famous Kingcombe meadows were a bit early for teaching plant ID, but we managed for the most part. The biggest surprise was how little Crested dog’s-tail Cynosurus cristatus was out. In Lord’s mead, the best Kingcombe meadow, it was not showing at all, neither vegetative or flowering. It is a difficult grass to see before it flowers as it has few distinguishing features, but my co-tutor Steph and I had a really good look for it and struggled to find it. Was it a victim of this truly bizarre spring we are having?
It was a good example for the students to understand that vegetation rarely behaves according to the book. Or books in this case – the National Vegetation Classification. As I tried to explain to them, it is quite possible to have a perfectly good stand of MG5 Mesotrophic Grassland 5 – the typical dry hay meadow community where Cynosurus is supposedly a constant species, without Cynosurus being constant, or even present.
Despite not finding Cynosurus we were able to find Pepper-saxifrage Silaum silaus, a good indicator of unimproved and undisturbed grassland, in Lord’s mead. I say undisturbed, because it is still absent from the meadows to the north, which were ploughed once or twice during the second world war. These other meadows are still unimproved and many are very flowery and they are mostly MG5; but despite the 70 odd years since last cultivation, and probably little or no artificial fertiliser or herbicide in the intervening years, they are still not as diverse as Lord’s Mead. Does it matter? After all they are performing a valuable function providing nectar for invertebrates, they support a rare grassland plant community, they conform to the definition of the priority habitat Lowland Meadows and Pastures. And all of Kingcombe is SSSI and Dorset Wildlife Trust nature reserve, so it’s all protected from modern agriculture.
At the moment the Government (and others) are interested in trying to work out what’s replaceable and what’s irreplaceable habitat. This matters when trying to create detail around the ambitious England Biodiversity Strategy targets for 90% of priority habitat in recovering condition, and 200,000ha of new priority habitat. Limestone pavement and Lowland raised bog are obvious examples of irreplaceable habitat. Ancient woodland is a proxy for ecological quality, but the priority habitat “mixed broadleaved woodland” can include recently created ones.
What about grasslands? We are now pretty good at creating new flowery grasslands, and, like the Kingcombe meadows, they can provide valuable nectar and pollen for foraging insects. But it’s vital we continue to differentiate between the long-established grasslands that support specialist plants and animals, and those that are valuable but younger. Ancient grasslands has not caught on in the way ancient woodlands has – but we need some language that recognises the distinction – long-established grasslands are effectively irreplaceable.