Old grasslands need an equivalent to ancient woodland status

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.


About grasslandstrust

The Grasslands Trust is the only national UK charity that focuses entirely on saving grasslands that are valuable because they are rich in wildlife, history, or for other reasons.
This entry was posted in agriculture, biodiversity, grasslands, Miles King, pollinators, semi-natural, Weald Meadows Nectar Networks and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Old grasslands need an equivalent to ancient woodland status

  1. Good to see the threat to “ancient grasslands” being highlighted.

    Another aspect relates to grassland fungi, especially those considered as part of the “waxcap-grassland” assemblage.

    A few species may appear in grassland sites undergoing restoration after just a few years, for example Hygrocybe conica (Blackening waxcap). These are the exception however, with other species not appearing until perhaps 40 to 50 years of rehabilitation of grassland, assuming a regime that facilitates the depletion of excess phosphates and nitrates and prevents scrub encroachment. This group includes the charismatic Hygrocybe calyptriformis (Pink waxcap) now missing from many parts of mainland Europe – though happily still widely recorded in the UK.

    Finally, there remains the most threatened group whose members seem to thrive only on grassland that has been permanent and unimproved for a much longer period. Typical amongst these are Hygrocybe punicea (Crimson waxcap) which, unlike many species, fruits consistently and can act as a useful indicator of the better sites, and Entoloma bloxamii (Big blue pinkgill) a chunky, blue/blue-grey species afforded UKBAP priority status.

  2. Thanks very much for your comment David. I completely agree – fungi like waxcaps are excellent indicators of old grassland and I think the CHEGS scoring system is something which should be used much more widely than it currently is, as a way of assessing the quality of semi-natural grasslands.

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