The challenge of recovering our best unprotected grasslands

At Tuesday’s England Biodiversity Stakeholder Group, the latest incarnation of the England Biodiversity Group, we heard Biodiversity Minister Richard Benyon (no buzzards were mentioned) tell us he was absolutely focused on “outcomes and results”.

He’s right  – we can sometimes get lost in the processes of biodiversity conservation (and that has happened all too often over the past 20 years), and we always need to draw connections between the process and the reality. We also heard from Defra about the new set of Biodiversity Indicators they are developing. The Minister singled out the indicator “area of land in agri-environment schemes” and noted that this was one of the indicators which was showing a positive trend, alongside fish stocks and the levels of hazardous substances in the marine environment, all of which are heading in the right direction apparently.

While listening to the Minister talk quite passionately about his enthusiasm for Nature Improvement Areas, my mind wandered back to a wonderful bike ride I had taken on a sunny day off the previous week. I’d followed some fantastic green lanes around the chalk country  between Dorchester and Weymouth, followed the South Dorset Ridgeway and dropped down into Martinstown, famous as the place where the wettest day on record happened in 1955.

There was a lovely little “dry” valley (not very dry actually after the exceptionally wet weather we’ve had, although this was the day before the deluge when 110mm fell on this part of Dorset in 36 hours), with some downland on either side. I noticed that the downland hadn’t been grazed for a while – you can tell because the red fescue grass grows out and forms these waves of grass which eventually smother the wildflowers. False oat-grass was also becoming established on deeper soils within the downland banks but I still found plenty of downland plants like salad-burnet, bird’s-foot trefoil and rough hawkbit. I wondered whether these downland banks in their current state would qualify as priority habitat. One large section of downland bank was subject to another land-use change, but I’ll come back to that later.

When I got home I had a look on MAGIC and Nature on the Map to see what was going on.

priority grasslands map

This map shows that there are several separate surviving fragments of downland in this dry valley. The blue-green denotes downland – the olive green polygon is supposed to be lowland dry acid grassland. How anyone could imagine that there could be acid grassland in a dry chalk valley I don’t know.

This does just show how vital it is that the lowland grassland inventory is properly updated to become a truly comprehensive grassland inventory.

OK so that’s good news I thought, so why aren’t these banks being grazed? I looked at agri-environment scheme coverage.

Agri-Environment Schemes: purple = OELS/HLS; blue = OELS; yellow = ELS/HLS

Clearly this area of Dorset more than meets the target for AE scheme coverage in the Biodiversity Indicators – it’s practically completely covered by them and lots of HLS! That is surely great news. The only slight problem is that the schemes have almost completely missed the surviving priority habitat in the area. The only grassland that does fall into an agri-environment scheme is the mislabeled acid grassland, but at least that’s in organic entry level so it won’t be getting any artificial fertiliser.

In the first map you might notice a largeish area which isn’t downland priority habitat and which sites neatly in the middle of the 3 surviving areas of downland. Here it is marked with an arrow

Now take a look at this Google Earth image of that same piece of downland

Notice anything? It’s been planted with trees, sycamores to be precise. The first planting on the bottom of the slope was quite a while ago, possible 20 years. But the rest of the downland has been planted much more recently – perhaps 8 years ago. I’m checking with the FC as to whether an EIA  for forestry was carried out and whether the trees were funded by a farm woodland premium scheme.

Now when the first trees were planted there was no EIA requirement – unless the site was SSSI it was OK to plant it up – and that’s why it’s so important that Biodiversity 2020 recognises that unprotected priority habitat is as valuable as SSSI. Once the first trees had been planted and the downland was unmanaged for years, that would mean that it would not be classified as priority habitat (and therefore pass the EIA test) when the second lot went in.

But wouldn’t it have been better, in terms of restoring the surviving priority downland fragments, if it had been targeted for HLS (which started in 2005 remember), restored to grazing, and reconnected those now disconnected fragments. Hopefully this sort of approach will yield results in the Nature Improvement Areas.

What concerns me now is that once the surviving downland fragments have been ungrazed for a few more years, these will then lose their priority habitat status. And then even if an EIA for Forestry was carried out, they would pass the test and be eligible to be planted with more trees.

The challenge set out in The England Biodiversity Strategy, to get 90% of priority grassland habitat into favourable or recovering condition by 2020, really is a huge one.

This will be my last blog post for TGT on wordpress, as we move our blog over to our new website starting next week. I’ve enjoyed writing these posts over the past nearly two years and thanks to you all for reading and commenting. I hope that I will continue to write a blog for Buglife once I’ve moved over there.

Miles King

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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 agri-environment, agriculture, biodiversity, grassland restoration, grazing, landscape scale, tree planting, woodland and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The challenge of recovering our best unprotected grasslands

  1. David Larkin says:

    I remember going on a field trip looking at Countryside Stewardship schemes many years ago. We went round with the assessor who proudly told us how he had incentivised the farmer to join the agreement by adding an access payment for a path in a place where it would never be used. I suspect the same goes for HLS, include the bits that you can get easy money for, don’t bother with those tricky to manage bits (yes, I know it is not how it is supposed to work)

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