…no, we work much closer to home! Since working for The Grasslands Trust I’ve heard many interesting variations of what our name could mean. Although we are well known for our policy and advocacy work (with our detailed report on the state of the UK’s grasslands, Nature’s Tapestry) The Grasslands Trust isn’t as well known as other habitat-scale conservation Trusts. The image our name conjures up in people’s minds can be anything from African savannah to intensively farmed Welsh green hills – after which people ask “why do we need to conserve grassland, isn’t there already lots?”. Rarely do people think of our ancient wildflower-rich grasslands and meadows. Yet if you asked people about the UK’s ancient woodland they would immediately think of our remaining lush green forests and their importance as part of our heritage.
However our native wildflower meadows and pastures have played just as big a part in our culture and heritage as our ancient woodlands, and support just as many native species. The story of England’s grasslands stretches back across millennia. Almost all of the plants and animals that inhabit ancient grasslands colonised Britain after the last Ice Age – about 10,000 years ago, taking the place of creatures such as Giant ground sloths, Sabre-toothed tigers and mammoths. As the glaciers of the Ice Age retreated, grasslands replaced them and since the arrival of Neolithic farming culture 6000 years ago they have dominated the English landscape.
Commons, village greens, heathlands and wood pastures provided permanent grazing for sheep and cattle reared for meat, and oxen used as working animals. Meadow provided hay to keep the livestock alive over winter. The cycle of arable and fallow (combined with permanent grasslands) provided opportunities for wildlife to re-colonise areas as soon as conditions became suitable.
During the early part of the 20th century, grassland management started to change with the development of new varieties of grass and the introduction of artificial fertilisers. The drive for domestic food production during the Second World War led away from grassland and towards arable, changing the English landscape entirely. You can learn more about the history of our grasslands here.
There are a number of different grassland habitats surviving in the UK and each supports different animals, insects and plants. They have survived purely because they have not been managed intensively, but have been managed sympathetically through mowing for hay and/or light grazing.
And so the struggle facing the communications team at The Grasslands Trust is changing public perception of what we mean by “grassland”. Not all grasslands are the same, and the bright green fields of the modern English countryside are a far cry from the wildlife-filled meadows, commons and downlands of our past. Almost all of England’s grasslands have been heavily modified by agriculture. Less than 100,000ha (just 3%) of England’s lowland grasslands are still rich in wildlife, archaeology and history.
Grasslands aren’t just a part of our culture, they provide vital ecosystem services and their soils absorb carbon, helping to mitigate climate change. They help purify drinking water and provide homes for pollinating insects such as bees, which are estimated to be worth £440 million a year to England’s agricultural industries.
The Grasslands Trust focuses all its resources on the habitat-scale conservation of our native wildlife-rich meadows and pastures. If we don’t conserve grasslands, we can’t hope to conserve the iconic species they support, such as bees, butterflies and bats. Without a home, the species we know and love could easily become as extinct as the mammoths and Sabre-tooth tigers they replaced.
~ By Sarah Knight, Communications Officer