Wild-flower meadows are semi-natural grasslands that have been created by long-term, low-intensity farming practices. Semi-natural grasslands contains mixtures of grasses, broad-leaved herbs, sedges, rushes, mosses and other low-growing plants adapted to poor soil fertility conditions.
According to the UK Biodiversity Action Plan - the government’s strategy to conserve, protect and enhance biological diversity - semi-natural grasslands comprise 1% of the UK land area and just 2% of the UK’s total grassland.
Wild-flower meadows are one of UK BAP’s Priority Habitats, which include lowland and upland meadows, lowland and upland calcareous grasslands, lowland dry acid grassland and purple moor-grass & rush pastures. Lowland semi-natural grasslands support 18% of UK BAP species. The UK Semi-Natural Grasslands are considered important habitats at a European level and are protected across the EU.
Countryside Survey - which audits UK biodiversity - found between 1998 and 2007 there had been a significant decrease in plant species richness in wild-flower meadows. The significant fall in the number of food plants for butterfly larvae and farmland birds has led to numbers of both species to decline.
Of the grasslands which do exist, many are small and fragmented. Over 80% of lowland and upland wild-flower meadows are less than 5ha, making them critically small for populations of vulnerable plants and insects.
To overcome these issues, there are three imperatives: 1) existing semi-natural grasslands need to be managed sustainably to maintain or enhance their biodiversity, 2) degraded grasslands need to be restored and 3) new semi-natural grasslands need to be created to connect existing habitats.
Managing Semi-Natural Grasslands
The existence of wild-flower meadows depends on low soil fertility and low levels of agricultural disturbance, such as gentle grazing by cattle. Stocking rates that maintain the biodiversity richness of Semi-Natural Grasslands pastures are less than 1.0 livestock unit/ha.
Wild-flower meadows and Semi-Natural Grasslands generally provide livestock with low to modest amounts of nutritionally-valuable forage, while they give about half the amount of forage as conventionally-managed silage. Wild-flower silage can also be difficult for stock to properly digest. DEFRA has encouraged the science of restoration and management of grasslands as part of the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) schemes in England, but there has been little work in finding ways to optimise and integrate them into sustainable livestock systems.
Clean grazing of late-summer regrowth on species-rich hay meadows can support excellent individual performance of low-density stocked animals, with live-weight gains of about 1kg/day. there is also some evidence that livestock grazed on species-rich pasture produce better-quality meat.
Current position of wild-flower meadow conservation and development
The National Park and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 designated places that are special for wildlife and people, notably through National Nature Reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. However habitats have continued to become fragmented and isolated. Agri-environmental stewardship schemes funded by DEFRA and administered by Natural England are key to safeguarding and creating new sites.
Conservation groups such as the National Trust and the RSPB also play a major role through establishing nature reserves and educating people about the value of grasslands.
Support to farmers
More than £700m has been allocated to farmers from 2007-2013 through HLS, a key objective of which is to conserve biodiversity in farmland. HLS is the principle mechanism for maintaining, restoring and creating Semi-Natural Grasslands.
In England, about 61,000ha of grassland is under environmental stewardship, 2000ha of which is under the creation of species-rich grassland option of HLS. Farmers can receive £200/ha for maintaining or restoring semi-natural grasslands (though traditional grazing cutting for hay), or £280/ha for their creation. In selected sites, there is also a supplementary payment of £70 per ha to promote the use of native breeds of livestock. Some native livestock breeds have attributes that are particularly well-suited to grazing semi-natural vegetation and to achieving conservation objectives.
Similar schemes for managing semi-natural grasslands operate in Scotland (Scottish Rural Development Programme Rural Priorities species-rich grassland package) and Wales (Tir Gofal and Glastir).
Animal Briefs is an initiative of The British Society of Animal Science, providing factual and impartial information on matters of topical concern. This brief has been prepared by Jerry Tallowin of Rothamsted Research.