Posted 1st Feb 2018
Before humans started influencing their surroundings, grasslands would be filled with billowing grasses, colourful wild flowers and the hum of insects and only found in natural clearings in woodlands, above the treeline and at the coast
However, once people started to clear woodlands for farming purposes, grasslands flourished and were used for grazing livestock and hay production
Grasslands aren't just grass
There are several different types of grassland, which are characterised by their soil types. Acid grassland can be found in both upland and lowland areas, where fine-leaved grasses like red and sheep's fescues and common bent grow, alongside wild flowers like sheep's sorrel, heath bedstraw and pretty blue harebells.
Neutral grassland will be associated with clays and silty soils, with green-winged orchids dotting the grass with purple, and pepper saxifrage and adder's-tongue fern flourish here. The unforgettable song of the skylark will fill the air and butterflies like common blue and meadow brown will be seen dancing from flower to flower.
Chalk grassland has developed on shallow, lime-rich soils that are nutrient poor. During the spring and summer months, these special habitats will come to life with swathes of wild flowers, including cowslips, clustered bellflowers and bee orchids, attracting butterflies like striking Adonis blues and clouds of marbled whites.
Grasslands in decline
With agriculture intensifying and grasslands developed, the traditional management technique of cutting and grazing have declined. Coupled with the increased use of herbicides and fertilisers, the traditional grasslands are now under threat - for instance, it's been estimated that we've lost 80 per cent of our chalk grassland in the last 60 years, and only 1,600 hectares of previous floodplain meadows are left in the whole of the UK.
What you can do
Across the UK, Wildlife Trusts are working hard to ensure traditional management techniques are not lost to the mists of time. Careful grazing with traditional breeds, hay-cutting at the right time and scrub clearance are just some of the ways fragile grassland habitats are being kept in good condition. By working closely with farmers and landowners, wildlife-friendly practices are being promoted. You can help by volunteering with your local Wildlife Trust and be involved in everything from stockwatching to surveying meadow flowers.
Typical grassland wildlife
Heath milkwort, common bird’s-foot-trefoil, saw wort, common bent, sheep’s fescue, mat grass, sheep’s sorrel, heath bedstraw, harebell, green-winged orchid, bee orchid, pepper saxifrage, adder’s tongue fern, woodlark, lapwing, nightjar, merlin, hen harrier, chough, common blue butterfly, orange tip butterfly, chalkhill blue butterfly, meadow brown butterfly, marbled white butterfly, field-cricket, great green bush-cricket
Text and information courtesy of the Wildlife Trusts - image courtesy of Gwent Wildlife Trust