What are they?
These are permanent grasslands that have been largely maintained and enhanced by continuity of traditional low-intensity grazing (pastures) or hay making (meadows) with either no fertiliser or low inputs of natural fertilisers such as farmyard manure. They have never been subject to agricultural improvement or where improvements were made, they were insignificant and the effects have now disappeared.
These grasslands support the greatest range of grasses, herbs and bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), some of these species can only be found in these grasslands. They often in turn, host a diverse wildlife interest, ranging from insects to small mammals and breeding birds.
What are they composed of?
Typical grass species include crested hair grass, meadow oat grass, sheep’s fescue, tor grass, upright brome, quaking grass and yellow oat grass as well as the more common grasses of semi improved grassland. Typical herbs include common bird’s foot trefoil, knapweeds, scabious, and many more. They are also home to a number of scarce plants such as dyer's greenweed, pepper saxifrage, greater burnet, pasque-flower, green-winged orchid, great pignut and sneezewort.
Natural England defines un-improved grassland as containing less than 10% cover of rye- grasses and white clover and the sward is generally species rich with more than 15 species per square metre. The cover of wildflowers and sedges is generally over 30% excluding white clover, creeping buttercup and injurious weeds (creeping thistle, spear thistle, broad leaved dock, curled dock and common ragwort).
How can they be managed for wildlife?
Grassland management should aim to remove the year’s growth, prevent the growth/spread of scrub and to control areas of rank vegetation or undesirable species. An annual management regime is important to developing unimproved (species rich) grasslands. This could be achieved by:
Traditional pasture management - grazing with animals
Traditional hay meadow management – production of hay
In species rich un-improved grassland 'weeds' such as docks, nettle, creeping thistles and ragwort are rarely a problem. However, problems can arise when a grassland is left unmanaged or subject to overgrazing/poaching or artificial inputs. Initial management should use mechanical methods of control (topping, hand pulling etc) and only as a second resort the use of herbicides. An area should never be sprayed until it has been thoroughly surveyed to determine the species it contains. The Wildlife Trust could help with this.
Due to the rarity and fragile nature of un-improved grasslands, the use of herbicides should be restricted and only applied using a spot herbicide treatment with knapsack sprayer or using a weed wiper herbicide treatment. Under no circumstances should the grassland be blanket sprayed with a total kill or selective herbicide.
For more information about managing particular weeds see below:
Receive further advice and help and/or a free site visit from a Wildlife Sites Officer
If you would like your grassland to be grazed, you can register your land by clicking here
If you would like your grassland to be cut for hay, you can register your land by clicking here
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