Documenting ancient grassland loss – a short-ish review.

I haven’t read through all available papers/reports on grassland loss  (a lot of the science is behind a paywall despite being publicly funded) but I’ve collated enough to give an overview here. Also …it’s complicated, so has been tricky to simplify.

Starting at the start then. The Natural England Technical Information Note TIN147 states “It is thought that MG5 grassland is an artefact of post-Neolithic farming. However, if the prehistoric vegetation was more parkland than closed woodland (Vera 2000) then it is possible that vegetation analogous to MG5 and other neutral grassland types could be construed as being near natural vegetation (Peterken 2009).” If Peterken is correct then that gives it the same status as Ancient Woodland ground flora and with the present advances in genetic testing presumably this could be checked by comparing genetic differences with continental vegetation – as far as I know that hasn’t been done.



Oliver Rackham in his book ‘The History of the Countryside’ (2000) differentiates clearly between ‘meadow’ grassland mown for hay and ‘pasture’ which is grazed by farm animals. Meadow is the best recorded land-use in the Domesday Book and Rackham gives an approximate sum of around 300,000 acres (120,000 ha) or around 1.2 % of land area in England, commonest in Lincolnshire and the East Midlands. Calculating the amount of pasture is more complicated as it is not always mentioned in the Domesday returns; Rackham gives a figure of 28% for Dorset and then tackles the problem from a different angle by working out how much grass would be needed to feed the numbers of oxen (for ploughing) and sheep and comes up with a figure of around a third of England (his figure is about 9 million acres (approx. 3 and a half million hectares)) although does make the point that it is difficult to know how to separate the pasture from moor or heath.


Around 1250 AD Rackham suggests an increase in meadow to something like 4 % probably at the expense of pasture and he says the records give the impression that by the thirteenth century meadow covered most floodplains even of small streams and this is why in maps ancient woodland never adjoin banks unless the sides are too steep for meadow.

After the black death reduced England’s population from a quarter to half (can’t find a definitive figure on this), ploughland was often left unploughed and so turned in part to pasture in many areas (this is presumably what we now see as pasture grassland on ridge and furrow).

Looking locally (to me) at the figures from a survey of the Manor of Long Newton in the Tees Valley in 1606 we have 3% of land area as meadow, 34% as pasture (although this pasture included large areas of Gorse that was harvested for fuel) which matches the Rackham national estimates very closely; Long Newton is planned countryside (laid out probably in the late 11th Century).

first map with purple dot

The first real major loss of species-rich pasture as far as I can see comes during Enclosure when the large common pastures are separated out in smaller fields by hedges…and then I assume frequently ploughed and resown. Enclosure happened countrywide over several centuries (16th to 19th Century). Rackham also mentions that grass and herbage seed was becoming more commercialized by 1700 along with an increasing interest in improving productivity. I can’t find any figures on the loss of native grasslands at this stage; in my local example Long Newton there seems to have been a move away from arable to livestock farming, but I can’t find any notes to say the original communal grazing areas were ploughed though there is comment that the gorse bushes were uprooted.

After Enclosure, there seems to be a steady increase in eradicating wildflowers that relates to the push for increasing agricultural productivity but conversely, particularly at the start of the Twentieth Century, there seems to an idea (urban myth?) of a ‘rural idyll’ that by the 1930’s wildflowers were seemingly everywhere; a puzzle I haven’t been able to find information about. If anyone has any suggestions please let me know (though see comments later about the 1987 Fuller paper). *@dolly_and_dj  suggested horses – every farm would have them and need fields of pasture and for hay for feeding them. I think that makes sense, and horses avoid eating buttercups so there would have been lots of them around.*


The first time we get an estimate of loss between 1930 and 1984 is in the paper by Fuller (1987) who gives an estimate for England and Wales of 200,000 ha of “semi-natural pastures” existing in 1984 some “3% of its area 50 years ago”. That would give a figure of 6.6 million ha of semi-natural pastures existing in 1930 in England and Wales [this figure is a puzzle to me. Wales in 2015 had max 1,850,000 ha agricultural land and so even if say half of it was wildflower-rich pasture (1000,000 ha) in 1930 the amount of semi-natural pasture in England still had increased from 3.5 million ha to 5.1 million ha since Domesday. The logic of this would be that there are species-rich grasslands that have been continuously grassland from before Enclosure which are those that may relate to the near natural vegetation, species-rich grassland that has been created on previously ploughed land after Enclosure but pre-1930’s, and then those created post 1980’s as part of the conservation movement. It would be interesting to know if a different community of species applies to each type and that they could be differentiated.]

Following 1930 there was a continual loss of grassland wildflower habitat, to such an extent that even up to 1967 the government were paying farmers £12 an acre to plough land that had not been ploughed since before 1946 (source – conference proceedings ‘Old Grassland its archeological and ecological importance’ 18th-19th November 1969 and thank you to Markus Wagner @Wagner__Markus  for that .pdf). They were paid more than for ploughing recently-created grassland because the old wildflower-rich grassland was harder to plough. There are no figures given in the proceedings for the whole country, but there is a comment that in the eastern counties “There seems no likelihood of a reprieve for old, floristically rich meadow and pasture”. That was in 1969.

Recently there have been reports on continuing losses of semi-natural grassland; from Local Wildlife Sites written by the Wildlife Trusts, the Grasslands Trust (sadly no longer existing), Plantlife, and NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology  .


So what amounts do we have now? According to a paper in 2013 by Ridding, Redhead, and Pywell Natural England gave figures for 2008 that said in “England 74 894 ha of semi-natural grassland lies within SSSI, which represents 68% of the total remaining resource” which gives us a total of 110,138 ha.

A UK National Ecosystem Assessment Technical report on semi-natural grasslands from 2011 (scroll down for chapter 6 and download then scroll down to page 167) gives England 104,500 ha of Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) priority grasslands and including 376,000 of upland acid grassland, a total Semi‐natural Grassland Habitat of 480,500 ha.

JNCC in 2016 gives a total of 88,725 ha for BAP priority habitats for England: figures as below

UK BAP priority habitats England
Northern Ireland
United Kingdom
Purple moor grass and rush pastures 21,544 32,161 6,768 18,476 79,400
Lowland dry acid grassland 20,142 36,473 4,377 674 61,650
Lowland calcareous grassland 38,687 1,146 761 40,600
Lowland meadows 7,282 1,322 980 937 10,500
Upland hay meadows 870 27 900
Calaminarian grasslands
[most of this habitat in Scotland occurs in the uplands]
<200 50 [<200] <450

Current figures for England published 3 August 2017 by Defra (  give lowland meadow at 36,129 ha (89277 acres) and Upland Hay meadow at 3,524 ha. Adding up their figures for grassland types as the JNCC have above then the total is 130,000 ha for England.

Clearly there is a difference between the modern day areas recorded (I would imagine it gets even more complicated when you look at the survey data details, how up-to-date they are and how comprehensive the survey was) which suggests there is no accurate mapping of such habitats/or definitions of grassland habitats that all government departments agree upon.


To sum up then…since the Domesday Book England has gone from approximately 1-4% meadow and at least a third (3500,000 ha) of land being species-rich pasture grassland to a peak (?) of 6500,000 ha of semi-natural grassland (England and Wales) in 1930 to the present figure of between 90,000 ha to 450,000 ha depending on whose figures and definitions you use.

Of the iconic British hay meadow grassland there is only 7,282 ha (JNCC 2016) or 36,128ha (Defra 2016) left in England. (I’ll see if I can find out why the two figures disagree)

Putting it into context; the Ancient Woodland Inventory has been held since 1981, maps over 52,000 ancient woodland sites which amount to approx. 400,000 ha (2.6 % of England and Wales), there is an established list of ancient woodland indicator species, and because of the way we have changed the management of trees we now have more mature trees alive in England than there have ever been in the last 1000 years. Why ancient woodlands are so much more important than ancient grasslands I don’t know, but will try and find out.

As this has been such a depressing blog to type (I’ve been putting it off for months), in my next blog I’ll have a look at some positives and options for what we might do in the future.



*  @SK53onOSM kindly pointed out that the 1930 survey had been digitised and is available on the MAGIC website. Click on the link and it takes you to the map at Long Newton – move the slider on landscape to the left and the OS map will fade up,backdropDIndex,backdropIndex,europeIndex,vmlBWIndex,25kBWIndex,50kBWIndex,250kBWIndex,miniscaleBWIndex,baseIndex,CSTlowrbog,CSTreedbed&box=430974:512943:445156:519621&useDefaultbackgroundMapping=false 

The original 1930’s survey map can be found here and a key to what the colours mean can be found here and I presume that if you work for a university you have access to this which has also digitised the survey

I haven’t listed references because it’s a blog that took a long time to do and now I’m tired – if you want to see a good science paper review then try 

and I suspect this is good but it’s behind a paywall so (shrug emoji)

Yes, I too wish there was a grassland book the equivalent to the huge Ancient Woodland by Oliver Rackham (2003). There is however a good history section in the Floodplain meadow guide which you can find as a .pdf here  and they are doing some amazing work on what are the original meadows from the Domesday Book.

I’m hoping the Meadows book by George Peterken will have something, but haven’t got it yet – still waiting for the reprint to happen.

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Defining Ancient Grassland

I’ve been emailing different people at different government departments about the recording of ancient grassland (and also chatting to conservation charities) when I’ve had time. I just email a question and ask if it can be answered – please forward this to someone who might be able to help. I get back very detailed replies with links to different scientific papers or various writings – it’s been very interesting and people are extremely helpful where they can be.

One of the major sticking points has been the lack of an agreed definition of what ancient grassland is exactly, although people are happy to use the term in their replies.

IMG_9585The definition of Ancient Woodland relates more to the first mapped records that we have of woodland (“any wooded area that has been wooded continuously since at least 1600 AD (1750AD in Scotland)”) than to any particular woodland related ecological feature. The Inventory is provisional and has never been fully checked through survey and I doubt if there is evidence for every single wood; creating the Inventory was essentially a map and aerial photograph based exercise.

The Inventory also only relates to pieces of woodland of greater than 2 hectares, but recently West Sussex surveyed all their ancient woodland including pieces smaller than 2 ha, adding an extra 3500 ha to their previously mapped 16,874 ha from a 1989 report  ( ). For context, according to 2016 government figures, there is only 7,282 ha of Lowland Meadow Priority Habitat in the whole of England  although I noticed that in 2013 the Natural England Technical Information Note TIN147 states there is less than 6000 ha of unimproved neutral grassland remaining in England.


In two of the replies to my various emails I was directed to this paper * studying 150 years of plant community re-assembly on Salisbury Plain, UK and which used the term ‘ancient calcareous grassland’. If you use a term in a scientific paper then you must be able to define that term clearly and I had noticed within the paper there was only an implicit definition. After correspondence with the lead author (the same day!) and the involvement of another author of the paper, I had an explicit definition.

‘a semi-natural plant community maintained as grassland since 1840, on a site with no history of arable management or agricultural improvement since 1840 in any of the currently available land-use datasets.’

It may be that the part after the comma is not generally used, but at this stage is worth spelling out.  1840 is used as a starting date as that is usually around the time we first get good maps across the UK mentioning the land use (via the church Tithe maps); semi-natural plant community means that it has escaped all the various ravages of fertilizer and herbicide application (agricultural improvement); treated as a grassland since then means you avoid sites with resown wildflowers or other agricultural improvement i.e. it has been continuously grassland (c.f. the Ancient Woodland definition).

Yes, our records of grasslands are imperfect; we can never be sure it wasn’t ploughed once in 1862 (as a random example) but never ploughed again. However, I think it is a good start at a working definition…and more importantly for working towards an inventory, it has been intrinsic to the results of a published, peer-reviewed scientific paper and no-one has queried it yet.



*I got sent the full paper but there is a good article on the research here

Ancient Woodland definition from

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The Curious Incidence of the Knapweed in the Meadow.



It would seem that knapweed is almost synonymous with meadow in conservation. If you want to create a new meadow then it’s in just about every meadow mix of seed you can find – always recommended as being good for bees and other pollinators, and even if you collect seed from an ancient meadow it’s likely to be in that. So much so, that one of the National Vegetation Classification types is even named after it – ‘MG5 Cynosurus cristatusCentaurea nigra grassland’, or in common names/terms, ‘Lowland Meadow Crested dog’s-tail (a grass) – knapweed grassland’. Within this type of grassland (a national priority habitat) knapweed is pretty much a constant species…so wherever you stand in the meadow there’ll be some near you.


But the famous Muker meadows in Upper Swaledale have none, or at least very little of it, and as I visit regularly this has always a puzzle to me. Okay, so they are classed as a slightly different meadow type (an Upland Hay-meadow or MG3, which is found almost exclusively in the Yorkshire Dales) but a quick look at the BSBI species maps shows that knapweed grows along the dale so it’s not like the climate is wrong for it.


Perhaps it’s because the meadows are always cut around the middle of July to make hay and that’s when knapweed is just starting to flower in the north. If knapweed is cut before being able to set seed then over the years it will die out – makes sense, doesn’t it?


But hang on…surely everywhere else in the country must have made hay in June or July so why is knapweed just about everywhere else in meadows? And not just knapweed, but all the other mid/late-summer flowering wildflowers?

first map with purple dot

If we go back to our map of Long Newton in the mid Seventeenth Century and the survey of 1606 I think we get a clue. There was 10 times the amount of pasture to meadow (1121 acres pasture, 111 acres meadow) and we discover from a partial plan of c. 1616 that what there was of meadow at that time lay astride streams or damp ground or scattered through the arable fields in little patches (on the map designated ‘colcot’) with only a few larger areas subsequently divided into lots with different villagers owning different amounts.


There is no information in the documents on the grasses and wildflowers that made up the ‘colcot’ meadows and now with agricultural improvement and change of the last 350 years almost all the vegetation has changed completely…perhaps I need to mark out where I think the ‘colcot’ land is on a modern map and go and have a look just to check.


What of our knapweed? Well the biggest pieces of wildflower-rich grassland in Long Newton Parish would be the grazing land to the north and to the south, a pasture that was dotted with scattered gorse.


It seems sensible to assume it was the same in similar parishes throughout the country and that the later flowering grassland wildflowers like knapweed, along with the rarer saw-wort and betony, could evade hungry cow and sheep mouths often enough to flower and set seed, perhaps whilst growing amongst the gorse.


And then at the time of enclosure, when the wide open medieval fields were split and surrounded by hedges, maybe the farmer changed from grazing to hay-making and the knapweed hung on grimly growing, but not seeding, in the new regime it found itself in. Or maybe it seeded every 30 years or so in a wet year when the farmer was late cutting the hay or just maybe individual knapweed plants can live for hundreds of years under those conditions?


Blog on the need for an Ancient Grassland Inventory here 

Medieval plant communities on road verges here



Cutting your meadow and making hay in June or early July gives the best fodder for your cattle or sheep over the winter. Leave it later and it’s too chewy with less nutrients and the animals don’t like it as much. I’m using ‘meadow’ in its original meaning of ‘grassland which is mown for hay’

Plants with heavy seeds that can’t be windblown far, and the plant communities they grow in, don’t just appear by magic; they must have been influenced by or been derived from the farming that happened on the land before today, and in the UK we have at least 6-7000 years of that. Rackham has things to say about the relative amounts of pasture and meadow in England in his “The History of the Countryside” but that’s for another blog I think…

I dimly recall, from tweets on social media, that there’s an early flowering and a late flowering devil’s-bit scabious? Selective pressure of hay-making? Quick internet search and I couldn’t find anything so I may be mistaken, but I wonder if it is the case with other species? Early and late flowering forms of knapweed?

Back in 2004, I went to a day course ‘Bringing Back the Meadows’ by Flora Locale which demonstrated brush-harvesting and hand collection of seed (surprisingly quick if there are enough of you). I remember being told of a single farm (probably in the dales) where the fields near the farm were filled with early flowering grassland plants and those further away with later flowering wildflowers. The reason was to do with manpower…it takes quite a while to cut and collect/store a field of hay by hand; so, you cut the field nearest the farm first and gradually work outwards and over the years that is a selective pressure on the species that grow in each field. I’ve just looked to see if I can find my notes for the day…I did…early flowering plants often grow on shallow soils, later flowering plants on deeper richer soils…maybe just an additional factor to take into account. Flora Locale have a very good page on meadows .

Why do the Muker meadows (MG3 community) have very little knapweed in them? No idea really…unless they were created from the start especially to be meadows and not derived from pasture vegetation already there. Was it those burly bearded Scandinavian Invaders who later decided to settle there who did it? I wonder…


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Medieval grassland on road verges and where to find it.

One of the advantages of increasing age is that you get to see the same plants growing in the same places over the years, especially the unusual ones.  We don’t expect herbaceous plants to be long-lived but they can be.


This week I went to visit some Saw-wort, a rare grassland plant in my area which grows in a short patch of road verge, with other locally scarce wildflowers, that I officially surveyed in 2008 whilst checking Local Wildlife Sites. Chris Lowe found Saw-wort on a wide road verge around the corner in the early 1990’s as part of his surveys for the Wildlife Trust – it was there too when I looked, but it was here also. I would have thought nothing much of where it was growing if it wasn’t for a project we carried out on surveying ancient hedgerows in 2005 when, researching enclosure dates, I discovered a book called The Durham Crown Lordships by D. S. Reid and published in 1990. This marvel of a book gives details of agriculture in the Parish of Long Newton in the 1600s.

Here’s a map – the purple dot is where you can find Saw-wort growing today.

first map with purple dot

A survey of Long Newton in 1606 gave a total of approx. 3314 acres of which 1925 arable, 1121 pasture, 111 meadow and 155 town/roads etc. No woodland, and note a distinction is made between meadow and pasture. We are interested in the pasture, which is South Moor, West Moor and Ox-pasture and at the time was all open grazing land punctuated with gorse bushes. [There is written evidence of that gorse, for later in 1659 when enclosure occurred “The cottagers would be allowed to cut a maximum of 3 wagon loads of whins for fuel each year…” and “…all parties concerned could gather whins from the Ox Pasture and South Moor for “bearding” their fences up to 2nd February, 1660.” Whin = Gorse. I’m assuming, alongside the gorse, the pasture is rich in wildflowers, for what else would it be?].


D.S. Reid also speculates that the Parish would have looked much the same in the 1300s.

The following map is how the parish looked after enclosure. The large communally farmed fields of the medieval period are split up into smaller individual farms (the area apportioned to the Lord of the Manor gets split up into individual farms too, but that’s a different matter). Note the purple dot.

second map with purple dot

The position of the roads through the open pasture areas was also planned as part of the enclosure negotiations, as was their width. Where the road forked across Ox-pasture it was proposed that a new intermediate road should be substituted and, being less used, was created to be 3 poles wide – the width being defined by the planting of hedgerows, in this case by John Fowler and William Hobman (road now called Back Lane). The road running east-west across ox-pasture was wider at 4 poles because it was the busier road (now called Darlington Back Lane). Busier roads have more puddles and ruts because of the traffic they carry and so need to be wider so you can go around the puddles in your horse-drawn cart.

Eventually, a tarmac road is created and so the road-verges come into existence.


Today, Saw-wort* grows on only one length of verge of Back Lane with Pepper-saxifrage and Betony – a bit higher than the surrounding land so water drains from it rather than onto it, thus making sure fertilizer from the surrounding arable fields doesn’t reach it and enable nettles to out-compete the wildflowers.

In the hedge opposite them (planted by William Hobman) grows some gorse (or should I say whin?).


I’m pretty sure this situation is the same elsewhere in the English lowlands – straight sections of road with wide road verges were placed through the medieval (Ox)pasture of the parish at the time of enclosure and if they have not been damaged in all those years they will still have sections of wildflower-rich plant communities; as important a link to our past as medieval churches. Perhaps if we weren’t all so plant blind we would formally recognise them as relics of our cultural past.


*Is Saw-wort distribution on road-verges strongly correlated with sites that were previously medieval grazing pasture? Anyone carried out a proper academic study, rather than me extrapolating from a very limited survey area?



If you don’t believe me, or just want to look for yourself, then the National Library of Scotland gives you a very handy side-by-side map here set up to show the straight sections of the roads mentioned in the blog above – zoom out to see Long Newton village to the south. Always  park safely and take care if you are walking on roadsides; if in doubt, then don’t.

The Durham Crown Lordships by David S Reid, 1990 Durham County Local History Society.

My blog on the need for an ancient grassland inventory is here.

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Rural Road Verge Links

Whilst looking on the internet I found evidence for a lot of UK projects on management and on surveys of rural road verges. If you are interested in this happening in your local area, have a look to see if there is one ongoing that you can contribute too as they always need volunteers, or perhaps see if you can persuade your local council or wildlife trust/environmental charity to run one. [Do bear in mind that charities have virtually no money/time to do anything that they haven’t received a grant to do – same with councils frankly, as far as I can see.]

One thing that has been very clear to me from looking at all these links is the importance of surveying road verges first so what grows there is accurately recorded, and then maintaining an up-to-date and accessible GIS database of information on biodiverse road-verges; then the right management can be applied.

Here’s what I found (not an exhaustive list, merely one to give a ideas on what has worked plus some inspiration) and in no particular order: –

Plantlife show a number of initiatives on a map  with some inspiring stories and their document on how road verges can be managed

Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust have carried out a very large set of road verge surveys that have resulted in the designation of 146 new Local Wildlife Sites on road verges and the maps of the results are very clear too. The main website on that project here . The County Council have been looking into harvesting verge biomass (link is to a text .pdf)  also more here on the same project

This is a great overview on the England road verge network for biodiversity with some facts and figures supported by science papers, including management and info about the above Biomass trial – all by Mark Schofield (5MB download with pics .pdf)

Kent Wildlife Trust have had a project identifying, protecting and managing their road verges since 1994

Northumberland Wildlife Trust don’t have a project running but are keen to hear from local people interested in protecting road verges

A new project in Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council area in Northern Ireland and the funders page

The University of Sheffield has a Living Highways Project

Dorset Wildlife Trust are busy doing wildlife surveys of road verges and Dorset County Council are doing management trials

Norfolk Wildlife Trust have information about roadside nature reserves in their area here

Life on the Verge – Biosphere Project is happening around Okehampton, Devon

The Essex Biodiversity Project lists special road-verges in Essex

Hampshire County Council say in their county road verges are 3% of the land area! They manage their Road Verge of Ecological Importance (RVEI) according to a set of four designated codes which says when they are cut and there is a marker post inserted on site: there is a .pdf at the bottom of this page (updated 2013) which tells you what they do and where the sites are and who to contact

The North East Nature Partnership gives this list of species from which a road verge would need five present in a 20m stretch to be classed as of conservation importance

The North York Moors National Park have 181 special road verges – a blog here about them with a cunning use of two wooden pegs to allow a single plant to set seed without getting mown. Nidderdale was also involved . North Duffield Conservation and Local History Society have an informal project going to survey their road verges

Cumbria have special verges amounting to 6% of the total – there’s a downloadable leaflet about  them here with map and details of who to contact about them  . This is a website about Orton Parish in Cumbria and Judy Dunford has written about the wildflowers there plus taken pics (I thought this was a great idea)

Oxfordshire County Council offer guidance on how to look after and designate road verge nature reserves

Wiltshire County Council have this short text .pdf from 2006 with guidelines for selection of protected road verges  – not sure if it’s still current. And more information about it here from The Wiltshire and Swindon Biological Records Centre  and also that volunteers monitor the road verges too.

Worcestershire County Council coordinate a roadside verge nature reserve project and special verges are marked with posts and an information plaque

Shropshire Council don’t have a scheme as such, but you can get in touch if you want to highlight a road verge in particular and they will manage it as per the Plantlife guidelines

In 2014 the Borough of Poole changed the way it managed some of its road verges

This page on the Wales Action Plan for Pollinators has some downloadable slides from talks from Road verge seminars in the bottom right corner (scroll down) Also from the Welsh Government is this short list of things a road verge is for  (not just biodiversity)

The North Wales Wildlife Trust has a page on their locally important road verges which they manage

Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust started a Living Highways project in 2001 which continued until 2014 and are now looking for volunteers to help survey.

Monmouthshire have produced a handy booklet for highway managers about how to manage road verges for Pollinators (.pdf download with pics)  – I would add that pollinators are not the only reason to change verge management but it is very useful info. It does stress the importance of checking with the GIS database first.

Denbighshire County Council have been running management trials and surveys of their road verges

Caithness ran a small trial on leaving some road verges longer or giving them a later cut.

Scottish Natural Heritage – big report on managing road verges for biodiversity (downloadable .pdf)

The Suffolk Roadside Nature Reserves project and also their page on general grass-cutting; from the look of their FAQ page more people complain about the grass not being cut than it being cut too often

Here’s an example of a Habitat Action Plan from 2003 (may be archived now…not sure whether the funding was continued for these Plans at a UK level – from memory I think not) West Sussex Road Verges Habitat Action Plan (it’s a .pdf download)


And finally, this is a large literature review commissioned by Natural England in 2014 about transport’s ‘soft estate’ (basically the biodiversity – I’ve had a quick look at the recommendations of the report and there’s a long list of papers cited) – you can download it from here

A quote from the abstract of the above report  “This review investigates two research questions considering: i) how transport soft estate has been used to deliver biodiversity gain, ecological connectivity, and ecosystem services; and ii) how green infrastructure has been used to make the transport network more resilient towards climate change. The results suggest that transport soft estate can deliver biodiversity gains and ecological connectivity, but this is very species and context dependent, with success depending on the management regime. Ecosystem service delivery is very promising with soft estate already delivering a variety of services and with the potential to deliver considerably more.”


I’m amazed anyone got this far…here’s a bonus photo of Saw-wort growing on a road verge 🙂

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Why is no-one sciencing urban road verges?

Those people who work high up in the hotel chain business will know that a refurbishment of a hotel is important not just for what it looks like but also for how long it takes to clean. Ongoing maintenance costs are frequently what makes or breaks a business. To this end then for each proposed refit style a model room is built, the cleaning of which is timed and this information can then be used to work out future hotel running costs – the larger the hotel chain the more important small savings in time per room become; small savings make a big difference on a large scale.


Here yellow-flowered common bird’s-foot-trefoil grows on a mown verge near the Tees Barrage. The area used to be industrial and so it is likely to be growing in a thin layer of topsoil over free-draining calcareous slag (historic waste from the local iron-making industry).

We should apply these same principles to the public land that local councils manage in our urban and sub-urban areas. In particular I’m concerned with the grassy regularly-mown road verges where there is that same balance needed between visual appeal and cost of maintenance. Unfortunately, I can find no scientific vegetation community trials that investigate how different plant communities (both native and novel) might look on road verges, how much environmental benefit they might bring, how much it would cost to maintain them. Yes, there is information on how to make a meadow…but meadows require long grass to be removed from site at the end of the year and that is not always practical or the cheaper option.


White clover flowering in abundance on a mown roundabout in early July, with the yellow of common bird’s-foot-trefoil by the path at the back of the photo.

Would it, for example, be possible to have a plant community of common bird’s-foot-trefoil, selfheal, white clover, red fescue, etc. by the sides and in the middle of a dual carriageway or motorway and perhaps just cut it once or twice a year? All plants grow low and would not affect sight-lines, are reasonably salt-tolerant, tough growers, cope with drought, and are more beneficial to some pollinators than just ryegrass. Perhaps we can think of the bird’s-foot-trefoil flowering over a set period, much as daffodils are used to decorate road verges in the spring, and then returning to mown green vegetation? Can it all be applied retrospectively by changing the soil and the plants just like town centre paving is changed to refresh the shopping area? Should it be intrinsic in any new road building or widening as part of the third dimension of sustainable development? – see guidance by UK Gov since 2012. What about new housing estates? Could the soil infill be specified as free-draining low-nutrient soil (or clay sub-soil if that’s locally appropriate) so everything grows lower and more slowly, rather than the standard infill of top soil over-sown with superquick germinating rye-grass?


Detail of selfheal, common bird’s-foot-trefoil, and the leaves of autumn hawkbit on the suburban road verge below in early June.


A relic plant community from when the road was created through farmland in the 1970’s or 80’s (can’t find a definitive date) as an entrance to a large housing estate,Hemlington, Middlesbrough. The roundish patch of grey-green colour is glaucous sedge.

And then what effect do different mowing regimes have on existing road verge vegetation? If we change the regime can we get wildflowers looking good straight away without any need to add new seeds? This is an issue at one of my local councils and one of the reasons why I started looking for information. They have looked into leaving the grass long then cutting and removing the grass like a hay meadow would be managed, but the removing of the hay is too expensive and problematic to dispose of: What they need is a compromise between short mown grass and long meadow flowers – a compromise that is relevant to the socio-economic constraints of the area. In places common bird’s-foot-trefoil and self-heal are already present, perhaps the remnants of semi-natural pasture disrupted when the housing estates were built. They’ve been mown regularly for 40 odd years with the cuttings left on top of them all the time and are still there. What if we leave them to flower and seed and then cut? Do they increase? Decline? Will the cut vegetation be too long and smother regrowth if left to decay naturally? What is best for pollinators? Cut a patch in May to delay flowering but leave a patch to flower normally? Alternate cutting so different patches flower at different times? How big a patch is best for pollinators? Or do we just raise the mower blades and does that allow flowering? How high? So many questions…and I can’t find any UK science on the internet that has properly investigated them…



Daisies at Linthorpe Cemetery, Middlesbrough, flowering at the end of May.



*after publishing this blog it turns out someone is sciencing urban road verges for a PhD – article here  and the lead researcher is Olivia Richardson @orichardson12 and they are using #livinghighways to discuss the project. See also   *

*A really interesting just-published open-access paper suggested by Helen Hoyle @hehoyle1 and who is the lead author giving the point of view of the people in the council who manage the land and also people who live nearby *

When I asked the Urban pollinator project ( @ReadingUrbPolls) they kindly suggested this paper as a start  and it is a summary of urban road verges in relation to biodiversity and cost-effective management.

This study suggested by Dr Manu Saunders ( @ManuSaunders on Twitter) stresses the need for rotating areas of cutting in relation to preserving insects on sea wall grassland in the UK

There has been a study on timing of grass cutting in a UK park  – paper here and article with pics here where it looks like the park was already unimproved grassland frankly, but I think they still create the long grass of a meadow rather than a lower growing plant community.

The subject seems to be discussed in ‘Environmental Horticulture: Science and Management of Green Landscapes’ by Ross Cameron and James Hitchmough where they give some suggested plants but I don’t have a copy the book and from what I can see of it on the internet their list of references doesn’t appear to give any UK urban examples.

On a more domestic scale, this website has examples of flowering lawns without using grass  and has derived from a PhD study, and seems a step in the right mental direction but too labour intensive for extensive urban areas.

There is a project on Lawns happening in Sweden “Lawn as ecological and cultural phenomenon: Search for sustainable lawns in Sweden”

The UK Plantlife campaign is concerned with rural road verges see and their .pdf on the subject references a paper on the effect of cutting on rural road verges – the results of an experiment spanning 1965 to 1982; a summary is here .

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We should talk of Ancient Grassland.

I’ve been thinking about how we describe ‘meadows’: Language changes over time and meanings shift depending on what most people see every day. A dictionary definition of a meadow is an area of grass that is cut to make hay; I might use the term meadow to make a more technical definition of wildflower-rich grassland (most often NVC communities MG5, MG4 and MG3) seem more palatable when giving a public talk; the ordinary person may praise the meadows being planted by the side of the road that look so pretty in the summer “you know, the ones with the lovely poppies” (which are in my reality hardy annual seed-mixes). As is often the case in English they are all correct, and within the Venn Diagram of ‘meadow’ are all these understandings; words mean whatever most people want them to mean. This being the case, what matters about the words we use to explain meadows of conservation and cultural importance is that the particular meaning intended by the explainer is clearly understood by the recipient of the explanation; preferably as quickly as is possible.


Perhaps we should talk of ancient grassland – ancient meadows and ancient grazing pastures – in the same way that we talk about ancient woodland habitat. Adding ‘ancient’ to the term grassland or meadow would allow us to convey something that would be easily understood by most people; it has been used before and is now something readily accepted. ‘Ancient’ used here would signify ‘native wildflowers and grasses that have been growing at a particular site for a long time and the site where they grow is of as much importance as a relic of a particular historic farming system as their biodiversity contribution’; they shouldn’t be seen as a moveable biodiversity unit. These plant communities are just as much a part of our heritage, telling us about our socio-economic cultural past, as are listed buildings and should be recognised as such.


Back to the present day, and at the cutting edge of horticultural research, new grassland and new flowering plant communities (sometimes made up with species from many different countries) are being created for urban areas, ones that are appropriate and useful to the present time and our current socio-economic climate, and these surely will also be termed meadows. In farming and land management there is a growing interest in producing plant communities of high biodiversity value which are relevant to present management systems rather than recreating historic meadow plant communities. You can see that we need to clearly differentiate the various understandings of what a meadow means, both now and into the future.

Instead of trying to get people to understand that a hardy annual seed-mix with poppies is technically not a meadow, we in conservation should change our own terms slightly and talk of ancient meadows and ancient grazing pastures and create a much-needed Ancient Grassland Inventory* just like we have an Ancient Woodland Inventory and an inventory of our protected historic buildings.


*How difficult would it be to create an Ancient Grassland Inventory? As with everything, the answer is ‘it depends’. The Ancient Woodland Inventory started out as one-person tracing from old maps with a pen; it is still provisional, as far as I know, having never been comprehensively surveyed on the ground.

I think money would be available from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a five-year project to create an inventory (once created this could then be adopted by government) alongside public awareness raising/involvement and perhaps some PhDs. Are there specific indicator species for ancient meadows as there are for ancient woodland? or perhaps an investigation to see if individual species have a wider genetic diversity in older meadows than newer and is there a way of spotting that visually? Are ancient grasslands representative of natural vegetation for that area?

There are an obvious group of charities, working together with one as lead, who could undertake the work but charities have limited project capacity so such things are not always practical or timely. It may be more achievable as a series of smaller regional projects building up towards a whole? I’ve been involved in a small local Heritage Lottery project mapping semi-natural grassland in my area. Sadly, I think the recent cutbacks at Natural England would make it almost impossible for them to manage such a project, especially with the added burden of work that leaving the EU brings.


Notes: I’ve been thinking about writing this since a local conference in early 2016 (I’m slow)  and I finally wrote up my ideas in early May this year after returning from a Floodplain Meadows conference in York.  I bought a book by Martin Hammond “Deep Meadows and Transparent Floods” in which he writes about historical references to the meadows we visited as part of the conference…starting in the 8th Century . I also met Miles King and whilst we talked of other things, it occurred to me after writing the above blog that he might have written something on the subject…he did…in 2012  Similarly the Wildlife Trusts have been calling for a national grassland Inventory, here in 2014 and more recently Plantlife are running this project  and .

There’s a science paper from 2015 with good round up of other papers on the subject and what’s being lost.

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