Available data

I got an answer to my questions about implementing the new grassland SSSI designation guidelines from Natural England on 23 March. Replies are normally meant to arrive within 15 working days; I sent the first email on 31st January. Anyway, they apologised, so perhaps it won’t happen again. Many (genuine) thanks to the support advisor (the second I’ve spoken to – I think the first one left) who managed to force an answer from someone.

Basically, the reply was links to the guideline documents Natural England use for assessing SSSI designations (which to be fair to them, they can hardly say “we’re really strapped for cash; heeeeelp!” in an official reply) and also the phrase…

“These are guidelines and do not bind Natural England or the other GB statutory conservation agencies as such to notify all areas of land that may qualify or to set any timetable for notification.”

I checked again with the advisor about this phrase just to make sure that was what they meant to say as I wanted to use it in my blog, and the subsequent reply was to refer me to para 12.2 in the summary section of Part 1 of the GB SSSI guidelines (Rationale & operational approach) which sets out the status of the guidelines. http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/pdf/SSSI_GuidelinesPart1_PUBLICATION_Dec2013v2.pdf

It contains the phrase “Using this guidance, country agency staff should be able to determine and explain any selection case in the most objective manner possible.” Good! I find the best way to proceed is by being objective too; and they go on to say each case rests on expert judgement which should be “based on an assessment of the available data.”

“Available data” – what does that mean to you? The government have a dataset of unimproved grasslands on their MAGIC data site. The data-mapping concept itself is fantastic and whoever pushed for it to be created is a complete star – I really love maps and what they tell us about our culture.

IMG_9582However, in my area there are some ‘divergences’ between the mapped information and the present reality of unimproved grasslands. One site listed as 0.67 ha MG5 (surveyed 1991) is now covered in scrub and bramble (above pic), and part of an adjacent one (0.28 ha) is also scrub covered. One site 1.54 ha (again 1991 survey) was ploughed and reseeded in the mid-2000’s when the old farmer retired and a new one took over (you can see this if you switch the aerial photographs layer on). Another site of 1.38 ha of MG5 is listed with the comment “Uncertainty as to whether vegetation classification is MG5 or MG6 as site was “difficult to access”; when I was last there much was covered with scrub. Yet another site of 0.54 ha shows, as scrub or perhaps new woodland, on the aerial photograph.


Not shown on this MAGIC Map layer are 20 sites (all info in the public domain including NVC surveys – some paid for by Natural England – pic above is 2.24 ha of MG5 publicly owned) that would fit the current SSSI guidelines criteria including one estimated to be 100 ha; this last a particular bone of contention (I’ve never managed to get access permission to survey) and I contacted my local Natural England team about this (for context, 100 ha puts it into the top 10% of this priority plant community in terms of size in England); they said “I have also checked our mapping systems for any records of priority habitat within the [redacted by me] boundary, and the only site is a small section of open mosaic habitat at the north of the site and to the immediate west…” and yet I directed them to an independent ecologist’s report (paid for by the landowner as part of a planning application and so publicly available) that makes it clear Natural England’s data is wrong and the site is unimproved grassland.

Do you see where I am going with this? My area, the Tees Valley, is tiny (79,495 ha compared to the whole of England’s 13,027,900 hectares) and the Natural England official map layer for ‘unimproved grassland – Lowland Meadows’ is substantially inaccurate. What about really complicated and big areas like Northumberland or Durham or Yorkshire? How wrong are they? Just how accurate is the available data that the Natural England experts make their assessments on?

Going from a local viewpoint up to a national one, the 2016 Priority Habitat figures from Defra show 89,173 ha of deciduous woodland is SSSI in England and for Lowland Meadows SSSI it is 13,415 ha. A single SSSI, the North York Moors which contains the largest continuous tract of heather moorland in England, is 44,094.41 ha (I think used mainly for driven grouse shooting).

Looking at the whole of the country I’m left wondering how did our iconic English meadows and wildflower-rich grasslands, which were once one of the largest habitats in England, get to a point where they are now at least 10 times rarer than ancient woodland? Natural England’s scientific evidence says to protect all sites of 0.5 ha and over, and yet there is no timetable or even intention to act on the available data.



I think the 2016 Priority Habitat figures Defra give for Lowland Meadows are misleading and have emailed in a question about their use of the term ‘Lowland Meadows’ (they said they would reply in 15 working days) but I have used their figures anyway. You can find them here https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/env09-england-biodiversity-indicators on sheet 2a.

They are contradicted by the Technical Information Note 147 on MG5 grassland and the Biodiversity Action Plan figures, although since my emails with the JNCC (very helpful) over this issue they have added a note to make it clear their figures date from 2005 http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-5848  . Some Biodiversity Action Plan pages are archived now and, depending how you access them on the internet, are available only in Welsh.

The Woodland Trust claim about 2% of the United Kingdom (couldn’t find a figure for England only)  is Ancient Woodland https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/about-us/ancient-woodland-restoration/  which would be 2% of 24249500 =  484,990 ha. Defra claim 36,129 ha of Lowland Meadow exists in England which would mean there was at least 13 times more Ancient Woodland than Lowland Meadow. The last BAP figures for Lowland Meadow were 7,282 ha in England which would mean 66 times more Ancient Woodland than Lowland Meadow. I think I’ve been cautious with my 10 times claim in the absence of clear figures on Ancient Woodland, or indeed Lowland Meadow.

My Local Nature Partnership ran a 3-year scrub-cutting project across 15 separately-owned LWS sites across the Tees Valley to help clear scrub from our ancient grasslands…sadly we couldn’t do all sites that needed it.

The MAGIC site is fab. and here http://www.natureonthemap.naturalengland.org.uk/MagicMap.aspx tick the habitats box and if you rootle around in there you can find the “Priority Habitat Inventory – Lowland Meadows (England)” box. SSSI sites are under the designations section. Scroll down and tick the box for aerial photos.

Last summer I did email the people who look after the MAGIC dataset and they are aware it has limitations; they have more data on paper than they can process. They sent me guidelines so that I could help them improve their dataset. At the time I was busy and as yet still have not replied. When I was younger I would have just done this in my own time; now I am far less inclined to cover-up government underfunding.

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All examples of MG5 over 0.5 ha can now be designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) so why hasn’t that happened?

On 26th January I went to visit a site I first surveyed in 2007 as part of a Local Wildlife Site review; I went because I had been informed it had been recently damaged by the landowner.

There are records of it from a comprehensive 1992 survey that said the site was grazed and gave it the National Vegetation Classification (NVC) of MG5 (a National Priority habitat). The grassland community is on ridge and furrow (which shows up on LIDAR data) suggesting the plant community there had been present since the middle of the 14th Century (when the Black Death hit the area, much arable land was abandoned through lack of manpower to cultivate it and, for whatever reason, was never ploughed again).


Our 2007 survey was brief and we surveyed late in the year and so not all species present were able to be seen, but it still met the criteria for Local Wildlife Site designation. The site was no longer grazed and was looking rather overgrown but was in Countryside Stewardship, a national scheme that is sympathetic towards management of ancient grassland. We heard from a local man who had decided to voluntarily cut and remove the hay of the most species-rich area.

We were able to carry out a more comprehensive survey the following year as part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project ‘Hunt for Lost Meadows’ – the NVC classification was MG9, a plant community that un-managed MG5 can change towards when ungrazed and not cut for hay.


Over the next decade the volunteer sympathetically managed the site (cutting and removing the hay) causing a change in the relative proportions of the various species and the grassland community classification will have changed back towards MG5.

And then this year a new landowner did this:-


There is absolutely nothing I can do about this happening.


All the volunteer’s work lost.


I can’t even try and repair the damage – and I’m sure I’m not welcome there (there was sign suggesting people might like to keep out).

The government knows species-rich ancient grassland is still being lost – even leaving aside that vast ‘97% lost since the 1940’s’ figure. In this paper from 2015 on semi-natural grassland studied from 1960 to 2013 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351989415300184?via%3Dihub ,  92% survived because they were within a SSSI, outside of an SSSI designation only 27% survived.

Perhaps as a response to this knowledge, in November 2014 the government published revised criteria for creating Lowland grassland SSSIs  http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-2303 (scroll down for .pdf) and there is a recognition that many sites containing the grassland community MG5 are small and at 4.10 it states that for grassland communities that are rare (less than 10,000 ha in Great Britain, which includes MG5) “…the presumption is that all examples which are at least 0.5 ha should be selected for notification…”.

Natural England Technical Information Note TIN147 http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/6626052 states there is less than 6000 ha of MG5 remaining of which 55% is within SSSI designations. As 80% of Lowland Meadow (MG4, MG5, & MG8) sites are less than 5 ha this suggests that a minimum of 600 new SSSI’s are due to be made as a consequence of the new guidelines, though I suspect the number would be at least 1500-2000 for MG5 alone as most sites will be around the minimum size.

If the Natural England had acted on their own guidelines then the destroyed site in my area (less than 1 ha but more than 0.5 ha) should have been a SSSI, in which case it could have been saved or at least the landowner prosecuted (the government publish figures on damage to SSSIs – here a .pdf on the year 2015-6 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/570747/enforcement-annual-report-2015-16.pdf) .

Why aren’t the government implementing the new guidelines? I emailed enquiries@naturalendland.org.uk on 31st January to ask “what is your timetable to have all MG5 over 0.5 ha surveyed and designated as SSSI as outlined in the guidelines?”. On 15th February I forwarded the message to them as I had had no reply and then I decided to ring and chase up the answer; I was told it would appear in a few days. As it hadn’t appeared on the 23rd February I’ve decided to publish this blog and I’ll deal with their answer separately when it appears.

Anyway – absolutely livid as I am about the loss of another one of the Ancient Grassland sites local to me during my watch, there is nothing I can do about that site now. However, I can tell other people that it has happened and remind you that the government’s own guidelines have committed them to creating more new grassland SSSIs, and then monitoring them, in order to safeguard ancient grasslands for future generations. I can also say I see no evidence of them doing this.

If you are thinking ‘but the prime minister said we are going to make new meadows’ then Natural England’s Note TIN147 states clearly “Typically neutral and calcareous grasslands that closely resemble ancient semi-natural grassland take a minimum of 100 years to develop” which is why it is so very important to conserve our ancient grassland first and where else would the seed come from to create the new meadows?


It’s the second Ancient Grassland site that I know of to be damaged in my area in the last two years; yet another (on visual appearance of what was left) has also been ploughed and re-seeded but it was unfortunately un-surveyed, so I have no technical evidence.

I have informed Natural England about the site damage (local team who try really hard within the legal limitations that they must work) but as the site is less than 2 ha it is unlikely to be covered by any legislation that could punish landowner for doing this. Also, they are short-staffed at the moment so there will be a delay before they are able to investigate. [A Lords Select Committee asked on 5 Dec 2017 question Q178 about whether the recent cuts have affected the ability to deliver…yes, yes they have http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/natural-environment-and-rural-communities-act-2006-committee/natural-environment-and-rural-communities-act-2006/oral/75680.html ]

I’ve informed my Local Nature Partnership ‘Natural Assets’ sub-group on which I sit, but there are no legal obligations on landowners who have designated Local Wildlife Sites on their land, so nothing can be done.

I’ve informed the group who maintain our local HER register as the landowner’s action has resulted in loss of medieval Ridge and Furrow, but the council where the site is can no longer afford to contribute towards running costs of that group so I don’t know whether the group still record anything in this area – anyway they have no powers to do anything about the loss. [update 22 Feb; I had a reply and that council don’t fund them anymore and so they don’t maintain the HER in that area, so I will now have to find if the HER register is maintained at all in that council’s area]

I have also informed the Incident Hotline of the Environment Agency (https://www.gov.uk/report-an-environmental-incident ) due to silt from ditches being offloaded into the adjacent beck (they have been excellent in explaining to me what they can do, have already investigated (someone lived locally) and will take what limited action they can, which is initially to write a letter and then possibly another letter).

My local wildlife trust were great for advice and very patient whilst I ‘vented’ in the office, but there is nothing they can do.

English Heritage don’t deal with anything that is biodiversity related, even if it is part of our heritage and indeed about as English as it gets, so there was no point in even contacting them.


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A proposal for dating ancient neutral grassland (MG5) communities using indicator species

The Natural England Technical Information Note TIN147  http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/6626052 on MG5 is a fantastic summary of all things MG5 and much recommended reading.

I’ve been thinking about historical context on my latest blogs and the Note states that the plant community of unimproved neutral grassland (MG5) was thought to be an artefact of post-Neolithic (after approx. 2200 BC) farming, though if the Vera (2000) theory of prehistoric vegetation being more like parkland in places than closed woodland all over is correct, then neutral grassland types could be construed as being near natural vegetation (Peterken 2009).

bitter vetch

Looking at the data within the Technical Note I think it’s possible to use the presence of some herbaceous indicator species to split up the MG5 community into two types: –

  • those present as a community before Enclosure and more likely to be ‘near natural vegetation’
  • those communities that formed after Enclosure.

Both types still fit within the overall definition of Ancient Grassland (i.e. unimproved grassland since 1840).

The Note gives the following species as “probable indicators of long continuity of ‘traditional’ management (ie no phase of land use change such as ploughing and conversion to crops, woodland establishment etc).”

Betony Betonica officinalis
Devil’s-bit Scabious Succisa pratensis
Dyer’s Greenweed Genista tinctoria
Saw-wort Serratula tinctoria
Wood Anemone Anemone nemorosa
Pignut* Conopodium majus*
Bitter-vetch Lathyrus linifolius
Meadow Saxifrage Saxifraga granulata
Burnet-saxifrage Pimpinella saxifraga
Pepper-saxifrage Silaum silaus
Spring-sedge Carex carophyllea
Great Burnet** Sanguisorba officinalis**


These species were present (along with the other species that typically make up the MG5 community; see below) in medieval communal grazing areas – the parish moors now called ox close or whinny hill where I live – or on sloping ground that was too steep to plough with oxen or horse. Now we can find them on the wide road verges adjacent to straight roads created through Parish common grazing land during Enclosure, especially if the verge is raised higher than the surrounding farmland or in some other way isolated from fertilizer runoff in the soil water. Otherwise remnants can be found are on the steeper lowland hillsides or small isolated fields.

You might wonder that some of these species can be present on ridge and furrow; an explanation for that could be that arable ridge and furrow may have been abandoned in the mid fourteenth Century (due to plague/Black Death reducing population numbers) at a time when the village sheep/cattle/horses would still have been grazing species-rich communal pasture/parish moors and would have been walked through the parish every day (from village to communal open pasture) and even folded/grazed on such abandoned arable land and therefore perhaps there was 200 to 300 years to transport seeds of these indicator species in their dung/hooves from the communal pastures. The daily movement of herbivores over long distances within a Parish is something that stopped with Enclosure. (In Long Newton cattle would walk about 4 miles (approx. 6 km) every day in order to get to the pasture from the village and back again).


Post-Enclosure communities are those examples of MG5 that reformed naturally on land that had been previously ploughed and I suspect that this most likely peaked when horse-keeping was at its maximum (I found a figure of 1,250,000 Farm horses in 1919 mentioned in a 1952 Spectator article). The species present would be of local genetic native stock and have seeds that I presume germinate more readily under the conditions than do the species mentioned above, or last longer in the soil.

The following, which are common species of MG5 communities.

Common Knapweed Centaurea nigra
Oxeye Daisy Leucanthemum vulgare
Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil Lotus corniculatus
Lady’s Bedstraw Galium verum
Common Sorrel Rumex acetosa
Meadow Vetchling Lathyrus pratensis
Meadow Buttercup Ranunculus acris
Ribwort Plantain Plantago lanceolata
Cowslip Primula veris
Cat’s-ear Hypochaeris radicata

And the characteristic grasses

Crested Dog’s-tail Cynosurus cristatus
Quaking-grass Briza media
Sweet Vernal-grass Anthoxanthum odoratum
Yellow Oat-grass Trisetum flavescens
Red Fescue Festuca rubra
Common Bent Agrostis capillaris


As to the difference between the two types of MG5: Enclosure resulted in the ploughing of most of the communal species-rich grazing pasture in which ‘near natural’ indicator plants will have grown. They may not have been that common before Enclosure, but they would certainly be much less common afterwards and so a drastic reduction in the amount of seed available to colonize new sites and also a far more restricted movement of grazing animals in which to move it (animals now moving purely within the farm rather than the whole parish) would most likely account for it. After Enclosure seed of native species was more likely to move purely within farm boundaries or in some areas from hay being made elsewhere being bought in to feed horses/cattle. It is interesting to note that horses refuse to eat meadow buttercup when it is growing or seeding (too acrid for them) and so grazing pasture with horses often has much buttercup. They will eat it as part of hay.

Post-Enclosure hay may have had a different species composition. In Medieval times almost all (lowland) hay was from flood-plain meadow (MG4) communities and though it seems after Enclosure it was from MG5 plant communities; the need for hay may have increased due to the increasingly long periods of time snow covered pasture in period termed the little Ice Age (circa 16th to the 19th Centuries) as well as the move from Oxen to Horses for farms hence the need for greater amounts of grassland set aside for it.



I haven’t tested this theory properly yet but thought I would write about it anyway as it seems intuitively correct to me. I’m sure there are exceptions, but it makes sense within planned countryside. I also wondered whether it would need three of the first list and not on ridge and furrow for it to be a plant community indicative of ‘near natural vegetation’; again don’t have any evidence for that, but just a thought.

There are also going to be differences depending on soil types, rainfall, and south/north etc but I think the above theory will still stand.

Enclosure is given without a date as it varied between individual parishes. In Long Newton it was 1659 but it continued until at least 1850: The book ‘Ecology and Enclosure’ by Shirley Wittering 2013 gives information on South Cambridgeshire 1798-1850.

Pignut is given a * as it can cope with occasional ploughing – there was an anecdotal account in my area from an old farmer of a small field being ploughed and potatoes grown for a few years during the war. The field is now covered with Pignut although none of the other species in the first list are present. Similarly, Pignut can avoid the worst of herbicide sprays if in summer dormancy when they are applied (incidentally, as can Bulbous Buttercup and I imagine so can Meadow Saxifrage and Wood Anemone).

The ** for Great Burnet is because even though it is a species associated with flood-plain meadows (MG4) it is found in MG5 communities in the north and is likely to be an indicator species, though the Technical Note does not include it.

More information about flood-plain meadows (MG4) is here http://www.floodplainmeadows.org.uk/floodplain-meadow-technical-handbook

Wood anemone is a curious addition to the list as we generally know it as a woodland wildflower. There is some evidence that wood pasture was part of the farming system in Medieval Yorkshire http://www.lowerwinskill.co.uk/meadows.htm ; I’m sure there are more scholarly examples too. The evidence I have for Medieval communal pasture in the Tees Valley is of scrubby (mainly gorse) grassland rather than wood pasture.

VERA, F.W.M 2000. Grazing Ecology and Forest History. CABI Publishing, Wallingford.

PETERKEN, G. 2009. Woodland origins of meadows. British Wildlife, 20, 161-170.

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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 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351989415300184  .


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  http://uknea.unep-wcmc.org/Resources/tabid/82/Default.aspx 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 http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-5848 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 (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/env09-england-biodiversity-indicators)  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  http://www.magic.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx?chosenLayers=lstypoIndex,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 http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/maps/series?xCenter=3160000&yCenter=3160000&scale=63360&viewScale=5805357.4656&mapLayer=land&subLayer=lus_stamp&title=Land%20Utilisation%20Survey%20of%20Britain&download=true and a key to what the colours mean can be found here https://digimap.edina.ac.uk/webhelp/environment/data_information/dudleystamp.htm and I presume that if you work for a university you have access to this which has also digitised the survey https://digimap.edina.ac.uk/welcome

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 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351989415300184 

and I suspect this is good but it’s behind a paywall so (shrug emoji)   http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1365-2494.1999.00157.x/full

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 http://www.floodplainmeadows.org.uk/floodplain-meadow-technical-handbook  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.

Posted in Conservation | 2 Comments

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  ( http://sxbrc.org.uk/projects/revised-ancient-woodland-inventory/ ). For context, according to 2016 government figures, there is only 7,282 ha of Lowland Meadow Priority Habitat in the whole of England http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-5848  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 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/avsc.12076/abstract * 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 http://www.nerc.ac.uk/planetearth/stories/1722/

Ancient Woodland definition from https://www.gov.uk/guidance/ancient-woodland-and-veteran-trees-protection-surveys-licences

Posted in The I.Pot | 3 Comments

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 https://www.floralocale.org/page24057 .

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…


Posted in The I.Pot | 4 Comments

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 http://maps.nls.uk/geo/explore/side-by-side/#zoom=15&lat=54.5564&lon=-1.4244&layers=171&right=BingHyb 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.

Posted in The I.Pot | 2 Comments