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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3 Responses to Documenting ancient grassland loss – a short-ish review.

  1. Cian White says:

    Really interesting posts, keep it up! Am searching for ancient semi natural grassland in Ireland to use as a baseline from which to investigate community assembly patterns and processes of the pollinator community along human disturbance gradients (agriculture and urbanisation) but it is depressingly difficult to find intact sites to survey!

    Just in relation to paywalls for literature. Many professional researchers use the website scihub, check out the wikipedia page: There are links to the repository on the right hand side of the wiki page, from which you can access most of the academic literature, just by plugging in the URL. It’s controversial, but I do believe research paid for with public money should be publicly available, and this is a good compromise.

    Keep up the interesting work!

    • Martin says:

      Thank you Cian. Good to know they are of some use! I use the blog as a way of keeping a summary of what I’ve read and then if I need to explain something to someone I can just refer them to a blog. You might like to talk to BSBI in Ireland and see if there are records of grasslands with some of the near-natural vegetation indicators from the MG5 communities. There are also indicator species for acid and calcareous UK grasslands which might apply in Ireland too.
      Thank you for the link. I think also the corresponding author would respond positively to a request to see the rest of the paper…not least because people are showing an interest! Unfortunately, papers being behind a paywall doesn’t do much to promote an image of science being open and accessible to all.

  2. Pingback: Estimates | The Intermingled Pot

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