Losing Lowland Meadows

On the governments MAGIC website https://magic.defra.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx which “provides authoritative geographic information about the natural environment from across government.” the Priority Habitat Inventory – Lowland Meadows (England) dataset shows 15 sites in the Lower Tees Valley – a total of 25.2 ha set within approx. 80,000 hectares of land. For comparison, we have approx. 1300 ha of ancient woodland (my only ref. for this is an unpublished report of an ancient woodland survey carried out in 2010/12 but at least it gives you an idea of the difference in relative extent of the two habitats) of which more than half is ancient semi-natural woodland.

Of those Lowland Meadow sites I an sure that seven (6.3 ha) are no longer MG5 because I have either personally visited them as part of my Local Sites surveys to check or because I can see that they are covered in scrub via the aerial photograph on the MAGIC site. One site (2 ha) is about to be surrounded by a new housing estate and the ecology report states it is no longer MG5 due to horse grazing and nutrient enrichment  (http://edrms.hartlepool.gov.uk/NorthgateIM.WebSearch/(S(jtinv555ikd3cnfs0ikvkm55))/Results.aspx?grdResultsP=2)  

A site ploughed in 2007/8 (photo) but still (16/2/2021) mapped as Lowland Meadow on the MAGIC website

Older aerial photos (shown above) on MAGIC even showed where one site had been ploughed – a new tenant farmer presumably had not read the details of surveys of their land or didn’t care. On all seven sites now without MG5, the primary dataset that MAGIC used was pre-2000, most being the 1991 Lowland Grassland Inventory survey.

Of the remaining mapped land area, one site is now ungrazed and whilst it has a few interesting species present, the whole could not be called MG5 (2.1 ha) and one is the mown sides of Lockwood Reservoir built in 1872 (1.9 ha) which I have not surveyed. The others are still MG5 or close to that designation.

Three SSSIs (total 7.6 ha) are mapped within the dataset and two I think are still okay but I’ve not personally checked and neither have Natural England, but one had a pond built on it with trees planted around and then five years of fertiliser application, though Natural England immediately investigated in 2018 when I drew their attention to it – I’d spotted the tractor tramlines on an aerial photo and thought they were indicative of fertiliser application. According to the MAGIC data Defra knew of the pond in 2009 as they measure it separately (as MG5?) but presumably the pond was missed when Natural England reported their visit in 2011? Or maybe it was interesting grassland destroyed by the pond – who knows? Anyway, some of the MG5c still remains apparently.

The Lower Tees Valley Lowland Meadows dataset on MAGIC is not the full extent of Lowland Meadow habitat (MG5 & MG4) in the area, but it is the only dataset that is checked by developers and local authorities when deciding to develop land. So not only does it fail in being accurate, it fails us all in conservation by giving the appearance of accuracy. If the 50% accuracy rate in the Tees Valley is the same across England then that would be so depressingly awful it is difficult to type, and yet this dataset is used in most government statistics and reporting by Natural England and Defra.

What concerns me even more are the sites that are MG5 but not shown on the dataset, because what isn’t known about officially will get no protection or appropriate management.

When the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Rebecca Pow MP tweeted that restoring Nature was a “top priority” on 9th November 2020 https://twitter.com/pow_rebecca/status/1325794905638252552?s=20 I asked Defra “Please can you inform me how much the government are investing in restoring nature?” Defra replied (EIR2020/29965) and after a list of links to information they publish reporting about Nature “…we can inform you that since 2018/19, government has introduced or announced significant new funding for nature. We have not yet collated and analysed this data, but it includes, for example: …” and they give examples which don’t involve very much money and go on to say they “…are currently reviewing the available data on biodiversity expenditure to ensure so that we can give a fuller picture in future updates.” that report due March 2021. And they also mention net gain “…delivering annualised natural capital benefits of around £1.4 billion” estimated, obv.. It was a surprisingly comprehensive answer because in my reasons for me asking the question (which I give to add context) I explained

“I saw that the government has announced how much they are spending on building roads (£27 billion https://www.gov.uk/government/news/27billion-roads-investment-to-support-64000-jobs ) so I thought if I could compare what was being spent on Nature with road building it would help show the comparative importance of the two actions to the current government. As Conservatives believe very much in value for money and a business-like approach I thought I would be able to find a costed approach to restoring Nature in the same way that there is one for road building, unfortunately I haven’t been able to find one but I may not be using the right search words or perhaps it hasn’t been published.”

Not having a costed timetable for achieving clear conservation goals is what I would call incompetent governance. If we don’t know where or how much of our National Priority Habitat – Lowland Meadows can be found then we can’t monitor or manage it successfully, and if we don’t have clear conservation goals for what should be one of our most common grassland vegetation types (currently far rarer than ancient woodland) then how can we successfully restore Nature? 

UPDATE 18 February 2021

I should really have read through more thoroughly the links in the Defra reply mentioned above. In 2018/19 £473 million of UK public sector funding was allocated to biodiversity in the UK, that spending had fallen in the last 5 years by a third and was 0.022% of GDP. Section E2 UK Biodiversity indicators – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) I couldn’t find a separate figure for spending on England. It will be interesting to see what the March 2021 report says.

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