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Lowland Meadows

Bassington LNR, Cramlington - English Nature/Peter WakelyThe definition of lowland meadows given in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP) includes both hay-meadows and unimproved pastures found in the lowlands on neutral soils. It also encompasses species-rich grassland found in nonagricultural settings such as churchyards and roadside verges. It does not include upland hay meadows, maritime grasslands or purple moor-grass and rush pastures. Lowland meadows are made up of the following communities of the National Vegetation Classification (NVC): MG5 crested dog’s-tail Cynosurus cristatus - knapweed Centaurea nigra grassland; MG4 meadow foxtail Alopecurus pratensis - great burnet Sanguisorba officinalis grassland; and MG8 crested dog’s-tail Cynosurus cristatus - marsh marigold Caltha palustris grassland. The lowland meadows of the Region are almost exclusively examples of MG5 grassland.

Unimproved species-rich grassland is a scarce and declining resource both nationally and internationally. The traditional management of lowland meadows has produced a habitat particularly rich in flowering plants. These include a number of uncommon and declining species such as greater butterfly orchid Platanthera chlorantha, dyer’s greenweed Genista tinctoria and pepper saxifrage Silaum silaus. They are also an important habitat for a range of birds, such as skylark, and insects, such as the meadow brown butterfly.

Current status

It has been estimated that by 1984 in lowland England and Wales, semi-natural neutral grasslands had declined by 97% over the previous 50 years to approximately 0.2 million hectares. Losses have continued during the 1980s and 1990s, and have been recorded at 2 - 10% per annum in some parts of England. In 1994 the area of species-rich neutral grassland in the UK was estimated at 15 000 ha. This includes both lowland meadows/pastures and upland hay meadows.

Species-rich, traditionally managed neutral meadows and pastures are a scarce resource in the Region. The majority of remaining species-rich lowland grasslands are found within the coal fields of Tyne & Wear, Durham, and south east Northumberland. Many of these are in decline due to lack of management or agricultural intensification. The majority of grassland sites are either managed as pastures or receive no active management at all. Sites managed as hay meadows are comparatively rare.

Threats

  • Agricultural improvements through ploughing, drainage, re-seeding, and the application of inorganic fertilizers and slurry.
  • The shift from hay-making to silage production, with more frequent and earlier cutting, reduces the opportunities for plants to seed and disrupts nesting birds and other animals.
  • Abandonment and lack of management of grasslands leads to a reversion to rank grassland, and eventually to the development of scrub or secondary woodland.
  • Changes from mowing to spring and summer grazing can result in the loss of plants and animals that are intolerant of summer grazing and that have adapted to traditional hay cutting management.
  • Increased grazing intensity and duration, particularly in spring, can lead to a decrease in botanical diversity.
  • Increased supplementary stock feeding associated with higher grazing levels leads to increased nutrient loadings and localised ground damage (poaching).
  • Some sites are still under threat from development.
  • Inappropriate management regimes (such as excessive mowing) may be damaging grassland sites on roadside verges.

Opportunities for protection and enhancement

  • Payments for the sympathetic management and enhancement of lowland meadows and pastures are available through Natural England's Environmental Stewardship Scheme. 
  • The identification of roadside verges of nature conservation interest by local authorities would aid the protection of important sites and the targeting of suitable management works.