England’s wildlife-rich grasslands are suffering a “catastrophic decline”, conservationists have warned.
The Wildlife Trusts said remaining sites ranging from ancient meadows to roadside verges were vital habitat for bees and other wildlife, and also helped to make soils secure, manage water, prevent flooding and store carbon.
But research gathered from around England shows many locally-important grassland sites are vanishing under pressure from development, agricultural practices or neglect.
More must be done to protect the natural resource and the heritage that has inspired writers and artists for generations, the Wildlife Trusts urged.
The Trusts are calling for greater protection of grasslands under existing rules, and for more species-rich sites to get statutory protection.
They also want farmers to be rewarded for managing important areas, and for stronger requirements to protect grasslands under the system for paying agricultural subsidies.
There needs to be a national inventory of important grasslands, with monitoring of sites, and for more work to restore wildlife-rich grasslands, the Trusts urged.
Stephen Trotter, The Wildlife Trusts’ director, England, said: “Wildlife-rich grasslands have been in trouble for decades, but our newly collated information shows that the remaining hay meadows and flower-rich pastures are still at risk.
“We’re seeing an insidious yet catastrophic decline. The pressures are enormous: from development and changes in agricultural practices, to neglect.
“If we don’t act fast we’ll lose the natural heritage that has inspired writers and artists through generations – from Shakespeare to Hockney.
“If we don’t act now we’ll lose an important natural resource that benefits farming, wildlife and people.
“The shocking examples of our best sites in decline should be a wake-up call for Government to start working now with farmers, local authorities and nature organisations to halt the loss.”
The Trusts said information gathered from around the country showed many examples of grasslands being lost or no longer meeting the criteria for selection as Local Wildlife Sites because the habitats and species that made them special have vanished.
Local Wildlife Sites are only protected via the planning system, as their designation is not statutory, but they are an important wildlife resource in many parts of the country, the Trusts said.
In Worcestershire, renowned for its traditional lowland hay meadows, almost a quarter of grassland Local Wildlife Sites – 48 in total – have been lost or damaged since 2005.
In Nottinghamshire, 99 sites containing neutral grassland have been de-selected as Local Wildlife Sites since 2005, because they no longer meet the criteria.
And in Cumbria, surveys of upland hay meadow Local Wildlife Sites between 2008-2011 led to the deselection of 35 out of 128 sites. At 15 of the sites surveyed, the traditional hay meadows which had previously been present had completely disappeared.