Conserving England’s Meadows
Buttercups, Wood Cranesbill, and Salad Burnett could bloom again in England’s meadows thanks to new research led by Lancaster University.
Professor Richard Bardgett of Lancaster University’s Department of Biological Science has been awarded a £667,000 DEFRA grant to lead a team of scientists in a five-year study designed to find ways of protecting and restoring England’s vanishing traditional grasslands.
Over the last 50 years, post-war intensification of agriculture, increased use of inorganic fertilisers, changes from hay to silage, and widespread drainage have brought about a slow decline in plant species diversity in meadows across the country. As a result, the once colourful and varied landscapes of England have become dominated by species-poor grasslands.
Rare examples of English grasslands still survive in pockets of areas such as the Lake District, The Yorkshire Dales and chalk grasslands of southern England, where traditional farming methods are still used. But in most other areas the drive to meet food production demands over the decades has stripped many herb-strewn meadows of their colour and diversity.
Scientists from the Universities of Lancaster, Newcastle and Reading along with the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) are hoping to discover ways of turning back the clock.
Through a series of experiments, both in fields and in laboratory-controlled conditions, researchers aim to find ways of stimulating the recovery of plant diversity by introducing particular plants into swards that change soil conditions and encourage special types of fungi to grow in soil. These fungi, notably the mycorrhizas, are known to live on plant roots and enable herb species to access nutrients that may otherwise be beyond their reach, thereby allowing them to compete against more aggressive grasses that would otherwise out compete them. The study aims to determine whether soils with a high component of these and other fungi will be more likely to encourage and sustain a greater diversity of plant species.
Researchers will also carry out a national survey, taking soil and vegetation samples from hundreds of species-rich meadows across England ranging from limestone grasslands of the Yorkshire Dales and upland grassland of the Lake District, to the lowland chalk lands of south east England. They will then compare them with samples taken from less diverse grasslands to see whether elevated fungal growth in soils in linked to high levels of plant diversity.
Project manager Professor Bardgett said the results would be used both to help identify sites suitable for restoration and also to develop better ways of enhancing plant diversity in grassland areas.
He said: “Maintaining and encouraging diversity of grassland is crucial because species-rich grasslands provide a unique habitat for a vast array of other, often rare, invertebrate and animal species. It is also important for the landscape and tourism - one of the distinguishing features of areas like the Yorkshire Dales in summer is the blaze of colour from herb meadows.
“From a scientific, biological perspective it is important to maintain diversity because there is evidence to suggest that more diverse systems are more stable and better equipped to withstand environmental change - for example the more different species you have in a meadow the more likely it is that some of those species will survive a drought, and hence maintain production.”