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A look at the ancient grasslands of Cheshire

PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 May 2015

A common blue butterfly hard at work pollinating wild flowers. Picture by Vicky Nall

A common blue butterfly hard at work pollinating wild flowers. Picture by Vicky Nall

Vicky Nall

You’ve heard of ancient woodland, but what about ancient grassland? Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Rachel Giles finds out more

Delicate betony flowers are a welcome sight in ancient grasslands. Picture by Sue TatmanDelicate betony flowers are a welcome sight in ancient grasslands. Picture by Sue Tatman

We know that before farming came to Britain grassland existed in woodland clearings, steep hillsides and on the edges of waterbodies. During the Iron Age these clearings and hillsides were used to graze livestock and the very first hay meadows were cut using newly invented metal scythes. It is not widely known that many of these centuries’ old grasslands can still be seen today.

Identifying ancient grassland is fairly easy once you know what to look for. Counter-intuitively the oldest grasslands often don’t have much grass, with sedges, wildflowers and mosses comprising much of the sward. The presence of ant hills is another clue as these can take centuries to form; the larger the ant hills, the older the grassland. Undulating ridge and furrow tracts in a field is a further sign that land hasn’t been ploughed or reseeded since the Middle Ages and as a consequence there may be important flora and fauna present.

One pointer to help identify ancient species-rich grassland is the noise; if you walk through this habitat on a sunny day it’s probably the first thing you notice. Unlike your lawn at home this grassland is a riot of humming, buzzing and chirruping. Ancient grassland belongs to the insects; hundreds of them, from iridescent green beetles to mottled moths and spring-loaded grasshoppers. Hidden in the soil below there are millions of springtails, mites and millipedes and a fungal super highway transporting sugars and minerals between the flowering plants. No other habitat supports this suite of invertebrates and the older and more diverse the grassland, the more there are.

One of the best places in Cheshire to find ancient grassland is in the hills above Macclesfield. Not far from the town there are several fields which are so unique they are considered internationally important. These fields have been grazed by livestock for centuries and on the undisturbed rainy hillsides a very special type of grassland has developed.

A species-rich grassland in full bloom is a glorious sight. Picture by Lee SchofieldA species-rich grassland in full bloom is a glorious sight. Picture by Lee Schofield

It is known as waxcap grassland and these particular fields support more waxcap fungi than almost anywhere else in Britain. Brightly coloured and sometimes poisonous, waxcap fungi spread slowly via underground mycelia, often stretching across large tracts of land. Once every few years they fruit in a spectacular way, pushing up jewel coloured ‘waxcaps’ through the mossy grass. The colloquial names of these astonishing fruiting bodies give an indication of their beauty: the scarlet waxcap, spangle waxcap and the stunning, but rare ballerina waxcap with its pale pink and white cap which looks just like a tutu.

In contrast to the hills in the east, lowland Cheshire has warm wet summers and mild winters which make the area supremely suited to growing grass. Thanks to the lush grass, Cheshire is famed for its dairy industry. For around 500 years dairying relied on the ability of grasslands to build soil fertility. Nitrogen fixing plants such as clovers and vetches were fundamental to this process as they enriched the soils enabling the grass to grow and cattle to produce high milk yields. Around sixty years ago farming went through a series of radical changes known as the Green Revolution. One of the most significant was that nitrogen fertilisers started to be widely applied to farmland meaning there was no longer a need to rely on clovers and vetches to fix nitrogen. Wildflower grasslands were suddenly regarded as unproductive wastelands and a sign of poor farm management. A drive to increased efficiency on the farm meant that within a single generation species-rich ancient grasslands had virtually disappeared from large parts of the English countryside.

Of course such a large scale unravelling of traditional farmland ecosystems has had a knock on effect. Grassland specialist fauna such as bumblebees, butterflies, hoverflies and moths, known collectively as the pollinators, are in rapid decline. Insect-feeding small mammals and birds such as yellow wagtail, lapwing and skylark have all been impacted by the losses. It is no surprise that there are more priority species associated with grasslands than with any other habitat.

There are still small pockets of species-rich grassland in lowland Cheshire but these are largely confined to difficult-to-farm areas, such as river terraces or steep stream banks. The problem is compounded because these areas are unprofitable to graze so they are disappearing fast under bramble and hawthorn scrub. In other areas over-grazing has been the issue, particularly in some horse grazed paddocks where heavy grazing has eradicated wildflowers and horseshoes have badly damaged the sward.

This common carder is a busy bee. Picture by Penny FrithThis common carder is a busy bee. Picture by Penny Frith

Although the hilly east of the county has not been as badly affected as the Cheshire plains, losses here are continuing apace. Even the unique waxcap grasslands are at risk. There is no legal protection for these sites and a single application of fertiliser could destroy the waxcaps. Scientists have recently shown that once disturbed, species-rich ancient grassland can take over a century to completely recover because many rare species, including most waxcaps, grow incredibly slowly.

Expansion of our towns and villages is also a threat to grasslands. Unlike other iconic habitats there is a lack of awareness around the importance of grassland and as a consequence many significant areas have been lost under building sites. At the Cheshire Wildlife Trust we are working hard to promote a better understanding of these issues. We plan to identify and evaluate all areas of species-rich and ancient grassland in the Cheshire region so that they can be better protected and better managed. When important grasslands are at risk from development we will always try to influence the outcome of planning decisions.

One way we hope to achieve better protection for grasslands is through our work with Neighbourhood Planning groups. We help communities to assess their local environment and to develop planning policies which value important habitats and the wildlife corridors which connect them.

A large part of what we do involves working with landowners providing advice and support to manage important grasslands for the benefit of wildlife. Our Living Landscape scheme on the river Gowy and a proposed new scheme in the Dane Valley both aim to connect fragmented grassland habitats so that species can move more easily through the countryside expanding their ranges.

Lapwings love the ancient grasslands too. Picture by Paul BunyardLapwings love the ancient grasslands too. Picture by Paul Bunyard

Although grasslands are still disappearing, some progress has been made through the introduction of schemes such as Higher Level Stewardship which rightly pays farmers for the loss of productivity that comes with farming in a more environmentally sensitive way. The government has also recognised that loss of flower rich habitats has been the main driver of change in populations of wild pollinating insects. A new National Pollinator Strategy, although not directly addressing the continuing loss of grasslands, sets out a vision for a wide range of organisations to work together to raise awareness and implement actions to stop the decline.

There are many reasons to save the last ancient and species-rich grasslands. Apart from their intrinsic value it also makes economic sense, as we can’t feed ourselves without the help of pollinating insects.

Ancient species-rich grasslands are part of our cultural heritage. Just like our most precious buildings and ancient woodlands they are irreplaceable within our lifetime and we should value and protect them before they disappear.

The beautiful but rare ballerina waxcap. Picture by Jeanette MaddyThe beautiful but rare ballerina waxcap. Picture by Jeanette Maddy

Join the fight for wildlife

The work done by the Cheshire Wildlife Trust to protect grasslands is dependent upon the support of our members. If you would like to support this work please consider becoming a member. You can find details on how to join on our website, www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/membership. Remembering us in your will could ensure that the Cheshire Wildlife Trust can continue to protect Cheshire’s wildlife and wild places for generations to come. Please call 01948 820728 for more information or visit our website.

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