Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Report on the Inaugural Grassland Conservation Conference: Day 2

A couple of weeks ago, we published Ashley Lyons' report on Day One of the first ever Grassland Conservation Conference. Now she's back to tell us about the second day. Over to Ashley:

"The second day of the inaugural Grassland Conservation Conference split into two very interesting field meetings.

Bill Grayson discussing grazing
calcareous grassland at Ingleborough NNR
Image: A. Lyons 
The Upland Calcareous Grassland Workshop was organised by Edge Hill University’s Ashley Lyons and kindly hosted by Natural England at Colt Park Barn, Ingleborough. The workshop set out to discuss the impacts of management of upland calcareous grassland on a range of taxa and to enable evidence based research findings to be disseminated to conservation practitioners and policy makers.

The workshop kicked off with results from Ashley’s completed PhD project which examined the impacts of contrasting grazing management on plants, spiders and carabid beetles in upland calcareous grasslands. Ashley explained the importance of maintaining a range of management treatments (including no grazing at all) across the landscape to ensure suitable habitat is available for declining carabid beetle and rare spider species. Interestingly, Ashley’s research showed that plant species composition, richness or structural complexity doesn’t differ between areas grazed by sheep or cattle as long as the stocking intensity is the same, a result also reflected by the invertebrates studied. Even the ungrazed calcareous grasslands had similar plant species richness, though the species composition of plants and invertebrates was different from grazed areas. If you’d like to read more about the study check out Ashley’s paper. 

Colin Newlands discusses grazing: behind the
net fence is ungrazed calcareous grassland
Image: A. Lyons
Colin Newlands, Natural England’s Senior Reserve Manager for Ingleborough, then talked about the management of the NNR and the importance of continuing research in informing management decisions. Colin also discussed the successful relationship built with Bill Grayson’s Morecambe Bay Conservation Grazing Company, a model which could surely benefit conservation elsewhere.

Bill Grayson gave an interesting overview of how his cattle are used in an organic system to graze a number of SSSIs across the North West of England, growing slowly on species rich semi-natural grasslands with the aims of helping conservation and producing quality beef from healthy animals. Bill explained that as his cattle mature at around 5 or 6 years old they are considered cull animals by the market and as such they aren’t sold as meat for the table. Rather, Bill’s beef goes to producing high quality baby food!

Limestone pavement on High Brae
Image: A. Lyons
The group then headed out to visit a site that featured in Ashley’s research and is grazed by Bill’s cattle. The group spent time in different parts of the 90 ha field discussing how cattle have helped with the establishment of plant species such as bird’s eye primrose and frog orchid. There was also discussion on how the structure of the vegetation, along with the spiders and beetles that live amongst it, are influenced by the disturbance of cattle. There was also an opportunity to see an area that has been ungrazed for over 20 years, the lack of scrub encroachment sparked interesting conversation. The ungrazed area is separated from the cattle grazed field by a sheep net fence, the side where the cattle graze has a number of young hazel saplings growing, whilst the ungrazed side of the fence has no such regeneration, a pattern Ashley has observed in several ungrazed areas of upland calcareous grassland. This probably occurs because when left without grazing the sward becomes dominated by grasses (usually blue moor grass) and develops a thick layer of thatch that together shade out other species. Despite this competitive advantage that may hinder the establishment of some plant species, Ashley pointed out that these ungrazed areas are a vitally important part of the landscape for some very rare spider species.

Wigan Flashes Meadow
Image: M. Allen
The workshop concluded with a discussion on proposed management recommendations made from the results of Ashley’s research, an evidence based document that will be presented to national nature conservation organisations with the aim of highlighting the importance of considering invertebrate responses, in addition to plant responses, to management when changing management practices in upland calcareous grasslands.

Those with an interest in lowland grassland conservation joined Edge Hill University’s Elizabeth Sullivan and the Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Wigan Project Officer Mark Champion on a visit to Wigan Flashes, a site developed on ex colliery shale and Cutacre Pasture, a reserve created five years ago and managed now with a herd of longhorn cattle.

First Eyebright found on
Wigan Flashes
Image: Mark Champion
Discussion at Wigan Flashes centred on the botanical diversity of the meadows which are managed by annual cutting for hay, the urban location of the meadows means grazing isn’t possible. The meadows were created twenty years ago with a layer of topsoil over the colliery shale and addition of MG5 seed mix. After being abandoned for several years after sowing, the meadows became rank grassland. Mark’s intervention with mowing over the last 18 years has increased botanical diversity and led to a community close to Rodwell’s MG5 description. Interestingly, one of the five meadows has a different plant community compared to the rest despite having the same management since their creation. Suggestions from the group around soil conditions have prompted Mark to send some soil for analysis, something that revealed similar soil conditions among the meadows 18 years ago. It will be interesting to hear the result this time around. 

The meeting even found the first eyebright every recorded in the meadows along with blackening wax cap, a further reminder that nature doesn’t always require pristine countryside to thrive.

Whilst at Cutacre Pasture, an area a little on the wet side and grazed at a low intensity by cattle, the debate was about rush pasture versus grasslands such as MG8. Whilst each has their own botanical value broader management outcomes, such as habitat for breeding birds, drove the direction of the discussions.

The group at Wigan Flashes
Image: M. Allen
Mark Champion said of the conference “I have really enjoyed the discussions that have developed over the last couple of days at the Grassland Conservation Conference. The visit to Wigan Flashes and Cutacre Pasture led to some quite radical management recommendations that challenge the status quo and will be useful to management of the meadows going forward.”

Both field visits were undoubtedly very enjoyable and an excellent opportunity for academics, practitioners and farmers to discuss grassland conservation management. The visits rounded off an excellent couple of days and helped to achieve the aims of the Grassland Conservation Conference. 

If you would like more information about the Grassland Conservation Conference or would like to be involved in the next meeting (proposed for 2019) please visit https://www.edgehill.ac.uk/biology/grassland-conservation-workshop/ or contact Ashley Lyons".