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Parish Grasslands Project, St Briavels

Location:St Briavels

Habitats:Grassland

Livestock:Various breeds and types of livestock

In brief:A community grassland management project established in response the concerns of local residents. The following article by George Peterken, one of those residents, describes the background to this.

Contact:George Peterkin

Tel:01594 530452

Email:george.peterken@care4free.net

Weblink:


The issue

Semi-natural (or “unimproved”) grassland remains one of the major habitats in the Wye Valley AONB, but its extent has been much reduced in the last 50 years or so, and the remaining grasslands are still decreasing. A few are protected in, for example, reserves held by the Gwent Wildlife Trust (Pentwyn Farm) and the Woodland Trust (Highbury Fields), and a very few fragments probably survive by virtue of their exposed, dry site (e.g., Seven Sisters Rocks), but most surviving examples of semi-natural grassland survive as small, scattered fragments in a multiplicity of ownerships, mostly outside the SSSIs, and generally outside the influence of mainstream farming and the agriculture agencies.

The grasslands

These meadows and pastures contain no spectacularly rare plants and they are not outstandingly rich in species overall. They grow on acid soils, where grasslands are naturally poorer in species than grasslands on neutral or lime-rich soils. Nevertheless, they include a number of characteristic species amongst the dominant grasses, and in many places can be showy with ox-eye daisy, knapweed, meadow buttercup, spotted orchids and others.

The composition of the grasslands depends on (i) site characteristics, (ii) management and (iii) history of change in site and management. Most ground is made up of reasonably well-drained, mildly acid, friable loams with a capacity to retain water, but depressions and streamsides remain permanently moist, and flush zones appear to have a higher base status. The fields are used today as meadows (mown, then grazed), pasture (grazed), garden lawns, or not used at all. Some are fertilised and / or treated with herbicides to various degrees, but most are probably not treated at all, or receive only applications of FYM.

Grassland management and composition are not stable. Even in fields treated identically from year-to-year the balance between species varies, perhaps according to the weather at critical seasons. Changes in grazing or mowing regime induce further change, and no doubt the history of rabbit grazing is significant. Certainly, cattle, sheep and horses generate quite different swards. In the past many fields have been cultivated, so there is obviously a capacity for the grassland to re-create itself. In recent times, many fields have been ploughed and reseeded as ley grasslands, which slowly accrete ‘weed’ species over subsequent years. Some fields have been heavily fertilised without ploughing: this generates a vigorous but floristically poor sward dominated by native grasses.

Against this background, there is no single ‘correct’ or ‘typical’ composition. Nevertheless, some fields are clearly more natural than others, i.e., less modified by intensive management. Some species are considered nationally to be indicators of relatively natural conditions, e.g. yellow-rattle, and these can be taken as signs of relatively natural grassland: so far this species has been found in some 31 separate fields in St Briavels / Hewelsfield.

Causes of decline

If losses of semi-natural grassland over the last, say, 30 years could be quantified, the following factors would almost certainly be most important:

1. Agricultural improvement
2. Disuse, followed by successional changes to bracken and eventually woodland
3. Building and associated conversion to gardens

In addition to these outright losses, there are several forms of deterioration:

4. Change from meadows to prolonged horse- and sheep-pasture
5. Light improvement by fertilising and limited herbicide use
6. Reduced grazing pressure, allowing scrub and bramble to invade. This includes intermittent mowing or grazing (i.e. neglect for a single year).

Measures for conservation

Most remaining grasslands are in the hands of ‘amateur landowners’, i.e. people who are not farmers, and for whom the fields are not a significant source of income. Some use them to keep sheep or horses, but most let the grass to other people. St Briavels and Hewelsfield are fortunate in still having some traditional smallholding and commoning families, who use many fields, but there must be some doubt that they will continue indefinitely.

Money is unlikely to be a major factor determining whether fields remain as good quality semi-natural grassland. It could help with boundary management and restoration. It may provide an incentive to restore neglected fields (i.e. clear scrub and bracken). It could subsidize treatment of woodland boundaries and arboricultural attentions to individual trees (some of which are important historical and landscape features in their own right). However, I most owners would be wary of taking on the long-term commitments of a conservation scheme, such as Tir Gofal, Countryside Stewardship or the Local Heritage Initiative.

Some owners might find some kind of loose-knit forum or collective helpful. This might, for example, exchange advice, pool equipment, provide enough work for someone to be a parish land-manager, find a buyer for hay, provide weekend sheep-sitting, etc. There is a Lower Wye Valley smallholders’ association, and this might be worth building on.

There could also be a case for a ‘parish conservation plan’ (linked to a parish map), under which individuals undertake to retain semi-natural grasslands (and any other feature of interest) while they are ‘dedicated’ to the scheme. This might qualify entrants for advice and other help. Whilst there would be no obligation to enter or remain within a scheme, once in there might be some social pressure to remain.

General

Grassland conservation is unlikely to generate a crisis: it will always come second to issues, such as new quarries. Classically, flowery grassland vanishes field by field while people remain oblivious of the total losses. It does not seem to generate the emotional support of woodland: there is no “Grassland Trust”. On the whole, grassland conservation will not be achieved by outside agencies, such as acquisition as a nature reserve, or designation as an SSSI. It will be done or not done by individuals.

The need is to find measures that will increase the chances that individual owners will (i) decide to keep their fields as semi-natural grassland, and (ii) find the means to do so. Failure to improve the balance of probability that grassland will be kept and properly managed will allow the habitat to fade gently away, and risk the loss of the nationally distinctive landscapes of small fields, high hedges and flowery meadows that still characterise the old commons on the lower valley.

Key elements of the Parish Grassland Project

· Community driven with no project officer
· Field and indoor meetings
· Open days to visit fields (like the open gardens scheme)
· Specialist alpine machinery maintained and operated by local farmer. The members of the project can have work done for a subsidised fee. The farmer is paid for his time
· Machinery funded by HLF, Forest of Dean District Council and Wye Valley AONB
· Advice and help with grant applications
· Farmer sells local rare breed beef and pork
· Some landowners have their own animals, graziers and farmer also grazes for a few owners
· Machinery operation is hard work and economically difficult (it just covers its costs and relies heavily on the farmer)
· This is a smallholder landscape, and needs a new generation of active smallholders to be maintained

Machinery capital costs

Vithar tractor     20,445
Flail mower         3,466
Topper                   928
Bracken basher    1398
Tedder                 1668
Mower, 5 disc       3760
Baler and wrapper 9400
Harrows               1175
Trailer                  2232
Post rammer        3642
MF tractor 135     5111
Total                 53,225


PGP machinery accounts – annual income and expenditure

                                    2004      2005     2006
PGP work (jobs)              25         45         46
MMG work (jobs)             10         11         12
Hire charge (£/hour)         18          18         22
INCOME (£)                 1500      5802      3556
EXPENDITURE (£)
Administration                  50       152         60
Insurance                        575      686       630
Fuel                                147      666       532
Service                                       320
Net and wrap                    344      606      374
Spares                                        568      149
Labour                              859    2881    1637
TOTAL                             1977   5887    3382
Balance (£)                       -477      -85      174