The Grassland Gap: Call for a Grassland Action Plan

Olivia Nelson, Advocacy Officer

We are seeing a huge biodiversity crisis in this country – species-rich habitat has vanished at a hugely alarming rate even since I was a child in the 80’s, and one of the most hard hit of these are species-rich grasslands.  Grasslands in total make up 40% of this country but on the whole this is not the sort of nature-rich landscape the Floodplain Meadow Partnership engages with.  The majority of species-rich grasslands have been destroyed across the UK since the 1930s. It’s likely that the UK has lost over 97% of its long-established and biodiverse grassland. Species-rich grasslands are now ‘amongst Great Britain’s rarest habitats’*. Floodplain meadows were once the most common use of land on lowland river floodplains but are now reduced to a tiny proportion of this historic extent. And what is lost is not just the habitat but also the resilient landscape they contribute to. 

Yet despite this there is little recognition by Government of how to improve and use grasslands in a way which can deliver for nature and society. A briefing by Plantlife highlights how existing UK Government Action Plans have a Grassland Gap with an absence of any dedicated resource to work on deliverables for grasslands. Similarly there is little recognition of the contribution of grasslands to tackling the climate crisis, for example in the UK’s National Adaptation Programme or funding in the Nature for Climate Fund.  In the case of floodplain meadows,  the recently published Environmental Improvement Plan and Plan for Water recognise the role that woodlands play in flood management, with a promise to continue the “Woodlands for Water” project, yet we are disappointed that floodplain meadows receive no similar recognition. 

We are partnering up with Plantlife and a coalition of other organisations such as the National Trust, NFFN, Wildlife Trusts and Buglife in a public call for greater recognition and support of species-rich grasslands through better focused public policy and funding. We want to see the UK Government take a strategic approach for grasslands and commit to developing a Grassland Action Plan for England

As demonstrated by the England Trees Action Plan and the England Peat Action Plan, a joined-up approach to habitats can deliver large-scale change and benefits. Grasslands deserve the same level of strategic focus and investment given to peatland and woodland for the rich ecosystems and services they provide. In particular, the role of grasslands in tackling climate change has been systemically undervalued. An estimated 2 billion tons of carbon is already stored in their undisturbed soils across Great Britain – and they could absorb even more carbon if we change the way we manage them and bring back a diversity of plants and fungi. Our own ongoing research into soil carbon in floodplains is already beginning to build evidence to show this – arable floodplain soils down to 50 cm store less soil carbon than ancient species-rich meadow floodplain soils.

Plantlife are now coordinating an advocacy push for Government to make the most of this immensely precious and threatened habitat for nature, climate & people.  Actions include briefings sent to Defra Ministers and their Shadow counterparts alongside publishing technical reports and other work to highlight the current status of grassland in this country.  As part of our advocacy work to promote and support floodplain meadows, the FMP will be working within this coalition to highlight and deliver on the Grassland Position Statement:

 “With competing pressures on England’s land, we need to make the most of our grasslands, which cover at least 40% of the country. Appropriately managed and connected grasslands (including semi-natural and species-rich areas) can be highly multifunctional, providing a wealth of benefits including food production, nature’s recovery, clean air and water, pollination services, accessible green space, soil health, and climate change mitigation and adaptation. From upland pastures, ancient and floodplain meadows, to gardens, parks and road verges, grasslands are a major national asset and require a strategic, cross-sectoral approach led by government. We therefore call on the UK Government to commit to developing a Grassland Action Plan for England.”

Grassland Action Plan Partners

 * Walker, K.J., Stroh, P.A., Humphrey, T.A., Roy, D.B., Burkmar, R.J. & Pescott, O.L. 2023. Britain’s Changing Flora. A Summary of the Results of Plant Atlas 2020. Durham: Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland