Species-rich Grasslands

Species-rich grasslands represent one of our most charismatic and colourful habitats. Once a relatively common feature of our countryside, in recent decades they have suffered a significant decline as agriculture intensification and development have taken their toll. Those that remain are often small and isolated, and their dynamic nature means regular and sympathetic management is vital too avoid invasion by scrub and eventually trees.

There is very little information available describing the current extent or previous loss of grasslands in Essex. However, it is almost certain that the fate of old meadows and pastures has been the same across much of lowland England and Wales.

It seems likely that the landscape of Essex has been largely arable for several centuries, and, away from the coast, extensive areas of semi-natural grassland were probably restricted to the ‘London Clay’ region. None-the-less, up until widespread mechanization of farming after World War II, unimproved meadows and pastures would still have been a relatively frequent feature in the countryside. The remaining areas of species-rich grassland are now typically small and fragmented, confined to nature reserves, village greens, marginal agricultural land, and roadside verges. (Photo: Green Winged Orchid)

Significant areas of ‘Lowland meadows’ and ‘Lowland calcareous grassland’ are rare in Essex, with the majority designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Key county sites include Roding Valley Meadows SSSI, Hitchcock’s Meadow (part of the Danbury Common SSSI), Mill Meadows SSSI, Hadleigh and Benfleet Downs (part of Benfleet and Southend Marshes SSSI), Curtis Mill Green SSSI, Garrold’s Meadow SSSI, Basildon Meadows SSSI, Oxley Meadows Local Wildlife Site (LoWS), Langdon Hills Complex LoWS and Broom and Gun Hill LoWS.

In recognition of the value of roadside verges in preserving remnant patches of unimproved grassland, the Special Roadside Verges Project, a joint initiative between Essex Wildlife Trust and Essex County Council, has established a network of ‘special verges’ which are subject to sympathetic management and monitored by volunteer verge representatives. See our separate page about Roadside Verges.

Neutral meadows are typically flower-rich grasslands which have escaped destruction. They are often still managed in a traditional way, producing a charismatic display of colourful meadow herbs such as knapweed, meadow buttercup and burnet saxifrage in summer. The rarer wet meadows of west Essex may support uncommon plants such as marsh marigold, southern marsh orchid and sneezewort.

Calcareous grasslands occur on the chalky boulder clays of Uttlesford District, northwest Essex, although sadly, most of the stands are now confined to road verges and the edges of chalk quarries. Typical flowers include field scabious, pyramidal orchid, common spotted orchid and greater knapweed. They also support some of the county’s rarest species such as crested cow-wheat and sulphur clover. (Photo: Crested Cow-Wheat: Tony Morton)

Thames terrace grassland is unique to the Thames Estuary, occurring on gravel deposits laid down in prehistoric times by the river. They support a specialist flora and fauna; for example, they are home to the nationally rare autumn squill and the UK BAP shrill carder Bee.

An Essex BAP Grassland Study has been carried out for Essex Biodiversity Project and Essex County Council and was issued on 26 August 2011.
This provides an inventory of meadow sites in the County and an analysis of the sites using data which were gathered in 1984. A classification of the sites is made based on this data to produce grassland types that can be related to National Vegetation Classification (NVC) types. A Geographical Information System (GIS) grassland inventory has been produced to help identify areas of BAP quality grassland within the county that could be targeted by ECC’s grazing and grassland project. The development and implementation of a conservation grazing project is a key commitment under the Essex species-rich grassland Habitat Action Plan (HAP).
The report can be downloaded from here as a 2.0MB PDF file.
For further information contact Mark Iley

The Essex Grazing Project

The Essex Grazing Project provides heritage grazing to many of the County's finest wildlife sites. Using our herd of native breed Red Poll cattle, we deliver bespoke conservation grazing to land managers of nature reserves and open spaces.
The Project aims to promote best-practice among site managers responsible for conserving the county's semi-natural grasslands and open habitats through grazing.
We work closely with the Essex Biodiversity Project to help implement the Essex Biodiversity Action Plan, and we are always keen to collaborate with ecologists, students and natural historians who are interested in monitoring the effects of grazing on our natural fauna and flora. Read more about our project on our website at http://www.essexgrazing.org.uk/
If you have a research idea or would like to survey one of the sites we graze please contact us by email.