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Cotswold Conversation Boards launches scheme to save our wildflower grasslands

PUBLISHED: 09:28 23 July 2019

Hereford cattle on limestone grassland

Hereford cattle on limestone grassland

Ian Boyd

The Cotswolds Conservation Board's new scheme to save wildflower grasslands is up and running - with lots of great ways you can join in, says Siân Ellis

Rare Cotswold pennycress, pasque flower, oxeye daisy, common bird's-foot trefoil, kidney vetch, cowslip, lady's bedstraw - the names of wildflowers typical of the Cotswolds' limestone grasslands are every bit as fascinating and colourful as the plants themselves. Butterflies our grasslands support - national rarities like the Chalkhill Blue and orange-flecked Duke of Burgundy - bring summer on their wings. Insects and little beasties, seeds and nesting habitat allow all sorts of mammals, bats and birds to thrive. Whose spirits don't soar at the irrepressible musical crescendo of a skylark's song?

Harvey Sherwood and Anna Field, breaking off from their busy wildflower seed harvesting activities taking place throughout the coming weeks, are equally irrepressible as they enthuse about the new Glorious Cotswolds Grasslands project launched by the Cotswolds Conservation Board earlier this year. Project Officer and Assistant Project Officer respectively, Harvey and Anna are spearheading plans to establish the largest network of wildflower-rich Jurassic limestone grassland in the country by creating 100 hectares (to add to the existing resource) over the next three years.

Limestone grassland at ConygreeLimestone grassland at Conygree

It is no secret that, due to factors like urban development and changes in farming practice and land management, much of our species-rich grassland has been lost - 97% since the 1930s in England and Wales. In the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) such coverage has shrunk from 40% to just 1.5% - which actually equates to more than 50% of England and Wales' remaining unimproved Jurassic limestone grassland. The figures are startling and underline just what a precious resource such grasslands are. A typical patch can contain over 100 species of flowering plants.

The recent, national Save our Magnificent Meadows project was enthusiastically supported in the Cotswolds, with lots of landowners and volunteers joining together to restore and enhance grasslands. Glorious Cotswolds Grasslands seeks to build on the legacy and, in an important step-change, to establish a self-funding, self-sustaining service to take forward grassland and meadow management in the AONB - "never a quick-fix scenario" as Harvey points out - for years to come. The scheme has been kick-started by a grant of more than £200,000 from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and through additional support from a private donor.

Oxeye daisiesOxeye daisies

Aims and activities

So what is happening and how can people get involved? A key aim is to continue to focus on pieces of land between known sites of priority habitats and to establish flower-rich corridors across the landscape, Harvey says: joining up fragmented and vulnerable grasslands. Throughout the summer, seeds are being harvested from wildflower-rich 'donor' sites and from July to September the seeds will be distributed onto prepared 'receptor' sites. The project has specialist equipment and skills to loan or hire out too.

Roger Budgeon is one landowner who is providing wildflower seed, from 11-12 acres of traditionally grazed meadows at Far Oakridge near Stroud. His meadow seeds have previously been distributed throughout surrounding farms and this year will be used to expand the area of wildflower-rich grassland.

"It's the future," Roger says, when asked why he is involved in the project. "We need the diversity of wildflowers, we need the insects: predators feed from there upwards." Spring through summer his fields dazzle, from cowslips to orchids, with "green-winged orchids being their claim to fame," he says.

Green winged orchid in one of Roger Budgeon's meadowsGreen winged orchid in one of Roger Budgeon's meadows

While botanical surveys, seed harvesting and distribution take place through the summer, Harvey says, "Other months will be filled with identifying additional suitable sites, partner engagement, events and training days, educational links, volunteer work parties and GIS [geographic information system] analysis, advisory services and raising awareness for this valuable environmental work."

With wide-ranging previous experience working in the land-based sector, from commercial farmer to Natural England advisor, Harvey understands the diversity of people and groups who can both contribute to and benefit from the success of Glorious Cotswolds Grasslands. Advice on offer to farmers for example includes "the benefits of flower-rich grasslands to animals, farm soils, crop rotations and the consumer"; equally Harvey hopes to work with local communities and parish councils "to raise awareness and enable village green space/roadside verge enhancement."

Anna, previously a ranger and ecologist at the National Trust's Sherborne Park Estate, is keen to recruit volunteers to help with activities like scrub control, operating the seed harvester and sorting seed. As a mother of young children she also looks forward to working with schools: "Getting the next generation interested in our natural world has got to be one of the most important steps to protecting its future." Learning packs are being prepared for schools featuring exciting activities and fascinating wildflower information. Botanical survey work, to measure the success of Glorious Cotswolds Grasslands, is another focus for Anna's efforts.

Harvey talks of "the overwhelming positive interest" from people who appreciate "the win-win project qualities" of Glorious Cotswolds Grasslands: saving and extending our species-rich grasslands while benefiting sectors ranging from farming to tourism. Anna, impressed by meeting "so many fantastic landowners and managers who care deeply for the landscape and wildlife on their land", says: "It gives me a lot of hope for the future of the Cotswolds grasslands."

Devil's bit scabiousDevil's bit scabious

For further information on the Cotswolds AONB and the Cotswolds Conservation Board, visit cotswoldsaonb.org.uk.

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