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Monday, 13 May, 2002, 00:43 GMT 01:43 UK
English meadows 'declining fast'
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By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
Two UK conservation groups say the decline of meadows and pastures across much of England is "devastating".

Military orchid/The Wildlife Trusts
Military orchid: Wild plants thrive on the unaltered meadows
(Image by The Wildlife Trusts)

They say new research shows the pace of decline has quickened in many places.

They want changes in government policy to ensure more money goes to environmental protection. And they say farmers' own knowledge could help to save the land at risk.

The groups are Plantlife, a charity which works to conserve plants in their natural habitats, and the Wildlife Trusts, the national body which co-ordinates the work of the 46 separate county trusts.

They have produced a report, England's Green Unpleasant Land?, based on data compiled by the Trusts. These show that what are called "unimproved grasslands" - the unaltered meadows where wild plants thrive - "are disappearing rapidly from the English landscape".

Could do better

The report says: "In many areas these losses have actually accelerated in recent years."

One of the worst-affected counties is Worcestershire, where 75% of unimproved meadowland was lost or damaged between 1975 and 2000.

Meadow clary/Plantlife/Joe Sutton
Meadow clary (Salvia pratensis) has declined as a result of grassland losses
(Image by Plantlife/Joe Sutton)

In Derbyshire, 51% of meadows were damaged between 1983 and 2000. In the 10 years from 1989, Shropshire lost 49% of its meadows.

Species dependent on the grasslands, the report says, include marsh fritillary and chalkhill blue butterflies, and wild flowers like the meadow clary and the Deptford pink.

All these, it says, are also declining. It praises government schemes designed to protect lowland grassland, especially the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and the Environmentally Sensitive Areas programme.

But it says their "great potential" must be strengthened by further reform designed to prevent any more losses.

Switching subsidies

The report says more farmers should be encouraged to join the schemes, and their skills and knowledge should be put to better use.

This could be done, it says, by devising more imaginative agreements with individual farmers "rather than setting fixed prescriptions as the basis for agreements".

It wants more money to be switched by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) from food production to environmental stewardship, in line with the recommendations of Sir Donald Curry's recent Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food.

The report echoes the commission's call for 20% of production subsidies to be transferred to environmental and rural development measures.

The BBC's Richard Hollingham
reports from a Suffolk meadow with Plantlife's Martin Harper and local farmer John Cousins
See also:

29 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Farming faces major shake-up
31 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
British butterflies 'in decline'
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