97% of our species rich meadows have been lost nationally over the past 75 years. This sobering figure, which is likely closer to 99% in a Cheshire context, is one that resonates with not just conservationists but anybody that concerns themselves with the management of our countryside.
One notable consequence of this is an equally staggering decline in pollinating insects that rely on these herb rich, low input grasslands as a source of nectar and pollen and a refuge to complete their complex life cycles. To quote just two facts; it is reported that 70% of butterflies are in decline and six of our twenty five bumblebee species have declined by more than 80% in the last 50 years. It is this demise, and the associated risk to national food supplies as a consequence of falling pollination rates, that is now beginning to draw the intention of a much wider audience.
Despite, the eye-watering facts and figures there is hope. Various schemes across the country have demonstrated that it is possible to restore species rich grasslands where they have formerly been lost. Research has also proven that these restored areas can very quickly harbour species of conservation concern and together act as a network of stepping stones for wildlife to move more easily through our countryside.
One such scheme is being spearheaded by Cheshire Wildlife Trust (CWT.) In 2016, following a successful grassland restoration project at it’s Swettenham Meadows reserve, the Trust established it’s Pollinating Cheshire scheme with an ambitious mandate to restore 100 hectares of species rich grassland in a decade.
Contrary to the more conventional approach to funding such projects the Trust decided not to seek external funding to get the project off the ground so as to avoid giving the scheme a finite lifespan. Instead, they invested in acquiring all of the necessary equipment to undertake grassland restoration schemes at a landscape scale. This included purchasing a seed harvester, an innovative piece of machinery that enables you to harvest wildflower seed from meadows efficiently without removing the entire crop of hay.
CWT has now established a suite of ‘donor meadows’ which are some of the very best examples of species rich meadows in Cheshire and are using these sites as a seed source to create botanically rich meadows elsewhere in Cheshire. The importance of using locally sourced seed, as opposed to commercially produced alternatives, is that it helps conserve local gene pools and thus assists in preserving a genetically resistant population of wildflowers.
To date, the Trust has restored in excess of 10 hectares of grassland using such methods with a further 8 hectares of reseeding work planned for this summer. They remain hopeful that, in conjunction with other statutory schemes such as Countryside Stewardship, this work will assist in addressing the demise of what is surely one of Britain’s most quintessential habitats.