A further decline of species rich grassland in Hampshire

© E Marshall

We respond to permission being given to develop a meadow near Alton

We were dismayed to learn this morning that planning permission had been granted for a residential development at the site of the former Lord Mayor Treloar Hospital, nr Alton.

The site consists of botanically rich wildflower meadows and also a site that has been designated for its nature conservation value at county level (Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC)).

We have been assisting a very enthusiastic local group who were trying to save the meadow, and the butterflies that rely on it, but unfortunately all our efforts appear to have been in vain.

Pyramidal orchid © Mark Heighes

Pyramidal orchid © Mark Heighes

Pyramidal orchids are among the many flower species found in the Treloar Meadow

In our initial response we expressed concerns at the fact that the botanical report was kept confidential, and questioned how this was acceptable in a public consultation process. We also raised concerns that the development included a SINC site, part of which would be lost to the development.

We were subsequently provided with the botanical report, and this only heightened our concerns with the development proposals. It was evident that the meadows, part of which was included within the development proposals, had not been adequately surveyed and therefore it was not possible to fully assess the true impact of the development on the site. Nor was it possible to assess the true value of the meadow, for example, was it of county wildlife value, or higher, national value.

Some parts of the meadow that had been surveyed were stated as ‘showing affinities’ to an MG5 grassland type, which is a UK Priority Habitat under Section 41 of the NERC Act. Unfortunately the lack of supporting information made it impossible to establish which parts of the meadow this was.

The Wildlife Trust partnership has been running a National campaign aimed at saving our vanishing grasslands. Species-rich grasslands are vital natural resources: for bees and other pollinators, and for an abundance of nature that depends on them. During the flowering months, the nectar produced supports a diverse invertebrate fauna, such as butterflies and moths, grasshoppers and crickets feed on seeds through the late summer and autumn, and the abundance of small mammals provides an important food source for barn owls throughout the year.

Wildflower meadows also help protect our rivers from pollution, they hold together healthy soils that store carbon, and enable landscapes to retain water which reduces flooding. High quality pastoral produce – such as beef and lamb comes from livestock that graze species-rich grasslands or feed on the forage from hay meadows in the winter.

Noar Hill by Ian Cameron Reid

Noar Hill by Ian Cameron Reid

Habitat

Grasslands in trouble

Over the last 60 years about 97% of our wildlife-rich grasslands have disappeared. This is often through through piecemeal planning decisions where bit by bit it's lost to development, intensification or disturbance.

Though we've worked to protect grasslands like at Noar Hill nature reserve, grassland is a disappearing and vital habitat that needs our protection.

Read more about grassland

Yet our wildlife-rich grasslands are vanishing – and the wildlife that depends on them is under threat. In the national context, over the last 60 years, we have lost around 97% of our species-rich grassland through neglect, inappropriate management, agricultural intensification and development.

Despite legislation intended to protect these sites, the loss continues. In Hampshire and on the Isle of Wight, there are a total of 3978 SINCs, 552 of which are designated solely for their grass¬land interest. Of these, over half (296) are smaller than 2ha and fall below the threshold that triggers an Environmental Impact Assessment and, therefore, at risk.

We know, through our research, that this loss happens in a piecemeal way: a small meadow on a farm that was once grazed is abandoned and allowed to scrub over with trees; elsewhere a road is widened with the subsequent loss of the flower rich verge. Or perhaps the meadow is absorbed into a country park but the habitat is unable to cope with the increased recreational pressure and associated issues, such as nutrient enrichment.

The information gathered to date makes depressing reading and the National campaign is calling for a halt to this catastrophic decline. Some sites have gone altogether, lost to development or ploughing. Many more have deteriorated to such an extent that the wildlife that makes them special has simply disappeared and they have been “de-selected” as Local Wildlife Sites, meaning there is not enough special habitat left to justify keeping the Local Wildlife Site designation.

In May 2014, the Wildlife Trusts’ petition calling on Government to save our remaining wildlife-rich grasslands was handed to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It was hoped that this would make a difference, and that our species-rich meadows would be protected. Unfortunately, this latest decision highlights the fact that this may not by the case.