Lowland Wet Grassland
For many centuries, farming on the Weald Moors followed an established pattern whereby crops were grown on the islands and peninsulas above the peatland pastures, upon which only the summer grazing of cattle and livestock was possible. This custom, made necessary by the seasonal waterlogging of large swathes of moorland, was ushered out by the introduction of an elaborate, moorland-wide drainage network in the Nineteenth Century. For many species featured in our virtual safari, however, the traditional management of wet grassland is vital to their long term survival and, in some parts of the Weald Moors, continues to help make the area a local stronghold for them.
Why Is It Important? With its damp soils, standing water bodies and ditches, wet grassland is a hugely valuable resource for a wide range of aerial and soil-surface insects and invertebrates. In turn, this makes it important for creatures higher up in the food chain: Bats, Otters, Eels and Water Voles all exploit wet grassland, and it is especially important for farmland birds. This is the place where you might find all four British wading birds of conservation concern (Lapwing, Redshank, Snipe and Curlew), and a host of other species (including: Starling, Meadow Pipit, Skylark, Yellow Wagtail, Reed Bunting, Song Thrush and Linnet). Wintering wildfowl also visit wet grassland and, on the Weald Moors at least, this could entail sightings of Whooper and Mute swans or ducks such as Wigeon and Teal, which visit the area in large numbers outside the breeding season.
How Does It Work? On the Weald Moors, the seasonal surface waters that once blanketed the low-lying landscape were, for many centuries, known as ‘lakes’. While this might conjure up visions of permanently inundated pasture, in reality, such a situation would be of little value to wildlife because soil-dwelling creatures such as earthworms and leatherjackets (the larvae of craneflies) would not survive prolonged exposure to flooding. To create good wet grassland conditions, surface water need only cover, by area, as little as 5% of a productive field. What is crucial, especially to wading birds, is the maintenance of high water levels from late winter to midsummer. This ensures the grassland remains damp during the breeding season, providing soft soil for adult birds to probe for high protein invertebrates to feed to their growing young.
Aside from the water regime, cattle and livestock also play an important role in proceedings. When it comes to nesting and feeding sites, wading birds are a pretty picky bunch, requiring wet and dry areas with varying degrees of long and short grass in close proximity. When put out to autumn pasture in low numbers, grazing animals help to bring about this balance. The poaching of the soil by their hooves also creates the lumpy, bumpy surface upon which ground nests can be made in drier parts of the field or, in wetter areas, simply left to fill with water, creating a network of closely linked avian feeding sites — a vital requirement for breeding success.
On the Weald Moors: nationally, the amount of wet grassland in our countryside is thought to have declined by around 40% since the 1930s. Thanks to its dense network of drainage ditches, the Weald Moors landscape is now a much drier place, too, but in several locations the situation is beginning to change. At Village Farm, near Preston, and Wall Farm, a mile north of Kynnersley, the re-wetting of pasture has hastened the return of a more traditional method of farming on the moors. Water moves very slowly through peat soils and its poor hydraulic conductivity (the technical term for this phenomenon) creates favourable conditions for wet grassland restoration, especially when coupled with the presence of the high moorland water table. The network of permissive footpaths around Wall Farm offers excellent views of the re-wetted pastures on Tibberton Moor, where a wind pump has been used to pump water back onto the fields. Soft soils at the edges of seasonal water bodies are especially valuable for wading birds but don’t expect to see Lapwing, Curlew and Snipe in one place. While they’re all present on the moorlands (the latter largely as a winter visitor), their very precise individual needs make managing any particular area of wet grassland for all three something of an impossibility.
The Weald Moors landscape also has the recipe for a special type of wet grassland: floodplain grazing marsh. While the management regime here is similar to that described above, as its name suggests, it takes place within the sphere of a waterway and its channel. As a habitat feature, it has declined more rapidly than wet grassland and Shropshire may have lost up to one fifth of its stock in the last thirty years alone. The River Strine, Pipe Strine and Strine Brook are all considered potential areas for grazing marsh restoration and, at Wall Farm, work has already taken place to this end. In general terms, larger sites that remain relatively unenclosed (with few hedgerows and trees) are often best in terms of attracting a broad range of species to wet grassland. Consequently, there appears little doubt the wide expanses of the Weald Moors ‘big landscape’ have an important role in any local revival of this precious habitat and its increasingly scarce wildlife.