So you thought looking after your lawn was hard work? Spare a thought for Jon Valters, who tends to a lot more grass than the average gardener. To be precise, some 147 acres, leased in Carmel National Nature Reserve in Carmarthenshire – on which he is spending some £200,000 from the Welsh Assembly to do, well, as little as possible: no cultivation, no building, not so much as a new fence or pathway. Rather he is looking to extend this plot of land in one long stretch as far as the Brecon Beacons. He has also managed to raise £1.4m over the last five years to buy grass in Somerset and Dorset. That, of course, is when he is not busy travelling all over the UK covering regional current affairs for the BBC.
Grass may not be the most compelling of country matters to evoke a passion, in that it has neither the magnificence of great forests, the majesty of lakes or the cuddliness of wildlife. But Valters is committed to the cause. Ask him what is wrong with the vast swathes of greenery that the countryside offers and he counters that they should be vast swathes of colour. According to the Greenland Trust, an organisation Valters founded, 97 per cent of the UK's ancient flowery meadows have disappeared since the Second World War, a product both of history – the wartime Dig for Victory campaigns saw many meadowlands irreversibly ploughed up for pasture – but also of changes in agricultural practice.
Meadowlands once thrived through fertilisation by the manure from the sheep and cattle left to graze on them; the use of chemical fertilisers, ostensibly to improve yield, replaced fields full of various flower and grass varieties with a limited selection of rye-grasses better able to absorb the nitrogen in the fertiliser. Bio-diversity has been further limited by farming's shift from use of hay to silage, requiring the use of more fertilisers.
"I had no background in ecology, but wildlife was always my passion," explains Valters, 51, who took an unpaid, 15-month sabbatical from the BBC to set up the Grasslands Trust, now with eight employees, and to which he devotes his spare time. "I was walking with an ecologist friend on downland in Dorset and we came across this incredible carpet of flowers. He told me how much of this grassland has been lost and the shock of it made me want to do something. Because I was ignorant of the situation, I assumed many other people would be too and that getting across the need to rescue grasslands was important."
It is not, however, merely a sentimental image of a bygone landscape, grasslands' value as historic and archaeological sites should not be underestimated. Neither is it a question of grasslands' benefit in preventing flooding or storing carbon dioxide. Nor of just saving the flowers that the grasslands once sustained – some 10 wild flower species being lost to the UK every decade.
Indeed, various species of butterfly and bumblebee – pollinators essential to the success of crop production – are supported by grasslands, not to mention British brown hares and birds including the lapwing, skylark and barn owl, numbers of which have fallen by 75 per cent, 50 per cent respectively over two decades. Increasingly, these are dependent on those flower-rich grasslands that are now only found in patches – on nature reserves, in fields too small or too steep to plough productively, on lands set aside for non-agricultural use, such as churchyards and village greens, even on road-side verges. In all, there is only about 150,000 hectares of semi-natural lowland grassland left in the entire UK – compared with five million hectares that have been depleted of flowers and wildlife by agriculture.
"It's not a question of stopping farming to protect grasslands but stepping back from such intensive farming," says Valters. "Getting that message across is difficult because grassland is hard to explain. The idea of grasslands isn't very dramatic but that's because many people haven't seen what they can or should look like. People go into the countryside and see a sea of greenness and assume that's the way it should be. But they should be seeing a huge variety of colours. Putting fertiliser on grasslands, which can be exceptionally rich habitats, can kill the wild flowers and associated wildlife. The lush greenness is good for the cattle, but little else."
The situation isn't getting any better either. Less than 7 per cent of Little Common Agricultural Policy funding is given to farmers to encourage them to manage their land in a wildlife-friendly manner, and with CAP cuts in the pipeline, that is only set to decline. Furthermore, only 1.6 per cent of the millions given each year in grants by charitable trusts is going to environmental causes.
In addition, recent attempts to stave off the loss of grasslands have proven ineffective in the face of market forces: costly schemes such as Countryside Stewardship and those establishing Environmentally Sensitive Areas, both aimed at encouraging farmers to help recreate grasslands, can rarely offer them sufficient compensation for their land in the face of rising cereal prices – which encourage farmers to convert land back into cultivation. Ironically, given one that one environmental action often causes another environmental disaster, the rising demand for bio-fuels is also persuading farmers to convert every scrap of land. The Government's planned push to build three million new homes by 2020 will not help.
That is not the only complication. Although Defra's Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) Regulations are meant to protect grasslands from cultivation and semi-natural lands from intensive agriculture, they have, Valters suggests, been insufficiently stringent to be effective – largely because they apply only to land over two hectares. Most wildlife-rich meadows now are much smaller.
So is Valters gloomy? After all, the Grasslands Trust has stated that the crisis is considered "the most complex and challenging issue in conservation today, climate change aside." Rather, Valters is happy to be doing something about it. "Setting up the Trust was a steep learning curve – I'd never done anything like it before and it was quite a slog. But I'm pleased with what we've achieved in a short time. The Trust is like a second job and it can take up a lot of time, given that my job is pretty intense as it is. But that has helped too – as a journalist you know how to get some attention and knowing how to write helps in terms of getting those fund-raising applications out to charitable trusts and government agencies like the Heritage Lottery Fund."
But change will come about less through money than knowledge. Buying land, as the Trust has done, is an action of last resort, though Valters hopes that more grassland areas can be extended to create corridors which can then be protected; and even land that has been intensively farmed can, with expert help, be restored to encourage the regrowth of wildflowers, and the return of animal life.
What the Trust really hopes to do is to protect remaining grassland by a change in the law and encourage the restoration of grasslands that have been depleted. The trick will be lobbying hard enough to make this happen. The Trust is currently gathering information from various wildlife organisations to make a presentation to Defra later this year.
"There are so few grasslands left that that you have to travel some distance to see an amazing meadow now. But I've seen ones that have literally taken my breath away – acres of stunning flowers and grasses at knee height," says Valters. "Explain what has been lost and why and there's a dawning realisation that we need to protect those grasslands that are left."
Nature in retreat
THE BARN OWL
The disappearance of habitats attractive to mice, shrews and voles over recent years, largely down to the cultivation of grasslands, has seen the barn owl population suffer seriously. According to the RSPB, conservation efforts mean UK populations may have stabilised.
Most typically seen on lowland areas in northern England, the Borders and Eastern Scotland, meadows are among this black-and-white bird's preferred breeding grounds. Numbers have diminished dramatically over the last 25 years.
This small, brown bird is found all over the UK and all year round, with summer months seeing populations in Wales, northern England and north west Scotland. The bird favours open countryside. But a steep decline has put the species on the RSPB's "Red List".
BRITISH BROWN HARE
The British brown hare is second only to the water vole as the native mammal showing the greatest population decline – 80 per cent – in the past century. The species needs a constant food supply that only rich biodiversity can supply. It may already be extinct in some regions.