Keep off the grass: One man's mission to save our meadowland and its wildlife

A A A

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.

THE LAPWING

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.

THE SKYLARK

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.

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star