Kate Bailey – Conservation Graduate Trainee
Grasslands are important habitats in the North York Moors supporting a wide range of plants and wildlife. They’re habitats that have suffered severe declines all over England in the past decades. Therefore conserving, restoring, creating linked grassland habitats is one of the key focuses of our Habitat Connectivity initiative.
National Park Volunteers carry out regular tasks like scrub control in order to maintain and restore grassland sites. But volunteers are also essential when it comes to monitoring our grassland sites. Botanical monitoring is a key tool to ensure that the prescribed management is having a positive effect on the site, and the information collected through the annual monitoring process ensures management can be tailored to each site to help ensure each is in the best condition they can be or are at least moving in the right direction. Repeat annual monitoring means changes, good or bad, can be quickly identified.
Our Linking Landscapes Grassland Volunteers have been across the National Park this summer monitoring grassland habitats. We currently have ten enthusiastic volunteers who kindly give their botanical expertise and diligently undertake an annual botanical survey at their ‘adopted’ site/s.
This summer I’ve also been out surveying a number of grassland sites which hadn’t been surveyed previously; getting to visit some lovely spots whilst improving my botanical identification skills and collecting information.
Both the volunteers and I have followed the same simple methodology for monitoring our site/s. A walking route is marked out on an aerial photograph for the surveyor to follow – the approximate ‘W’ shape ensures that a fair representation of the site is surveyed. The surveyor walks along the route stopping at regular intervals – ten stops is usually adequate. At each stop a square metre (quadrat) of vegetation is assessed and each species present is noted down – this is usually where the ID books and hand lens are invaluable.
At the end of the ‘W’ shaped monitoring route, a survey sheet will look something like this.
Because we’ve recorded which species are present in each quadrat at each of the ten stops we can work out the frequency of each of the species:
A species is rare (R) if it occurs in one or two stops out of ten;
It is occasional (O) if it occurs in three or four stops out of ten;
Frequent (F) species occur in five or more stops out of ten.
Additional information is also recorded, including the amount of bare ground and height of the sward, the amount of scrub and bracken on site, and the presence of pernicious weeds (such as thistles, nettles and docks). Lots of photos are helpful, plus any sightings of notable wildlife!
All this information allows a site to be assessed and assigned one of the following categories:
Good quality species-rich grassland;
Good quality semi-improved or degraded grassland of high species-richness;
Semi-improved grassland of moderate species-richness;
Species-poor semi-improved grassland.
The National Park is keen to see an increase in the area of species-rich grassland. For the North York Moors that means the priority habitats lowland meadow and lowland calcareous grassland. By this regular monitoring we can get a clearer picture of the changing status of each site and use it to advise restoration methods. Altering the grazing regime, clearing bracken and scrub and/or sowing locally sourced wild flower seeds/spreading green hay can improve the quality and diversity of a grassland site with the ultimate objective of achieving and maintaining good quality species-rich grassland.
We’ll be out again next summer, doing it all again.