UK Lowland Grassland Habitat Types & Characteristics


Lowland meadowsFlower-rich lowland meadow at Cae Winllan, Ceredigion © Stuart Smith, CCW

Lowland neutral meadows and pastures consist of a rich mixture of native grasses and broad-leaved herbs. They occur throughout lowland UK, often on shallow slopes or level ground with relatively deep soils that is neither strongly acidic nor lime-rich. The meadows may be managed for hay cropping, usually with grazing of the aftermath (vegetation that re-grows following cutting), or by grazing as permanent pasture.


Up to 35 or more plant species may occur in a 2m X 2m sample, including grasses such as crested dog’s tail Cynosurus cristatus and red fescue Festuca rubra, and herbs such as knapweed Centaurea nigra, bird’s-foot trefoil Lotus corniculatus and ox-eye daisy Leucanthemum vulgare. Some pastures may be important for waxcap and earth-tongue fungi. Old meadows and pastures can support a rich insect community, including butterflies, grasshoppers, bumblebees and yellow meadow ants. They can also provide important feeding areas for birds such as the linnet Carduelis cannabina and meadow pipit Anthus pratensis, and bats and small mammals such as the field vole Microtus agrestis.


The flora of lowland meadows can include rare and scarce species such as snakes’s head fritillary Fritillaria meleagris, Sulphur clover Trifolium ochroleucon, field gentian Gentianella campestris and green-winged orchid Orchis morio. This may be matched by a scarce invertebrate fauna, including hornet robber-fly Asilus crabroniformis and shrill carder bee Bombus silvarum.


Lowland meadows also include the now scarce flood-meadows of central England and eastern Wales, which rely on seasonal flooding in winter, and support tall, moisture-loving species such as great burnet Sanguisorba officinalis, meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria and pepper-saxifrage Silaum silaus.


Upland hay meadowsUpland hay meadow landscape near Muker, Swaledale, North Yorkshire © Robert Goodison

Upland or mountain hay meadows are a distinctive, rare habitat of northern England and central Scotland. They occur in scattered fields or in small isolated groups of fields in the upland fringes. The hay meadows are typically grazed by cattle or sheep from the autumn through to early spring, before being ‘shut-up’ to allow the hay crop to grow. Hay is normally cut in July or August, but in some cases as late as September. The livestock are then typically returned to the field to graze the aftermath (vegetation that re-grows following cutting). Traditionally, the meadows were given a light dressing of farmyard manure in the spring, together with occasional liming to maintain neutral soil pH conditions.


Upland hay meadows consist of a rich mixture of native grasses and broad-leaved herbs, including for example wood crane's-bill Geranium sylvaticum, great burnet Sanguisorba officinalis and lady's mantle Alchemilla spp. They are also important as feeding areas for invertebrates and bats, and provide nesting and feeding sites for birds such as yellow wagtail, twite, and curlew. Threatened species of upland hay meadows include various species of rare lady’s mantle Alchemilla, northern hawk’s-beard Crepis mollis and small-white orchid Leucorchis albida on hay meadow banks.


Lowland calcareous grasslandPasque flower, a scarce plant associated with lowland calcareous grassland © Kevin Walker, BSBI

Lowland calcareous grasslands are characterised by lime-loving plants and are found mainly, but not entirely, in the south and east of the UK, where they occur on shallow, calcareous soils generally overlying limestone rocks, including chalk. These grasslands are now largely found on distinct topographic features such as escarpments or dry valley slopes but occasionally remnants on flatter topography survive such as on Salisbury Plain or in Breckland. By contrast, the blue moor-grass Sesleria grasslands are found up to the upland fringes in northern England. Calcareous grasslands are typically managed by grazing but may sometimes be cut for hay.


The flora can be very rich including many nationally rare and scarce species such as monkey orchid Orchis simia, hoary rockrose Helianthemum canum and pasque flower Pulsatilla vulgaris. This can be matched by an equally diverse invertebrate fauna including scarce species like the Adonis blue Lysandra bellargus and the wart-biter cricket Decticus verrucivorus. These grasslands also provide feeding and breeding habitat for birds such as the stone curlew Burhinus oedicnemus and skylark Alauda arvensis.


Lowland dry acid grassland

Lowland dry acid grassland on the slopes of Roundton Hill, a Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust reserve © Stuart Smith, CCWLowland acid grasslands are widely distributed throughout the UK, typically on nutrient-poor, acid soils overlying sands and gravels, hard volcanic rocks or sandstones. Large areas occur in the upland fringes (generally below 300m) but more important are the well-drained often parched habitats that are found in the drier lowland areas, such as the East Anglian Breckland, the New Forest and the Weald. Species-rich forms are also very occasionally found in the western hills. Lowland acid grassland is often an important component of heathland landscapes, of old parklands and of commons, and more locally, of coastal cliffs and shingle. It is normally managed as pasture.


Species richness can be variable in lowland acid grassland, ranging from less than 5 to greater than 25 plant species per 2m X 2m sample. Parched acid grassland can provide habitat for a number of rare and scarce plants including mossy stonewort Crassula tillaea, sticky catchfly Lychnis viscaria and spring speedwell Veronica verna. The open, sandy soils can support considerable numbers of ground-dwelling and burrowing invertebrates such as solitary bees and wasps, and are favoured by birds such as the stone-curlew Burhinus oedicnemus, woodlark Lullula arborea and nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus. By contrast, fungi such as wax-caps, earth-tongues and fairy clubs favour grazed, moist acid grassland, particularly in the west of the UK.


Purple moor grass and rush pastureTower More ASSI, Fermanagh, one of the largest areas of species-rich purple moor grass and rush pasture in Northern Ireland © Alistair Church, NIEA

The marshy grasslands known as purple moor grass and rush pastures traditionally provided useful grazing in dry summers. They are found throughout the UK, although are mainly concentrated in high rainfall areas of the west on gently sloping land with poorly-drained soils. Important areas are the Culm grasslands of Devon and Cornwall, the Rhôs pastures of Wales and the fen meadows of County Fermanagh. Today they are still used as rough grazing for cattle or ponies with an occasional hay crop, although increasingly management is being abandoned altogether.


They are usually dominated by purple moor-grass Molinia caerulea and/or rushes, especially sharp-flowered rush Juncus acutiflorus, but may include up to 50 plant species in a 2m X 2m sample including characteristic species such as meadow thistle Cirsium dissectum and whorled caraway Carum verticillatum. The habitat supports a varied invertebrate fauna; the best known example being the marsh fritillary butterfly Euphydryas aurinia. Curlew Numenius arquata and lapwing Vanellus vanellus breed in marshy pastures and other species using the habitat include snipe Gallinago gallinago, barn owl Tyto alba, grass snake Natrix natrix and adder Vipera berus.


Calaminarian grasslandThe white flowers of spring sandwort growing on Halkyn Mountain SAC, North Wales © Stuart Smith, CCW

Calaminarian grasslands can be found on soils that have levels of heavy metals, such as lead, zinc chromium and copper, which are toxic to most plant species. They mostly occur in the north and west of the UK on artificial habitats resulting from past mining activity, although there are a few near-natural examples. The habitat occurs in three main situations: as near-natural, open vegetation of serpentine rock and mineral vein outcrops with skeletal soils, such as at the Keen of Hamar in Shetland; on stable river gravels rich in lead and zinc, such as on the Tyne and Allen river gravels in Northumberland; and on artificial mine workings and spoil heaps, such as on the Halkyn Mountain in north Wales.


The vegetation is usually species-poor, but often includes spring sandwort Minuartia verna and alpine penny-cress Thlaspi caerulescens. There is a genetically adapted range of other species including sheep’s fescue Festuca ovina, sea campion Silene uniflora and thrift Armeria maritima. The heavy metal toxicity of the soils combined with paucity of nutrients results in open, slow-growing vegetation. Rarer species such as forked spleenwort Asplenium septentrionale can benefit from lack of competition from vigorous colonists. Some sites hold important populations of rare bryophytes and lichens.