Grasslands are the most abundant habitat type that exists in Ireland today and over 60% of the country is covered by agricultural grassland. Grasslands in Ireland can be divided into two categories
Semi-natural grasslands are dependent on management, through livestock grazing or mowing, but are not intensively managed. As a result, they support diverse plant and animal communities. Without farming, at least periodic grazing or mowing, most grassland areas become rank and scrubby and the species that are reliant on the habitat are lost. A ‘Guide to Habitats in Ireland’ lists four semi-natural grassland habitat types – dry calcareous and neutral grassland, dry meadows and grassy verges, dry-humid acid grassland, and wet grassland – as well as a similar habitat, marsh, which is less grassy in character. For further information on semi-natural grasslands in Ireland explore the ‘Irish Semi-natural Grasslands Survey’
Conservation of Semi-Natural Grassland
Irish semi-natural grasslands are threatened by habitat loss, agricultural intensification, abandonment of land, commercial forestry and the use of fertilisers such as slurry. Many of the EU Habitats Directive Annex I grasslands in Ireland have an unfavourable conservation status.
Types of Semi Natural Grassland
Five types of semi-natural grassland found in Ireland are listed on the EU Habitats Directive:
- Orchid-rich calcareous grassland (EU code 6210)
- Lowland hay meadow – traditionally managed meadows with high species richness (EU code 6510)
- Molinia meadow (wettish grasslands with purple moor grass and high species richness)
- Molinia meadow – wet grasslands with purple moor-grass and high species richness (EU code 6410)
- Nardus grassland – acid grasslands, usually in the uplands (EU code 6230)
- Hydrophilous tall-herb habitat – most commonly associated with marshes and swamps (EU code 6430)
For the most recent survey of Orchid-rich calcareous grasslands, Lowland hay meadows and Molinia meadows, explore the ‘The Monitoring and Assessment of Three EU Habitats Directive Annex I Grassland Habitats’
Improved Grassland makes up the largest proportion of Ireland’s productive grassland. This type of grassland is heavily managed to maximise production. It is typically reseeded frequently, heavily fertilised and grazed or cut for silage. The diversity of plant species it supports is low, since fertiliser favours the growth of faster-growing grass species over other plants. Where it is reseeded, the seed mix consists only of cultivars of perennial ryegrass and white clover. Even where it is not reseeded, perennial ryegrass, meadow thistle and nettle predominate.
Conservation of Improved Grassland
Improved grasslands are not protected under the EU habitats directive as they are man made habitats and are very species poor. Some improved grasslands are more species diverse than others but they still would not be as diverse as any type of semi-natural grassland.
Enhancing Improved Grassland
Improved grassland can be enhanced for nature by introducing more flowering plants in the seed mix for the pasture and by grazing the pasture less intensely, allowing the plants and soil to rest for greater periods. Try to minimise the amount of topping. When topping is necessary, consider leaving some areas uncut or topping high to maintain some taller vegetation.
Galway, Cladoir, Blackface, Swaledale, Cheviot, Shetland, Shropshire, Herdwick, North Ronaldsay