Grasslands cover a large part of the Irish countryside; depending on the underlying soils and geology they vary from freely draining and dry to waterlogged and poorly drained.
Historically, low intensity farming was very good for biodiversity; however, agricultural intensification has led to widespread declines in biodiversity. Management plays a major role in how biodiverse our grasslands are. As such, managing even 5-10% of your grasslands for biodiversity can make a huge difference to wildlife. Where they remain old hay meadows and semi-natural (or ‘more-natural’) grasslands have very high biodiversity and can be some of the most species rich habitats in Ireland’s farmland.
Important functions of semi-natural grasslands include:
- They provide a food source for many types of livestock and wildlife.
- Healthy grasslands can store carbon.
- Good soil structure in well-managed grasslands reduces waterlogging and the impacts of droughts.
- Wet grasslands, say on floodplains, can provide really important feeding habitats for thousands of wild birds (eg ducks, geese and swan) that spend their winter in Ireland
- Semi-natural grasslands are some of the most biodiverse habitats in Ireland.
Avoid overgrazing or poaching
- Increase the time fields are left to rest between grazing to allow them to recover and regrow.
- Alternatively, reduce the grazing intensity by reducing your stocking density.
- Preventing overgrazing and poaching reduces open space in the grass sward for problematic weeds to colonise.
Avoid damaging the soil
- Avoid using heavy machinery on the soil in or after wet weather as this compacts the soil and damages its structure.
- Minimise or avoid chemical, including NPK fertilizers or pesticide use as this will damage the health of your soils by reducing their biodiversity.
Allow areas of long grass to grow
- Fence off or reduce stocking density in certain areas to let taller grass grow and for longer into the season.
- Having a diversity of grass lengths provides a variety of habitats for insects, birds and small mammals. .
- Allow longer grass to grow near field boundaries or hedgerows to create nesting habitats for bumble bees.
- If you are growing for winter feed, consider hay (weather permitting) or even haylage rather than silage as that leaves a chance for more seed to remain on site, replenishing the seed bank and try to harvest as late as possible to allow flowers to set seed (at least until after mid-July, if possible early Autumn). It’s important to harvest the field as taking the crop off will reduce nutrient loading and encourage biodiversity.
Add pollinator friendly plants
- Planting species such as clover naturally increase the nitrogen levels in your soil while also feeding our pollinators.
- If your grassland is already filled with native wildflowers, protect them! Don’t reseed areas of wildflower meadows; they are probably already really important as they are for all kinds of wildlife.
- Advice on managing wildflower rich meadows can be found in the links below.
Manage water for wet grasslands
- Plan and manage to have enough water for ‘splash’ floods in the winter. Options might include not draining off naturally occurring floods too fast or using sluices and structures to move water around to create ‘splash’.
- Keep wet grasslands damp into July and August. These will be important for lots of biodiversity including charismatic breeding ‘wading birds’ such as lapwing, snipe and curlew. Where drains have been used in the past these can be blocked.
- Graze the area as needed to stop plants such as willow from growing and drying the area out. Do this after the bird breeding season (March to July/August).
Reduce livestock access to rivers and waterways
- Fence off watercourses to prevent bank erosion and water pollution, provide alternative water sources.
- Allow native vegetation to grow along the river bank to stabilise it against erosion.
Minimise anti-parasitic drug use
- Dung is really important and supports many insects and fungi for instance, so think hard about reducing anti-parasitic drug use. Consider non-avermectin alternatives to treat animals.
- Only treat animals with these drugs when absolutely necessary as avermectin is harmful to native invertebrates living in and around animal dung. Insect eating birds once abundant round the farm, such as swallows and house martins, are becoming rare because amongst other things the insects on which they once fed are now getting scarce.
- Farm Wildlife UK provide management advice for farmer on grasslands here
- National Biodiversity Data Centre’s Guide to Creation and Management of a Wildflower Meadows here
- National Biodiversity Data Centre’s Guide to Farmland Actions for Pollinators here
- The Bride Project in Co.Cork (EIP) has a Farm Habitat Management Guidelines here.
- Cotswolds Seeds have an education section on different grass seeds and how they help your soil’s fertility. See here for more details.
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The development of these how to sections have been supported by the National Parks and Wildlife Service
and the Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine