Cash boost will help to save endangered North East grasslands

Help in safeguarding rare grassland sites in the North East has come from a £300,000 regional share of a national project

Steve Lowe
Steve Lowe

Help in safeguarding rare grassland sites in the North East has come from a £300,000 regional share of a national project.

Northumberland Wildlife Trust will receive the cash boost after the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded £3 million to a partnership of conservation organisations and local councils, led by Plantlife, to save the UK’s remaining meadow and special grasslands.

The trust will use the money to help manage the special grassland habits of the Whin Sill and the shingle banks of the River Tyne.

Steve Lowe, trust head of conservation, said: “The unique grassland communities of the Whin Sill and the river shingles of the Tyne are two of Northumberland’s most sensitive and scarce habitats, something we have a special responsibility for but which few people know much about.

“If we are to stop the loss of these areas, we must take the time to understand, manage and celebrate them.

“This funding will help to do that and enable us to share the knowledge and experience across the UK.

“These habitats are not just grass but are unique communities of many plants, insects, butterflies and other wildlife.”

There were once natural wild flower meadows in every parish in the country , but today only two per cent of the meadows that existed in the 1930s remain and nearly 7.5 million acres of wildflower meadow have been lost so far, and they are still being destroyed.

One in five of the nation’s wild plants are on the verge of extinction and species-rich grasslands are becoming increasingly rare.

The Save Our Magnificent Meadows Project is being led by Plantlife, in partnership with organisations including county wildlife trusts, the National Trust, and the RSPB.

Nicola Hutchinson from Plantlife said: “There has never been a grassland programme of this scale or ambition before. It is an amazing opportunity.”

The Hadrian’s Wall corridor is an important location for whin grassland and the South Tyne Valley, Allendale area and places such as Beltingham and Close House are where shingle sites are found.

The Whin Sill is a quartz-dolerite rock, similar to basalt and outcrops appear from south-west Northumberland across the county to the coast.

Where this rock is exposed the thin soil is prone to drought but supports a unique collection of plants.

They include field garlic, chives, maiden pink, long-stalked cranes-bill, heath pearlwort, common rock-rose and burnet rose.

The Whin Sill includes a number of historical sites including Hadrian’s Wall, Bamburgh and Holy Island.

In 2006 the trust re-examined 99 out of 108 whin grassland sites surveyed in the early 1980s.

The trust said that the results of the survey were “alarming”.

A number of the sites which were originally surveyed had disappeared and those that remain are under imminent threat from scrub, neglect or over grazing.

The shingle, or calaminarian grasslands, more popularly known as heavy metal grasslands, are also in danger.

Steve Lowe says: “Once they disappear they will be gone forever and for those under immediate threat it will take years to restore them to their original condition.”

Dr Janet Simkin is a North East expert on calamarian sites, often known as heavy metal grasslands, which are found mainly on lead mine spoil and are one of Britain’s rarest habitats. In the North Pennines they also occur on river gravels contaminated by mine waste.

She said: “The name is derived from the term calamine, used for ores of zinc, and it is often the zinc and cadmium in the soil that is the most toxic to plants.

“Only plants that have evolved to exclude or tolerate the heavy metals can grow there and yet these grasslands are species-rich with many scarce plants and lichens.

“Most of the plants are small, with delicate flowers that are easily overlooked. Spring sandwort is the most common, and was known as leadwort because of its habit of growing along lead veins.

“Alpine penny-cress has the neat trick of accumulating metals in its leaves to deter grazing animals.

“The pink flowers of thrift are more familiar from the coast, but here it grows with harebell, mouse-ear and rough hawkbit. Less contaminated areas have patches of mountain pansies, with their yellow and purple flowers.

“The conservation of these sites is not easy. They are a result of pollution by an industry that has now ceased. Scrub invasion, reclamation and agriculture have led to many losses and there are no new sites to replace them.”

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