Rough grassland

Rough grassland

In an arable farming system, rough grassland can be a small but important part of the farmed environment for wildlife.

What

Small patches of rough grassland positioned within or alongside an area of scrub or woodland edge, can provide flowering grass and wildflower species to feed insects.

Harvest mouse Micromys minutus, adult in vegetation, Hertfordshire, August, (captive)

Why

By creating a mixture of grasses at different heights (and where possible, flowering herbs) rough grassland provides shelter for insects. This in turn boosts the food supply for birds and bats, as well as being important habitat for many other species including small mammals, amphibians and reptiles. These grasses can help to blend taller habitats (scrub, woodland) into the farmed area without compromising the agricultural land use.

As well as providing diversity in grassland structure, rough grassland provides shelter and overwintering habitat. Flowering plants can bloom late into the season where management is minimal. Rough grassland should be a key element of scrub, and can be especially useful when it is allowed to generate alongside or within scrub patches and woodland. This edge habitat is often favoured by reptiles and insects due to the range of micro-climates and mosaic habitat structure this area can provide.

Tall herb and rough grassland provide key pollen and nectar sources from spring until late summer and support numerous plant-feeding and predatory invertebrates. As a result, rough grassland near to bird nesting habitat provides a local supply of insects, allowing birds to feed close to the nest more easily.

Coarse tussocky grassland provides summer nesting habitat for carder bumblebees and shelter for many other insects throughout the year, including for overwintering, in the base of tussocks, hollow stems and seed heads. Tall herb stands, with plants such as hogweed, cow parsley, thistles, ragworts and teasel, can be vital pollen and nectar sources but also provide seeds for birds. Rough grassland is also a key habitat for amphibians and grass snakes, particularly when close to ponds and other water bodies, and for reptiles and small mammals too.

Barn owl tyto alba, hunting across a field, Northumberland, February

How

Rough grassland is unlikely to make up a large area of arable farms, but may be found in wide grass margins along farm tracks, alongside hedges, edges of scrub and woodland areas, wet areas, watercourses and in patches around farm buildings. However, even small areas of rough grassland can increase insects and grass seed production. This can help to support birds and will provide increased levels of connectivity through the landscape for the benefit of a wide range of wildlife.

In a livestock-based system it is possible to manage larger areas and use grazing to create a mixed sward structure.  For smaller areas, annual mowing over no more than 50% of the area should maintain sufficiently diverse rough grassland for wildlife.

Creating rough grassland

Aim to provide the two main grassland features in your rough grassland; coarse tussocky areas and tall herbs.

Tall herb and rough grassland is most valuable where it supports good quantities of flowers and a good flowering sequence from spring until late summer. Key flowers include cow parsley, hogweed, thistles, teasel, knapweeds and scabious.

Where tall herb and rough grassland is already a part of an area of scrub on the farm, the management of the grassland can be incorporated into rotational scrub management.

Where possible, rough grassland areas could also be used to provide early successional habitat, which often provides high quality forage for insects such as ground-ivy, dead-nettles, ragworts, rosebay willowherb and speedwells. Areas of bare ground in these areas will also provide nesting areas for solitary bees and germination opportunities for wildflowers.

Management by mowing

Cutting tall herb and rough grassland is best done on a rotation to leave some areas undisturbed over the winter months. This is important for many insect species which overwinter as larvae and adults in the dead seed heads and hollow stems of tall herb species such as hogweed and teasel. You can avoid destroying seeding herbs by mowing once in late summer/autumn.

Occasional mowing or flailing over no more than 50% of the area in any one year will maintain rides, glades and scrub edges.

Annual mowing will keep the grassy scrub edges open and encourage flowering herbs. Disposal of any grass cuttings is easy. Leave large piles in field corners, or in other areas where the heap will be left undisturbed, in full or partial sun. These piles may be used as egg laying sites for grass snakes, as well as hibernation habitat for grass snakes and slow-worms.

RSPB Otmoor Nature Reserve, Beckley, Oxfordshire, December 2012

In practice

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