Many of you are likely to be familiar with the grassland meadows that combine to make Stuart Fawkes nature reserve. What you might not know is that the site is of national importance, designated as a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), due to its native population of Meadow Clary (Salvia pratensis). This is a Red Data Book plant, classed as Near Threatened, and legally protected under amendments to Schedule 8 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.
The plant has striking violet-blue flowers in a spike on the stem, with rich green, oval and aromatic leaves that have slightly wrinkled edges arranged in a basal clump.
The plant has unfortunately declined nationally and is now thought to only exist in native populations at 21 locations in southern England (although some former sites have had successful reintroductions, including a sole site in Wales). It thrives on chalk or limestone soils, usually in sunny, open grassland, but also on south-facing hedge-banks and woodland margins.
Why is Meadow Clary in decline?
The reasons for its decline are mainly due to modern agricultural processes through ‘improvements’ to grassland meadows such as ploughing, fertilizing and re-seeding with grasses to increase productivity.
Fortunately, approx. 3.9ha of Stuart Fawkes escaped and remains ‘unimproved’ supporting increased floral richness and associated wildlife (another 4.4ha is ‘semi-improved’ as we restore it to its former state through Conservation Grazing).
However, another unseen threat to the plant is the loss of grazing. With its national decline, and continued loss of sites, the natural response was to protect the plants by fencing them off allowing them to flower and set seed. This has worked, and safeguarded populations. However, the loss of grazing was hiding unseen changes as the plant is very long lived and continued to thrive (single plants can persist for at least 30 years).
Removing a natural cycle (grasslands would have been grazed by our extinct herbivores), a thick thatch was developing around the plants. This increased competition, especially from coarser grasses, but also, it prevented any seeds from being able to germinate. Grazing animals naturally scuff the ground with their large hooves creating bare ground and small scrapes, but also, they push seeds into the ground.