The unseen threats to Meadow Clary

Gloucestershire is home to some marvellous meadows and Stuart Fawkes nature reserve is no exception. Alan Sumnall, Stroud Valleys Reserve Manager talks about a threatened species of flower at the reserve, Meadow Clary and how the changes of the modern world makes it difficult for plants like this to thrive.

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.

Meadow Clary 2

Meadow Clary © Ellen Winter

Working hard to fix the puzzle

This has been the missing piece of the conservation jigsaw for Meadow Clary. We are working hard with our grazier, and national experts, to sensitively manage for the Meadow Clary ensuring it can flower and set seed, but then grazing the grasses hard to reduce competition and create bare ground. This will allow the plants to naturally seed and disperse throughout the reserve.

GWT is an evidence-based organization, and this is an example of our adaptive management responding to the latest scientific research in conservation ecology. This summer we are pleased to announce that 15 plants germinated, with 7 flowering. The plants were found in three ‘clumps’, one being a previously unrecorded location on the reserve. Hopefully this is a sign that the new grazing regime is working.

The meadows have looked especially vibrant this summer with the purples of Knapweed, whites of Ox-Eye Daisy, and the yellows of Yellow-Rattle. We are working hard to restore the reserve to its former ‘unimproved’ status.

Working with others is important to help wildlife

In the 1930’s, 40% of the Cotswold’s was unimproved grassland – today less that 1.5% remains. The loss of grassland has knock on affects; some species of Butterfly lay their eggs on only one plant – if the plant is lost, we lose the butterfly. Pollinators such as Bees, Hoverflies and Moths have also been lost, along with Beetles, Hoppers, Crickets and Grasshoppers. GWT are working to protect unimproved grasslands that remain though managing several reserves (including many SSSI’s), but also with private landowners through providing management advice, assisting with grazing, and undertaking practical habitat work. We have identified priority landscapes within Gloucestershire to aid natures recovery and are aiming to connect grasslands allowing for larger areas of habitat to be created, which will allow for larger populations to be built, more resilient to future challenges.

 

Alan Sumnall, Stroud Valleys Reserves Manager, Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust