Unimproved Neutral Grassland
This is one of the most threatened lowland habitat types in the country and survives mostly as small, isolated meadows and pastures either in association with neutral clay based soils or with slightly calcareous and seasonally flooded alluvial soils that have not been subject to any significant amount of agricultural intensification. Unimproved neutral grassland can also be found alongside wetland areas, within woodlands, on road verges and in mosaics with chalk grassland (Salisbury Plain) and mosaics on limestone grassland (Wiltshire Cotswolds). Both types may be managed as pasture or as hay meadows.
Wiltshire is second only to Oxfordshire for the amount of the exceptionally rare wetter form of neutral grassland it possesses. North Meadow Nature Reserve (managed by Natural England) and Clattinger Farm Nature Reserve (managed by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust) are both Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and under UK legislation and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) under the European Habitats Directive.
Floral (plant) diversity can be particularly high in these habitats, especially when they are managed as hay meadows. The Snakeshead Fritillary is a distinctive plant that has 80% of its remaining UK population in Wiltshire; other important plants include Adder’s-tongue and Downy-fruited sedge, which also have a major part of their UK population in Wiltshire. The diverse flora supports an equally diverse fauna (animal) in particular invertebrates, the wetter grasslands are important for wading birds including the Lapwing, Snipe and, in winter, the Golden Plover. In drier neutral meadows the Brown Hare is becoming an increasingly common sight; the Brown Hare is a UK and Wiltshire Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species that also suffered a decline nationally.
There is thought to be just over 500ha of unimproved neutral grassland in Wiltshire representing 18% of the UK total although new sites are continually being discovered in particular through the work of the Wildlife Sites Project. Sites of unimproved neutral grassland are scattered throughout the county but the largest concentration is in north Wiltshire where North Meadow and the meadow complex around the Trust’s Clattinger Farm account for two thirds of this habitat in the county.
Since 1990 at least nineteen known fritillary meadows have been destroyed, representing an area of 62.5ha, and a further sixty-two sites have been degraded covering 73.6ha in the same period; this has mainly been as a result of agricultural improvement through the use of chemical fertilisers, drainage and the plough, but sites have also been lost to road construction and motorbike scrambling has had small, local impacts. This in turn has had an impact on the populations of certain species this habitat supports, only thirty pairs of Curlew bred in Wiltshire in 1994 compared to seventy in 1969. There may be far fewer now.