Rampisham Down Factcheck #1: Lowland Acid Grassland; A Rare Habitat with Rare Plants

IMG_0625The northern part of Rampisham Down, Dorset (c) Miles King

There has been much written about Rampisham Down in the last week. I have been very busy helping with the social media campaign (and trying to do other work) but felt compelled to start this series of factcheck blogs to help people interested in the case understand the issues.

Today the Factcheck is about Lowland Acid Grassland. Lowland Acid Grassland is not the most exciting habitat in the world. It often looks like the photo above, which I took recently on teh part of Rampisham Down that is not surrounded by barbed wire with Ghurka security guards. This bit is also not in the SSSI. I was delighted then to find essentially unimproved lowland acid grassland here.

Lowland Acid Grassland is very much the poor cousin of England’s unimproved grasslands: it often doesn’t have the beauty of wildflower meadows, or the species-richness of chalk downlands. It had long been neglected by conservationists too busy with other species and habitats – and it was often regarded as merely a degraded form of lowland heathland. In some senses this is true, in the same way that lowland heathland could be regarded as a degraded form of woodland. The millions of hectares of acid grassland that covers the hills of upland Wales is rightly castigated as sheep-wrecked by George Monbiot, though it is quite funny how he delights in finding some flowers, acid grassland flowers, on an ungrazed road verge, in Feral. It was only with the advent of Biodiversity Challenge in 1994 and the subsequent Biodiversity Steering Group report in 1995, that Lowland Acid Grassland became recognised as a valuable habitat in its own right and worthy of conservation effort. 20 years on we know much more about it how much is left, and why it is important.

Although it can often look rather dull, especially if it has been overgrazed, or neglected, Lowland Acid Grassland can be surprisingly rich in wildlife, and support rare species.

Professor Ghillean Prance, former Director of Kew Gardens, presented evidence to the West Dorset Planning Committee in support of the application to build a solar farm on Rampisham Down. He unashamedly used his  botanical credentials, explaining to the committee how many books and papers he had published, before stating that he had walked over Rampisham down and found “degraded impacted habitat” with “nothing especially rare” and concluded it had “no botanical species of great concern”.

The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, an organisation I have worked with for the past 25 years; and the pre-eminent authority on the status of British wild plants, have recently published the England Red List for Vascular Plants. 

For anyone interested in conservation or natural history it is worth reading. It is an extraordinarily powerful piece of research. The BSBI have looked again at the status of the 1500 or so wild plants in England and re-assessed their status, using internationally adopted criteria. A surprisingly large number of flowers have been assessed as Red-list Near Threatened. This means these species are in real trouble in England, mostly due to a significant shrinkage in their distribution – they have disappeared altogether from large parts of England, especially lowland England.

After the planning committee meeting, I asked Professor Prance if he was aware of the new England red data list and he confirmed that he was.

I have looked through the species lists for Rampisham. The Lowland Acid Grassland and the vanishingly rare, possibly unique areas of acid/chalk grassland there support Nine Red Data Book plant species.

The Near Threatened species are: Harebell, Tormentil, Heather, Bell Heather, Heath Speedwell, Quaking Grass, Heath Milkwort.

In addition there are two species which are Red Data Book Vulnerable, an even more serious class of threat: Lousewort and Heath Dog-Violet.

Lowland Acid Grasslands such as Rampisham are also very important, internationally important, for their fungi – particularly Waxcaps and their allies, a group collectively known as CHEGS. A brief survey last year confirmed that Rampisham was at least regionally important for its fungi. For other groups we simply don’t know what species are there – no invertebrate surveys have even been carried out.

Lowland Acid Grasslands of this kind (U4 in technical language) are now extremely rare – there are almost certainly less than 5000ha left in England – Rampisham Down alone makes up around 1.5% of the surviving resource. Natural England’s own policies require them to notify every surviving example (over 0.5ha in area) of any habitat where less than 10,000ha survives in Britain, or the British Lowlands.

 

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
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6 Responses to Rampisham Down Factcheck #1: Lowland Acid Grassland; A Rare Habitat with Rare Plants

  1. Adam Mantell says:

    Thanks for keeping the information flowing on this topic Miles, it makes for a fascinating, if depressing read. Is Rampisham Down designated soley on the basis of its plant communities, or are the other aspects of ecological interest? As there is acid and chalk grassland in close vicinity there may well be a notable invertebrate population. Has that been investigated? Just a guess, but I would think that if investigated (properly!) invertebrates communities are likely to show up changes caused by shading and lower temperatures much quicker than plants…? Although you would of course need a good baseline.

    Regarding the RDB plant species, you’d like to think that would be treated as a matter of fact by the planning committee, rather than Professor Prance’s opinion….

  2. Adam Mantell says:

    Doh! Should have read your second to last paragraph a bit more carefully before banging away on the keyboard – I see no invert surveys have been completed!

    I’ve also read the SSSI notification doc and one or two of the publically available developers reports now. Given that the site is large, seems to have an impressive mosaic of different habitat types, its close proximity to the south coast, a long history of minimal disturbance and no significant intensive agriculture I would be amazed if the invertebrate component were not very interesting indeed, quite possibly more so than the plant communities. It’s a real shame this aspect hasn’t received more attention – a missed opportunity?

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Adam. I agree – I suspect the invertebrate value will be very high. The notification was of necessity rather hurried but there will hopefully be opportunities to fill in the gaps in future – if the site doesnt get trashed in the meantime.

  3. Adam Mantell says:

    Apologies for blathering on again Miles!

    I am the first to admit that I don’t understand the sequence of events nor the full background to this, but I am surprised that the time, the energy and the money can be found for somewhat ill-conceived ‘experiments’ into the effects of shading upon plant communities rather than addressing the hole in understanding what’s actually living on the site. I could speculate that the consultants who worked on the shading experiments had at least an inkling at the start that it wouldn’t show anything meaningful. I’d question why that piece of work was done, rather than (for example) invertebrate surveys, which would very likely have shown a number of rare and declining species that are heavily warmth dependant. It would not have been huge mental leap to conclude that shading of half the site with consequent reduction in ground temperatures would be likely to cause rare thermophilous species to be replaced with commoner eurytopic ones.

    Of course that’s all with the benefit of hindsight, but could it be that the consultants believed the shading experiments would serve to introduce doubt and muddy the water in favour of their client’s cause? One might pause momentarily to wonder about professional ethics if that were so. Or is it that most ecologists’ attention is excessively focussed on plants, cute mammals and reptiles to the exclusion of much else…

  4. No badgers or adders so what are those flat-earther environmentalists on about?!! No wonder the public get confused reading such crap! 🙂 http://www.bridportnews.co.uk/news/11768450.Rampisham_Down_developers_say_conservationists_are__ignoring_the_facts__as_government_puts_plans_on_hold/

  5. Pingback: Rampisham Down Factcheck #4: A Fairy Tale. | a new nature blog

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