Long-term change and genetic connectivity in hay meadow vegetation

Elizabeth Sullivan

Species-rich hay meadows have suffered a sharp decline in the UK and in other European countries. Conservation action to protect the remaining meadows has included agri-environment scheme management agreements with farmers and statutory protection through designation as sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs). This long-term study of hay meadow vegetation seeks to understand how effective this conservation effort has been.

Surveys have been carried out in hay meadow and other grassland sites in the Forest of Bowland in north Lancashire and the results have been compared with surveys carried out in the 1980s. The research has shown that conservation management has been successful in maintaining a diverse plant community but that there have been changes to some key meadow species and that vegetation has become more homogenous.

This research project also investigated whether the fragmented distribution of meadow sites was affecting their plant populations by analyzing the population genetics of Rhinanthus minor (Yellow Rattle). The results showed that there was less gene flow in areas with more intensive land-use and that non-agricultural grasslands were important parts of the grassland ecological network.

The project was supported by a funding contribution from Natural England. Funding has also been provided by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland.