The value of semi-natural grasslands

Cultural landscapes are landscapes where people have utilised natural resources available through hunting, trapping, fishing and farming. Through our activities we as people have transformed the nature around us. Repeated activity over the course of hundreds and sometimes thousands of years has led to the development of unique species assemblages and vegetation types.

These semi-natural habitats are some of the most biodiverse that we have and contribute heavily to the biodiversity that exists in Norway. An example of such a semi-natural habitat is the traditional hay or 'flower' meadow.

 

Hay meadows belong to an older, more traditional way of farming: the regular cutting of the meadows for hay allowed for low growing and specialist plant species to thrive. All of the grasses, herbs and other vegetation in the hay meadows were cut and preserved as hay for animal feed in winter. The arrival of intensive agriculture led to a change in the way the land was managed, with an increased use of fertilizer and ploughing, and the appearance of monocultures. This led to the demise of the traditional hay meadow, together with its unique assemblage of low-growing plants and flowers. Today we are left with just small remnants of the once widespread flower-rich hay meadows.

 

There are many benefits to be found in semi-natural hay meadows for biodiversity and the landscape, both for how we experience our nature and nutrition. ‘A treasured child has many names’ is a Norwegian expression and semi-natural meadows are known by many names in Norwegian, such as natural meadow, wild meadow, hay meadow and flower meadow. Hay making has been a traditional practice in both cultivated land and uncultivated land across the whole country. Hay meadows are therefore considered a cultural landscape and are the result of long-term and continuous harvesting without applying fertilizer. In the lowlands, in mountain areas and even on the mires farmers traditionally had areas that they used for the harvest of grass, herbs, flowers and sedges for their livestock.

 

‘The scythe cuts everything the same’ is an expression that is used about hay meadows, and this is partly why so many different species of plants thrive in this type of habitat. By using the scythe, or a sickle bar mower, you avoid the effect that poaching by livestock has whilst ensuring that everything is cut to the same length. This gives non-competitive species a better chance to grow and means that species that are adapted to the stress of being cut once or twice a year are most common in this environments. With grazing the grazing animals select ‘the goodies’ such as orchids, herbs and flowering plants, in addition to adding ‘fertilizer’ to the area whilst they graze. Plant species that are adapted to hay meadows do not tolerate these stresses and many of them can only be found in traditional non-grazed hay meadows, or struggle to establish in other areas.

 

There have been big changes to Norwegian land use since the Second World War. The changes to the ways we utilize our natural resources has led to hay meadows and semi-natural mires becoming threatened. Hay meadows were declared a protected habitat type in 2011 in attempt to prevent further loss of these areas and their associated biodiversity. With up to 50 plant species per m2 these habitats are one of the most species rich in Norway. Many of the species found in hay meadows have traditionally been used as spices or as medicines, as well as serving as tasty animal feed. The high diversity of plant species supports an equally high diversity of insect species. Many species of butterflies, bees and mushrooms are dependent on our ancient semi-natural flower meadows.

 

Much of DNV’s work involves the use of practical measures to maintain the few small areas of traditional semi-natural meadows that we have left. In Norwegian this maintenance work is called ‘skjøtsel’. What skjøtsel looks like in practice depends on the different habitats, local traditions, what is being preserved and what we are aiming to achieve. The most important thing is to consider the species diversity, and to perform skjøtsel that maintains the habitat in the optimum condition.

 

As a representative of the skjøtsel group for semi-natural meadows in Oppland, DNV can  provide advice about semi-natural meadows, helpt to create a maintenance plan or offer practical help with maintaining this habitat. Many of the skjøtsel tasks that we carry out are at the request of the local government or private landowners.

 

The characteristic species of semi-natural meadows in Norway are: common yarrow, red clover, dog daisy, mountain everlasting, sticky catchfly, common milkwort, harebell, field scabious, tufted vetch, hoary plantain, ribwort plantain, bladder campion, drug eyebright, alpine bistort, fairy flax, alpine meadow-rue, spotted cat’s-ear, yellow rattle, common bird’s-foot trefoil, tormentil, sweet vernal grass etc.

 

Photo: Thor Østbye


Rare species: bearded bellflower, wolf's bane, dragonhead, downy oat-grass, quaking grass, moonwort og field gentian.

Wolf's bane. Photo: Thor Østbye