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Maintaining Green Space for Biodiversity

Small Tortoiseshell on Tagetes

In the previous issue we discussed how the crisis in funding for public parks and open spaces is leading many local councils to review their manage ment and maintenance of land with a view to reducing costs. This has energised some radical approaches to the management of green spaces and has driven the need to rethink the role of today’s parks and green spaces since their heyday in the first half of the twentieth century.

Victorian-style seasonal bedding at Waddeston Manor

Those were the days of showy seasonal bedding displays, meticulous maintenance, head gardeners, park keepers, music playing in bandstands to large crowds; when local parks were the peoples’ choice for recreation throughout the year, especially at evenings and weekends. After WW2 ended, transport and motoring grew rapidly, many people became less reliant on local green space, and by the 1970s many were in serious decline, but, especially important in deprived urban areas, the local park was still a free healthy outdoor facility, available to all.

In parallel with the post war period of parks decline, agro-commerce was booming in order to feed an expanding population, and the great extinction of wildlife and habitats belonging to hay meadows, hedgerows, wetland, orchards etc. accelerated devastatingly, and sterile rural monoculture became the norm. Local green spaces, especially parks and gardens, allotments, cemeteries and churchyards, then became refuges for surviving wildlife.

Today the modern role of local parks and green space is not always clear. Pressures on budgets are forcing parks professionals and elected politicians to consider new ways of managing and maintaining land, but the prevailing concept of neatly cut grass, neatly clipped shrubs and hedges is still locked into most people’s consciousness.

Naturalistic 'Prairie' planting at Wisley by Sheffield's Dunnett and Hitchmough

Despite the spectacular success of some alternative models and approaches (such as the London 2012 Olympic Park stunning picturesque prairie meadows) planners, developers, landscape architects and green space professionals are fixated by, and cannot seem to escape from, the traditional green space paradigm of fortnightly mown ryegrass turf and ‘the usual suspects’ of trees and shrubs with a few bits of play equipment (plonked as far away from the houses as possible to prevent noise disturbance!).

There will always be a need for grass lawn for ball games, picnics, sun bathing and relaxation, but is it really necessary to cut the whole of a park, green space or highways verge in the name of neatness? Probably at least a 20% of many green spaces is not really used for recreation and therefore there is no reason for it all to be cut sixteen times, and there are very good sustainability and biodiversity reasons why we shouldn’t. Is it time now for a paradigm-shift?

Long-grass regime in first year of ceased cutting

Many councils have experimented, some extensively, with ‘differential mowing regimes’ wildflower and picturesque meadow sowings and plantings, but usually on a small scale as a percentage of their entire land holdings. This has rarely been done in the context of challenging the traditional role of open spaces and identifying clear roles for it in the 21st century. For example, the role of local green spaces as a mosaic of habitats and as sanctuaries for wildlife is emerging as a major justification for the continued existence of many sites, but most are still sterile ‘neat’ grassland, especially in residential areas.

Before Budding’s invention of the lawn mower in 1830, grass was cut (usually very infrequently, if at all) by scythe. Since the 1930’s with the advent of the tractor gang-mowers, followed by ride-on mowers, we have become used to large areas of amenity grass being cut by machine fortnightly, or even weekly, during the growing season.

Mowing as art form, RHS Wisley

This standard maintenance model is reliant on neatness and tidiness, but many claim it has created “green deserts” of low biodiversity-value grassland which may be no longer affordable and could be better managed, and while this is a challenge there are many wide-ranging opportunities to improve them, particularly as havens for wildlife.

Grass mowing often represents more than half of a local authority’s grounds maintenance costs, so this has recently been the focus for savings in many areas. Over the next few years it is likely that even the wealthiest authorities will find it necessary to consider reducing these costs. It has always been a long-held belief that cutting grass regularly, usually fortnightly, is the cheapest annual cost option for maintaining land. However, most local authorities have never really geared themselves for annual cutting, especially cut and clear regimes, and have rarely challenged the industry standard model of working i.e. the ride-on mower/ strimmer/ blower equipment-mix for gangs with vans and trailers.

If much larger areas were required to be annual cut only or cut and clear for wildlife purposes, it would be worthwhile councils and contractors investing in machinery and composting facilities to bring costs down to those of regular cutting. It is interesting that many private golf courses are now managed with biodiversity in mind, and many are well ahead of public land-owners who repeatedly commission maintenance with the same old, same old specifications. Is it now time to seriously consider having ‘no-mow’ targets similar to recycling targets? If so, then local communities could and should be involved in deciding where and how much grass can be left uncut.

Quality kicked into the long grass!

In many areas today, grass mowing frequencies are being reduced indiscriminately and across the board, with consequent volumes of complaints from residents and sports users about long grass and heaps of clippings making grassed areas unusable for play, looking ugly and spoiling their neighbourhood. The usual explanation for the reduction in quality is “due to cut-backs”, or worse, is blamed on contractors or council workforce performance issues.

There seems to be little recognition that we are almost certainly entering an era when we have to accept a new role for many of our green spaces and we need to look for new, more sustainable ways to carefully manage them, and reduce costs more intelligently.

The growing concern for the destruction of habitats and species-decline over recent times can be the starting point for a new type of green space management where the priorities of nature are put before the need for the sterile neatness of regularly-mown grass and over-tidied borders.

Why such straight-line paths if looking for a natural effect?

Over the last few years many authorities have stopped mowing large areas of green space with the dubious claim that they are therefore creating “wild-flower meadows” with the resulting, inevitable, limited-species long grass and scrubland. These are often budget cuts disguised as biodiversity initiatives, but they are not taking the opportunity created by the current financial circumstances to unlock the real potential of their land for wildlife and sustainability, whilst making substantial savings or releasing resources to improve standards elsewhere.

There is now an opportunity to link community and volunteering opportunities and the use of ‘third sector’ organisations, such as Wildlife Trusts, with serious research, emerging biodiversity initiatives and “re-wilding” practice to provide more sustainable management models for amenity open space management. New management models and outcome-based rather than frequency-based maintenance specifications, geared to promoting sustainability and biodiversity, if carefully thought through, and marketed properly, could completely change the public perception and expectation of open spaces.

As an example of a driver to change people’s perceptions, there is national and international concern about the serious rapid decline in pollinating insects and the devastating effect this could have on the harvest of many major crops. The famous quote, mistakenly attributed to Albert Einstein, states "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man." Whoever originally said it, there a great deal of truth in the statement.

Wildlife garden at the Chelsea Flower Show

At a presentation given to Britain in Bloom contestants last year, Dr Mark Goddard of Leeds University pointed out how the latest research into pollinating insects had serious implications for the way we should maintain public land

He explained how the government has invested in a research programme involving a number of UK universities to investigate the science behind pollination and the causes of decline in important pollinating insect species. This research has informed the National Pollinator Strategy 2014. Preliminary findings from this research have produced some interesting and surprising facts.

There are around 250 species of bee in the UK, (of which 25 are bumble bees and the honey bee is just one) representing around 26% of pollinating insects.

Flies, including 250+ species of hoverfly represent 67% of pollinators.

Butterflies and moths represent 2%, bugs and beetles the remainder.

Buff-tailed Bombus on Tithonia at Giverny

In general flies seem to prefer rural sites, country parks and nature reserves whereas bees appear to favour urban sites such as allotments, parks, gardens, cemeteries etc. (although as many as 85 hoverfly species have been recorded in one garden alone). Bees flourish in less-manicured sites and neighbourhoods, and it appears that our fixation on the cleaning and tidying beds and borders and manicuring lawns has contributed to the serious decline of many of these insects.

Rough grassland areas have 3 times more pollinator species than standard mown grass. Un-manicured and un-raked shrub-beds, flower borders and wildflower plantings encourage pollinators: honey bees, bumble bees, solitary bees, hoverflies, bugs, butterflies, beetles and flies.

Key findings include that in general, single yellow flowers are the most visited by pollinators. In addition early flowers such as dandelions, the mid-season ones like ragwort and wild carrot, and late ones such as autumn hawkbit and ivy are critical to their survival. These are currently often viewed as problem weeds rather than valuable food sources and nesting or hibernating sites which are vital to the survival of pollinating insects.

Dr. Goddard believes there is a now strong case for amending grounds maintenance regimes with a view to preventing the decline of pollinators and the Britain in Bloom judges are now clear that neatness and tidiness is not preferable to good habitat management which some people still perceive as ‘an untidy mess’.

Does this grass really need cutting yet?

For instance, differential mowing regimes which allow weeds such as dandelions to flower are particularly worthwhile and they can be mown later, before they set their seed heads. Tussocky grass, which is not attractive or useful for sports or picnic areas, greatly increases the number of species supported, and is crucial for many bee species including endangered species such as the Great Yellow Bumble Bee. (This is one of a group of seven bumblebees that the UK Biodiversity Action Plan says require management of sward height to maintain optimum flower levels for their survival)* In addition many bird species, including some declining and endangered ones rely on long grass, especially on field and hedge margins. These include the skylark, meadow pipit, spotted flycatcher, yellow hammer, twite, song thrush and even the barn owl. An increased insect and invertebrate population then supports an enriched food chain to promote amphibians, reptiles, rodents, birds and mammals.

Native wildflowers should be used in natural areas

And it’s not just grassland; -hedges, hedgerows, trees, woodland, shrub borders and field margins can be managed and maintained completely differently for the benefit of wild life. This requires more carefully considered maintenance specifications and local biodiversity action plans which could look to creating, enhancing or restoring declining habitats such as acid heathland, wet meadows, hazel, alder and willow coppice, hedgerow and ditch etc. wherever appropriate.

Long grass regimes, however, do have disadvantages which must be considered before making wholesale changes. Long grass can be a fire risk in dry conditions and vigilance and timeliness of cutting are essential; it can trap litter and if areas appear abandoned then fly-tipping can occur, and there are the inevitable complaints about pollen, allergens and hay fever. A large proportion of the population see long grass as an ‘untidy mess’ rather than an interesting habitat. If the change process is not managed well, and a poor PR story is told, there will be little public support and a great deal of complaint. But can the public be persuaded that such new maintenance regimes are not merely budget cuts or poor practice in disguise? Will people be convinced by the drive to protect nature and will they be inspired to copy what they see in public parks and green spaces and maintain their own gardens in a more wildlife-friendly way? Native wildflower plantings next to natural and semi-natural open space areas and along hedgerows can bring to life the argument for reduced mowing, and the use of colourful naturalistic meadow sowings, with eye-catching plants from across the world, when used in more urban locations give a wow factor which cannot fail to please most of the public. Councils could be beacons of good practice and parks professionals could show the way forward, but they must make their case properly and tell the story well if they hope to persuade a sceptical public.

Box 1 National Pollinator Strategy Objectives

  • Supporting pollinators across towns, cities and the countryside

  • Working with large-scale landowners, and their advisers, contractors and facility managers, to promote simple changes to land management to provide food, shelter and nest sites.

  • Ensuring good practice to help pollinators through initiatives with a wide range of organisations and professional networks including managers of public and amenity spaces, utility and transport companies, brownfield site managers, local authorities, developers and planners.

  • Encouraging the public to take action in their gardens, allotments, window boxes and balconies to make them pollinator-friendly or through other opportunities such as community gardening and volunteering on nature reserves.

The pollinator strategy represents just one driver of potential new approaches to managing public land. In addition to mowing regimes, the last twenty years or so have seen naturalistic, ecology-based landscape planting styles and maintenance regimes develop, which were adopted early in Europe and now at last gaining full credibility in the UK following the stunning success of the Olympic Park planting for London 2012.

European park planting

Variously termed Lebensbereich Planting (living space), Steppe Planting, Prairie Planting, Sheffield School Planting etc., they have replaced features such as herbaceous borders, flower borders and seasonal bedding with more sustainable low-maintenance plantings which can be used on a large scale. Originating in Germany and Holland but, taking some cues from British plantspeople like Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd, these plantings give a rich display throughout the year over many years, evolve naturally, require no staking and minimum weeding with just an annual cut in late winter, whilst providing food, shelter and nesting sites for a wide range of wildlife.

Piet Oudolf planting at Trentham

The work of, amongst others, Piet Oudolf at the Chicago Botanic Gardens and at Wisley and Trentham with Tom Stuart-Smith and the picturesque meadows and naturalistic planting styles created by Sheffield School leading lights Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough, most notably in the 2012 Olympic Park, sets a benchmark for developers, planners and parks professionals in establishing highly attractive, low-maintenance, wildlife-friendly planting in an era of dwindling budgets.

We would be interested to hear of your stories, successes or difficulties in coping with budget reductions, of implementing larger-scale long grass regimes, contemporary plantings, mowing frequency reduction challenges, especially any recorded improvement facts and statistics for wildlife value. We would be particularly interested in areas where developers and planners are recommending extensive wildflower or long grass regimes or naturalistic plantings in new developments.

In future articles we will discuss case studies and ideas such as how the emergence of community interest companies, outcome specifications and partnership contracts, super parks services, innovative funding streams and new pressures etc. could impact on the parks sector in the next decade.

We would welcome your contributions to this debate especially with case studies of your experiences with current issues.

Send your thoughts to

*Bombus distinguendus, Bombus humilis, Bombus muscorum, Bombus ruderarius, Bombus ruderatus, Bombus subterraneus (extinct but UK genotype survives in New Zealand), Bombus sylvarum

(Article first published in Pitchcare Magazine)


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