Last year, in an article in Pitchcare Magazine, I proposed that it was time for a paradigm shift in the management of local authority, and other landowner's grassland regimes in response to the National Pollinator Strategy 2014. This strategy highlights the disturbing and rapid decline of pollinating insects, which are crucial to the success of many of our key agricultural and horticultural crops.
Research shows that long grass regimes and wildflower meadows significantly boost the biodiversity by increasing the number of pollinating insects. Our 'obsessive compulsive' mowing and liking for tidiness was actually doing harm unnecessarily by destroying potential habitats. I suggested that landowners should identify any grass that did not really need cutting and establish targets to reduce regular mowing to places where it was absolutely necessary, such as sports areas, play areas, picnic spots etc.
As mowing grass often represents over 50% of grounds maintenance costs for local authorities and large landowners, the reduced mowing would provide welcome savings in times of worsening austerity and Brexit uncertainty. However, before making any changes, a good communication plan would be essential to explain, educate, consult with and involve customers and communities if current grassland regimes were to be radically altered. Perceptions of long grass would have to change from being 'an untidy mess' to being 'a wonderful habitat'.
Many councils over the last few years have created wildflower 'nectar bars', used 'differential mowing' regimes and left grass uncut in a bid to improve biodiversity and/or make cost savings. However, not many have seriously embedded this approach into deep policy and practice.
Work specifications and schedules are still based on horticultural standards from the 1980s rather than modern biodiversity practice. A visit to Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, with its proliferating long grass and meadow areas shows how ideas on good horticultural practice have changed in the past few years. Kew has had serious budget cuts too!
There are now quite a few good examples of council parks' teams who have taken the pollinator crisis seriously and are experimenting with and implementing long grass and meadow regimes on a large scale, and I have chosen two - Wokingham Borough Council and Burnley Borough Council - to illustrate the challenges and rewards of delivering these changes.
Wokingham Borough Council in Berkshire recently revised its grounds maintenance specification when the contract was due for renewal. The area is semi-rural and many of its green spaces are large, with some sports grounds but few formal parks. The council was aware of the challenges of austerity-driven budget pressures and the need to reduce costs, whilst retaining acceptable quality standards.
It took a bold decision to rethink its approach to grassland, hedgerow and woodland maintenance. The previous specification, based on horticultural standards, was rewritten with the emphasis on improving habitats and biodiversity.
Following extensive consultation, a positive communications plan was created to inform the public of the new arrangements using a range of media and methods, including leaflets, various websites, social media, community group meetings and parish council talks etc. Below is an extract from their excellent leaflet/online info:
- The National Pollinator Strategy details the decline of pollinating insects over the past seventy years, and offers some insight in reversing this trend, which includes allowing grass and wildflowers to grow and complete lifecycles. This is especially important in more urban areas
- Grass cutting will become far more targeted, and leads on from something which we started last year;
- Large highway verges in both rural and urban areas will be left to establish into grassland habitats, but with grass cut regularly around the fringes to ensure grass doesn't encroach onto pathways, roads or obstruct sight lines
- Areas in our large parks will have increased areas of grassland with wide mown footpaths through them
- In smaller parks, where there are woodland areas, we will allow margins of grassland to develop instead of cutting right up to the park boundary
- We will avoid cutting grass right up to the bases of trees and instead allow the grass to grow
- The time saved will be used to focus on maintaining regular mown areas to a higher standard than the past, mainly sports pitches, play areas, cemeteries and other high use sites
The new contract specification now requires the grounds maintenance service provider to work closely with the council to identify areas which could be developed for biodiversity regimes, and key performance indicators are linked to financial rewards for reducing costs, improving biodiversity and reducing complaints. The contract also required them to use a suitable mowing equipment-mix for managing long grass regimes, especially 'cut and clear'.
They also trialled large-scale wildflower plantings on a range of sites using thirteen different wildflower seed mixes, and stopped mowing extensive areas of regularly-cut grassland. These were a proven success, introducing a variety of wildlife habits, and gaining many compliments for improving the look of several areas across the borough.
Savings released from the changes to the mowing frequencies will allow the council to invest in expanding the amount of wildflowers at selective sites by 10,000sq/m per year for ten years. This should have a huge impact on local biodiversity which will be monitored by nearby Reading University, which took part in the National Pollinator Strategy studies.
Various sowing techniques will be trialled, including direct sowing of perennial wildflower seed into grassland using modern disc overseeders.
Clean/Green Services Officer, James Jones-McFarland, who has responsibility for grounds maintenance says; "This is a really exciting opportunity for developing a mosaic of interconnected species-rich habitats throughout the borough. Not all our green spaces lend themselves to long grass regimes and regular cutting will continue on land where shorter grass is required. Sports pitches will have an improved and more modern maintenance regime, whilst play areas and cemeteries will still be kept smart, as requested by the public in a recent consultation. This year has been a struggle to maintain mowing frequencies due to the constant wet weather, but this has helped us to identify areas where long grass is acceptable - and where it is not!"
Changing perceptions of long grass may take many years and there are still many complaints from residents who dislike "untidy" grass, but there is now an increase in compliments, typified by one sent this summer:
"I have just been admiring your wonderful wildflowers and grasses. It is so refreshing to see something in Britain like my home meadows and gardens in Austria. Here, no one would dream of cutting verges, or even their gardens, until the flowers have all bloomed and the bees and insects are flourishing. Your policy seems to be just like here: cut the very edges of verges to assist vision on corners … as long as you keep up the good work, perhaps one day people will say Wokingham is as beautiful as Austria. Well done".
In November 2013, Simon Goff, Head of Green Spaces and Amenities in Burnley, Lancashire, applied for, and was awarded, a substantial grant from NESTA (the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts) via the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). These grants were intended to fund research into new management/business approaches and funding streams for parks and open spaces to provide models for struggling councils. Eleven projects were chosen and delivered, each of a different type and with varying success rates. Burnley's project has generally been recognised as the most successful and practically realisable model of the eleven.
The key driver for Burnley Borough Council was exploring how it could maintain the highest level of quality for its parks against the backdrop of reducing budgets. They started a process of questioning their traditional approach to horticultural maintenance and chose to explore what permaculture could offer its parks - could an understanding of the patterns and relationships in nature help reduce costs and maintain the quality of the parks, as well as produce environmental benefits?
In the words of Simon Goff, the council was moving from a culture of "controlling nature" to one of "working with nature".
This meant some land has been transformed into meadows, whilst a proportion of the traditional seasonal bedding displays have been replaced with perennials with wildlife value to provide a year-round display.
The Council worked hard to ensure a smooth transition. It focused on making the biggest changes in the parks where the friends groups had shown most enthusiasm for the potential of permaculture and where they would be advocates for this new approach with other park users. The workforce received training to better understand permaculture principles and learn from the experience of an established local organisation called Off Shoots. The meadows are gently managed with mowing strips and mown pathways to prevent the appearance of neglect.
They intend extending meadow management regimes to Green Flag parks and are working with friends groups preparing habitat plans for each park. They have undertaken baseline surveys before preparing to change up to 33% of each park to meadow regimes. Like Wokingham, they saw the need to change the equipment mix to cope with 'cut and clear' when needed.
They purchased equipment to improve the appearance of formal lawns, whilst also allowing meadows to be cut and hay removed in June/September. They also introduced a 1-5 star-rating for measuring meadow biodiversity. Public response has been very positive and savings of £58,000 per year have been realised. A real innovation was their introduction of the world's first urban bee cages, allowing the public to safely see and experience honey bees which forage in the new meadows.
The work continues and there is still much to do, but as Simon Goff says, "We are continuing to develop the programme of meadow management in both our formal parks and other areas of green space. The wet summer weather has delayed mowing, especially the larger areas that are mown by agricultural contractors, but we have had fewer problems in the formal parks where the meadow areas are mown and hay crop removed using the Amazone Profi-hopper."
"This autumn, we are starting a programme of spring bulb planting of meadow areas beneath trees with Bluebell, Wood Anemone and naturalising Narcissi in the heritage parks working with the friends groups and our volunteers."
If these, and other like-minded councils, are the heralds of a new era, can we now expect a widespread adoption of new grassland maintenance practice and the further development of the equipment to service it? Watch this (green) space!