Grasslands and the importance of their conservation

The main habitats of community interest covered by the LIFE GRACE project are:

  • 6210 (*) Semi-natural dry grasslands and scrubland facies covered by bushes on limestone substrates (Festuco-Brometalia), the habitat is considered a priority (*) if it hosts a rich contingent of orchid species
  • 6220 * Pseudo-steppe with grasses and annuals Thero-Brachypodietea
  • 6230 * Species-rich Nardus grasslands , on siliceous substrates in mountain areas

These habitats are among the richest plant communities in Europe, many of which are rare or endemic. The extraordinary plant richness makes them also essential habitats for many protected animal species: birds, insects and other invertebrates, reptiles and mammals. These grassland formations are considered essential for the conservation of wild pollinator species such as butterflies, wild bees or hoverflies, as well as for other rare or protected species. They offer multiple ecosystem benefits and services, including carbon dioxide storage and soil erosion prevention. In economic terms, these grasslands are widely used for grazing livestock across the EU, thus generating income for local communities across their entire distribution area. Grasslands besides representing an immense heritage in terms of biodiversity and beauty, have offered for centuries incalculable economic value to pastoral communities, determining the fortune of the villages and towns that have based their economy on the products of pastoralism.

These grasslands can be found in almost the entire European continent, from the plains to the mountains, and Italy is one of the richest countries. Most of the populations are of secondary origin, as they replace woods and are the product of the transformation of the environment carried out by man over millennia, in particular through grazing. The grasslands therefore have also an important landscape and cultural value, because they are produced and shaped by the action of man, and in particular through cultural traditions and ancestral agro-pastoral practices.

However, the conservation status is unsatisfactory and the surface trend is declining in most of their range. Overall, these habitats are degraded and, according to assessments of future prospects, will continue to deteriorate.

Precisely because they were formed as a result of previous extensive grazing and / or mowing regimes, these grasslands need for their maintenance periodic management based on extensive grazing or mowing. In fact, the main cause that led to the regression and deterioration of these grassland formations is the cessation of grassland management, particularly in mountainous areas. In large parts of the habitat distribution area, including the GRACE project areas, there is an accelerated process of land loss due to the disappearance of grazing activity, which is often economically unsustainable and therefore abandoned, leaving the grasslands to the evolution towards shrub and forest stages. Undergrazing and, in extreme cases, abandonment, alter the structure, species composition and functioning of this ecosystem, also affecting the species associated with it. In some areas it may be found that excessive grazing also has a negative effect on this type of habitat due to excessive trampling or nutrient intake, accompanied by soil erosion processes in areas with greater slopes. This is what occurs on the areas most accessible to livestock or on the areas where it is concentrated, for example, to drink. Supporting extensive farming systems and practices that ensure adequate habitat management and maintenance (adequate grazing or mowing regimes) is in fact the main action suggested by the European action plan to halt the further decline of habitat 6210 and prevent its deterioration.

Management of 3 habitats target:

  • 6210 Semi-natural dry grasslands and scrubland facies on calcareous substrates (Festuco-Brometalia) (*important orchid sites): this habitat is present in almost the entire European continent, are among the most species-rich plant communities in Europee and contain a large number of rare and endangered species. This habitat includes dry to semidry grasslands and scrubland, occurring from the planar to the mountain level on calcareous to neutral substrates. Active management of the habitat includes grazing, cutting or a combination of both. Since the habitat features, conservation values and context (history and development) differ considerably between the various countries and biogeographical regions, it is important, when planning the management for the habitat, to take into account the following general aspect: site-specific objectives and targets and local/regional land use and livestock husbandry traditions, practices and techniques
  • 6220 Pseudo-steppe with grasses and annuals (Thero-Brachypodietea): Pseudo-steppe with grasses and annuals has a typical Mediterranean distribution, with a significant area located in the Iberian Peninsula and includes a rich communities of invertebrates, vertebrates and plants. It usually occurs in a mosaic pattern with a wide variety of related habitats. The grazing (particularly sheep grazing) is essential for the long-term maintenance. Other relevant measures are reducing or banning the use of pesticides and herbicides, protecting the habitat from urbanization processes, control of tourism activity when necessary, promoting livestock quality labels, improving living conditions for shepherds and implementing new land management strategies.
  • 6230 *Species-rich Nardus grasslandss: this habitats are some of the most widespread habitats in the EU. They include a huge variety of sub-types, which may be found in very different ecological situations. The area of the habitat in Europe has declined in the last decades because of the intensification of agricultural practices on the one hand and land abandonment. Grazing and mowing are the most frequent recommendations for the management of the habitat. The most frequently employed measure is the removal of the trees and shrubs by the machines or by hand.
Useful links:

Grassland with tradition